Serious Fun: Being Wrong by Kathryn Schulz

Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error by Kathryn Schulz is fun. Right now, I need fun, so even though I read this ages ago, I’m re-reading it. A Washington Post reviewer described Being Wrong as “an erudite, playful rumination on error,” and I’m going to second that description. Almost all reviews, even those that are critical in some way, praise the writing, so this isn’t an important book that is painful to read. Rather, it’s an important book that’s a pleasure to read. Find a copy and enjoy!

After entertaining us with examples of error that are both astounding and informative, Schulz concludes by delving into our attitude toward errors and strategies to prevent them. Here, she unearths a common theme: to prevent error, we need to acknowledge the possibility of error. Well, duh, you say. Yet, hospitals and airlines have learned the hard way that simply training people well does not prevent catastrophic error. Checklists prevent error. Protocol, discipline, and creating a culture in which underlings are allowed to call attention to the possible errors of their “betters,” these are strategies that minimize error.

Why is acknowledging the possibility of error so important? If we underestimate how common error is, if we think that being right is the norm and being wrong is tragic, it can become much more difficult to let go of faulty thinking. Schulz presses the point throughout the book that being wrong is an essential aspect of being human. What other creature mulls things over and comes up with new theories based on new information such as shifting from an assumption that the sun revolves around the Earth?

There are plenty of recent books that explore the way brains work and how we make decisions. One of my favorites is Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. I recommend this book, too, but it’s just not as fun as Being Wrong. It’s more “sciencey,” however, so if you prefer such an approach, it’s a good choice. Thinking…  challenges our sense of ourselves as rational beings by describing lots of experiments that explore how we come to judge things and make decisions.

I happen to be of the opinion that we all need a good dose of humility, and soon, if we are going to sort out any of our many problems. Schulz and Kahneman both humble us, and both point to strategies that could lead to “better thinking.” So whichever approach works for you, breezy or sciencey, take your pick and prepare to be humbled.

Often I’m mystified by the certainty my friends possess about things that are clearly not black and white. I, on the other hand, seem to reside in a state of perpetual doubt, skepticism, and uncertainty, and that feels “right” to me. But I haven’t got much company. I love to engage in conversation with others who don’t yet have all the answers, but it’s really hard to find them. Even groups of skeptics can evolve into comfy bunches of like-minded folks. So I read books; I click about on the Internet; I venture out into groups of strangers. But often I just accept my frequent status as “minority of one.”

Then every once in a while I stumble upon a treasure of a book such as Being Wrong, and I feel better. Check it out!

Not Many Cared Why the World Exists

The KH selection for May was Why Does the World Exist? an Existential Detective Story by Jim Holt.To begin with, “why” questions are often irritating. Think of kids pestering adults with their ceaseless “Why, why, why.” There are a few “why” questions that can be answered. Why does water evaporate? Why do I feel colder on a windy day? Even, why is the sky blue? Fine. Good. But “Why does the world exist?” “Why do I exist?” In the end, the KH book group voted with their feet. Most simply didn’t care enough to read the book and show up to discuss it. Either they knew they wouldn’t find an answer in the end, or they didn’t even care about the question. Some who might have made an appearance simply couldn’t attend, so we had just five people present.

However. Yes, there’s a catch: However, those who did show up managed to have a good discussion both about the question, about the format of the book, about why we did or didn’t finish the book, and about the final chapters revealing the answer that satisfied the author (and at least one of us), and about his thoughts at the time of his mother’s death.

Personally, I enjoyed the book when I first read it a year ago. I found that I was less excited about reading it a second time, however. I loved the replay of the conversations with assorted philosophers and scientists who make a living pondering the reason that we have something rather than nothing. No, I couldn’t really follow the various arguments, but I sort of knew which ones made a bit of sense to me and which didn’t. And, frankly, Holt’s conclusions resonated with me: Nothing is but one of many options related to existence, hence not probable, while mediocrity is more likely than either nothing or a perfect world.

So, the likelihood of something and the probability of mediocrity works for me for now. Think knees, for example. Or allergies. Clearly (ha, nothing was clear in this book), the world isn’t perfect, and we don’t even need to talk about evil. For me, the book was a bit a romp through territory I generally avoid.

Kelleher House 2015 List

Current (to the best of my knowledge) as of August 18 2015.

January: The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown
February: When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro
March: Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Muiz
April: The Spies of Warsaw by Alan Furst
May: Why Does the World Exist by Jim Holt
June: Just food and voting. No book discussion.
September: Goldfinch by Donna Tartt and A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway
October: The Great Bridge: The Epic Story of Building the Brooklyn Bridge by David McCullough
November: Being Wrong by Kathryn Schulz
December: Hotel Florida: Truth, Love, and Death in the Spanish Civil War by Amanda Vaill

The Spies of Warsaw

As soon as I started reading The Spies of Warsaw by Alan Furst, I needed to consult some maps to get my bearings. A bit of clicking about the Web led me to this fascinating site, courtesy of Wikipedia, which shows the evolution of boundaries in and around Poland for the last 400 years. I love the Internet!

Mysteries are my fallback when I’ve maxed out on serious stuff. But this wasn’t just any old mystery. This was mystery plus history of the best sort. Good story, well told, while uncovering some of the complexities of the era between WWI and WWII in Europe. No one really trusted anyone, and for good reason. Everyone watching, scheming, developing contingency plans. Officials ignoring information from people closest to events as they unfolded.

History as told by historians can be fascinating. But I’m happy to get some of my history from Alan Furst and others who mix it with interesting characters, good plot lines, and a feel for the locale.