Book Review

Why we get things so wrong: Books by Kathryn Schulz and David H. Freedman

By Michael Washburn
Sunday, August 1, 2010


Adventures in the Margin of Error

By Kathryn Schulz

Ecco. 405 pp. $26.99


Why Experts Keep Failing Us -- and How to Know When Not to Trust Them

By David H. Freedman

Little, Brown. 295 pp. $25.99

Error arrives cloaked in certainty. In our politics, in our relationships and in the advice we solicit, we're at the mercy of an ever-present unreliability. Such are the lessons taught by Kathryn Schulz's "Being Wrong" and David H. Freedman's "Wrong," complementary explorations of our relentless genius for getting it . . . wrong.

The good news, from Schulz's perspective, is that mistakes shouldn't be condemned, at least not in any traditional sense. Schulz draws on philosophers, neuroscientists, psychoanalysts and a bit of common sense in an erudite, playful rumination on error. "We are wrong about what it means to be wrong," she writes. "Far from being a sign of intellectual inferiority, the capacity to err is crucial to human cognition . . . [and] it is inextricable from some of our most humane and honorable qualities: empathy, optimism, imagination, conviction, and courage." By understanding the dynamics of error, we open a space for tolerance of both our own and others' failings. This is error as pedagogy, and it does not come naturally.

Being wrong, Schulz notes, feels exactly like being right. We often fall victim to the "cuz it's true" dynamic: the self-serving circularity of taking one's own belief in an idea as a sign of that idea's veracity. We engage in this thinking all the time, about everything: We decide what flavor ice cream is best or what the long-term prospects of the "tea party" are, and we promote these beliefs, often fiercely. Humans are engines of strong, often ill-formed or arbitrary opinion, and any assertion of one's knowledge carries with it an accusation of others' errors.

We judge others' mistakes more harshly than our own, often assuming that others' errors stem from one of three flaws: idiocy, ignorance or evil. As Schulz writes, "Moral and intellectual wrongness are connected not by mere linguistic coincidence but by a long history of associating error with evil -- and, conversely, rightness with righteousness."

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