To err, we hear, is human. But if that is true, then why do we take erring so hard? This is the question Kathryn Schultz tries to get at in her book, Being Wrong. The first section analyzes error by recounting what philosophers, psychologists and others have thought about what it is and why it happens. Next, we examines the factors that lead us to err: senses deceive us, reason is easily influenced by extra-rational factors, we trust experts we like instead of those who may be telling the truth, etc. The third section explores what it feels like to be wrong: we may get embarrassed, defensive, heartbroken, mystified, angry. And lastly, the author reveals why it is she believes error should be seen not as a gaffe to be avoided, but a gaffe that should be embraced and accepted as an an inevitable part of being a finite and dynamic human.
First, I must say something I very rarely do about a book: I never once found this one repetitive or unnecessarily long. Each section, and chapter within it, is about a different aspect of error that was not discussed before, from how philosophers conceive of error, to the social factors that influence error, to our amazing capacity to deny even obvious error. And the real-world examples she chooses to illustrate all of these things are humorous, relateble, and sometimes a bit lamentable.
And what is the author's unique theory about erring? The author writes first that erring is an inevitable part of being human. We are finite animals for whom probability is as close as we can come to certainty (even though certainty is what we want). Since life demands that we make decisions based on what we think will happen in the future, it is simply inevitable that some of these will be wrong. That is not and should not be a recipe for skepticism, which is a lazy attempt to fend off error. The author argues that the only way to crack down on error, paradoxically, is to admit its inevitability. Being aware of the mistakes we make that lead to error is the only way to curb it: recognize that fallibility is a part of life (not stupidity), make an effort to 'hear the other side,' phrase your predictions provisionally and treat them as such. The more we realize that error is a human quality that leads to opportunities of growth, the more we can, to some degree or other, embrace it as part of who we are.
And what about if we didn't err? Well, if we didn't err, we couldn't ever change or grow (as change and growth are byproducts of trying to become better and closer to the truth). If we didn't err, then life would be a whole lot more predictable than it is, having good and bad repercussions. If we didn't err, we would never experience surprise or have reason to reflect or think deeply. In short, if we didn't err, we simply wouldn't be anything recognized, for good or worse, as human.
The only complaint I have about this book, as interesting and entertaining as it is, is that the author's "thesis" takes up only about 40 pages in a 340 page book, and comes only at the end. I would like her to have interwoven this point amongst all or many of the chapters, as it is a point which is not only highly interesting and counter-intuitive, but it could have served to really tie the book together.
Other than that, strongly recommended.