Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error
Kathryn Schulz Portobello,
London 2010 405pp
Why is it so fun to be right? As pleasures go, it is, after all, a second-order one at best. Unlike so many of life's other delights – chocolate, surfing, kissing – it does not enjoy any mainline access to our biochemistry... We can't enjoy kissing just anyone, but we can relish being right about almost anything. The stakes don't seem to matter much; it's more important to bet on the right foreign policy than the right racehorse, but we are perfectly capable of gloating over either one. Nor does the subject matter; we can be equally pleased about correctly identifying an orange-crowned warbler or the sexual orientation of our coworker. Stranger still, we can enjoy being right even about disagreeable things: the downturn in the stock market, say, or the demise of a friend's relationship, or the fact that, at our spouse's insistence, we just spent fifteen minutes schlepping our suitcase in exactly the opposite direction from our hotel.
In this way, Kathryn Schulz begins her exposition of 'wrongology' - and I'm hooked. Not only because I too love being right, but also by the wacky multifarious examples which she sustains throughout the book and some of which return in different settings, evoking a chortle of recognition. Schulz acknowledges that most of us are 'routinely right about a great many things', which allows us to manage our day-to-day lives and affirms our competence. We rely on having a myriad broad theories about the world around us which are true only in the sense that they are the most probable or widely held ones.
Our biggest mistake, in her opinion, is that collectively we view error not only as shameful and stupid but as ignorant, crazy and morally degenerate. For this reason, we resist admitting error either by saying 'I was wrong but...' and adding excuses which explain why we weren't really very wrong, or by distancing ourselves with circumlocutions such as Nixon's infamous 'mistakes were made'. (Schulz's footnote here on the palinode, a poem written to negate a former verse, is an example of another delight in this book – extended footnotes on tangential issues. This one offers Ogden Nash's example: having written 'Candy/Is dandy/But liquor/Is quicker' he retracted by writing: 'Nothing makes me sicker/Than liquor/And candy/Is too expandy'. So now you know.)
Taking the Latin root of the word 'error' – errare, to wander – Schulz establishes two models of wrongness. One, the legend of the wandering Jew, draws on a Medieval story in which Christ curses a Jew who mocks him, condemning him to roam the earth endlessly. The other model is the knight errant, like Lancelot or Don Quixote, who undertakes a quest, journeying with a purpose and finding pleasure in doing so.
Being right might be gratifying, but in the end it is static, a mere statement. Being wrong is hard and humbling, and sometimes even dangerous, but in the end it is a journey, and a story. Who really wants to stay home and be right when you can don your armour, spring up on your steed and go forth to explore the world?
And go forth she does, taking us on a wide-ranging journey through psychology, politics, exploration, evolution, religion and love. A discussion of the role of beliefs starts with an intuitively obvious idea, that in an environment where some plants provide food and some are poisonous, where a rustle in the bushes could be dinner or a predator, life depended on forming a workable theory quickly. In fact, a psychologist has suggested that the drive to theorise exists precisely for early childhood when the young brain is mapping the world at speed, hence the enthusiasm toddlers show for the word 'why'. But the 'theory instinct', if there is such a thing, has survived lifelong perhaps because of other advantages it confers.
Schulz provides poignant examples of the effects of being wrong: the young woman who lost her faith and was profoundly shaken in her entire theory of life, the Millerites who gave away all their belongings and waited expectantly for the end of the world not just once but on a certain day for four consecutive years and then again seven years later. While their leader gracefully admitted he had got it wrong, many of the faithful could not give up the idea and built elaborate theories around it.
Some of the people she describes show great courage in admitting they are wrong and setting about putting things right. Penny Beerntsen identified the wrong man as her sexual attacker and when, after a long imprisonment, he was proved innocent by DNA evidence, met him to apologise. Later, through her contacts in the Innocence Project, she reached out to other victims who had wrongly identified their attackers. A tragic postscript to that story tells that the man who was exonerated went on to be convicted of a later murder.
On a lighter, though no less poignant, note Schulz writes about being wrong in love. She points out that as young children it is vital that others get us right in order to understand and meet our needs, and from there we must undertake the task of understanding other people. When we get it right we are rewarded. If wrong, the consequences can range from being ignored to being the subject of rage. The stakes are high and we care a lot about getting other people right but it's all too common to be wrong in love. As Schulz puts it: 'Scarlett O'Hara did it in Gone with the Wind, Pip did it in Great Expectations, Cecile did it in Dangerous Liaisons, I did it in 1999, and at some point or other you've probably done it too.' Although Schulz dwells on the heartbreak aspect of being wrong in love, she also points out a popular theme in movies such as When Harry met Sally where two people who dislike each other on sight later fall in love.
The chapter on Transformation begins with a quotation: 'It is all too common for caterpillars to become butterflies and then maintain that in their youth they had been little butterflies' (G.E.Vaillant) which illustrates a tendency of converts to strongly repudiate their former views. Thus, C.P. Ellis, Ku Klux Klansman who turned Civil Rights activist, Saul the persecutor who became Paul the Christian, and Augustine who, after his conversion, gave a convoluted explanation of how his true self was a Christian all along.
In the end, Schulz argues for greater openness to error for the benefits it can bring. For a start, embracing error gives an opportunity to listen closely and learn new information which will lead to beneficial results. This is the idea behind 'near miss' policies in hospitals and businesses where employees are encouraged to report errors and near misses so that the systems can take into account the 'human factor' and put steps in place to increase safety.
On the other hand, error can be funny, playful and creative, invoking elements of surprise and re-invention. Groucho Marx: 'I've had a perfectly lovely evening – but this wasn't it' gets his laugh by subverting expectation and this can also be a key ingredient of the visual arts and music.
Then there is the error which staves off depression by allowing us to think that we are 'a bit younger, better-looking and more important than strict realism might suggest' as well as seeing 'a little extra loveliness in our loved ones'. This attitude also allows us to believe that we will succeed where we have failed in the past, wrongness in the form of optimism.
Letting Schulz have the last word, as she well deserves to do after such a well-researched and entertaining book:
We get things wrong because we have an enduring confidence in our own minds; and we face up to that wrongness in the faith that, having learned something, we will get it right the next time. … The great advantage of realising we have told a story about the world is realising that we can tell a better one: rich with better ideas, better possibilities – even, perhaps, better people.