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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Schulz is right about Being Wrong, 4 Dec 2010
This review is from: Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error (Paperback)
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This is such a great book. Every day I've been sharing what I've read with my work colleagues - I can't help talking about how interesting this all is! Kathryn Schulz has produced a work that straddles so many boundaries, and has something interesting to say in each area it touches.

It is true that the book contains lots of examples of how people get things wrong - and she makes a great choice of topics - but it isn't just a list of errors, it is a reflection on what error means for us, the role it plays and how we should respond to error. Before I get into that though I need to get back to those examples.

Then there is the extraordinary story of John Ross and the Croker Mountains and how when it is very cold objects can appear much nearer (hundreds of miles nearer) to us due to the way light bends with temperature inversion.

The story of William Miller and the Great Disappointment of 1844 (when thousands of people from all over the world thought Jesus was returning on 22 October 1844) teaches the various ways in which people respond to error.

There is the disturbing statistic that in the USA between 690,000 and 748,000 patients are affected by medical errors each year, and between 44,000 and 98,000 die from them - the low estimate makes this the eighth leading cause of death in the USA, worse than breast cancer, AIDS and motor vehicle accidents. It is the equivalent of a sold-out 747 crashing every three days killing everyone on board.

The trouble is, the way our minds work is that we tend to *initially* believe something unless we have a good reason not to believe it. That is the way we survive, that is the way we grew up. If we questioned everything even when we did not have a reason to we would never get anywhere, because most of the time it benefits us to behave this way.

The problem is, that having once believed something - particularly if we have become attached to it in some way - we are highly disinclined to reject that belief, no matter how much evidence is brought against us. This is called "denial" or even "self-deception" (self-deception is particularly interesting, as we go out of our way to hide the truth from ourselves, showing that somehow, somewhere we 'know' we are wrong but are somehow unable to admit it to ourselves!), and this is where the book is really important. Schulz shows us how we need to be aware of hiding from error.

There is also a very instructive and worrying example of how we fear error in the example of how we treat politicians who change their minds. John Kerry was vilified by the press for changing his mind on a number of key issues (such as the war in Iraq) and the term "flip-flopping" was coined to ridicule him. Yet is it really so bad for someone to look at the evidence and decide they should change their mind? Do we really want a leader who refuses to change their mind no matter how much evidence is against them?

Error is not a bad thing - not always anyway, and not most of the time. Error comes from this "gap" between ourselves and the world, we don't see things as they are in themselves, but how we perceive them through our minds and in that space lies error, but also art, comedy and so much of what makes our world wonderful. Being prepared to own up to errors means we can move on and make needed changes.

If we are a hospital that means significantly reducing the number of patient accidents (and, as it happens, by being open and honest about them significantly reduced a hospital being sued, 40% of patients who went to court did so simply to find out the truth). Science happened because people stopped just accepting authorities like Aristotle and Claudius Galen and instead started looking at things for themselves. The whole point of science is to find where a theory is wrong in order to improve it.

So this is book I would highly recommend. It is a joy to read (Schulz is a journalist and writes very clearly), the examples are fascinating and the message is one that, if taken to heart, will really change you for the better.
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