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Interesting exploration of inescapable error and the urge to certainty
on 17 August 2011
'Being Wrong' is an examination of the significance of error in human thinking, and more broadly in every aspect of human existence, from simple mistakes of attention to the role of transcription errors in the reproduction of DNA that mean that human beings are individuals rather than clones. Kathryn Schulz, an experienced journalist by trade, looks at the reasons why we make mistakes: changing moral attitudes to error over time; the social and personal costs of our insistence on certainty where certainty is not attainable; the direct experience of being profoundly wrong; the psychological mechanisms by means of which we manage our continual wrongness without becoming disabled in the face of uncertainty; and why we should regard our ability to err as both profoundly human and paradoxically as a source of hope for future achievement.
This is a huge subject, but Schulz is not overawed. The tone is broadly journalistic rather than academic, though Schulz is serious in her purpose: there is considerable emphasis on personal anecdotes and illustrative tales, and a correspondingly lighter treatment of the philosophical issues and scientific problems that the possibility of error opens up.
I found reading the book a mixed experience. On the positive side, it's a straightforward exploration of a potentially fascinating subject, and the reader completely new to these issues will find a host of interesting and provocative points for further thinking. Against this is the fact that ultimately Schulz has little to say that cannot be found elsewhere, and depends quite heavily on examples that have been used and perhaps over-used by other writers. This is also a very American, slightly Polyanna-ish book in its tone and conclusions. It is also too long - the actual text runs 340 pages, with a further 50 pages of notes, but no separate bibliography - as Schulz protracts her analysis of what some will feel are rather simple points, and indulges in a fair amount of repetition.
Nonetheless, this is an interesting subject and on balance 'Being Wrong' may be recommended, particularly for readers dipping a toe in these waters for the first time. (For readers with less than perfect eyesight, I should also note that this paperback is set in very small type - so this is one instance in which the Kindle version of a book has very obvious advantages.)