What makes us err? A journalist examines our stubborn inclination to wrong-headedness.
Reading Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error is almost as much fun as being right. And as journalist Kathryn Schulz explains, being right is one of our true delights. What’s more, “our indiscriminate enjoyment of being right is matched by an almost equally indiscriminate feeling that we are right.” This is the first of many provocative observations that Schulz explores in this charming, serious, but ultimately deficient book. “Being Wrong” reveals that Schulz is as vulnerable to unwitting wrongheadedness as the book’s many colorful exemplars of error.
“Being Wrong” is partly an intellectual history of changing definitions of and attitudes toward error, with accurate yet accessible nods to Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, John Locke, Emily Dickinson, and a host of other luminaries.
But it’s also an investigation into “wrongology,” tracing the myriad, sometimes exotic, roads that can lead us into mistakes, both minor and life altering. On a journey to the Arctic in 1818, for example, the explorer John Ross experienced a “superior (or arctic)” mirage (not to be confused with an “inferior mirage,” a patch of water glistening on a hot highway that vanishes as we approach). Seeking a way to the Northwest Passage, Ross, after months at sea, reached Lancaster Sound in Canada. “I distinctly saw the land, round the bottom of the bay, forming a chain of mountains.... This land appeared to be at the distance of eight leagues [about 27 miles].” Relying on his eyes, Ross decided the inlet was impassable. In fact, the mountains were 200 miles away with open water still before him.
Schulz also offers more prosaic, but still disturbing, failures of human perception. A chapter on the unreliability of eyewitness accounts shakes the reader with stories of misidentified innocents spending decades in prison.
Our surprisingly inept memory is one of the main preoccupations of “Being Wrong”; Schulz presents numerous studies that prove how faulty is the human tool of recollecting – even though we tend to cling to our faulty recollections “with blinding conviction.”
We are error-prone for many reasons, not least of which is pressure from those around us. Community reinforcement of beliefs is enormously powerful, Schulz demonstrates. We are all victim to “homophily,” the tendency to like people who are like us, and members of like-minded communities support our “disagreement deficit” by shielding us from outside opinions, disregarding those we do encounter, and quashing disagreement from within.
In discussing the dangers of “groupthink,” Schulz rises to eloquence. So, it is disappointing that throughout the course of this otherwise impressive work she cannot wrench herself from her own unspoken but evident affiliations. Schulz is firmly entrenched in a liberal, secular ideology, the bases of which she doesn’t question.
While citing numerous conservative biases (e.g., “fear” of Muslims) as examples of error, Schulz almost never questions liberal pieties. Nixon, Reagan, and George W. Bush are, predictably, unnuanced villains. John Kerry’s waffling over Iraq, on the other hand, results from his integrity. A woman’s decision that she had been wrong in her antiabortion stance is an edifying example of learning through experience, while the notion that a woman might look back on an abortion as a mistake is never considered.
To err, writes Schulz, “is to find adventure.” Traveling with Schulz as guide through “Being Wrong” is, for the most part, a fine adventure. A more adventurous guide, however, would expose her own beliefs to the same scrutiny she applies to those of others.
Alec Solomita is a fiction writer and critic.