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Wednesday 13 October 2010

Strength Through Error - Review of Being Wrong by Kathryn Schulz

Cover of "Being Wrong: Adventures in the ...Cover via Amazon
When was the last time you admitted to being wrong about anything? It is a question that journalist Kathryn Schulz has pondered for some time, so much so that her book, "Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error", appears to be a veritable bible on something she calls "wrongology". This work investigates, dissects and embraces the whole concept of wrongness, letting no one off the hook in its research and conclusions. Being fully aware of the many ways that error has helped shape the way we progress as a species, she takes first half of Alexander Pope's famous idiom "To err is human" literally and explores the truth of this statement at great length. As Schulz, explains in her opening chapters this is not book about forecasting errors, but more about how we as deal with errors and how we can use them to our advantage.
The book is divided into four parts: "The Idea of Error", "The Origins of Error", "The Experience of Error" and "Embracing Error". Each part is divided into different numbers of chapters. The first and fourth parts only have two chapters a piece and act introductory and conclusive bookends to the whole piece. Schulz's tour of the way error affects and changes us as human beings is contained within the two meatier parts, containing six and five chapters respectively. Despite coming under the category of "Popular Psychology/Philosophy" the whole book is handled like a scholastic work. It is footnoted on many of its pages to provide fascinating additional information on certain case studies and has meticulous endnotes to provide all of the book's reference material.

"Wrongology", the title of the first chapter of "The Idea of Error", asks the fundamental questions of the book. Why do we hate the feeling of being wrong and why do we find so much pleasure in being right? Why is error frowned upon so much when success in just about every sphere of human interest is built upon it? For example, the scientific model is one based on the perpetual process of proving one theory wrong in order to progress to another one. Science's strength comes from the way it uses error to steer its path. The next chapter, "Two Models of Wrongness", delves deep into western cultural awareness of error. Plato, Freud, Shakespeare, The Bible, Abu Hamid Muhammad, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and many other references are used to demonstrate man's fear and wonderment of error. From a negative point of view, error separates us from the truth, but from a positive perspective exploring the unreal state of our consciousness can be an exciting adventure. This first part of the book is both engaging and entertaining, helping to entice the reader by explaining what the book is about and also its limitations.
Rather waxing philosophically or psychologically about everything, Schulz gets to grips with the issue of human error on a very fundamental and physical level first. Starting with "The Senses" Schulz explores the phenomena of the mirage. Schulz earlier argues that the reason why we find error so uncomfortable is because we go through most of our life being right about a majority of things; likewise our senses get fooled by optical illusions because of the way they are designed to cope with most day-to-day situations. Schulz provides some fun diagrams to show how easily our senses can be fooled by the way we are hardwired to use local contrasts of shade and light. As she points out, this interpretive process is so firmly in place that even when the truth of a certain illusion is revealed we still cannot see the "truth" without isolating certain objects in an artificial way.
"Our Minds Part One: Knowing, Not Knowing and Making it Up" looks at the faith we place on personal knowledge and the way one side of brain can create a false reality. She looks at the extremely self-gratifying hobby of many people to talk and write in depth about subjects that they have the smallest knowledge about. Being a part of a semi-ironic magazine that did this, Schulz explains vividly the feelings of the individual who decides they are right about something they scant knowledge about.
By referencing various scientific cases, Schulz provides evidence of the huge fallibility of memories. Details of national disasters, even personal details such as where the personal recalling the disaster was the time they heard the news are misremembered. Schulz also gives examples of blind people who believe they can see and paralysis victims who believe they can move, to show how just because you are not telling the truth doesn't mean you are consciously lying. This hints towards the book's positive message regarding the close and virtually inseparable from creativity.
The next chapter "Our Minds Part Two: Belief" doesn't open by going after the obvious target of religion, but instead looks at the financial world and the key player, Alan Greenspan, involved in the implosion of the global markets that resulted in the financial crisis of 2007. Greenspan's belief in his system and the faith so many placed in him offers Schulz the perfect model to show how belief works. She looks at the all the contributory factors - social, psychological and practical - that leads us to invest in the belief of something. This chapter is more closely linked to the one that follows, "Our Minds Part Three: Evidence", than the previous one. We move into areas like confirmation bias, a common theme examined and discussed by empirical sceptics for good reason. However, Schulz persuasively argues that confirmation bias is a very natural, inductive and almost inevitable lens we all look through. She cites a variety of sources from followers of the Third Reich who were ignorant of the Nazi atrocities to the western astronomers who failed to figure out certain fundamental truths known to the eastern world for over half a millennia to the judge at the Salem Witch Trials, as examples of those who did not think to look for obvious contradictory evidence to what they believed they saw. Adding further to her argument for the creative error-causing side of our brain, she also offers further experiments you can carry out to show why logic alone is severely limited in solving problems.
"Our Society" is a chapter of particular interest to me as it looks at collective error. It offers a fascinating insight into peer pressure. When many of us think of peer pressure, we think of the fear of being isolated by a group or other forms of bullying. The findings presented by Schulz show that single individuals often actually believe what their peer group say they believe, a phenomena referred to as "Groupthink". However, in contrast if established beliefs are challenged by large numbers the believers overwhelmingly tend to dig their heels in. This is often the reason why certain groups or even whole nations can become "stuck in a bubble".
"The Allure of Certainty" looks at cognitive dissonance and the way society has such disdain for uncertainty. And yet so many of our intellectuals, particularly those from or the natural inheritors of the Enlightenment, find the whole idea of certainty as being absurd and indefensible. Science, even with its hardest laws, abhors certainty. Even facts are temporary conclusions supported by the most convincing evidence. However, as much as we say we applaud those who admit their faults, Schulz gives example after example of how people fear or despise an unsure leader. We call them wishy washy, hypocritical or consider them to have weak principles - and yet most philosophies accept that progress is impossible without change.
The book's name is shared by the first chapter of the "Experience of Error" part. It acts an introduction to the rest of this third part of the book, but it is really at the whole work's heart, hence its title. This chapter looks at the immense discomfort and depression that a person can plunge into when they don't make a happy transition from one paradigm or idea to another one. Isolation, loneliness, alienation and a feeling of worthlessness are often attached to the feeling of being wrong.
"How Wrong?" is a chapter that looks at how faith increases when a prophesy fails. It also looks at how different people cope when they do realize they have been wrong. "Denial and Acceptance" provides a shocking revelation as to how fallible even the most rational and level-headed witness testimony can be. However, it also provides a clue to the light at the end of Schulz's dark tunnel through fault land with the way we can accept our faults and grow from the experience. It also reveals a little more about the author's fair approach to her research.
If being wrong could ever be accused of being a self-help book then the "Heartbreak" chapter provides the prosecution's best evidence. Schulz covers one of the most personal individual examples of being wrong - being wrong about your relationship with your lover. It pretty much boils down to an accepting each others wrongness in order for a relationship to succeed. The chapter is not a favourite of mine as it seems a little at odds with the rest of the book, but it might serve as a wake-up call to romantics who look for perfection. For my taste, it could have been a little shorter and succinct. This isn't to say it wasn't enjoyable, but the rest of the book really raised the bar for me.
"Transformation" gets to the amazing way dyed in the wall extremists can completely have their minds changed. Using a case study of the head of a Klu Klux Klan chapter who ended up becoming a black civil rights campaigner, this chapter is rich in details on the human capacity to turn productively into change. It serves as an appropriate end to the third part of the book.
"Embracing Error" contains the chapters "The Paradox of Error" and "The Optimistic Meta-Induction from the History of Everything". Having provided an in depth study into the many fundamental ways humans err, understanding the feelings of wrongness and the ways individuals can change for the better through embracing personal mistakes, Schulz now looks at the rarely discussed positive nature of error. Having often cited the rational and clinical world of science as the great champion of using error to build, Schulz then offers us art. As she points out, "art and artificial are joined at the root".
I would recommend "Being Wrong" to just about everyone. If critical thinking requires a higher amount of effort than acceptance and belief then embracing error is a higher level still. I work in the martial arts and self defence world, it acts an ideal microcosm of virtually any of the societies described in Schulz's book. Occupied by alpha males and full of people looking for certainty, heavy into belief and fiercely defensive over the individual systems, styles and schools they have chosen, I easily found martial artists in every one of Schulz's engrossing, informative and revelatory chapters. Being a cross trainer (sometimes derogatorily labelled as a dojo-hopper or a martial tart) I regularly come up against people who are loathe to admit their mistakes or errors. Even when faced with undeniable facts about a certain issue rather than admitting the fault they will often make an irrelevant appeal argument to save face. This is a crying shame as many of my colleagues and contemporaries enjoy discussing going outside of their comfort zones. By facing error on a regular basis is, for most humans, one of the toughest and yet surprisingly rewarding areas of personal development.

Other relevent books you might also enjoy as a companion to "Being Wrong":

On cognitive dissonance:

On our capacity for irrational belief and superstition:

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