I’m not sure how much of a write-up I can give you of Kathryn Schulz’s marvelous book Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error since, if you recall, I borrowed it as an ebook from my library and was reading it on my Kindle when it decided to no longer highlight things. And frankly, if you can’t use either the highlight or bookmark function for ebooks, you’re screwed when you finish and try to write about them. There is no going back skimming the pages for a memory refresh nor is there a collection of passages to pull interesting tidbits from. That my Kindle crapped out while I was reading Being Wrong makes me giggle though it also makes me growl because I loved this book and wish I could share all the fascinating stuff I learned with you. I did eventually manage to get Kindle to highlight again but by then it was far too late because I was almost at the end of the book. Oh well.
Not only is Being Wrong a fascinating book with tours into human behavior, memory, biology, psychology and culture, it is also quite literary. Schulz flings out the literary references with wild abandon — Pride and Prejudice, Wuthering Heights, Don Quioxte and so many more. She makes these references in such a way that it is obvious she is a reader and familiar with the books and characters in a way that someone who only mines them for relevant quotes is not. Also, she’s really funny.
Who among us doesn’t like being right? Who among us isn’t usually certain that we are right and everyone else is wrong? Who hasn’t made up excuses or reasons when discovered being wrong? Schulz sets out to examine why we are so certain about things and why we hate being wrong. In the process she looks at some spectacular instances of being wrong — Alan Greenspan anyone? In another less public example she goes over the case of a woman who was raped, identified her assailant, was instrumental in the man’s conviction and found out eighteen years later that it was not him but another man who looked very similar who had raped several women before her and several more after. How do you get over being so wrong and causing someone else to spend eighteen years of his life in prison?
But it’s not just the big errors, it’s the small things too. Schulz talks about how she and her friends, none of them physicists, were sitting around one day discussing string theory as though they were all experts. They had a good laugh at themselves and invented an imaginary magazine called Modern Jackass. Thereafter they would chide each other when someone was insisting on their rightness on a topic they really knew nothing about saying things like, oh you should write that up and submit it to the science section of Modern Jackass. A little bit of knowledge goes a long way and we all hold forth like experts on things like the economy, medicine, the weather, life, the universe and everything. And if you are saying to yourself right now, I never do that, I am too humble and never make such assumptions. To you my friend I say, you are WRONG. No one is immune.
Schulz discusses the many reasons we like to be right and why we are so afraid to be wrong. At the same time she talks about how being wrong is necessary in order to make creative leaps in art and science and our general everyday understanding of who we are and what the heck this thing called life is all about. She wishes more than once that we could find a way to be nicer to ourselves and others about being wrong. After all, to err is human and all that.
One of the especially fascinating sections of the book is when Schulz discusses belief and what happens when a belief we have held that is integral in how we see ourselves and navigate in the world is suddenly wrong. She tells the story of one young woman who was raised as a fundamentalist Christian. She moved to New York, met a man who was an atheist who became her boyfriend, and then she found herself going from believing in God to not believing in God. When she and her boyfriend broke up a few years later she was left adrift when she realized that she wasn’t an atheist but neither could she believe in the fundamentalist Christian teachings she was raised in. Schulz talks about the uncomfortable place something like this brings us to, feelings of being unmoored and adrift, not knowing who we are now or who we want to be tomorrow. It’s really fascinating stuff!
While reading and since I have finished the book, I have been more aware of my own rightness about things and noticed how quickly I get defensive when challenged. Sometimes I am able to catch myself, to back off, to not insist that I am right but instead actually listen to the other person and really consider what they are saying. And let me say, it is a weird feeling when I manage to do this. Not a bad feeling, just unfamiliar, a sort of limbo of not knowing that is hard to stay in because darn it, I want to be right. But I think if we could all become more comfortable with this limbo state at least some of the time, it sure would make for some interesting possibilities.
So, in summary, good book. You should totally read it. You can’t go wrong.