Being Wrong

Article excerpt

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. …