Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor
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. …