Kathryn Schulz. Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margins of Error. New York: Ecco, 2010.
To err is human, yet many individuals find it hard to imagine that their beliefs could be mistaken and react to their errors with surprise, denial, defensiveness, and shame. Enter journalist Kathryn Schulz, who, referring to thinkers such as Augustine (who said "Fallor ergo sum," I err, therefore I am), Freud (who proposed that verbal slips are clues to truth), Locke (who thought that error seeped into our lives through the gap between the artificiality of words and the reality of the things they name), and Alan Greenspan (who expressed "shocked disbelief that markets aren't self-regulating), proposes that we look at wrongness as both a given and as a gift that can transform our worldviews, relationships, and ultimately ourselves.
Schulz maintains that of all the many things that people are wrong about, the idea of error as something to be absolutely avoided might top the list. She argues that human beings are quite wrong about what it means to be wrong. To wit: "Far from being a sign of intellectual inferiority, the capacity to err is essential to human cognition. Far from being a moral flaw, it is inextricable from some of our most humane and honorable qualities: empathy, optimism, imagination, conviction, and courage. And far from being a mark of indifference or intolerance, wrongness is a vital part of how we learn and how we change."
Schulz notes that the scientific method, a technique that has brought about tremendous human progress and achievement, is "essentially" a monument to the utility of error, in that scientists "gravitate" toward falsification and try to disprove beliefs. The defining feature of a hypothesis is that it has the potential to be proven wrong and the defining feature of a theory is that it hasn't been proven wrong yet. In the scientific model of progress, errors do not lead us away from the truth. They edge us incrementally toward it. Viva slip-ups! Long live mistakes!
MARTIN H. LEVINSON, PHD