Book review: Being wrong

People have a universal hatred for being wrong, and we enjoy correspondingly the satisfaction of being right. And it’s not completely obvious why. Other things we enjoy fairly universally, such as chocolate, can give us physical satisfaction, but being right doesn’t do anything of the sort for us.

While nearly everyone relishes the opportunity of being right, and perhaps even of lording it over our hapless friends and foes who do not share our rectitude, I’m a worst offender than most. In fact, I hate being wrong so much that if I ever am wrong, I want to be persuaded of this as soon as possible so that I can stop being wrong, thereby having spent the absolute shortest amount of time possible in this unfortunate state. In addition, some of my most basic lifestyle sound bites refer to my distaste for error. For instance, I have said “pencils are for people who make mistakes” many times. (I do all my writing with a fountain pen or dip pen.)

However, we can ask whether it’s necessarily a good idea to be right all the time. Kathryn Schulz, in Being wrong, suggests that this may not always be ideal. To paraphrase Tolstoy, and thereby make myself sound more educated than I actually am, “all right ideas are the same; every wrong idea is wrong in its own way.”

A possible conclusion we can draw from this is that being wrong is actually more interesting than being right. And, indeed, I suspect that this is often the case. When we are right, we have little opportunity to grow, to become better-informed people. When we are wrong, we can learn and change our beliefs, attitudes, and actions. At least, if we are willing to entertain the notion that we might be wrong!

Schulz discusses various aspects of what she calls wrongology. A large chunk is devoted to the psychology of being wrong: why it’s so undesirable to most of us, and why we so rarely believe that we’re wrong. One problem that prevents us from noticing we’re wrong very often is that being wrong feels just like being right. That is, when we’re wrong, we can’t tell because we’re sure that we’re right. Interesting, then, is the moment of transition: once we realize we’re wrong, we’re no longer wrong because we have altered our views.

Or so Schulz claims. I suspect that people can be wrong and know it, which is why a fairly common, but rather bizarre to me, argument for religion is that people want to believe in it and don’t care whether it’s true. (Greta Christina wrote about this argument brilliantly, as always, a few months ago here.) That’s not necessarily the same thing as believing in something we essentially know to be false, but the frequency with which this argument is presented leads me to conjecture that there are actually quite a few people espousing beliefs that they know are wrong.

She goes on to discuss our admissions of wrongness. Rarely will a person simply say “I was wrong” and leave it at that. Typically we give an excuse: “I was wrong, but…” and then follow up with an explanation of why someone or something else is really to blame for our errors. I’ve noticed this trend in my own speech; rather than just saying that I’m wrong, I typically say something along the lines of “I’m wrong; I’m an idiot,” with the tacit implication being that smart people don’t mess up.

Schulz then includes a few chapters about being wrong in various contexts. For the most part, she lets her anecdotes do most of the explaining, while avoiding presenting a slideshow of wrongness, as she puts it. Thus, it’s a nice blend between a theoretical discussion of wrongology and a practical look at everyday errors as well as exceptional ones.

The penultimate chapter is on the paradox of error. It doesn’t work well if we assume we’re not going to do anything wrong; mistakes creep in just when we least expect them. On the other hand, when we acknowledge that mistakes are inevitable, we’re in a position to prepare for them and minimize them, so we’re likely to end up making fewer. I wrote about a parallel situation for corruptibility a few months ago here.

In the last chapter, Schulz talks about the humor of error, and in doing so, points out that eliminating error is not beneficial to us at all. Sure, sometimes we really don’t want to mess up, but if we make small errors from time to time, or even rather frequently, we can laugh at some of them. In fact, so much of humor centers around mistakes, and a large part of the reason is that we are amused the errors of those in our jokes is that we can see a portion of ourselves as the characters: we might have made that mistake as well, or maybe a similar mistake. Take away our own mistakes, and there aren’t many things left for us to laugh about. That would certainly make our lives worse.

Schulz claims that art is, in some sense, entirely errors. When we read novels, we get involved in the story and, if all goes perfectly, forget that it’s not actually true. We make a mistake when we forget that the story is merely fiction, but that helps us to enjoy it more, so it’s still a good idea. And, when we see a painting, we’d like to forget that we’re looking at a painting and believe that we’re looking at an actual object or scene. So, in at least some situations, we not only tolerate errors but actually encourage them and strive to make them.

Perhaps the moral of all this is that it isn’t errors we should try to avoid, but only uninteresting ones. If we’re wrong in interesting ways, we can still learn a lot.

This book is chock full of amusing anecdotes, witty and humorous writing, serious scholarship, and references to wonderful sources. It’s hard to pass on a book that quotes Gilbert and Sullivan (Iolanthe) as well as the second-best book ever written. The writing is always engaging: witness the following footnote from page 210:

In theory, the outer limit of wrongness would be the condition o f being wrong about absolutely everything. A computer scientist named Keunwoo Lee has given us a name for this hypothetical state: fractal wrongness. Lee defined fractal wrongness as “being wrong at every conceivable state of resolution.” Thus if I’m fractally wrong, I’m wrong about all of my overarching beliefs, wrong about the people who corroborate those beliefs, wrong about the facts I think support those beliefs, wrong about the beliefs that stem from those beliefs… et cetera. As a condition, fractal wrongness is, thankfully, unattainable. As an insult, however, it is incomparable.

While I have read many books this summer (and there are many more as well), this one is clearly the best. In fact, this book is so good that my biggest complaint about it is that the stars denoting footnotes are too small, so I sometimes overlooked them.


About Simon

Hi. I'm Simon Rubinstein-Salzedo. I'm a mathematics postdoc at Dartmouth College. I'm also a musician; I play piano and cello, and I also sometimes compose music and study musicology. I also like to play chess and write calligraphy. This blog is a catalogue of some of my thoughts. I write them down so that I understand them better. But sometimes other people find them interesting as well, so I happily share them with my small corner of the world.
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4 Responses to Book review: Being wrong

  1. Nathan says:

    I read that blog post by Greta Christina that you linked to, and I found it rather bizarre. This seemed to be what happened: “Some theists defend their position with the strange idea that it doesn’t matter to them whether those beliefs reflect reality. Here is a great explanation of why it SHOULD matter. But also, by the way, those people actually do care about reality, and that defense is just an ego-saving maneuver that they use while confirmation-biasing themselves to false victory.” Not to say she didn’t have interesting and well-presented arguments; the conclusion of the post was just somewhat surprising in that way.

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