I've read 289 books in the past four years. Some were awful. Others were incredible. But I took notes on all of them.
I've never known what to do with these notes. Then I got an idea: I'll dump some of the highlights into a weekly article.
Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error by Kathryn Schulz is about a subject few want to talk about: Screwing up. The truth is that when we talk about mistakes, they are usually in reference to others, rather than ourselves. Schulz makes us look in the mirror.
Here are six things I learned from the book.
1. When we think we are right, everyone else must surely be wrong. Schulz said in an interview on her book:
The first thing we usually do when someone disagrees with us is we just assume they're ignorant. They don't have access to the same information that we do, and when we generously share that information with them, they're going to see the light and come on over to our team. When that doesn't work, then we move on to a second assumption, which is that they're idiots. They have all the right pieces of the puzzle, and they are too moronic to put them together correctly. And when that doesn't work, we move on to a third assumption: they know the truth, and they are deliberately distorting it for their own malevolent purposes. So this is a catastrophe.
2. We think of truth as black and white, but it rarely is:
Sometimes in life we find ourselves between jobs, and sometimes we find ourselves between lovers, and sometimes we find ourselves between homes. But we almost never find ourselves between theories. Rather than assess a belief on its own merits, we choose among beliefs, clinging to our current ones until something better comes along. There's nothing intrinsically wrong with this strategy — in fact, it might be the only truly viable one — but it does narrow the moment of wrongness to mere nanoseconds. We are absolutely right about something up until the very instant that, lo and behold, we are absolutely right about something else.
3. Our desire to be right drowns us in ego:
Still, on the whole, our indiscriminate enjoyment of being right is matched by an almost equally indiscriminate feeling that we are right. Occasionally, this feeling spills into the foreground, as when we argue or evangelize, make predictions or place bets. Most often, though, it is just psychological backdrop. A whole lot of us go through life assuming that we are basically right, basically all the time, about basically everything: about our political and intellectual convictions, our religious and moral beliefs, our assessment of other people, our memories, our grasp of facts. As absurd as it sounds when we stop to think about it, our steady state seems to be one of unconsciously assuming that we are very close to omniscient.
4. Admitting we were wrong is what creates progress:
This was the pivotal insight of the Scientific Revolution: that the advancement of knowledge depends on current theories collapsing in the face of new insights and discoveries. In this model of progress, errors do not lead us away from the truth. Instead, they edge us incrementally toward it.
During and after the Scientific Revolution, the leading minds of Western Europe took this principle and generalized it. As they saw it, not only scientific theories but also political, social, and even aesthetic ideas were subject to this same pattern of collapse, replacement, and advancement. In essence, these thinkers identified the problem of error-blindness on a generational and communal scale. We can no more spot the collective errors of our culture than we can spot our own private ones, but we can be sure that they are lurking somewhere.
5. Being wrong is a brief moment:
As soon as we know that we are wrong, we aren't wrong anymore, since to recognize a belief as false is to stop believing it. Thus we can only say "I was wrong." Call it the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle of Error: we can be wrong, or we can know it, but we can't do both at the same time.
6. Humility is often the answer:
The hallmark of teenagers is that they think they know everything, and are therefore happy to point out other people's errors — but woe betide the adult who tries to suggest that the kids could be wrong. (These teenage tendencies can help as well as hinder the process of belief change. When I asked Anita Wilson how she had been able to change her mind about something as fundamental as her faith, she said that it was partly about age: "The one thing I had going for me was that I was still basically a teenager, so disagreeing with my parents was natural.") By contrast, the wisdom we perceive in the elderly often stems from their hard-earned knowledge that no one knows everything. In the long haul, they recognize, all of us screw up, misunderstand ideas, misjudge situations, underestimate other people, overestimate ourselves — and all of this over and over again. In this respect, their sagacity is a form of humility, one that enables a less rigid relationship to the world.
Go buy the book here. It's great.
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