Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error by Kathryn Schulz
As Kathryn Schulz writes, this book is not a defense against errors; it is a defense of errors because errors are essential to who we are. Errors are inseparably linked to things like our intelligence and our science. You cannot remove error without damaging who we are and what we can do. Her message is that errors are not moral failings, but instead are things that allow us to revise our understandings of ourselves and the world.
The book is divided into three parts. The first part of the book looks at how philosophers attempted to categorize errors. For example, there are errors on things no-one can know for sure, such as her (wrong) example who is the author of the Bible[i]. Then there are errors that can be checked (e.g., sports trivia), errors arising from exceeding limits of reasoning, etc.
The second part looks at how and why we go wrong. She covers the usual cognitive biases, but also goes into neuroscience. We learn of Anton’s Syndrome—where a blind person is convinced they’re not blind—and the plasticity of memory that renders eye–witness testimony unreliable (see Neil deGrasse Tyson’s amusing video on his thoughts about eye-witness testimony).
Our eyes are easily deceived even when we know they’re being deceived.
Part 3 is about how we feel when we are wrong.
This part puzzled me. Do people really feel the way she describes? Or is she just projecting her own feelings onto everyone else? I know my brain is wired differently, but I’m not that different, am I?
KS: “…, mistakes, even minor ones, often make us feel like we’re going to be sick, or like we want to die”.
Me: No. Almost never feel that. Being wrong is eye-opening because it allows me to examine why I was wrong so I can try to avoid that category of error in the future.
KS: “Accordingly, when mistakes happen anyway, we typically respond as if they hadn’t, or as if they shouldn’t have: we deny them, wax defensive about them, ignore them, downplay them, or blame them on somebody else”.
Me: I take full responsibility for mistakes, and I’ll take responsibility even if I’m not fully at fault. That’s because experience has taught me two things: 1. I’m usually at fault (yay brain wiring), and 2. It’s easier to take blame than explain.
KS: “…the difficulty with which even the well-mannered among us stifle the urge to say “I told you so.” …It is possible to refrain from this sort of gloating … but the feeling itself, that triumphant ha!,can seldom be fully banished”.
Me: I do get that “ha” feeling, but it comes when I discover evidence for something I’ve suspected might be right. Even when my “discovery” doesn’t impact anyone else, and it’s just me, I get that feeling. I don’t get an urge to gloat when I’m proved right. It just “is”. With friends I do sometimes joke-gloat by quoting Tim the Enchanter. If Schulz is right most people feel this way I wonder how many times my jokes were misinterpreted (sigh).
My science training may also play into my differing attitude towards error. The scientific method is one of searching for errors to get a better understanding of potential truths. I view my errors similarly. Correcting my errors means I’ve advanced my understanding.
When Schulz comments on the sciences and various errors, she does an admirable job, but misses some nuances since her background isn’t in science.
For example, she refers to the Pessimistic Meta-Induction from the History of Science: it says the most seemingly bulletproof scientific theories of times past eventually were proved wrong; therefore, we must assume today’s theories will someday be proved wrong.
Her examples of rejected scientific theories (ether, a flat earth[ii], geocentricity) were adopted either before rigorous scientific thinking was established or before adequate tools for measuring were available (or were never a scientific theory—see endnote ii). In the realm of physics it seems likely current theories will change. There’s so much to discover and they’ve reaching the limits of what their instruments can do.
However, in other fields this isn’t true. It is unlikely that heliocentricity (planets orbit the sun) will be disproved since our tools include the laws of gravity, and satellites that measure gravity. It is unlikely that the theory of continental drift will be overturned since we can measure amounts of drift in real time—true, the mechanisms behind why continents drift may change as more sophisticated tools for monitoring the earth’s interior are built, but the theory that continents drift will likely stay intact.
She also says cold fusion is one of humanity’s discarded theories, one of our most dramatic mistakes. Cold fusion was not a theory as there is no known model for how it would work. It was an interesting idea that warranted exploring.
It was a dramatic mistake though, not because the science process itself was flawed, but because the 1989 announcement from Pons and Fleischmann of working cold fusion took a shortcut—they issued a press release rather than publish their results in the scientific literature where their claims can be examined by other experts. Since results were not published even scientists in unrelated fields (e.g., biology) were suspicious about the experiment.
This “science by press release” resulted in a high-profile retraction when the errors were found. Cold fusion is still an interesting idea (not a theory) and has led to the discovery of new chemical interactions, but actual fusion at room temperature still hasn’t been discovered.
Schulz also makes an entire argument that arises from her misunderstanding of an aphorism. “The exception proves the rules.” She interprets this the way most people (wrongly) interpret it—that counterevidence against a hypothesis actually supports the hypothesis.
The misunderstanding arises because the word “proves” meant something different when the phrase was coined. “To prove” used to mean “to test”. Therefore, the modern statement is, “The exception tests the rule”. [iii]
However, these are mainly nit-picks. The small errors and bad examples don’t affect most of her conclusions; and in the above case about “exceptions” she took the wrong road, but still arrived at a solid conclusion.
It is an enjoyable enlightening book, much food for thought on a wide array of topics. Her notes section at the end (which according to Kindle is about 30% of the book) has a wealth of information you shouldn’t skip. As well, her recommendations on further reading would fill your library shelf with books that are as equally engrossing as her book.
[i] Unfortunately, that example is an error itself. That’s like arguing who is the author of the legal code of Canada. There is no one author. The scrolls that now make up the Bible were written over 1300 years in at least three different languages by about 40 people.
[iii] Ever since Grade school I remember wondering how an exception proves a rule—an exception should disprove a rule. It wasn’t till I hit middle school did I accidentally find the answer in an encyclopedia I was reading.