Review of Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error by Kathryn Schulz

I realize that I promised to post the full review of this book after it appeared in print. Apologies for a slight delay.

Review of Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error by Kathryn Schulz
(Ecco, 416 pages, $26.99, June 2010)

Reviewed by Dr. Fred Bortz
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“I err, therefore I am.”

That is the central message of journalist Kathryn Schulz’s provocative and entertaining new book, Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error. But it is hardly original with her, as she writes in the book’s opening chapter, called “Wrongology.”

“Twelve hundred years before Rene’ Descartes penned his famous ‘I think, therefore I am,’ the philosopher and theologian (and eventual saint) Augustine wrote ‘fallor ergo sum.'”

This pun-addicted reviewer only wishes that Schulz had deliberately mis-attributed Augustine’s quotation to a fictional contemporary named Deshorses. Then she could be accused of the error of putting Descartes before Deshorses in that sentence.

If that perversion of French made you chuckle, it illustrates Schulz’s pervasive theme that being wrong, as awful as that can sometimes be, has a positive side as well.

“Virtually all fictional narratives contain some element of strategic withholding, hoodwinking, and revealing, and we simply can’t get enough of it,” Schulz writes in the book’s closing chapter. “We love to be kept guessing – and, what’s more, we are happiest when our guesses prove wrong.”

Imagination, illusion, and humor are just a few of the human traits and abilities that, according to Schulz, are intimately connected with being wrong. Without flubs, missteps, gaffes, blunders, illusions, misperceptions, misapprehensions, and clinging to mistaken beliefs (until we correctly or incorrectly believe otherwise), we would not truly be human.

Readers will find tasty tidbits in every chapter. One striking insight is that “we can’t talk about error in the first person present tense. The moment in which we can logically say ‘I am wrong’ simply doesn’t exist; in becoming aware that a belief is false, we simultaneously cease to believe it.”

At that point, we usually we have a replacement belief at the ready. Our minds “leapfrog from…the solid ground of Right A to the solid ground of Right B.” But occasionally “we fall into the chasm between them.” That begins a disturbing sojourn through a “place of pure wrongness” where madness lurks around every corner until we finally find resolution.

Schulz is a compelling storyteller, and her examples of such transformational experiences may be the best reason of all to read this book. You can’t go wrong giving it a try.

Children’s science writer Fred Bortz shares Kathryn Schulz’s optimistic view of error. His best-known book, Catastrophe! Great Engineering Failure — and Success, carries a dedication in memory of his father, who taught him “not to fear failure, nor to accept it, but to learn from it in order to succeed.”

2 thoughts on “Review of Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error by Kathryn Schulz”

  1. This is a great example of refreshing wit.

    It will be sent to the several who share appreciate of this all-too-rare-attribute.

    I look forward to reading both “Being Wrong” and “Catastrophe” and then sharing with others my thoughts on them.

    Incidentally, the SuperConducting SuperCollider mega physics project of the early nineties was a scientific success, but a conmmunications failure, as Roy Schwitters, director failed to signal the benefits of superconductivity and how it could be of societal benefit, and thus the scientifically naive attorneys who dominate Congress chose the SCC when dollars had to be cut in a severe recession.

    The uber strong magnets developed early in the SCC project enabled the development of one of the greatest diagnostic tools ever, the magnetic resonanance instrument, which has revolutionized brain surgery and research.

    Dartmouth College researchers have even established via before and after MRI scans the unbelievable but true paradigm shift in that they have established that children who master a musical instrument prior to age ten have structural changes in their brains which greatly facilitate the ease and extent of abstract mathematical concept mastery.

    Thus a failure was transcended into one of the most effective devices ever developed for societal benefit.

    We need more people like Schultz and Bortz.

    I will request that my college library director wife order the works of each for her collection at her award-winning library.

  2. I want to thank Dormond for his kind comments.

    Unfortunately, Catastrophe! went out of print prematurely when W. H. Freeman killed its entire “Scientific American Books for Young Readers” line. I bought several hundred copies to save them from the shredder and have now sold all but a handful of paperbacks at personal appearances.

    I actually mention the Superconducting Supercollider (SSC) in my most recent book, Seven Wonders of Exploration Technology (Twenty-First Century books, 2010), which as you can probably tell from the title is part of a series.

    I had a fairly free hand in defining exploration and choosing seven of the hundreds of possible wonders, so I had a progression of six beginning with undersea exploration and gradually moving farther out until I discussed exploring the entire cosmos in chapter 6. That naturally raised the topic of the Big Bang, which took me to the subatomic world and the super high-energy, high-density universe that burst into being. So the seventh wonder is the Large Hadron Collider.

    That final chapter has a historical sidebar called “Superexpensive Supercollider,” which notes that the death knell for the SSC was that its projected price had tripled between its approval in 1987 and its cancellation in 1993. While I share Dormand’s regret over the cancellation and the lack of appreciation for the science in Congress in general*, I think the decision was mainly due to the fact that the price tag had grown so rapidly. The science wasn’t killed permanently, but it was forced to move to other locations, including CERN in Europe. That made the cut a false saving for the U.S.A. and a loss of scientific and technological intellectual capital.

    I also think Dormond’s assertion that the application of superconducting magnet technology for MRI resulted from SSC technology is a bit of an overstatement. The first commercial MRIs were developed in 1981, but the FONAR corporation had already used a superconducting magnet to produce a scan as early as 1977. So there was a concurrent push for superconducting magnet technology from the MRI industry. No doubt there was cross-fertilization between the two efforts, so I don’t want to completely dismiss the contribution of the SSC work to MRI applications. I just think Dormond is overstating the case.

    Fred Bortz

    * Congress currently is making a potentially disastrous mistake due to the politicization of science, which allows some to ignore a growing body of evidence about climate change and its potential consequences. It’s not that they do not know about the evidence, but they are choosing to ignore it or delude themselves about it for short-term political gain.

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