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To err is to learn

To err is to learn

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Published by Rae Francoeur
Author Kathryn Schulz writes a literate, informed book that explores the mistakes we make and how we feel about our mistakes.
Author Kathryn Schulz writes a literate, informed book that explores the mistakes we make and how we feel about our mistakes.

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Published by: Rae Francoeur on Sep 09, 2010
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09/09/2010

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Book ReviewFor Friday, September 10, 2010Rae Francoeur Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error By Kathryn Schulz. Ecco, New York, 2010. 405 pages. $26.99.“Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error” is a feat of erudition presented to thelot of us with joy and respect. From Plato to Descartes to Dylan and Jon Stewart, a smartand smiling Kathryn Schulz has scoured the world and examined the works of its thinkersand commentators to present a cogent, often entertaining, always informative book aboutthe qualities and, ultimately, the value of human error.She begins with an assertion: “Wrongness is a vital part of how we learn and change.”Thanks to error, she writes, we can revise our understanding of ourselves and amend our ideas about the world. To error is human, the saying goes. It is wrongness, not rightness,that teaches us who we are.For the most part, error is neither welcomed nor understood with any sort of compassion.Error is associated with negligence, stupidity and recklessness. We are punished for our mistakes with demotions, derision and sometimes, lifelong regret. Some of Schulz’sstories about human error show us how gravely we can be wrong and how lasting are theeffects of our mistakes. Human error routinely leads to death or lasting suffering.Parsing error, determining its nature and type, is beside the point. What interests me, saysSchulz, is how we think about being wrong and how we feel about it. She presents manyexamples of people in the throes of their mistakes and relates the process to how the brainworks, the influence of the values we hold, the role of denial, the allure of certainty. She brings many to the table for her discussions and we learn a lot.Some people hold erroneous beliefs simply because they rely on their senses. You see amountain range directly in front of you, therefore you turn your ship around and set sailfor home. The Scottish explorer John Ross, when looking for the Northwest Passage, didthis. In fact, what he’d seen was something called a superior mirage. The mountains were
 
in fact 200 miles west, lifted into his sights above the horizon and apparently blocking hisway. The cause of this mirage was an unusual bending of light rays from beyond thehorizon. It happens with a temperature inversion that sometimes occurs on the polar seas.The next explorer to sail that route also encountered the mountain range but he sailedright through it. Other sensory deceptions include people with unusual brain disorders.They may be blind and not know it or paralyzed and not know it. Anosognosia is thedenial of disease and those who suffer this disorder may, in every other way, be perfectlyhitched to reality.Readers may find themselves reading for the anecdotes. The theory and interpretationcomes after, which is what Schulz intends. Some errors are highly intellectual and hingeentirely on a belief system. Claiborne Paul Ellis, a leader in the North Carolina Ku KluxKlan in the early ‘70s, agreed, extremely reluctantly, to co-chair a committee ondesegregation. The other chair on this committee was a black woman, who, like Ellis, hadcome from a large poor family and struggled fiercely to survive. His greatest professionalaccomplishment, he said, came after that. He helped 40 low-income black women getMartin Luther King Day as a paid holiday.Other errors are belief based but they happen in the moment, often with lasting effects. Inthe most riveting of the anecdotes in this book, Penny Beerntsen is raped in a state park.She is a stunning example of presence of mind. She tries to make a mark on her attacker’sface. She fights fiercely and works to see and memorize his face. He knocks her out butwhen she comes to, beaten and badly hurt, she crawls without using her hands in order to preserve the blood on her hands in case it’s his.Shown pictures and offered a lineup, she experiences a visceral reaction to the man sheeasily identifies. And though he denies his guilt for the quarter of a century he isimprisoned, Beerntsen retains her sense of certainty. Eventually DNA evidence showshim to be innocent. The actual rapist raped other women after Beerntsen and waseventually arrested and incarcerated. Beerntsen, who’d devoted her life to working withcriminals and victims, met the man she’d falsely accused and he forgave her. Just acouple of years later he killed a woman, once again throwing Beerntsen a major curveball. I was “flabbergasted,” she said.Eyewitness accounts are classically unreliable. The best eyewitnesses get more than 25 percent of their facts wrong. From study to study the findings hold firm. The worstwitnesses err 80 percent of the time. People make mistakes. More remarkable is the factthat at least 20 percent of people who are told they are near death forget the news within afew days.

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