Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error

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Kathryn Schulz
389 pages | Buy this book

What makes us human—that we can speak? Love? Build atomic bombs? How about, instead, our never-failing ability to be wrong? Employing psychology, sociology, philosophy, and history, peppered with dozens of personal and quirky anecdotes, Schulz explores what it means to err, why we do it, how it makes us feel, and ultimately, why it’s a vital part of who we are. But here’s the twist: screwing up actually makes us better, and embracing it is the best way to get life right.

What’s the Big Deal?

These days, what don’t we get wrong? Think Tony Hayward in the Gulf of Mexico. Or Gen. Stanley McChrystal in a late-night Paris bar. Or, well, think back to that thing you screwed up this morning. This book is both timely and timeless and, in a country obsessed with self-help—though she shuns the category—Schulz’s call to embrace flaws and errors as potentially beneficial will surely draw legions of followers.

Buzz Rating: Rumble

The New York Times, The Boston Globe, and Publishers Weekly have weighed in with admiring reviews. There was a spot on NPR, too.

 

One-Breath Author Bio

Journalist Kathryn Schulz’s work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Rolling Stone, and The Nation. She is a former editor of the online magazine Grist and currently writes a blog for Slate called “The Wrong Stuff.”


The Book, In Her Words

“[The] goal of this book: to foster an intimacy with our own fallibility, to expand our vocabulary for and interest in talking about mistakes, and to linger for a while inside the normally elusive and ephemeral experience of being wrong” (page 23).

Don’t Miss These Bits

1. Group think is a double-edged sword. Psychologist Solomon Asch studied the phenomenon, to conclude that people will repeatedly give the wrong answer because, well, it’s what everyone else was doing. It’s not all bad, however. Schulz says that communities may head down the wrong track, but ultimately strong beliefs are invaluable to the delicate balance that allows us to “experience the pleasures of communal life without fear of sacrificing our autonomy” (158).

2.
Intellectualism made fun! Not many books manage to drop names like Voltaire, Shakespeare, Benjamin Franklin, Foucault, and Plato and still be entertaining. Even fewer manage to blend Socrates and Beyoncé in the same sentence without missing a beat. Schulz does. And the optical illusions are smart fun, too.

3. Tell it to the judge. Some of the most terrible and damaging everyday errors come in the courtroom. Schulz cites a study on the accuracy of eyewitness accounts. Even the best witnesses still recounted 25 percent of the facts incorrectly (page 224). The bottom line is that it’s better to acknowledge that we’re all too often wrong, and we have to make up for it (with other types of evidence, say) in other ways.

Swipe This Critique

Schulz is a master of many subjects and her expansive knowledge makes for an engaging whirlwind tour of famous people, quotes, and ideas. Though after all this, the takeaway seems anticlimactic. In short, it’s a fascinating and confounding symptom of, well, being human, but her answers are elusive. She’s not necessarily wrong, but after 400 pages, the reader, realizing her deep-rooted fallibility, may actually need some real self-help.

Gradebook


Prose:
A unique voice that delivers complex thoughts clearly. She has an uncanny ability to explain one thing ten ways—but she should pick one.

 

Construction: The introduction does a solid job of laying out the argument, but the conclusion is a bit underwhelming.

 

Bottom Line: The book turns convention on its head. It’s a creative an insightful way to think about to being wrong.  

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