Being Wrong — and Knowing It! (Part 1)

Kathryn Schulz has written an entertaining book (Being Wrong) about a problem that refuses to go away,  which we should be thankful for!  That is, we owe a lot to our capacity to draw accurate conclusions from a few observations and facts. Our creativity and imagination is both the source of pleasure and flights of fancy that lead to innovations in science, engineering, statecraft, literature, and so on.

[If you want more evidence before seeking out Being Wrong see the review in the New York Times. (]

We do have a problem with “wrongness.” We see it in others; we are convinced that there is an abundance of error in the world; we readily agree with Kathryn’s comical statement:

“As bats are batty, slugs are sluggish, our own species is synonymous with screwing up” (p8)

And yet, we find it difficult to detect our own errors. “Difficult” is an understatement.  Let me give you one of my favorite examples from a trip to Zurich, Switzerland before turning to an image from the book. By the way, Kathryn Schulz will provide you with a melange of examples from the outrageous to the ridiculous.

I took a train from the airport to Zurich where I intended to spend an afternoon and evening before returning to Boston.  I wanted to walk from the train station to my hotel, which was about five blocks from the train station in the center of town.  I was told to head out of the train station and keep walking and that I could not miss the center of town. Maybe a 20 minute walk.  I did this, I walked and I walked.  It was a lovely afternoon.

At one point, I pulled out my map and checked it against the streets that I passed.  I grew puzzled; I could not find any of these streets.  But I recalled the directions, walk straight from train station and I will end up in the city center. So I kept going even though the architecture had noticeably changed from mostly public buildings to residential streets with little traffic.  I had walked for nearly an hour and for 10 maybe 15 blocks before I began to have serious doubts.

In defense of my blockheadedness,  I was quite taken with my walk, and maybe I was thinking (?) , well maybe I screwed up, but this is fun and interesting.  On the other hand, the sun was setting, and there I was, walking down a sidewalk and dragging suitcase behind me for over an hour.   Perhaps I persisted in this mistake, and it was a mistake, because I found it pleasant(at least initially) and I could not understand my error.

Finally I did.  After carefully reading the map, I discovered that I made a huge mistake at the start of my walk.  Instead of walking out of the front door of the train station, I left from the rear.  I walked in the opposite direction from downtown Zurich.

My error and its persistence is not necessarily the result of being arrogant, or some other category of the unenlightened or deluded.  Kathryn Schulz shows us the universality of being wrong and the equally universal difficulty of experiencing our own mistakes.

She illustrates our predicament with an image from the Road Runner cartoons (p18).  When we hold a mistaken belief we are in the position of the coyote as he runs past the cliff but before he looks down and realizes his mistake.  We are oblivious to our error during our belief. Only when we realize our error, do we experience our mistake.  So, what is the experience of being wrong prior to realizing one’s error?  Unfortunately for us,  Kathryn points out “It feels like being right”.

In fact, it feels like the bloody truth; it feels very, very right.  What this means is that our conviction that we are right can precipitate dramatic consequences . Secondly, learning how to realize error sooner rather than later is advantageous for Road Runners, for us mistake makers, and for those who live with the consequences of our errors.

More to come.

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4 Responses to Being Wrong — and Knowing It! (Part 1)

  1. A Yellow Dog Democrat says:

    Nice piece. Liked the way you went from the generality to your specific experience.

  2. Fathead says:

    Blockheadedness, Bill? Merely testosterone poisoning, I’d say. The usual male refusal to ask directions.

  3. Probably biology has something to do with it. Just think, who are the blockheads of the moment? Two candidates come immediately to mind. The minister from Florida who burned the Koran and has been rationalizing his actions ever since.

    Then there is Andrew Wakefield, infamous for misleading us on autism and vaccines.

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