Author: Kathryn Schulz
Is there anything good about being wrong? Does error get too much flak? Should we be more understanding of mistakes? This book explores the very important human trait it calls ‘wrongness’. The author, a journalist, delves into how ‘… our senses can fail us, our mind mislead us, our communities blind us…’ (page 163). She says the book is ‘… about how we as a culture think about error, and how we as individuals cope when our convictions collapse out from under us…’ (page 5). The book makes the case that ‘…error shouldn’t be an embarrassment, and cannot be an aberration’ (page 5). The author inclines towards the optimistic model of ‘wrongness’ which views error as a spring for insight (page 40), in contrast to the pessimistic model which seeks to eradicate mistakes all together (page 31).
The book reviews how human nature seems set up to make mistakes. In doing this it made references to several psychological concepts such as theory of mind and the related Sally-Anne test (pages 100). It explores the physiological underpinnings of error such as the fallibility of perception (pages 53-55), and illustrates relevant phenomena such as inattentional blindness (page 62), mirages (page 51), illusions (page 58-61) and hallucinations (page 39). The author examines how memory flaws results in serious errors, and illustrates this with the story of Penny Beerntsen whose firmly held but false eyewitness testimony led to a wrong rape conviction. Referring to the experiments of Franz von Liszt, the author showed that such mistakes occur very frequently (page 223). She discussed The Innocence Project which uses DNA evidence to overturn such historical miscarriages of justice (page 233).
The author reviews the faulty reasoning that results in many mistakes. She defines this inductive reasoning as ‘…guessing based on past experience’ (page 118). She discussed how this form of reasoning makes people leap to conclusions (page 123), and makes them succumb to confirmation bias (page 124). The consequence is that ‘…we ignore, deny, distort, and misconstrue evidence… (page 129-130). The book examines other phenomena such as amnesia for mistakes, error-blindness, and bias blind spot which hinder people from realising their mistakes (pages 21 and 106). Augmenting these is the feeling of certainty which ‘…is kindled by the feeling of knowing-that inner sensation that something just is…’ (page 163). She says our desire for certainty and fear of doubt make it harder to avoid errors (page 180).
The book explored mechanisms such as ignorance, idiocy, and evil assumptions which sustain people in their erroneous ways (page 109). It shows how people remain in this state of error by explaining away their mistaken beliefs and actions . The author said we ‘…like to explain things, even when the real explanation eludes us’ (page 77-81). She illustrated this with examples such as Anton’s syndrome, the pathological denial of the loss of visual perception, and confabulations (page 67). She details the types of excuses people give to justify their errors such as the time-frame defense (page 213), the near-miss defense (page 214), and the better safe than sorry defense (page 216).
Whilst the book’s main focus is the actions of individuals, it also discusses group propensities to error. The author illustrated this with examples such as Irving Janis‘s concepts of groupthink and suppression of dissent (pages 152-153). The book also cites Francis Bacon and his notion of idol of the tribe (page 136), and it highlights the problem of conformity with reference to the experiments of Solomon Asch (pages 138 and 144). The book illustrated it’s lessons with several anecdotes such as that of William Miller, the doomsday sect leader who had to explain his failed end-of-the-World prediction to his followers. Another anecdote refers to Greenspan moments after the former US Federal Reserves Board Chairman’s shock on realising his belief in self-regulated markets was misguided (page 90).
The author offers numerous tips to avoid falling into the error trap. She urges people to accept their fallibility and urges that we ‘… query and speak and investigate and open our eyes…’, and we ‘…seek out evidence that challenges our beliefs…’ (page 131). She gives advice on preventing error such as to ‘… create open and transparent environments instead of cultures of secrecy and concealment‘ (page 311). She explored several strategies that may prevent mistakes in the critical fields of medicine and aviation.
The subject matter of error is very important, and the author covered the ground exhaustively. She transitioned seamlessly and comfortably through politics, history, art, science, literature, philosophy and psychology. She does a brilliant job of linking these diverse specialisms into the single theme of error. The author has a conversational and informal writing style but her discussions sometimes verged on the philosophical. Her presentation occasionally seemed disjointed and long-winded but the book’s themes are very well-researched, compensating for the minor shortcomings.
This is an interesting overview of the subject of error. It gives a good perspective in a simple and understandable manner. The author links up the diverse threads of error in a very intelligent way, and doctors and healthcare professionals will find this approach convenient. I recommend it.
- Publisher, Place, Date: Portobello Books, London, 2010
- Number of Chapters: 15
- Number of Pages: 405
- ISBN: 978-1-84627-073-4
- Price: £9.99
- Star rating: 4