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Being Wrong

What makes us err? A journalist examines our stubborn inclination to wrong-headedness.

Being Wrong
By Kathryn Schulz
416 pp., $26.99

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Reading Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error is almost as much fun as being right. And as journalist Kathryn Schulz explains, being right is one of our true delights. What’s more, “our indiscriminate enjoyment of being right is matched by an almost equally indiscriminate feeling that we are right.” This is the first of many provocative observations that Schulz explores in this charming, serious, but ultimately deficient book. “Being Wrong” reveals that Schulz is as vulnerable to unwitting wrongheadedness as the book’s many colorful exemplars of error.

“Being Wrong” is partly an intellectual history of changing definitions of and attitudes toward error, with accurate yet accessible nods to Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, John Locke, Emily Dickinson, and a host of other luminaries.

But it’s also an investigation into “wrongology,” tracing the myriad, sometimes exotic, roads that can lead us into mistakes, both minor and life altering. On a journey to the Arctic in 1818, for example, the explorer John Ross experienced a “superior (or arctic)” mirage (not to be confused with an “inferior mirage,” a patch of water glistening on a hot highway that vanishes as we approach). Seeking a way to the Northwest Passage, Ross, after months at sea, reached Lancaster Sound in Canada. “I distinctly saw the land, round the bottom of the bay, forming a chain of mountains.... This land appeared to be at the distance of eight leagues [about 27 miles].” Relying on his eyes, Ross decided the inlet was impassable. In fact, the mountains were 200 miles away with open water still before him.

Schulz also offers more prosaic, but still disturbing, failures of human perception. A chapter on the unreliability of eyewitness accounts shakes the reader with stories of misidentified innocents spending decades in prison.


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