The enlightened Japanese Buddhist teacher known as Dogen (1200-1253) once said, “A zen master’s life is one continuous mistake.” In this exact spirit of ineluctable human error leading, at best, to transcendence, Kathryn Schulz’s Being Wrong brilliantly and ingeniously affirms the glorious possibilities—and dramatic dangers—for individuals and for our culture inherent in flubbing it.
Schulz has clearly expended immense amounts of brainpower and research on this topic—”wrongology,” she dubs it—as we easily deduce from the clearsighted arrangement of her material, her wide range of instances and illustrations (St. Augustine to Penn Jillette; Shakespeare to the Innocence Project), and her sensible yet radical conclusions and prescriptions. But she has also put her heart and soul into the material, since the consequences of being wrong invariably involve our intimate emotions and sense of self. “[V]irtually all of [our mistakes] require us to feel something: a wash of dismay, a moment of foolishness, guilt over the dismissive treatment of someone else who turned out to be right…”
After laying the groundwork for wrongology as a valid discipline in Part I, “The Idea of Error,” Schulz employs the second part of her book, “The Origins of Error,” to coolly anatomize and classify the quirks of body and mind that conduce toward error. I particularly liked her discussion of the Three Assumptions we make regarding those “others” whom we believe to be in error: the Ignorance Assumption (they don’t have all the facts); the Idiocy Assumption (they’re just plain stupid); and the Evil Assumption (they deliberately delight in wrongness). How often we witness—or indulge in!—these behaviors, both in our personal lives and in the civic arena.
The third portion of her volume, “The Experience of Error,” seeks to drive home the visceral impact of our errors, ultimately linking our unease with being wrong to deep-seated ontological issues of solipsistic aloneness. Her choice of medical errors and false imprisonments is beautifully impactful.
Finally, in Part IV, “Embracing Error,” Schulz makes her case for optimism about this inevitable component of the human condition, linking error to beneficial humor and self-improvement.
The famous physicist Wolfgang Pauli was prone to dismiss rival theories he disliked as being “not even wrong.” In this sense, being wrong is the first step away from total ignorance toward a hard-earned wisdom.
-PAUL DI FILIPPO
Paul Di Filippo’s column The Speculator appears monthly in the Barnes & Noble Review. He is the author of several acclaimed novels and story collections, including Fractal Paisleys, Little Doors, Neutrino Drag, and Fuzzy Dice.