Dr. Fred Bortzbooks

Review of Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error

by Kathryn Schulz

(Ecco, 416 pages, $26.99, June 2010)

Reviewed by Dr. Fred Bortz

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"I err, therefore I am."

That is the central message of journalist Kathryn Schulz's provocative and entertaining new book, Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error. But it is hardly original with her, as she writes in the book's opening chapter, called "Wrongology."

"Twelve hundred years before Rene' Descartes penned his famous 'I think, therefore I am,' the philosopher and theologian (and eventual saint) Augustine wrote 'fallor ergo sum.'"

This pun-addicted reviewer only wishes that Schulz had deliberately mis-attributed Augustine's quotation to a fictional contemporary named Deshorses. Then she could be accused of the error of putting Descartes before Deshorses in that sentence.

If that perversion of French made you chuckle, it illustrates Schulz's pervasive theme that being wrong, as awful as that can sometimes be, has a positive side as well.

"Virtually all fictional narratives contain some element of strategic withholding, hoodwinking, and revealing, and we simply can't get enough of it," Schulz writes in the book's closing chapter. "We love to be kept guessing - and, what's more, we are happiest when our guesses prove wrong."

Imagination, illusion, and humor are just a few of the human traits and abilities that, according to Schulz, are intimately connected with being wrong. Without flubs, missteps, gaffes, blunders, illusions, misperceptions, misapprehensions, and clinging to mistaken beliefs (until we correctly or incorrectly believe otherwise), we would not truly be human.

Readers will find tasty tidbits in every chapter. One striking insight is that "we can't talk about error in the first person present tense. The moment in which we can logically say 'I am wrong' simply doesn't exist; in becoming aware that a belief is false, we simultaneously cease to believe it."

At that point, we usually we have a replacement belief at the ready. Our minds "leapfrog from...the solid ground of Right A to the solid ground of Right B." But occasionally "we fall into the chasm between them." That begins a disturbing sojourn through a "place of pure wrongness" where madness lurks around every corner until we finally find resolution.

Schulz is a compelling storyteller, and her examples of such transformational experiences may be the best reason of all to read this book. You can't go wrong giving it a try.

Children's science writer Fred Bortz shares Kathryn Schulz's optimistic view of error. His best-known book, Catastrophe! Great Engineering Failure -- and Success, carries a dedication in memory of his father, who taught him "not to fear failure, nor to accept it, but to learn from it in order to succeed."