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Kathryn Schulz


Adventures in the Margin of Error

Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons License.
"This book opened with the pleasure of being right, but it will conclude with the more complicated, more interesting and ultimately more revelatory pleasure of being wrong." This sentence encapsulates Schulz's central idea. Making mistakes is inevitable for humans and we had better come to terms with the fact. If we do, we will find that there is a positive aspect to the experience and it can teach us a lot about ourselves. The prevalent view is that errors are a bad thing, to be avoided as much as possible, but there is also an alternative opinion: errors are a source of wonder, hilarity, and delight, and should be cherished. Schulz's position is that neither of these views is wholly right, but rather we should try to envisage both of them simultaneously, and this is what she seeks to do in the rest of the book.

There are four sections. Part 1 is a historical review of ideas about wrongness and introduces the two ways of thinking about mistakes, one negative, the other positive. Part 2 is about the manifold ways in which errors can arise, starting with our senses and going on to look at our minds, our societies, and the allure of certainty. Part 3 looks at what it feels like to be wrong and at the consequences of recognising our errors for our view of ourselves. The final part considers how error actually enhances life.

The idea to be explored here seems quite promising, but I found I had to exert quite a bit of effort to keep reading (this was not helped by the publisher's choice of very small print, especially in the footnotes). For although Schulz's journalistic style is very readable, being humorous and informal, her writing is diffuse and repetitive, making the same point in different ways in successive paragraphs. A glance at Schulz's entry in Wikipedia shows that she has already written about her idea in several articles published in different places, and she evidently felt it would merit expanding to book length, as she has done here. Perhaps it did, but not, I think, to the length of this one. I kept being reminded of Voltaire's dictum: "The way to be a bore is to say everything." The book, in other words, is too long.

Some of the examples cited are well-worn: one guesses what is coming before it arrives. And although there is quite a bit of psychology and some philosophy here, it is not very profound. For example, while Schulz's comments on romantic love are unexceptionable, they don't tell us anything very new; we all know that love is blind. The level of insight is approximately what one would get from a well-written column by an agony aunt in one of the better Sunday papers.

Perhaps it is unfair to expect a writer to come up with a lot of genuinely new insights; reminding of us of what we already know can be worth while, but to do this effectively Schulz would have needed to prune her book quite considerably.

%T Being Wrong
%S Adventures in the Margin of Error
%A Kathryn Schulz
%I Portobello Books
%C London
%D 2010
%G ISBN 978-1-84627-073-4
%P 405pp
%K psychology
%O paperback, notes, index

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