Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Review: Being Wrong

I really wanted to like Being Wrong, a book about that very human foible. The book opens with a description of the superior mirage and how it destroyed the career of Scottish explorer John Ross. With that opening I hoped for more exposition. I wanted to see a taxonomy of errors. Even better, I wanted a good explanation of how and why we frequently got things wrong, and whether there are ways of making sure that we can correct ourselves. I got the former but none of the latter.

The problem with error is that it's just like getting your homework wrong: there are infinite ways of doing so. Even Kathryn Schulz's book can only get so far as to explaining what sort of errors occur and how they occur. She explores illusions, wholesale destruction of a model of the world (e.g., Alan Greenspan's admittance that his model for how markets could self-regulate was wrong), and religious conversions. She even explores probably the most expensive common error: divorce. But it's all at a shallow level: there's no exploration of how Greenspan's error became the dominant paradigm for policy-making, for instance. She doesn't even discuss the folks who managed to predict which couples would divorce and which won't in her chapter on divorce.

Ultimately, the book praises human error for being a natural result of having minds that can quickly make decisions and have the power to imagine alternate realities, true or not. But that's hardly consolation for those of us who have to make decisions and live with the consequences. As such, I consider this book mostly a waste of time, even though there were individual pieces in the book which were interesting. The author simply wasn't able to cover the topic to my satisfaction.
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