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How we make mistakes and why it’s not necessarily a bad thing

The author cites a range of famous people, including (from top) Voltaire, Emily Dickinson, and President George W. Bush, in examining the depth of our faith in what we believe is true and the dangers and benefits of being wrong. The author cites a range of famous people, including (from top) Voltaire, Emily Dickinson, and President George W. Bush, in examining the depth of our faith in what we believe is true and the dangers and benefits of being wrong. ((From Top) New York Times; Bill Brandt Archive; Reuters)
By David Shribman
June 20, 2010

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For years I have “quoted’’ Harry Truman saying something along these lines about a politician of the 1940s or early 1950s: It isn’t what he doesn’t know that worries me. It’s what he knows that just ain’t so.

That’s as good a way as any to dip into an exploration of Kathryn Schulz’s beguiling new book, “Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error,’’ an unusual examination of the virtue and peril of being wrong and of all the ways we think we know things that just ain’t so.

Because there are a lot of things we think we know but don’t, and Schulz sets out several striking examples, such as one man’s vivid recollection of a baseball radio broadcast being interrupted in 1941 by reports of the attack on Pearl Harbor, a superb anecdote except that pro baseball games are not played in December.

Or the way George W. Bush saw increasing violence in Iraq as evidence of the enemy’s weakness, not its strength. Or to reverse the syndrome, how NASA engineers saw damage to the space shuttle as evidence of its strength, not its weakness. Wrong and wrong.

Then there’s the early 19th-century explorer John Ross, brave and true, who in looking for the Northwest Passage misidentified an inlet as a sound and mistook a mirage for a range of mountains. Nobody’s perfect.

This is a book about assumptions, convictions, the truths we deny, ignore or play down, and what Schulz calls the “faith in the perfect accuracy of our beliefs’’ — but most of all it is about our logical necessity to believe what we think is true.

“Like toddlers and tyrants, we are quick to take our own stories for the infallible truth, and to dismiss as wrongheaded or wicked anyone who disagrees,’’ she writes. “These tendencies are most troubling for the way they fuel animosity and conflict. But they are also troubling because they make it extremely difficult to accept our own fallibility.’’

We not only make mistakes. We also make mistakes in how we look at the world, thereby making errors inevitable. We have, she writes, a “tendency to give more weight to evidence that confirms our beliefs than to evidence that challenges them.’’ No examples necessary.

At the heart of this provocative book is the question of certainty — one that comes up repeatedly when crime victims misidentify suspects, or when we think we’ve found the right person in love.

“Our sense of certainty is kindled by the feeling of knowing — that inner sensation that something just is, with all of the solidity and self-evidence suggested by that most basic of verbs.’’ Bill Clinton, whose meditation on the meaning of is prompted a constitutional crisis, might have been onto something.

This is a book whose main characters include Plato, Pope Clement IV, David Sedaris, Francis Bacon, Cass Sunstein, Ambrose Bierce, Voltaire, Emily Dickinson, Alan Greenspan and, just to round things out, Rabbi Moses ben Nachman (1194-1270). It is a book that includes, among other things, a quote from Wittgenstein (from “On Certainty,’’ of course), an excerpt from Tom Stoppard’s “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead,’’ and the lyrics to the song “Fifty Million Frenchmen Can’t Be Wrong.’’

Along the way we encounter words such as homophily, offendicula, and anosognosia, watch a religious sect deal with the great disappointment growing out of the fact that the world didn’t end on schedule on Oct. 22, 1844, and consider how groups think, encountering this thought, chilling but (dare I use this word?) true:

“We would all like to believe that, had we lived in France during World War II, we would have been among those heroic souls fighting the Nazi occupation and helping ferry the persecuted to safety. The reality, though, is that only about 2 percent of French citizens actively participated in the Resistance. Maybe you and I would have been among them, but the odds are not on our side.’’

This is a book about changing your mind and changing how we use our minds. Schulz brings us to the remarkable conclusion that the prescription for avoiding errors (listening to others, being open, encouraging divergent views) is a workable description of democracy. No wonder the Founding Fathers’ doctrines grew out of a movement called . . . the Enlightenment.

Back for a second to Truman’s quote about what a rival knew but just wasn’t so. How do I know that it was Truman who said it? Because for nearly a year, as a political writer covering the 1984 presidential election, I heard Walter Mondale use that line. But now that I think about it, maybe it wasn’t Mondale after all. Or maybe it was Mondale quoting Mark Twain and not Truman. Maybe in fact I have no earthly idea who quoted whom. Check the Web and you’ll see I’m not alone. No one knows for sure the origin of that quote. It’s just something I know that just ain’t so.

David M. Shribman, executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, was for a decade the Globe’s Washington bureau chief. He can be reached at dshribman@post-gazette.com.

BEING WRONG: Adventures in the Margin of Error
By Kathryn Schulz
Ecco, 404 pp., $26.99