2010: The Year in Mistakes

By Kathryn Schulz
December 26, 2010

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A funny thing happens at the end of every year: We human beings experience a collective outpouring of optimism about our species. Impressed by our own excellence, we compile and consume countless ”Best Of” lists: the best new books, movies, ideas, TV shows, sports performances, photographs, toys, cars, and kitchen utensils of two thousand-whatever. Buoyed by all this best-ness, we resolve to be even better in the year to come. We will lose weight, get fit, spend more time with our kids, read Proust, learn Spanish, finally put all those family photographs into albums.

These end-of-the-year rituals are both cheery and cheering, and I have nothing against them. But they hardly do justice to the reality of the average year of human history. If, come December, we admire the good, it is because we have generally spent so much of January through November awash in the crummy. If we resolve every New Year’s Eve to be better, it is because we know ourselves to be chronically imperfect. And yet, when it comes time to clink the glasses and drink the champagne, the year’s abundant failures and errors are almost always left out of the accounting.

And that, I would argue, is itself a mistake. ”Perhaps the history of the errors of mankind,” wrote Benjamin Franklin, ” more valuable and interesting than that of their discoveries.” Franklin is not a guy you’d expect to look down his bifocals at discoveries, but he was right. From the Earth-centered universe to the 2008 financial crisis, our errors speak volumes about the dreams, fears, and minds of humankind. Herewith, then, a different way to reflect on 2010: not through our greatest accomplishments or our hopes for the future, but through some of the year’s most egregious, interesting, comical, and all-around notable mistakes.

January 1. Most predictable failed prediction:

Jerry Falwell’s 1999 claim that Jesus Christ would return to Earth within the next 10 years officially fails to come true.

January 15. Most excruciating mistake for Red Sox Nation:

Would-be Massachusetts senator Martha Coakley mistakenly characterizes former Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling as a Yankees fan. The gaffe is just one of many in a campaign roundly accused of being anemic, negative, and disconnected. (Asked why she seldom mingled with voters, she responded, ”Standing outside Fenway Park? In the cold? Shaking hands?”) On Jan. 19, she lost to Scott Brown, thereby ceding to the Republicans a seat held by Democratic icon Ted Kennedy for almost 46 years--and with it, her party’s Senate supermajority.

February 2. Best example of closing the barn door after the mistake has galloped away:

Prestigious medical journal The Lancet retracts a 1998 paper by Andrew Wakefield, following revelations that he engaged in scientific misconduct and failed to disclose conflicts of interest. Wakefield, a British doctor, is one of the most prominent supporters of the belief that the MMR vaccine causes autism. The Lancet’s editors disagreed, writing that, ”Several elements of the 1998 paper by Wakefield et al are incorrect.” (In March, the US Court of Federal Claims chimed in, ruling that the claim of a link between the MMR vaccine and autism is ”quite wrong.”)

March 18. Worst apple-related mistake since Eve:

Twenty-seven-year-old Apple software engineer Gray Powell leaves a prototype of the then-unreleased iPhone 4G in a bar in Redwood City, Calif. A stranger finds the phone and sells it to tech blog Gizmodo for $5,000.

March 23. Inevitable Joe Biden mistake of the year:

Vice President Joe Biden, failing to note his proximity to a microphone, announces to the world that health care reform is a ”big f______ deal.”

April 16. Most cringe-inducing typo of the year:

Publishing company Penguin Australia reprints a cookbook after one recipe is found to call for ”fresh ground black people.”

April 9. Most difficult mistake to pronounce:

During the eruption of Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano, MSNBC’s @breakingnews Twitter account mistakenly tweets that a second volcano has begun erupting as well. At the time, @breakingnews had almost 1.7 million followers, raising a question for our times: How do you corral an errant tweet?

April 20. Most catastrophic mistake of the year:

An explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico kills 11 workers and results in the largest offshore oil spill in history--an estimated 5 million barrels of oil. The well is finally capped on July 15. Many other cleanup and protection measures, including the use of berms to protect the coastline against the spill, did not work or were of limited efficacy.

June 2. Most sportsmanlike sports mistake:

With one bad call at first base, Major League Baseball umpire Jim Joyce destroys Detroit Tigers’ pitcher Armando Galarraga’s perfect game. Tigers’ manager Jim Leyland asks the fans to be kind to Joyce. The fans comply. Joyce delivers a heartfelt apology. Galarraga graciously accepts.

June 30. Most expensive mistake you’ve never heard of:

Microsoft Kin, the $1 billion phone in development since 2008, is essentially scrapped after a few dismal weeks on the market.

July 1. Least effective attempt at revisionist history:

Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele tells the audience at a Connecticut fund-raiser that the war in Afghanistan was ”a war of Obama’s choosing.” In fact, it was begun by George W. Bush in 2001 and enjoys overwhelming support within the Republican party.

July 18. Most mistakes condensed into 140 characters or fewer:

In a tweet, Sarah Palin asks Muslims to ”refudiate” the ”Ground Zero Mosque.” ”Refudiate” is not a word. The ”Ground Zero Mosque” is not a mosque. Nor is it located at Ground Zero.

July 19. Most preventable mistake of the year:

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack forces Shirley Sherrod to resign from her job as Georgia state secretary for rural development, after he watches a video clip of a speech she gave in front of the NAACP. Within hours, it became apparent that the clip, which was posted by the conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart, had been misleadingly edited to make some of Sherrod’s remarks seem offensive.

September 1. Clumsiest admission of error:

Pressed about her earlier claims that border violence had led to an epidemic of ”headless bodies” in the desert, anti-immigrant Arizona Governor Jan Brewer coughed up this acknowledgment: ”That was an error, if I said that.”

October 3. Second worst publishing mistake of the year (see April 16):

HarperCollins UK pulps 80,000 copies of Jonathan Franzen’s ”Freedom” after he discovers that the publisher has printed the book from a less-than-final draft. Franzen is also the author of ”The Corrections.”

October 6. Worst branding misstep:

Gap’s attempt to redesign its logo is met with near universal mockery in the design world and beyond. One week later, the company reverts to its original logo.

October 8. Best correction of the year:

Blogger Amanda Hess issues this correction: ”This blog post originally stated that one in three black men who have sex with me is HIV positive. In fact, the statistic applies to black men who have sex with men.”

October 19. Mistake most worth pleading the Fifth over:

During a debate at Delaware’s Widener Law School, would-be senator Christine O’Donnell denies that the First Amendment establishes the separation of church and state.

October 27. Best comedic use of mistakes:

Launch of the Bulgaria website of nubile office mistrals, ”Damn You Architect.” OMG. I mean: October 27. Launch of the hilarious website of mobile phone mistakes, ”Damn You Autocorrect.”

November 3. Most innovative effort to improve accuracy:

The Report an Error alliance creates the ”Report an Error” button and proposes that it become standard (like ”print,” ”e-mail,” and ”share”) on Web stories.

November 11. Most surprising public admission of error:

In a highly unusual move, Dr. David C. Ring publishes an account in the New England Journal of Medicine of performing the wrong surgery on a patient. Rich explains his decision to go public by saying, ”We’re transitioning from the blame-and-shame culture. This is not something you sweep under the rug.”

The Future: Wherein our kids will point out all the rest of our mistakes.

Kathryn Schulz is the author of ”Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error,” which will be published in paperback on Jan. 4.