Have you ever been wrong? Of course you have. Everybody makes mistakes and many people talk like that is all they do, “oh I am always messing up,” they might say. Now try reflecting on the moment when you realized that you were wrong about something. Don’t reflect on your past beliefs, whether trivial or not, but rather think of that moment where you shifted from knowing that you were right to knowing that you were not. How did that moment feel when you realized that you were wrong, not when you were actually wrong but when you realized you were wrong?

I can think of a particular moment when I failed to communicate some time sensitive information. My failure led to disastrous events transpiring (if you know me well you can ask me personally about this incident). But it wasn’t when the disaster occurred that I suddenly had this dark feeling of guilt, embarrassment, and regret overcome me but rather when I remembered that I had forgotten to do something very important. There isn’t an external force that can inform us of the correctness or incorrectness of our beliefs a priori and therefore prevent us from making minor or grave mistakes. We have to force ourselves to reckon our beliefs with the external world and when we find our beliefs at odds with the world, it hurts. When we are wrong we feel alone, the moment we recognize our errors is “. . . a moment of alienation, both from ourselves and from [our] previously convincing vision of the world.”[1]

human-error

Schulz’s book “Being Wrong” is a thorough exposition of what this experience of being wrong feels like, what people throughout time have thought about error, and what error can produce (ranging from surgeons cutting patients up on the wrong side of the patient’s body to inspiring both the progress of science and the production of art). The thing is that we don’t like to be wrong and most of the time we think we are right, about almost everything too. Being right is our default position despite the human condition being universally recognized as one prone to error. Throughout the book we learn that this arrogant and often unfounded certainty in our beliefs leads us (1) to make a lot of mistakes, and more surprising (2) to have the courage and confidence to do anything in the first place, for without belief we’d probably not see the point in doing something that is likely to fail.

One of the uncanny things about us humans is our ability to learn so much with such limited resources. Learning language as children is an example of our success as well as the default mode of reasoning we employ—induction. We take very limited amounts of information (some say too little to be able to learn language even though this happens to most humans), observe how the information is used by those around us, we try the new information out a bit, and then we somehow make leaps forward beyond what we reliably “know.” I find it interesting that we make this final step into new territory based on limited evidence and if we get it right we might be called clever, smart, or wise but when we get things wrong based on the same amount of solid evidence we would be ridiculed as “leaping to conclusions,” or be viewed as foolish. (Which goes to show just how much we care about being right and how little we care about how we got to the “right” conclusions.)

optical illusion
Not every thing we see is true, even our senses can deceive us.

Schulz points out many ways, disturbing really, that our senses fail us in detecting error—one is our sight. In one example is John Ross who was an Arctic Explorer seeking the northwest passage sea route. In his first expedition in 1818 he “saw” mountains blocking the way when in fact no mountains were there at all. A second example was a blind woman, Schulz calls “Blind Hannah” who thought she could see. She was as blind as could be and described the doctor in front of her holding a book in his hand, while noting the quality of his tan. In reality there was a sheet between them, the book was not in his hand, and his skin was pale. This makes me question even my basic senses, “if Blind Hannah sees things that are not there, what are some things that I think are obvious and self-apparent that are actually illusions of my mind of one kind or another?”

One such common illusion we experience as being certain and reliable is our memory. Moments in life that are particularly meaningful or tragic were thought to be indelibly etched into our mind, sort of like saving important information on a hard drive or storing an artifact in the archives. That way when we need to or want to we can recall the important information at our leisure with perfect or near perfect fidelity to the actual event. These sort of “flashbulb memories” as they were called were eventually challenged by Ulric Neisser.  Neisser clearly remembered hearing the new report of the bombing Pearl Harbor in December 1941 while listening to a baseball game broadcast on the radio. While reflecting much later he realized that this crystal clear memory of his could not be right because they don’t and didn’t play baseball in December. The memory was there but the details of it were wrong. Neisser went on to study memory, among other things, and demonstrated that the idea of flashbulb memories was an incorrect representation of how human memory works and that our memories are much more fallible than we’d like to admit. Beyond that, it has been shown that we are fully capable of not only screwing up details but also we can accept a false memory of something that never actually happened to us—as vividly true.

In addition to memory it has been shown that even eye-witness accounts of events are often riddled with error. Multiple witnesses cannot agree on the details critical or not of a shared event, despite them feeling so certain about their particular version of the event. This leads back to the human condition which is that our default mode is to feel right, even though we are often wrong. As Schulz summarized:

“[t]he feeling of knowing something is incredibly convincing and inordinately satisfying, but it is not a very good way to gauge the accuracy of our knowledge. Blind Hannah presumably “knew” that she could see, but we know that she was wrong. That’s the problem with the feeling of knowing: it fills us with the conviction of rightness whether we’re right or not.”[2]

 

This profound and well grounded skepticism about things that feel so right and natural to us is deeply troubling to me. Schulz’s prose is very good and is a joy to read and quote* but I have to admit that reflecting on our tendency to err, often in disastrous ways, is unsettling. I think it is disturbing because it goes against our nature not only to know but also to be known. In the current American culture the sexual attraction to others is displayed and consumed pretty overtly and therefore almost ever-present in our minds. But I think we forget about the attractions we have to others that have nothing to do with sex or physical appearances at all. A meeting of the minds is a truly rewarding experience wherein our views of the world are validated and shared. We are in agreement with others about being correct and that is deeply satisfying. Again, Schulz says it a bit better:

“Think about how distressing it is to feel misunderstood, and how frustrating it is when someone believes something about you—that you’re irresponsible or can’t handle commitment or don’t pull your weight at work—that you think is untrue. Conversely, there are few things more gratifying than the feeling that someone deeply understands us. In fact, as we are about to see, this feeling of being “gotten” is the sine qua non of our most important relationships, and the very hallmark of being in love.”[3]

I agree with Schulz that in addition to giving us courage to venture into the world, the desire and satisfaction of “knowing” is also pushing us towards others, to support and protect “our own” in this lone and dreary world. Also, being wrong is not all bad. Error—and the recognition of it as such—has led to new scientific discoveries, religious awakenings of all kinds, and the production of art of all sorts that we most certainly enjoy despite its straightforward disregard for how the world really is. Often fantasy and fiction, which are deliberate escapades into error and away from reality, are more soothing and more useful than the hard facts of life. We shouldn’t deny our capacity to make mistakes, in fact we are required to do all we can to avoid error, but we should also not regard all things that are not true as not good. Much of the great stories and greats artistic works are true only in the sense of being true imaginations—and it would be a pity to do without that.


[1] Schulz, Kathryn. Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error. New York: Ecco, 2010. p. 23.

[2] Ibid p. 71

[3] Ibid p. 251

*I have a 14 page google document filled with clever quotes from this book at the ready for any discussion relating to epistemology.

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