Book Summary: Being Wrong—Adventures in the Margin of Error

Book: Being Wrong—Adventures in the Margin of Error

Author: Kathryn Schulz

Key takeaways: It’s an excellent book. I say this about all of my book summaries, but it’s particularly truly for this one: the takeaways below are the ones that spoke to me; yours will be very different given that the experience of realizing that one has erred is a very personal one, and that the ways one would address one’s errors would come about in very different ways. The book is dense and goes in very many directions, and you should read it on your own (slowly) to glean what is best for you. If you read the book slowly enough, and allow time to digest, you will also get to appreciate how deliberate the author’s word choices are.


Part I – The Idea of Error

Recognizing that one has erred is such a strange experience because we suddenly find ourselves at odd with oneselves—from the past. Thus, often, reconciling our errors is not merely an intellectual exercise, but very much an existential exercise. We question not just what we know, but who we are: “what was I thinking? how could I?”

But errors are not all bad: Pierre-Simon Laplace generated a far more precise picture of the galaxy by graphing the individually imperfect data points (on a normal distribution). Unlike previous thinkers who had sought to get rid of the error, Laplace got closer to the truth by aggregating a lot of erroneous data.

Part II – The Origins of Error

When we are looking for something specific, we develop a startling inability to look at things in general (Kahneman’s Inside View vs. Outside View).

We don’t care about the logically valid, but what’s probable (our brains likes taking shortcuts). Now, we decide what’s probable based on our prior experience of the world, which is why it’s important that we take shortcuts only when we had a long experience with a certain dataset.

Part III – The Experience of Error

A scientific theory is declared invalid only if an alternate candidate is there to take its place: i.e. even scientific theories don’t collapse under the weight of their own inadequacies, but rather people move on to seemingly better beliefs. This is because we don’t often choose a belief on its own merit, but rather choose among beliefs.

We all incline towards conservative when it comes to determining the size of our mistakes (e.g. if I am trying to enter the wrong car, and the key doesn’t work, I would suspect that something is wrong with the key rather than suspecting that I’ve got the wrong car).

Part IV – Embracing Error

“If you don’t acknowledge that mistakes occurred, you’ll never eliminate the likelihood that they’ll occur again” – Paul Levy, hospital CEO at Beth Israel Medical Center, where the management has made a public goal of eliminating all preventable medical harm.


Other Random Interesting Tidbits From The Book

The ultimate apology is how you live the rest of your life.

A horrible mistake does not make one a horrible person (personal note: our mistakes are of us, but they do not make us, and we are made of them).

The word “symposium” refers to a drinking bash.

A common feature of conversion narratives is that you’re finding/returning to your true identity. In fact, the word “conversion” comes from a Latin verb that means not to change, but to return.

The couples counselor Harville Hendrix has written that the experience of love can be distilled down to just four characteristic emotions:

  1. feeling of recognition: “I feel though as I already know you”
  2. feeling of timelessness : “I can’t remember when I didn’t know you”
  3. feeling of re-unification: “I no longer feel alone; I feel whole, complete”
  4. feeling of necessity: “I can’t live without you”

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