A sometimes plodding, sometimes illuminating disquisition on the fine art of getting it wrong.
The world of error, writes former Grist editor Schulz, is not black and white. “[B]eing a little wrong in the right direction is one thing,” she writes, “and being massively wrong in the wrong direction is something else entirely.” Arguing over what direction is right and wrong, of course, occupies much of our days. Think of the invasion of Iraq over WMDs, for instance, which lies in a category of belief-driven error that persists because the perpetrator lacks a suitable alternate theory, a plan B. In that light, writes the author, investment in not wholly thought-through theories is a great cause of trouble, the equivalent of sunk costs, “money that is already spent and can’t be recovered.” As with much pop science of the day—think Malcolm Gladwell, Steven Johnson or Chris Anderson—Schulz consults little-heard-of authorities, in this case experts in what might be called error science. Yet her approach is more anthropological, even philosophical, than scientific. For example, she closely examines the role morality plays in our operational notions of right and wrong, since we live in “a culture that simultaneously despises error and insists that it is central to our lives.” The author covers the ground well, with a particularly good account of why eyewitness police reports are so riddled with error. At times, however, her discussion bogs down in forced moments of supposed significance—e.g., a dream sequence featuring Samuel Taylor Coleridge—and longueurs in which things left better unexplained are subjected to weird science (incongruity theory as applied to jokes). There are also many areas in which other recent books—particularly Atul Gawande’s Checklist Manifesto (2009)—do the same work better.
Even with its faults, however, one has to like a book that proclaims, “To fuck up is to find adventure.”