In Being Wrong, Kathryn Schulz considers why we feel so bad when we have to admit to an error, to mistakes that we have made. However, the book is about much more than that and examines the various ways in which we can be wrong and the different ways in which we react to mistakes. Mistakes can be simple errors but can also be about an in-depth reconsideration of once strongly held beliefs and what that means to us, what we go through when we confront this (or refuse to!).
The first quote she uses above the first chapter is one by Moliere, which sums up neatly our very often immediate reaction to an error: ‘It infuriates me to be wrong, when I know I’m right’. There are many more such quotes above different parts of the book, all making you smile wryly!
This book is an amazing journey that draws on philosophy, religion, psychology, political theories, etc. There are considerations on divorce, losing faith, mistaken identity (including identification of a’ criminal’ that sometimes proves to be wrong with devastating consequences), democracy, our absolute certainties of being right, what it is to be wrong, error detection theories and much much more. All in very clear and readable language. It is a marvellous book and one that is a really good companion also to reading thrillers and ‘crime noir‘, as these are often about wrongness and question whether there is such a thing as absolute truth. I think that is what attracts me to reading these books, the thrillers and the crime noir fiction. There is always this underlying theme of rightness and wrongness and whether we can actually know any of it with certainty.
Take Scott Turow’s books, the two that I have been reading recently. Turow’s Truth has four or five different ‘voices’ who relate their views and thoughts on Rusty Sabich, Prosecutor Attorney, who is accused of and stands trial for murdering his wife Barbara. Rusty’s voice (first person) relates what is happening on a day-to-day basis during the time leading up to and during his trial; however, although he communicates with us we never come to know what happened that fateful night Barbara died, until the very end. The state prosecutor Tommy Molto, on the other hand, is influenced by his assistant Brand who is convinced of Rusty’s guilt, who ‘reads’ his every action and communication as being of one who is hiding something. Then there is Nat, Rusty’s son, who is grappling with all of this, who wants to know the truth but somehow cannot get there, he hopes there is an explanation, a mistake or an error but all the signs seem to indicate the contrary. There are errors of inference also by Anna, Nat’s girlfriend, partly because of her previous relationship with Rusty. And so on. Truth is hard to come by and although everyone ‘knows’ him or herself, everyone ‘knows’ Rusty differently, and it seems that no one is capable of truly knowing anyone else or their thoughts.
When reading crime and detective stories it is definitely worth while keeping ‘Being Wrong’ close by and at least keep in mind that real truth is hard to come by, that we are all islands, separate from everyone else (unknowable to one another) and that, as Schulz implies, mistakes help us to grow and learn. It’s hard, definitely: ‘…our attraction to certainty is best understood as an aversion to uncertainty’ .
I think that reading crime fiction provides a (fictional) opportunity to travel from uncertainty to certainty as the story discovers the ‘solution’, who the criminal is, why and how crimes were committed and resolved…. Moreover, as I said before, crime noir is often more than a crime story, it is also about society and its ills and questions whether there is such a thing as absolute truth and what it is that we can actually know.
I definitely recommend both books, although they are vastly different, the one a non-fiction philosophical ‘Adventure in the Margin of Error’ and the other a crime thriller.