Being Wrong, a new book by Kathryn Schulz, is an enjoyable look at epistemology, or “what do we know?” The most important thing she does is to help the reader see that error and being wrong is not the unmitigated disaster that we usually envision it to be.
Error is unavoidable because we do not perceive the world directly. Our sense perceptions are processed in our brains to form a mental model of the world, built up from beliefs about how the world works. No one’s model matches reality, and this mismatch results in errors. Ms. Schulz refers to this as a gap between our mind’s image of reality and reality itself, and shows how this gap is actually a source of great pleasure to us, through its expression in comedy, art, and magic. Ms. Schulz writes,
The Incongruity Theory of Humor posits that comedy arises from a mismatch—specifically, a mismatch between expectation and actuality. According to this theory, funny situations begin with attachment to a belief, whether that attachment is conscious or unconscious, fleeting or deep, sincerely held or deliberately planted by a comedian or prankster. That belief is then violated, producing surprise, confusion, and a replacement belief—and also producing, along the way, enjoyment and laughter. In other words, the structure of humor is—give or take a little pleasure—the structure of error.
Error also arises as an inevitable byproduct of our brains’ efficient use of assumptions. Our minds work through inductive reasoning, which means we extrapolate to general conditions from a small, particular sample. This is a very powerful analytic tool, for example, when we learned English we learned that adding –ed to the end of a word made it past tense. We didn’t have to learn every single word and every tense-variation individually. Of course that meant we made errors, like saying “sended” instead of “sent.” But the few errors were worth the time saved overall. Ms. Schulz writes,
We tend to think of mistakes as the consequence of cognitive sloppiness—of taking shortcuts, cutting corners, jumping to conclusions. And in fact, we do take shortcuts, cut corners, and jump to conclusions. But thinking of these tendencies as problems suggests that there are solutions: a better way to evaluate the evidence, some viable method for reaching airtight verdicts about the world…there are other ways to reason about the world, but those other ways aren’t better. The system we have is better. The system we have is astonishing…our mistakes are part and parcel of our brilliance, not the regrettable consequences of a separate and deplorable process.But I think Ms. Schulz veered off the track when she came to the end of the book and made conclusions about what these propensities to error mean. She asserts that being wrong about reality is actually the best thing for us; it’s what makes up optimists, it’s what keeps us from being depressed.