copyright Robert M. Ellis 2011

Being right about being wrong

Review of ‘Being Wrong’ by Kathryn Schulz, Portobello Books                                                         Amazon Link


With most books of philosophy I appreciate the work that has been done in a certain sphere, but regret the limiting assumptions. This book does not unambiguously present itself as a work of philosophy, but in the best senses it is one. As such, I have the fewest reservations about it of any philosophy book I have come across. It is a work of wisdom, engagingly written by a journalist, drawing on a wonderfully wide variety of examples, and yet philosophically and psychologically astute. If I have a complaint about it, it is only that it does not recognise the profundity of its own implications.


The argument of the book is relatively simple: that we should take a positive view of being wrong, accepting our error-prone nature rather than being obsessed with a perfect error-free ideal. It is by accepting error that we are better able to avoid it in practice. This basic message is communicated through the breadth and depth of a range of examples dealing with different kinds of error and different reasons for error. These begin with ancient sceptical arguments about the unreliability of the senses, but also our tendency to cover gaps in our experience through confabulation, our skills in selecting evidence to fit our theory, our psychological attraction to certainty, and the effect of group-thinking on individual assumptions. The often moving examples include the recognition of black humanity by a Ku Klux Klansman, the experience of a rape victim who misidentified her assailant (who was then jailed for 18 years before the error was discovered), and the insights of a leading divorce lawyer into the subjectivity of his clients.


It is clear from the beginning that the book draws extensively on philosophy, because it is the sceptical arguments found in philosophy that provide the bedrock of this book. Where Schulz manages to by-pass the conventional assumptions of most contemporary philosophy here, though, is by lightly offering an approach which takes scepticism seriously, addresses errors about facts and values in similar terms, and even offers hints of an account of objectivity and integration along the lines of the Middle Way Philosophy I have been offering. What is sad here is that if she had formulated these approaches more explicitly it would not have been taken seriously as philosophy, and would probably not have achieved mainstream publication – it is only by treating it lightly and semi-journalistically that she has managed to slip a bit of philosophical wisdom through to the public under the noses of the academic thought police.


Schulz does not claim to be a sceptic, but the implication of her arguments throughout is that coming to terms with uncertainty (which means taking sceptical arguments seriously) is important and valuable for practical reasons. The practical value of fully acknowledging uncertainty depends on an attitude that can inform almost anything – for example love, law, art and science – without “irritable reaching after fact and reason”. We adapt ourselves better to our environment when we are able to learn from mistakes to change our approach, whereas if we fail to learn from such errors we end up in greater conflict with ourselves, with our environment, and with each other.


Schulz applies this approach equally to judgements about values as to those about facts, and shows its value in complex real-life examples that include the usual tangle of the two. A poor white Ku Klux Klansman, for example, recognises the fact that poor blacks are working hard and struggling to support their families just like him, but this is closely linked to a much more important value – sympathy for the lives and struggles of blacks. In practice, and in experience, there is no distinction between facts and values, and a purely abstract analysis of the logical relationship between the pure facts and pure values that never actually occur in experience is irrelevant to that experience. Schulz shows this directly in practice and, rightly, completely ignores the fact-value distinction. By doing this she begins to produce much more useful philosophy than the philosophers.


Just as Schulz does not claim to be a sceptic, she does not claim to be offering a theory of objectivity. Instead, she explains the two meanings of “objectivity” as truth or impartiality (p.333), and sees both of these as attempts to avoid the limitations of our error-prone nature. At this point I was rather surprised not to find any discussion of the productive use of error in science (Schulz mentions Kuhn, but not Popper and falsificationism). She seems to imply that science, like art, needs to make productive use of human fallibility, but not to link this to the very quality that science values – objectivity. This is one important point where Schulz does not follow through on her ideas or make them explicit. Why not go all the way and draw the obvious conclusion – that we are more objective when we acknowledge our fallibility than when we ignore it?


The other area where Schulz again draws together a lot of useful evidence, but holds off from a clear conclusion, is in the relationship between error and the self. She recognises the morally transforming effects of conversion, where a long-resisted ‘truth’ suddenly breaks through against entrenched psychological resistance, and also recognises the illusions involved for those who see their new conversion as a final ‘true self’. Yet she resists the obvious conclusion here that we can more usefully model the psychological processes involved by thinking of ourselves as plural. Our attachment to a view we have identified with as ‘right’ surely involves inner conflict, and the transformative release of acknowledging our error surely involves the integration of previously alienated energies. Such conflict and transformation just becomes impossible to coherently explain without developing some kind of plural moral psychology.


These limitations in Schulz’s book do not seem to be the product of dogmatic limiting assumptions, because her overall attitude throughout is so open, but there are a variety of possible other explanations. Either she simply hasn’t thought all the implications through, or she was following a pragmatic strategy to make the book publishable by preventing it from being “real philosophy”, or she is just being over-cautious in exploring philosophical implications that she feels she has not fully worked out yet.


Whatever the explanation, the profound implications of her main message cannot be avoided. If we are to take are limited, error-prone nature seriously, then the over-policed boundaries between facts and values, between art, religion and science, between philosophy and psychology, and between theory and practice have to become much more contingent and pliant. Scepticism, far from being the bizarre abstract game it is often presented as being, becomes intensely practical. The question as to why we have been distracted for so long by metaphysics, and how we can distinguish practical helpfulness from metaphysical distraction, also becomes increasingly important.


The other important link that Schulz does not make, again perhaps because she just hasn’t encountered it, is with the Buddha’s Middle Way. At one point in his life, at least, it seems that the founder of one of the world’s religious traditions realised that being wrong was much more important than being right. The trouble is that it is all too easy to gloss over this insight and cease to take it seriously if one starts to feel absolutely right about being wrong.  


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