What it means to make mistakes.

June 28 2010 5:01 PM

Risky Business: James Bagian—NASA astronaut turned patient safety expert—on Being Wrong

In the weeks after I launched this series, several readers e-mailed me to suggest that I interview a man named James Bagian. When I began looking into his background, it became clear to me why: Name a high-stakes industry, and odds are Bagian has been involved in trying to make it safer. He is, among other things, an engineer, an anesthesiologist, a NASA astronaut (he was originally scheduled to be on the fatal Challenger mission), a private pilot, an Air Force-qualified freefall parachutist, and a mountain rescue instructor. And then there's his current job: director of the Veteran Administration's National Center for Patient Safety. In that capacity, Bagian is responsible for overseeing the reduction and prevention of harmful medical mistakes at the VA's 153 hospitals.

Given that most of us are far more likely to find ourselves in a health clinic than a space shuttle, it's sobering to hear Bagian compare the overall attitude toward error in his various fields. "If you look at the percent of budget we spend on safety activity in healthcare versus, say, nuclear power or aviation or the chemical industry, it's not even close," he told me. "Granted, that's just one metric, and I'm not saying money is the be-all end-all. But if people in industry look at what happens in healthcare, they say, 'Man, this doesn't look like anything we recognize.'" In the below interview, Bagian and I talk about how to make medicine safer, why he doesn't like the word "error," and what it was like to dodge the Challenger bullet.

***

How does the healthcare industry compare to engineering and aeronautics when it comes to dealing with human error?

Not favorably. Much of my background is in what's called high-reliability industries the ones that operate under conditions of high hazard yet seldom have a bad event and people in those fields tend to have a systems perspective. We're not terribly interested in what some individual did. We want to know what led up to a bad event and what changes we need to make to reduce the likelihood of that event ever happening again.

When I got into healthcare, I felt like I'd stepped into an entirely different world. It was all about, "Let's figure out who screwed up and blame them and punish them and explain to them why they're stupid." To me, it's almost like whistling past the grave. When we demonize the person associated with a bad event, it makes us feel better. It's like saying, "We're not stupid so it won't happen to us." Whereas in fact it could happen to us tomorrow.

Why do you think healthcare lags so far behind in this respect?

For one thing, in healthcare there's tons of variation, in both biology and behavior, so physicians are rightly skeptical of the cookie-cutter approach. They think you have to tailor everything to the individual. There's some truth to that, but the tailoring should be based on what helps the patient, not on your own personal preference.

And then, too, medicine is much older than these other fields, eons old, and for most of that time there wasn't PubMed or the AMA or what have you. It was all about the expertise of the individual practitioner. It's a short step from there to assuming that problems in medicine stem from problematic individuals. That's why we have this whole "train and blame" mentality in medical culture; someone makes a mistake, you train them not to do it anymore, and then you punish them if it happens again. I think we've ridden that horse about as far as we can.

That suggests that the biggest obstacle to reducing medical error is medical culture, rather than our understanding of the human body or the quality of the available technologies and treatments.

It's all those things, but first and foremost, yes, it's cultural. But I should say before we go any further that I don't usually use the term "error." For starters, it distracts people from the real goal, which isn't reducing error but reducing harm. And it also feeds into precisely the cultural problem we're discussing. It has a punitive feel, and it suggests that the right answer was available at the time, which isn't always the case.

I appreciate that attitude, but some things really are medical errors, right? Bad outcomes don't only happen because a certain piece of information was unknowable or a certain event was unforeseeable. Sometimes doctors just write the wrong prescriptions or operate on the wrong body parts.

That's true, but if at the end of the day all you can say is, "So-and-so made a mistake," you haven't solved anything. Take a very simple example: A nurse gives the patient in Bed A the medicine for the patient in Bed B. What do you say? "The nurse made a mistake"? That's true, but then what's the solution? "Nurse, please be more careful"? Telling people to be careful is not effective. Humans are not reliable that way. Some are better than others, but nobody's perfect. You need a solution that's not about making people perfect.

So we ask, " Why did the nurse make this mistake?" Maybe there were two drugs that looked almost the same. That's a packaging problem; we can solve that. Maybe the nurse was expected to administer drugs to ten patients in five minutes. That's a scheduling problem; we can solve that. And these solutions can have an enormous impact. Seven to 10 percent of all medicine administrations involve either the wrong drug, the wrong dose, the wrong patient, or the wrong route. Seven to 10 percent. But if you introduce bar coding for medication administration, the error rate drops to one tenth of one percent. That's huge.

If the biggest obstacles to improving medical safety are cultural, how do you go about changing the culture?

Some of it is about philosophy. We're very, very clear about the fact that patient safety is not someone else's issue. We say, "Everyone here is your patient." Even if they're not directly yours, they're being cared for by this organization, and if you see something that puts someone at greater risk, it is your moral responsibility to intervene with their caregiver to make sure the right thing happens. You don't just say "That's not my business." Baloney. If it was your kid, would you get involved? Then why don't you do it for this patient?

And some of it is about tools. You can't change the culture by saying, 'Let's change the culture.' It's not like we're telling people, "Oh, think in a systems way." That doesn't mean anything to them. You change the culture by giving people new tools that actually work. The old culture has tools, too, but they're foolish: "Be more careful," "Be more diligent," "Do a double-check," "Read all the medical literature." Those kinds of tools don't really work.

What kinds of tools have you introduced that do work?

One thing we do that's unusual is we look at close calls. In the beginning, nobody did that in healthcare. Even today probably less than 10 percent of hospital facilities require that close calls be reported, and an even smaller percentage do root cause analyses on them. At the VA, 50 percent of all the root cause analyses we do are on close calls. We think that's hugely important. So does aviation. So does engineering. So does nuclear power. But you talk to most people in healthcare, they'll say, "Why bother? Nothing really happened. What's the big deal?"

How do you get people to tell you about their close calls, or for that matter about their actual errors? Getting people to report problems has always been tricky in medicine.

Yeah, reporting is a huge issue, because obviously you can't fix a problem if you don't know about it. Back in 1998, we conducted a huge cultural survey on patient safety, and one of the questions we asked was, "Why don't you report?" And the major reason most people think it's going to be fear of malpractice or punishment, but it wasn't those. It was embarrassment, humiliation. So the question became, How do you get people to not be afraid of that? We talked about it a lot, and we devised what we called a blameworthy act, which we defined as possessing one of the following three characteristics: it involves assault, rape, or larceny; the caregiver was drunk or on illicit drugs; or he or she did something that was purposefully unsafe. If you commit a blameworthy act, that's not a safety issue, although it might manifest as one. That's going to get handled administratively, and probably you should be embarrassed. But we made it clear that blameworthiness was a very narrow case.

At the time that we conducted this survey, we were already considered to be a good reporting healthcare organization; our people reported more than in most places. But in the ten months after we implemented this definition, our reporting went up 30 fold. That's 3,000 percent. And it has continued to go up ever since not as dramatically, but a couple of percentage points every year.

It's pretty sobering that the reporting rate can go up so much. I realize that that's good news, but it also suggests that there was (and to a lesser extent presumably still is) a lot of bad stuff going on out there that we never hear about.

That's true. But the only reason to have reporting is to identify vulnerabilities, not to count the number of incidents. Reports are never good for determining incidence or prevalence, because they're essentially voluntary. Even if you say "You must report," people will only report when they feel like it's in their interest to do so.

Do you punish people for failing to report serious medical issues?

No. In theory, punishment sounds like a good idea, but in practice, it's a terrible one. All it does is create a system where it's not in people's interest to report a problem.

What about public reporting? If the primary purpose of reporting is to identify vulnerabilities, is there any value to making such reports public? There certainly seems to be some movement in that direction within healthcare.

It depends what you're reporting. If you look at our Web site and publications, you'll see that we post risks and advisories, we're open about the problems we have and the steps we need to take. And we don't mince words; it's not like we're afraid to talk about these things.

But the reports that come in raw from the field I don't think it makes sense to make those public. They're too misleading. People don't understand what they mean, they don't have the knowledge and sophistication and opportunity to get the full facts, and the way something looks at first blush is often not how it looks after an investigation.

What about these scorecards and similar public metrics that some states and institutions are now using? Are you in favor of those?

I don't think they're always bad, but I do think they often kid people about what's going on. When people think they're going to be graded, they're very likely to take action to make themselves look good, to give themselves a business advantage. And that can be dangerous.

Let me give you an analogy. In the United States, airlines are legally prohibited from advertising based on their safety record. The feeling was, if you let airlines compete for customers based on safety, there will be an incentive not to report problems. Suppose I work for an airlines where the ad campaign is "We're the safest company, we've never had a flight canceled for maintenance problems." And I'm a mechanic and I see a maintenance issue and I think: "We should hold this flight." But someone above me is saying, "This is going to destroy our advertising campaign, this is an investor-owned airline" and so forth. So I say, "Well, maybe it's not that big of a deal, we'll catch it at the next scheduled maintenance instead of dealing with it now." Do we really want to create that kind of perverse incentive?

On the subject of public awareness of medical safety, I want to ask you about some recent incidents at VA facilities, such as the non-sterile equipment that might have exposed patients to HIV and hepatitis.

Other places have had the same thing happen or worse and done nothing about it. At the Senate hearings, people from other medical systems showed up and said, "Oh, this stuff happens all the time, it's just that the VA told you about it." The joint commissioner said, "The VA's done more than anybody in terms of looking at this and making it better." You have to have a thick enough hide to tolerate some of the unsophisticated responses to the fact that you're publicizing a problem. All those responses do is make some managers who don't have as much courage say "Let's not talk about this in the future." And that means the problems don't get fixed.

What about the VA facility in Philadelphia with the so-called "rogue cancer unit ," where almost a hundred patients received inappropriate radiation treatment?

The fact is, there was not a robust quality-control system in place for that kind of treatment not in Philly and not anywhere. The profession didn't even have standards about how to decide what amount of radioactive seed to give and how to follow up. Penn, which was providing the service, said, "There's no standard, so we didn't violate it." And we said, "Well, there should be a standard, and we should've been enforcing it. We should have stepped into the gap in healthcare, as we've done in many other situations." We hadn't. Now we have. We went and changed it all, and along the way we took our lumps in the press.

But here again, the important fact is that we didn't say, "Let's not talk about it." The easiest thing would have been to fix this one problem and not make a big deal of it and let everybody else fend for themselves. We didn't take that approach. I think that's a good thing. Does it hurt the organization in some ways when people read about it and say, "Oh, look at what's happening in the VA?" A little. But what they don't know is that the same thing or worse is happening in their own hospital.

As a government institution, is the VA legally required to behave differently in terms of reporting and investigating problems than private hospitals and healthcare systems?

No. Nobody told us we had to look at close calls or tell people they can sue us or any of that. It's just what we decided to do. In the VA system, we ask, "What's the right thing for the patient?" That's what guides us. Whereas people in the private sector sometimes say, "We could lose market share if we talk about this publically, let's not do it."

It's got to be traumatic to be a healthcare provider who is involved in a major medical error. How do you support practitioners in that situation?

We don't deal with that on the safety side. In my opinion, it's a nice thing to do, but it's not the major issue. Quite honestly, I think: "Get over it and grow up." I come from aviation, and we don't have pilot support groups. Would it be helpful to have them? Maybe a little. But I think the far more important thing is: Don't blame people where they shouldn't be blamed. Don't humiliate them publically. Don't disclose who they are if it wasn't an intentional act. And show them that the problem they reported was fixed that it was worth taking that risk, because it made things better for other patients.

Let's talk about the patients. What do you do for victims of medical error?

If a patient is harmed by something we've done, we tell them. We explain what happened, we tell them that they're eligible for monetary compensation, and we tell them they can sue us. I don't know any other place that says, "Here's how to bring a tort claim against us." We do. We figure that if we hurt you, whether through malfeasance or not, we should make restitution.

Do you get sued a lot?

There's a ton of information in the malpractice literature about what are called closed claims the ones that are resolved in court and what you see is that when the patient feels like they've been dealt with less than candidly, that's when they really go in for the kill. It's like, "Okay, if that's the way you treated me, let's see who pays in the end." It becomes about getting even, which I can understand.

So we make it easy. We just tell them. And we end up getting more torts filed, but the aggregate payment is less, because people aren't trying to get revenge. Most people just want us to pay for something specific, to take care of the problem we created. And a lot of people say, "Thanks for telling me, I'm not glad it happened, but I understand that it wasn't intentional." And that's that.   

Let me shift gears for a bit and ask you a couple of questions about your career as an astronaut. Given that, as you've said, aviation is historically far better about safety issues than medicine, what kinds of things still go wrong up there?

You can never make the probability of failure zero. You can make it really low, but you can never make it vanish. In a high-stakes, high-value system like a space shuttle, we go to great lengths to understand, say, the failure probability for a valve or a fitting or bolt. And then we do what's called a probabilistic risk assessment: we put all of those probabilities together and say, "What level of confidence do we want to have that we won't have a catastrophe?" And management has to decide what that level is. It really comes down to risk to how much of it we're willing to accept.

It seems that NASA's been willing to accept a fair amount of it, given the tragedies that have bedeviled our space program.

NASA has been terrible on this. Not because of how much risk they're willing to accept, and not because they don't do the work to understand it. They always know what the probability of failure is. But, historically at least, they haven't been honest and forthright in taking to the public about it. In the early '80s, before the Challenger accident, they would say and this is where I think they actually lied, I don't think that's too strong a word they would say, "Flying the shuttle is like flying a 727 to Disney World."

That's absurd. Not only are you more likely to get killed in the shuttle than in an airplane; you're more likely to get killed going up once in the shuttle than if you had flown combat missions for two years in Vietnam. That's a statistical fact, but NASA doesn't make it clear. They might tell the House [of Representatives] that there's a 1.5 percent failure rate, but most Americans don't understand what that means. I mean, 1.5, what is that? Is that a lot? You have to relate it to something that means something to somebody. Otherwise, people have the perception that space flight is safe, and when there's an accident, they're shocked. It's like, "We gotta stop flying." If we want to add additional safeguards because now we're feeling emotional about it, okay, we can do that. But if we're still meeting our design specs for loss, why would we stop flying?

Pretty much everyone who lived in the U.S. at the time can tell you exactly where they were and what they were doing when they found out about the Challenger disaster. You were supposed to be on the Challenger and then a few months before the fatal mission, your crew was switched out. Where were you instead?

I was there. I helped get everything ready. I babysat the vehicle during tanking. I was at the pad in case there was a pad emergency. When it happened, I was looking at my watch, because every time the shuttle launched, I would think, "I wonder if we're going to lose it during launch this time." That wasn't a fleeting thought, like a low-probability thing that just crossed my mind. It was something I thought seriously about every single time. The riskiest time is between throttle down and throttle up, approximately between 30 seconds and 75 seconds into the mission. So I'm looking at my watch and I'm like, "Okay, we're back to full throttle and it didn't blow. We're over the hump." And then a second later, it went off.

How did you feel?

Was I sad that it happened? Of course. Was I surprised? Not really. I knew it was going to happen sooner or later and not that much later. At the time, the loss rate was about 4 percent, or one in 25 missions. Challenger was the 25 th mission. That's not how statistics works, of course it's not like you're guaranteed to have 24 good flights and then one bad one, it just happened that way in this case but still, you think we're going to fly a bunch of missions with a 4 percent failure rate and not have any failures? You gotta be kidding. Anybody who's a realist knows you're going to have losses. Even at 1.8 percent, which is the estimated failure rate these days how many missions did we go? We went another 70-some missions and had another loss. Well, we were looking at a one in 80 loss rate. That's right on schedule.

That's a really high risk level. Handling it institutionally and politically is one thing, but how do you handle it emotionally?

Everybody's different. People who hadn't been around the high risk stuff themselves, it changed their whole appetite for it. Others looked at it much as I did: It's a shame but it happens, let's go on. I had worked at a test pilot school and some of my best friends were killed while I was there, so it was not an abstract concept to me that people I worked with would be killed doing the job I do.

You were part of the team that investigated the Challenger accident. Were you satisfied with how that investigation was handled?

Overall I didn't have big problems with it. But one thing that was deliberately buried was what happened to the crew. I did that part of the investigation, and there was tremendous political pressure not to tell anyone what happened not even the other people in the crew office. They didn't learn for months, which was totally inappropriate. They wouldn't even let us put in checklists about what to do in the case of a breakup similar to Challenger . There's ways you could probably survive it, but politically we weren't allowed to discuss that for years, which to me is total hogwash. There are still many people that don't understand that the crew of the Challenger didn't die until they hit the water. They were all strapped into their seats in a basically intact crew module; their hearts were still beating when they hit the water. People think they were blown to smithereens, but that's not what happened. And the problem with that is the same one we were talking about with regard to medicine: if you don't learn what you can from a tragedy, you can't mitigate that risk in the future.

If you could hear someone else interviewed about wrongness, who would it be?

I've been thinking about these issues one way or another for my entire adult life and I've talked to most of the major hitters, so I'm guessing I'm not going to hear much that strikes me as new. But I would be interested to hear what the president [Obama] thinks when outcomes are less than what would be desired.

 

Kathryn Schulz is the author of Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error . She can be reached at kathryn@beingwrongbook.com . You can follow her on Facebook here , and on Twitter here .

This interview is part of a series of Q and As in which notable people discuss their relationship to being wrong.  You can read past interviews with hedge fund manager Victor Niederhoffer , mountaineer Ed Viesturs , This American Life host Ira Glass , celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain , Sports Illustrated senior writer Joe Posnanski , education scholar and activist Diane Ravitch , and criminal defense lawyer and pundit Alan Dershowitz .

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June 21 2010 11:09 AM

Hoodoos, Hedge Funds, and Alibis: Victor Niederhoffer on Being Wrong

"When you first contacted me about an interview on errors, I made the error of excessive self-esteem. I thought for a second that you thought I was a sagacious personage who had led a not uneventful life that might have something useful to say to your readers. But then when you mentioned [Alan] Dershowitz , it came to me in a flash."

Thus began one of 26 e-mails (not counting those dedicated to the logistics of our interview) that I received from Victor Niederhoffer after inviting him to participate in this series. Niederhoffer is a hedge fund manager, a former partner of George Soros, a five-time U.S. Nationals squash champion, and the best-selling author of The Education of a Speculator and Practical Speculation . Those successes notwithstanding, Niederhoffer is best known for two spectacular financial blow-ups. In 1997, a risky investment in Thai bank stocks combined with a dramatic one-day drop in the Dow Jones to permanently close the doors of Niederhoffer Investments. Ten years later, having recouped his losses, Niederhoffer saw his Matador Fund, buffeted by the 2007 credit crunch, self-destruct.

Niederhoffer's e-mails suggested a man already obsessed with wrongness. In them, he referenced the statistical concept of path dependence; shared a series of proverbs about the game of checkers (of 5,000 such proverbs, he hazarded, about 250 concerned error); meditated on the difference between Type One mistakes (excessive credulity) and Type Two mistakes (excessive skepticism) (he himself is much more prone to Type One, he says: "I'm tremendously gullible"); observed that "one should be careful of multitasking or multiromancing"; sent me the citations for hoodoo in the Oxford English Dictionary (a hoodoo is something or someone that brings bad luck); and noted that the harpooner in Moby Dick would have made a great interview subject for this series. Finally, he pointed out that the word error has no antonym. "In retrospect," he wrote, "I know much too much about errors and much too little about the opposite, whatever it is."

***

I've enjoyed getting your e-mails. It sounds like you've thought a lot about being wrong.

Well, the reason you contacted me, to call a spade a spade, is that I'm sort of infamous for having made a big, notorious, terrible error not once but twice in my market career.

Let's talk about those errors. The first was your investment in the Thai baht, which pretty much wiped you out when the Thai stock market crashed in 1997.

I made so many errors there it's pathetic. I made one of my favorite errors: "The mouse with one hole is quickly cornered." That is key. There are certain decisions you make in life that are irreversible, that lead you into a path you can't get out of, and unless you have more than one escape clause, the adversary can gang up on you and destroy you. What else? I didn't have a proper foundation. I was not sufficiently private in my activities. I was playing poker with men named Doc. I must've made a hundred errors on that one, but those are five or six that come to mind.

And then there's the greatest error of all, which is that I had delusions of grandeur. Unfortunately I was so successful for so many years in that particular field that I began to believe in my own success. I thought that because my method worked in markets that I knew about and had quantified, I could apply the same methods to something I didn't know about. And I had as an example [George] Soros, who would always say, "I made the most money in things I don't know about."

Did you have a sense that the crisis was coming—a period of dread before the shoe dropped—or did it hit you out of nowhere?

You know sometimes people describe a situation where they see the grim reaper behind them, reaching out with his scythe? I was ice skating the weekend before this horrible crash and all of sudden I started shivering, knowing that if all the forces were aligned against me for one more day, it could lead to an avalanche. I wasn't in that terrible of shape in the previous weeks and days, but I knew I was vulnerable. I knew that if my enemy came in with one terrible final swoop, he could cause me disaster.

Who do you see as your enemy in this situation?

The brokers who had the opposite side of the trades and the people on the floor who had the opposite side of my position in the related markets. They all knew that if I was hurting in one market, I'd have to liquidate in the other markets. Whenever someone's in trouble, it circulates around Wall Street; you'd be amazed how just one small fish is enough to stop the wheels of commerce for long enough to relieve that person of his funds. And then the market goes back to doing exactly what it was going to do beforehand. I still think that the crash of Oct. 27, 1997, was basically due to brokers running my position against me, knowing that I was on the ropes. The market had its greatest drop in the previous 10 years that day. And then the next day, once they were able to force me out, it went up more than it dropped.

I've heard that Soros, among others, cautioned you against the Thai investment. Why didn't you listen to the naysayers?

Well, Soros would be the first to tell you that his predictions are completely random. He never says anything that doesn't jibe with his current position or his hoped-for outcome. And he's chronically bearish. He's chronically thinking that the world needs a central planner to put it to rights and that the market itself is too prone to disaster.

I think a much better view is that the stock market never rises unless there's a wall of fear it has to climb. When the public is most frightened, only the strong are left, and that's when the market is in the best possible hands. I call it taking out the canes. Whenever disaster strikes, the very sagacious wealthy people take their canes, and they hobble down from their stately mansions on Fifth Avenue, and they buy stocks to the extent of their bank balances, and then a week or two later, the market rises, they deposit the overplus in their accounts, invest it in blue-chip real estate, and retire back to their stately mansions. That's probably the best way of making money, to be a specialist in panics. Whenever there's panic hanging in the air, that's a great time to invest.

But I assume that's what you were thinking when you ignored the risk in Thailand, and that didn't work out so well.

There's no magic bullet that will make you money all the time, but what I said can be quantified and has been quantified and certainly works for the U.S. market. My basic methodology, which I developed 30 or 40 years ago and which has been widely copied and stolen and which about the half the industry uses—i.e., that the interrelations between markets are predictive and can be quantified—I happen to believe that this methodology is quite valid and I still use it today. And every now and then I can keep my head above water.

How did it feel to be so wrong in such a high-stakes situation?

It was my first real taste of total disaster. I had pretty much lived a charmed life until that time. I had won some awards as the best-performing fund the previous year, and I had never had a customer lose money with me. I had an unprecedented, too-good-to-be-true kind of record.

When it happened, I went through all the stages of grief: anger, denial, sadness, everything. My sister happens to be a practicing psychiatrist, and she said that of the 11 symptoms of suicide, I had 10 of them. I was destroyed. I had lost money for my customers and that was very terrible. And I had lost my feeling of competence in my chosen field. And I had I lost all my own money, a lot of people were depending on me who would now have to fend for themselves, so it caused a great spillover of grief, too.

That suggests that your mistake affected your social relations, too.

Oh, absolutely. A lot of people were rightfully distressed and displeased, and my social position was definitely much reduced. I lost almost all my friends, and instead of being the head of the family, I became the subject of skepticism. And of course my customers were very upset with me—"How could I have been so stupid?" Fortunately, in most of my disasters, I'm the one who's been the biggest loser. I made what some people would consider the idiotic mistake of believing in my own ideas and putting all my money in the same funds I ran for my customers. So not only did I lose my business, but I lost my personal fortune also. I was once quite a wealthy man and I'm not quite so wealthy anymore, as is appropriate.

On the other hand, I have a number of people who have stood by me through thick and thin. But anyway, the main problem isn't other people. The main problem is when you yourself begin to doubt whether you have what it takes, whether your raison d'être is valid, whether you have a rightful place in the firmament.

Ten years after that first crisis, you were disastrously wrong again, when your Matador Fund folded after losing more than 75 percent of its worth. What happened? Did you make the same mistakes or new ones?

In both cases I was in over my head. I didn't have the capital to be strong enough to provide a backup in the case of unforeseen events. I didn't have a proper foundation. I was playing with adversaries who were stronger than me and who actually made the rules. My base of operations was not diversified enough, and I was vulnerable to forces I couldn't withstand. I was too vainglorious. In my opinion, those are recurring errors behind most disasters.

But also, most people have, in one way or another, a stop loss. If they go to Vegas with $10,000, they say I'm not going to spend more than $5,000. But they never say, "Hey, when I win a certain amount, that's when I'm going to quit." I'd had this incredible string of successes where I made 50, 100 percent, year after year. And in 2006 I'd won the award again as the best-performing fund—you can imagine how reluctant they were to give me the award a second time after my first disaster—but I didn't take account of this. I didn't have a stop-gain, if you will.

Is it reasonable to assume that you're going to make one of these massive mistakes a third time?

Well, fortunately I'm not in Thailand anymore, and I'm not in options anymore. And I'm at an age—especially with my seven kids and my 4-year-old son—where it would be extraordinarily reprehensible to have one more excursion into the River Styx. I'm much more prudent now. I'm more aware of my own liability to err. I've always been a humble person, but I wasn't humble enough. I'm not the great exemplar of unrivaled success that I used to be, and my wife always reminds me of my liability to err in case I'm not beating up on it enough myself.

What do you feel like you've learned?

It's crucial to have good models, to learn from people who are successful and productive and honorable and happy. I was fortunate, I've had some fantastic mentors. My father was my greatest and most continuing example. I always wish I could be as little prone to error as he was. He was the happiest man alive, and he never had to resort to duplicity because everything that came out of him was exactly from his inner self; there was no difference between the input and the output for him. But regrettably, duplicity is very, very important in life. The direct approach always creates tremendous obstruction and friction from the adversary, so often the indirect approach is necessary.

I agree that it's lovely to have good mentors, but can't successful, productive, honorable, happy people get things wrong sometimes as well?

Let's turn it on its head for a second with one of my favorite topics, the hoodoo. There are certain people you meet in life who are like the locomotives that always used to blow up—people who, wherever they go, disaster always ensues. One of my main pieces of advice is: Stay away from hoodoos. Sometimes hoodoos are very affectionate and they like to hug you, and I always burn my shirt right after being touched by a hoodoo.

How do you know a hoodoo when you see one?

First of all, a lot of them frequent areas that are rather ephemeral. Many waterfront communities are peopled with hoodoos. And they generally have a string of failures behind them, they generally are in need of capital, they generally talk a much better game than they play. And they often flatter you and pretend to be your very amiable friend before they really know you. Hoodoos are very good at what they do. A lot of times they command the center of attention and they try to dazzle you with the trappings of success—which when you look into it you find is a will o' the wisp.

Speaking of those who are around when disaster ensues, do you think the people at our major financial institutions are at all chastened by getting it so wrong?

I don't know what the financial institutions feel because they don't talk to me. I'm not in their firmament anymore. They can't get any business out of me, so they don't have any reason to devolve their inner feelings on me. But I know that it's very helpful to have a wealthy fairy godmother who can bail you out when you're in trouble, as certain banks and brokerage houses do. And I imagine that after being bailed out by their former—by their fairy godmother (we won't mention the word "cronies"), they feel that they've been given the breath of life again. And now they have to genuflect before the fairy godmother and be spanked in public and humiliated and their reputations are hopefully ruined, as they should be. But on the other hand, they don't have to face the actual disaster of financial ruination. They don't have to bite the bullet and pay for their own mistakes like me and 99.99 percent of other people who have had great failures.

I'm interested in something you said in one of your e-mails, that it was a mistake to play a flawless squash game.

As a squash player, I was gifted. I had all the right things going for me. I practiced. I was very good with the racket, and I had tremendous anticipation. But I tended to play an errorless game by hitting a slice on my backhand, which took a lot of power off the ball. That wasn't a disaster, but it was definitely a weakness in my game. My opponents always used to say that on a good day they could beat me, because they could hit more spectacular shots than me. But they never did. I went for about 10 years without losing a game, except to [the great Pakistani squash player] Sharif Kahn. He made about six, seven errors a game—but he also made eight or nine winners. I would make about zero errors per game but only one or two winners. He had the edge on me about 10-4, and I regret that I was never willing to accept the risky shots and confrontations, never willing to play a more error-full game.

It sounds like you wish you'd taken more risks as a squash player.

In my market career, I took too many risks. In my squash career, I didn't take enough.

I'm surprised. I would have expected risk to be an-across-the-board characteristic—that an aggressive, risk-taking investor would be an aggressive, risk-taking squash player.

I wish I had applied my squash methods to my speculating. I'd be a very wealthy man if I had.

One last thing from your e-mails: I love this checkers saying, "The popular player loses without an alibi." I think most people are pretty bad at that. It's like, "Well, if it hadn't been for X, I would've won."

I hope you don't feel like I've alibi-ed too much. But a person likes to have a certain amount of self-respect even after disasters. Still, it's terrible to be a bad loser. I like Soros's proverb that you should never marry a woman you wouldn't want to divorce.

Having been down there in the pit of terrible wrongness twice, do you have any advice for people who are struggling with their own catastrophic mistakes?

I think there are causes that led to their disaster and that rather than thinking about the actual minutiae of the downfall, and rather than creating alibis, they should think about the principles that led to their mistakes. And then I think they should let bygones be bygones. Once you've experienced disasters, there's no sense wallowing in misery. You gotta get back in the qualifying tournaments again.

Would you say that anything good came out of those difficult times for you?

Out of these great disasters came my 4-year-old son, who is the joy of my life. What happened was that I got a call one day from the head of Bloomberg, who wanted to give me a job as a writer. I explained that I really don't know how to write and that it's very hard for me, but I was so grateful to him that I said, "You know, you have the worst stock market column in history, it misses the key aspects, and you write it with a formula. I'd like to at least help you in return for your kind efforts to bail me out of trouble." Through that, I met one of their ace reporters, Laurel Kenner, and together we had a son. He's downstairs doing experiments with explosions right now.

If you could hear anyone else being interviewed about being wrong, who would it be?

I'd like to go back and sit at the knee of Charles Darwin or Francis Galton. And I'd sit with Jack Barnaby, who was the greatest squash coach and had something like 200 victories in a row but also a lot of losses.

And I'd sit with my father. Whenever I was in error, my father was like the fairy godmother that I spoke about, but instead of taking trillions from the common man, he would take his $400, which was his entire net worth, and he'd say, "Here, Vicky, this is the last $400 I have, take it and pay off your debts." He'd say "Don't worry, you'll regroup, it's only money. You'll rise again, I know you can do it."

 

Kathryn Schulz is the author of Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error . She can be reached at kathryn@beingwrongbook.com . You can follow her on Facebook here , and on Twitter here .

This interview is part of a series of Q and As in which notable people discuss their relationship to being wrong.  You can read past interviews with mountaineer Ed Viesturs , This American Life host Ira Glass , celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain , Sports Illustrated senior writer Joe Posnanski , education scholar and activist Diane Ravitch , and criminal defense lawyer and pundit Alan Dershowitz .

June 14 2010 11:11 AM

Into Thin Error: Mountaineer Ed Viesturs on Making Mistakes

There's a select number of places on earth where you really, really don't want to make a mistake. High on the list, in every sense, are the planet's tallest mountains: the 14 peaks in the world that are more than 8,000 meters (26,247 feet).

Widely acknowledged as one of the world's greatest mountaineers, Ed Viesturs is one of fewer than 20 people and the only American to have climbed all of those peaks and one of only five to have climbed them without supplemental oxygen. Nonclimbers probably know him best as the star of the 1996 IMAX movie about Mount Everest, which he has climbed seven times.

I sought Viesturs out because I was curious about the kind of attitude you develop toward error when a single mistake can easily cost you your life. I also wanted to test a hypothesis that I call "the paradox of error": If your goal is to avoid making mistakes, then you must constantly assume that you are about to make one. That's why fields like aviation and medicine have, at their best, a productive obsession with error. It turns out the same goes for mountaineering or, at least, mountaineering as practiced by Viesturs. He's totally comfortable with being wrong, he says; the important thing is that, "if you goof up, it's in the right direction."

***

You've written that the worst mistake of your climbing career occurred on K2 which is a bad place for a mistake, given its reputation as the deadliest mountain in the world. Can you describe what happened?

I was with two other climbers trying to make the summit, and we'd had to sit at our high camp for three nights waiting for the weather to clear. Finally we had what we thought was a window of opportunity, so we started climbing. About halfway into the day, the clouds below us slowly engulfed us, and it started to snow pretty heavily. I always contemplate going down even as I'm going up, and I was thinking, "You know what? Six, seven, eight, nine hours from now, when we're going down, there's going to be a tremendous amount of new snow, and the avalanche conditions could be huge."

I talked to my partners, and either I was overreacting or they were underreacting, because they were like, "What do you mean? This is fine." So I was kind of alone in my quandary. I knew I was making a mistake; I knew I should just simply go down, that I should unrope and leave my partners and let them go, but I kept putting off that decision, until eventually we got to the top. When we got down to camp that night, I was not pleased with what I had done. I'd have to say that was the biggest mistake I've ever made in my climbing career.

Really? Given the many fatal mistakes made on mountains every year, this doesn't sound so bad. You made it down safely, after all.

Yeah, but a mistake is a mistake even if you get away with it. Even though we succeeded, I don't ever want to do that again. I felt on the way down that the conditions were pretty desperate. We could've gone down in an avalanche at any minute. We just got really, really lucky. There were moments I was convinced we weren't going to make it down, when I said [to myself], "Ed, you've made the last and most stupid mistake of your life."

I think a lot of people, when they survive a situation like that, they're willing to do it again. They're like, "Well, you know I got away with it one time, I can probably get away with it again." You do that too many times and sooner or later, it's not going to work out.

What kept you from acting on your knowledge that it was a mistake?

You know, I was so torn. Part of me was thinking, "Is this really as bad as I think it is?" Here you've spent two and a half months of your life trying to achieve a goal, and you're within 1,000 feet of getting to the top, and it's one of the worst times to have to make these choices. You think, "Arrrrghhhhh, you know, if I turn around right now, we'll have to go home, we've spent all this time and energy, and we won't have made it to the summit." So that's pulling me in one way, and then the other way is going, "Jeez, Ed, it's going to be terrible, just turn around, just go down."

But you didn't.

No. I kept saying, "Well, let me go on for another 15 minutes and then I'll decide." And then after 15 minutes I'd say, "Let me go on another 15 minutes and then I'll decide." And I just couldn't make a decision, and I put it off so long that I got to the top.

Economists call that sunk costs when you've poured so much money or effort into something that it's hard to extricate yourself, even when you should.

Right! I can see that. In fact, I've seen it many times. And I'd always thought, it doesn't matter how long you've been there, how much money you've spent, how much energy you've expended. If the situation isn't good, go down. The mountain's always going to be there. You can always go back.

It takes a long time to climb down a mountain. I'm guessing it feels even longer when you think you've just made the worst maybe the last mistake of your life.

Yeah, my God. I mean, from the summit it took us probably four hours to get to the high camp again, and we were going down some really steep slopes that were fully loaded with snow, and visibility was zero. We were in the midst of a snowstorm, we could barely find our way down, we're wading through snow that's almost crotch deep, and with every step I was just like arrrrrrrhhh! I'm thinking, "Ed, you're gonna die." When we got to camp, I was just so angry with myself. We got to the top, but the price was way too high.

That feeling of being angry with ourselves over a mistake we made that can be really tough to let go of.

Yeah, but that can be a good thing. Afterward, every time I got into another situation in the mountains where I had similar feelings, I would just say, "Hey, don't do that, don't screw up like you did on K2." I would say, "You know what, I'm going down," and I would just be totally content with that decision.

Did you make more mistakes early on in your climbing career? There's that old saw about how experience is just another name for having made a lot of mistakes.

I don't really look back and say, "Oh my God, that thing I did was really idiotic, how could I have done that?" I think I always wanted to be careful. I didn't want to die in the mountains. I do think, though, that as I climbed more, I became more conservative, just because of all the things I'd learned.  When you're less experienced, you don't even know about the mistakes you're making.

Let's talk about guiding. When you're leading a climb, instead of just acting as a member of a team, the stakes of making a mistake must feel exponentially higher.

Well, they are. The consequences are bigger and the responsibility is huge. But you should take that same level of responsibility when you're on your own. Even when I don't have clients, I don't want to die.

I assume mistakes actually occur a lot more often when you're guiding, because not everyone in fact, not anyone is as experienced as you.

You can't make a mistake if you aren't the one making the decision. When I meet a group of clients before a climb, I say, "Here's the deal: It doesn't matter how much money you've paid to climb this mountain. I will make all the decisions. I'll let you know how I'm making them and why I'm making them, but in the end, you are hiring me to make the decisions, because I have the experience to do so." If there's any indication that things may not go well, we turn around in a heartbeat, and people understand that. They might complain in the moment, but if it all works out and they see that you made the right choice, they thank you later.

Are there certain predictable mistakes that less experienced climbers tend to make?

There's what I call groupthink, what some people call summit fever. You know, there's five or six people and they're climbing along and the weather starts to get funky and the majority of the group wants to go on, and the person with the least experience is like, "Weeellll, they're going on, it's probably OK." It's almost a lemming-type effect. People get swept up in it, it's that psychological feeling of safety.

Funny that it makes people feel safe, when really it's putting them in danger.

Yeah, I know. But I think we see that a lot in everyday life, too, where there's a group of people doing something and you go, "Well, they're doing it, it's probably OK."

When you're climbing not as a guide but as part of team, do you tend to distribute decisions and responsibilities, or do you check everything for yourself?

You've got to trust your partner. I mean, think about it: You're connected to that guy with a rope. So there has to be an implicit trust in each other's skills. But still, when my partner puts his harness on and ties in, I check his harness, I check his knots, and he does the same to me. It's not that we think, "Hey my partner doesn't have it figured out." We're just double-checking each other. That should never be taken in the wrong way: you could have the most experience in the world and accidentally forget to back your buckle on your harness.  [ That is, double the strap back through the buckle. If you fail to do so, the strap will simply through the buckle during a fall, instead of tightening and catching you. ]

How do you choose your climbing partners?

I want to be with people that have what I call the same level of acceptable risk. If anything I want to be with climbers who are more conservative than me, because when you get into these dicey situations, you don't want to feel like you're trying to convince the other guy, "Hey, I think this is a mistake."

So what exactly is your acceptable level of risk?

It's hard to define exactly. For me it's more of a feeling—like, Hey, I just think this situation could get bad, and I think we should at least have a discussion about it .

I've been on climbs where other people have higher levels of acceptable risk and they're willing to push harder and further in certain situations. And if they go on and I go down, I always say, nobody was right, nobody was wrong. We have to live with our decisions and what we're willing to accept, so it's not really black or white. I can't say, "Jeez, they're making a dumb mistake and I was the smart one."

But on a mountain, sometimes it is black and white, right? I mean, you can be as rah-rah relativism as you want, but sometimes the world makes it very clear that you've made a mistake. All else being equal, if you survive and the other guy doesn't, your decision was right and his was wrong.

Yeah. But I make a point of not judging people. You can't go up to them and say, "Nyah, nyah, I was right and you were wrong."

Also, I've had these weird scary feelings sometimes and in the end the weather was great and the sun came out and it's like, well, maybe I made the more conservative decision, but at the end of the day, how wrong was it? Did I really lose anything except some time or energy? No. I mean, the biggest price you can pay up there is your life, so I'm willing to err on the side of being conservative. Hopefully you make the right decision, sure. But also hopefully if you goof up, it's in the right direction.

Speaking of conservative decisions, I heard you once turned around when you were 300 feet from the summit of Mount Everest. Three hundred feet out of, what, 29,029?

Yeah. That was my first trip to Everest, and I was like daaaaaaahhh ! You know, there's the top, I could see the top, 300 feet away. But it was the obvious decision; all the indications were that we needed to turn around, and I just realized that I was going to have to go home and come back another year. And even though it was slightly frustrating, I wasn't disappointed. If I have to turn around because of conditions beyond my control, as long as I haven't given up physically or mentally, I don't call those failures. I can live with those.

I didn't realize this happened on your first Everest attempt. I'm amazed to hear you describe it as only "slightly frustrating." What was going on up there that made it so clear that you had to turn back?

The weather was deteriorating, we'd used all of the rope we'd brought with us, the conditions were getting worse and worse by the minute. That umbilical cord of safety was stretched and maybe almost broken, and we figured we might be able to get to the top, but no way were we going to get down. And climbing a mountain has to be a round trip. So many people get to the summit but never make it back down.

A lot of times we learn from close calls. What's the worst mistake you've almost made?

I can tell you about an incident that happened to a partner on Everest. If you go to Camp III on Everest, it's on this steep, steep face and when you're up there, you've got to make sure you have on your boots, your crampons, your ice axe, because if you climb out of your tent and slip, you're gone.

I got up there one year with my partner, and I noticed that he took his crampons off, probably thinking, "Ah, we're in camp, we're in fine." It had snowed, and we had to dig the tents out, so I'm shoveling near the front door and he's shoveling near the back, and all of a sudden I look up and he's not there. He's vanished. I thought, "Oh my God, he slipped and fell down the face." Then I hear a voice 20 feet below me yelling my name. He had slipped and thankfully fell into a crevasse; if it wasn't for the crevasse, he would've gone down 3,000 feet.

It was a simple, little mistake, where just for a minute you let down your guard, but that's how quickly the bad stuff can happen up there.

Yeah, when the stakes are big, the small stuff matters.

Climbing is the small stuff. The higher you climb, the less and less chance you have of being rescued. And that's when minor mistakes have huge, huge consequences. These high-altitude mountains are one of the few places on the planet where there is literally no help. If you screw up and break a leg, it's up to your partner to get you down. If he can't, you're dead. It's one of the few places in the world where your decisions have real consequences. I think a lot of people don't ever experience that—"Man, every decision I make has a consequence right now." That's a very interesting feeling.

The majority of accidents and deaths in the mountains are what I call self-inflicted. You make bad decisions, you choose to climb in bad weather, you make a dumb mistake like not clipping into a rope or not putting on your crampons, and then in a heartbeat, it falls apart. It's those little things that you have to constantly remind yourself about. It doesn't matter if I've been doing this for 30 years; I still have to be just as careful. But I think as you do something more and more, you have the tendency to become complacent.

So how do you ward off that tendency?

You've just got to keep reminding yourself: I need to be careful every day, every second of the day, and just be humble about what you're doing. My wife always reminds me: Just when you think you've got it figured out, you don't. That goes through my head all the time.

OK, but I've heard that you've climbed Mount Rainier more than 200 times. Must be hard not to get complacent around, I don't know, No. 148.

[Laughs.] Well, it's still a mountain. And it's a big mountain, and just because I've climbed it 200 times doesn't mean that one of these days something might not happen. Lou Whittaker, one of the head guys at Rainier Mountaineering, used to say: Just because you love the mountains doesn't mean they love you.

You're not doing a very good job of bolstering the stereotype of the macho reckless risk-craving adventure type.

I hope not. I'm not like that stereotype. People have the misconception that climbers are reckless and suicidal—like, "Why would you want to do a sport where you could die?" There are risks in climbing, but there are also ways to manage the risks. If you eliminate the mistakes and the errors in judgment, you can make it relatively safe.

For me, the challenge and maybe the art of mountaineering was to try to do it safely and successfully, to show people that you don't have to be on death's doorstep when you get to the summit. You can come home with all your fingers and toes. If you go on an expedition with eight partners, you can come home with eight partners. I didn't want to have those daredevilish close calls. There's a safer, more conservative way to do it that's just as exciting, just as rewarding.

If you could hear someone else interviewed about being wrong, who would it be?

I think it would be airline or fighter pilots, because they have to make very rapid decisions about what to do and what not to do, decisions that have huge consequences. I think surgeons do the same, they get into these situations where there's a ton of pressure, "Do we do this, do we not do this," there's a life hanging by the line. Those are the two that come to mind.

 

 

Kathryn Schulz is the author of Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error . She can be reached at kathryn@beingwrongbook.com . You can follow her on Facebook here , and on Twitter here .

This interview is part of a series of Q and As in which notable people discuss their relationship to being wrong.  You can read past interviews with This American Life host Ira Glass , celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain , Sports Illustrated senior writer Joe Posnanski , education scholar and activist Diane Ravitch , and criminal defense lawyer and pundit Alan Dershowitz .

June 7 2010 10:00 AM

On Air and On Error: This American Life's Ira Glass on Being Wrong

Every episode of the radio show This American Life has, host Ira Glass suggests, "a crypto-theme." There's whatever the story appears to be about the financial crisis , evangelical Christianity , cryogenics and then there's what it's actually about. And what it's actually about is, as often as not, wrongness. Most people shun or ignore error; storytellers exploit it. They understand that virtually all good narratives contain some element of hoodwinking that however much we might dislike being wrong in daily life, we relish red herrings and plot twists and surprise endings in our stories. Accordingly, in This American Life (as in life more generally), things seldom turn out the way you expect.

I thought interviewing the acknowledged master of the form might be daunting I interviewed celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain in this space last week, but I didn't try to cook for him but, as on his radio show, Glass is adept at making you feel like you're hanging out with an old friend. He uses "um" and "like" and "I mean" in a way that manages to come across as thoughtful rather than faltering and that brings to mind Don Delillo's line: "He speaks your language, American." He's also more willing than anyone I've ever interviewed to think for a long time before answering. That might be part of why he was able to say so many interesting things on so many diverse, wrongness-related subjects from David Sedaris, Roland Barthes, and Freud to what happens when journalists get it wrong, why it took him 10 years to stop being incompetent at his job, and why you shouldn't feel up girls in front of their parents.

Do you consciously think about wrongness as a narrative device?

I don't go looking for stories with the idea of wrongness in my head, no. But the fact is, a lot of great stories hinge on people being wrong. In fact, we've talked as a staff about how the crypto-theme of every one of our shows is: "I thought it would work out this way, but then it worked out that way."

Sometimes that wrongness exists in really small ways. We did a story this week about a man who saves people on a bridge in China. It was kind of a radio cover version of a magazine piece by a guy named Mike Paterniti, who started out thinking the man was going to be this inspirational Gandhi-like figure. And then Mike gets there and the guy turns out to be totally gruff and barely talks to him. That's a small wrongness, but it's the pleasure of the story. If you just showed up at the bridge without the setup of thinking he's going to be a great guy if he just starts off as a grump it's less pleasurable. It's less fun. The collision of reality against expectation is what makes it work.

Why is there such a big payoff for the listener in stories about wrongness? What makes it so pleasurable?

Well, if the story works, you become the character, right? You agree with their early point of view, and then when it gets shattered, you are shattered with it. So in the storytelling, you want to manipulate the evidence and the feelings so that the audience is right there agreeing with the person who's about to be proven wrong. When that happens, if it's done right, you as the audience get flipped upside down.

Did you always intuitively recognize these elements of storytelling, or did you have to figure them out?

I had to figure it out. I'm not a natural storyteller at all. If anything, I'm a natural interviewer, a natural listener, but I'm not a natural storyteller. That meant I had to really take apart the machinery of how a story works. When I think about a story today, I think about it in a very mechanical way; I'm very aware of the structural parts of it and what I need for it to work.

When I was in college, I was a semiotics major, which is this hopelessly pretentious body of French literary theory. But there were a few pieces of writing in the field that were not about how language is a conspiracy theory to hold us in our place which I did believe then, but don't believe anymore but were about: How does a story give pleasure? And the radio stories I make, the way I think about them is the way I thought about stories when I was in college reading Roland Barthes's S/Z . He talks about the five codes of how a narrative gives pleasure about how a narrative will keep you from knowing something and make you think the opposite and then reveal it. Which is totally about wrongness, come to think of it.

The experience of being wrong can be so emotional it can involve feeling humiliated or confused or losing an organizing principle of our life in a way that can sometimes be devastating. What's it like as an interviewer to bring people through that kind of experience all over again?

[He thinks a long time.] I'm not sure what to say. If any story is going to be good, whichever one of us is working on it, we have to go through the feelings of the story ourselves. Nobody's going to feel it if we don't feel. It's honestly not worth making a story if you're not going to have strong feelings about it, if it's not going to create empathy. I walk the person through "What did you feel at each stage of this?" and if somebody's telling you about some moment of incredible vulnerability and emotion, if you're normal, your heart goes out to them. So if it's going well, that's what happens. But it doesn't go well every time. We kill half of the stories we try, because not everything can live up to that.

What about when you're interviewing people who can't admit that they're wrong? I'm thinking of a story you just did about would-be California Gov. Steve Poizner, who wrote a book about teaching for a year at a school he characterized as basically this violent urban wasteland, when in fact it's a perfectly lovely suburban school with great resources and great kids. He never admits his error, even though you make the facts of the matter so obvious.

It's harder than dealing with somebody who has the same perspective you have as the narrator. I'm not a go-in-for-the-kill kind of interviewer. It's a great thing to me, that kind of interviewer, but I'm not it. It doesn't play to my strengths at all. I like to interview people who are interested in telling their story and tell it as truthfully as they can. And the thing that makes me a good interviewer in that kind of situation which is that I'm trying to see it from the other person's point of view makes me a bad interviewer when the person is deceiving himself. In that situation, I shouldn't be trying to see it from his point of view; I should be trying to get him to answer the questions and acknowledge the facts, which he doesn't want to do.

Do you find that people automatically narrate their stories in a way that pivots around these moments of wrongness and surprise?

No, of course not. People don't naturally tell their stories in a way that makes for great radio. Why would they? That'd be really weird.

I don't know about that. I'm always amazed by how many people are great raconteurs. We're such a storytelling species.

Right, no, we are. Most people aren't great storytellers in general, but if you stumble on the thing that really means something to them, you'll get a great story out of them. This is one of the insights of therapy, actually. If you read all the early Freud stuff you know how when he stumbles onto the central issue with his patients, suddenly stories flood out of them in pure narrative, with these incredible poetic images? That's what happens when you're working out in your head something that isn't totally resolved and then you speak about it. It comes out as narrative.

But that said, we very much think about how to shape the interviews so that the story will work on the radio. By the time we do the interview on tape, we know the rough idea: He starts here, he goes here, he ends up here. We really plan ahead of time to make sure the reveals work.

Is it tough to find stories that work? In my experience, a fundamental part of being a journalist is that you find a story that seems like it's going to be perfect and then you get there and start talking to the subject and as often as not, it falls apart in any one of a million ways.

Totally. One of the reasons I was interested in doing this interview is because I feel like being wrong is really important to doing decent work. To do any kind of creative work well, you have to run at stuff knowing that it's usually going to fail. You have to take that into account and you have to make peace with it. We spend a lot of money and time on stuff that goes nowhere. It's not unusual for us to go through 25 or 30 ideas and then go into production on eight or 10 and then kill everything but three or four. In my experience, most stuff that you start is mediocre for a really long time before it actually gets good. And you can't tell if it's going to be good until you're really late in the process. So the only thing you can do is have faith that if you do enough stuff, something will turn out great and really surprise you.

Have you gotten faster at recognizing what's not going to work?

Well, I register the danger that it might not work. But honestly sometimes you have to just do it. There are definitely interviews that we all go into knowing, " Ehhhhh , here's all the things that can go wrong and here's the one or two things that it can go right." And you just gotta do it.

I had this experience a couple of years ago where I got to sit in on the editorial meeting at the Onion . Every Monday they have to come up with like 17 or 18 headlines, and to do that, they generate 600 headlines per week. I feel like that's why it's good: because they are willing to be wrong 583 times to be right 17.

That's amazing. I'm trying to work out the fraction in my head like, how wrong do you have to be to finally be right?

It kind of gives you hope. If you do creative work, there's a sense that inspiration is this fairy dust that gets dropped on you, when in fact you can just manufacture inspiration through sheer brute force. You can simply produce enough material that the thing will arrive that seems inspired.

It reminds me of your own career trajectory. In the past, you've told a story about one of your producers listening to a piece you did early on, and afterward saying to you, "There's nothing in here that indicates that you were ever going to get it."

I know. I mean, that's my big drama. Everybody has a drama, a struggle that they went through, and for me it was turning myself from somebody who wasn't any good at this thing into somebody who's really, really good at it. I was a great intuitive story editor from the start, but writing, interviewing, performing on the radio I was just terrible at all of that. All through my 20s, my parents were like, "Why are you doing this?" I wasn't making any money, and I was so bad at it. I was 19 when I started at NPR and I was 27 or 28 before I could competently put together a story that I had written. All that time, I just stubbornly pushed toward this thing because I thought it would work out in some form. I was right about that, but I was wrong about pretty much everything along the way.

Plenty of people in your field got to competent a lot faster but then stayed there. Do you think there was a relationship between the length of your struggle and the spectacular outcome that being so bad at it for so long forced you to come up with a different way to do it?

[Thinks.] Not necessarily the length of the struggle. The engine of what I was going through was that I wanted to make something that would be really special. I wanted it to seem special to me, I wanted it to stand out, and that kept me from learning a lot of the ways that people make boring stories. I had contempt for those stories. I didn't know what I was making that was better in fact, what I was making was a lot worse but it kept me from going down a lot of paths that would have been boring.

I want to ask you about getting people wrong. We all have such specific narratives about ourselves, and one of the real risks of telling other people's stories is that those people will end up feeling misrepresented or betrayed by your version. Has that happened to you?

Not very often, partly because we work in a format where we don't need to fit the story into some crazy journalistic news scheme you know, where one character is going to be the symbolic homeowner to represent all the homeowners and anything they say that's contrary to the thesis has to get cut. We're almost never in that situation. Usually we hear about something really amazing and we go and sit down with the person and we try to capture it as accurately as we can. When that's your gig, if you're halfway competent, people aren't going to get mad because they can see that we're just trying to tell it the way they saw it.

But there's a really fascinating instance of what you're talking about in Chuck Klosterman's new book [ Eating the Dinosaur ]. I feel like this is a really weird example to bring up, but he interviews me and Errol Morris about interviewing. It's a really funny chapter because I give all of these totally Pollyanna answers I mean, things I really believe, but I'm like [here he goes into an earnest falsetto, like a very sincere Chipmunk] " I just think that people open up because they sense that somebody's really interested. It's just a natural human thing."  And Errol is like "I DOUBT WHETHER WE KNOW OURSELVES, AND THE ACT OF BEING INTERVIEWED IS AN ACT OF ASSERTING A SELF WHICH WE HOPE IS TRUE." Seriously, every answer is like this. I'm like, " I just think it's really swell being interviewed !" And he's like "THERE IS NO SELF."

But anyway, afterward, they contacted Errol and me to ask if we would say our quotes into a microphone for the book on tape. Errol said "Sure," and then when he saw one of the quotes, he said, "No, I meant the opposite of this. I may have said these words, but I actually meant the opposite." This happened at the very last minute and it was really hard to figure out what to do, because it was a really beautiful quote, and then there's Errol saying that it's wrong, that he doesn't stand by. And then Klosterman has to write around that, and it's all in the chapter and it's fascinating. But I don't know why I'm wasting your time on this.

You're not wasting my time. I think this struggle to get other people right is fascinating, and I'm interested in the ethics and practices we as journalists have developed to try to do so.

Like a lot of people who do reporting, I take it as a given that what we learn is such an approximate view of what really happened. I think the stuff that we're putting on the air is true, I think it's as good as we can possibly make it, but I also understand the limits of the work we do. I understand that in some emotional way, or even in some factual way, we could be getting something wrong that could only be revealed through a much deeper kind of investigation than we do.

What about being wrong on the show in other ways? Do you deal with wrongness much in your professional life?

Last year or the year before, two stories of ours won awards at the Third Coast International Audio Festival, and both of them were stories that I thought we shouldn't do. I was adamant about it. My senior producer was totally for these stories and totally saw the potential in them, and I was like, "Look, sure, go ahead, but there's no way. These aren't even interesting to me." And they turned out to be really great stories. I was totally wrong. That happens a lot.

How do you handle that kind of disagreement on the show?

For me personally, if everybody's for it and I'm against it, we do it. That's one standing rule in my head. Sometimes someone will be like, "I don't see it, but if you do, go for it." But 85 to 90 percent of the time, we persuade each other. Which is what we'd hope for, because eventually we have to persuade our listeners.

What about in your personal life? What kinds of things have been wrong about?

Oh my God, so many things. I'm somebody who I'm very aware of the times I'm wrong, and I feel like I'm wrong a lot. And, ah ... [Long pause, during which he laughs quietly.] This example is so I feel like I don't even know where to begin, there are so many horrible examples. What kind of wrongness do you want to hear about?

Well, for starters, I want to hear about whatever it is that's making you laugh.

Just last night, I remembered this incident that honestly I have never, ever talked about. I'm not even sure I'm going to be able to talk about it much here. But I remember in high school not even high school, in junior high school; I was really, really young I tried to feel a girl up in front of her family . I thought I could get away with it. I don't know why this came to mind last night, but I was walking down the street with the dog and I literally said out loud, "Oh God, no. No, no, no." And even now, I think about it and it's just such a horrifying thought. I just hope that she and no one who was there remembers it.

Are you kidding? She's telling the whole world that Ira Glass tried to feel her up in junior high.

I don't think she's a public radio listener. That's my hope. But the point is, I feel like that indicates a kind of social cluelessness that I had up until an inappropriately old age. I think I was really immature for a really long time, especially with women. I didn't get married until I was 47 or 48, and then I was like, "Why didn't I do this 10 years ago?" I was still with the person I'd been with 10 years before.

Are there any wrongness-related episodes from the show that you especially love?

Pretty much the whole Fiasco show is about being wrong. The Squirrel Cop story is a wrongness story in spades, and it's one of the most popular things we've ever done. It was so popular that not only did we do the radio story, we put out a little iron-on patch, we did a little paint by numbers it had a whole merchandise department.

Alex Blumberg's show with Adam Davidson explaining how the mortgage crisis happened is entirely a story about wrongness. The entire plot of it and what's pleasurable about it is that you get to hear from these people who were just totally, totally wrong, and you finally understand what in the world they were thinking that led them to accidentally bring down the world economy.

Interestingly, Michael Lewis tells a similar story, but from the point of view of the people who are right, and the drama of that did you read that?

The Big Short ? Yeah. I've been on a Michael Lewis kick, actually, because I feel like all he writes about is wrongness. Plus, he's so insanely good.

Oh my God. Doesn't it make you want to simultaneously A) quit journalism there's no point, right? and B) go out and do something great? I finished it and I just thought , I will never be as good as that. I will never do anything that well.

Yeah, and you're Ira Glass. Imagine how the rest of us feel.

Did you read The Blind Side ? I wrote to him after I finished it, because at that point it was maybe my favorite book ever. He's been on the show, so occasionally I'll send him an e-mail or he'll send me an e-mail, and after I finished that book, I was like: "Dude, if you're ever in a situation where a charity or something is like, 'We want to do an event, can someone interview you on stage?' please let me be that person." I feel like he's peerless. There's not anybody doing it at the level he's at. It's just it's embarrassing.

But to get back to your thesis, he's telling the story of the same events [of the financial crisis], but with the people who are right, and what makes the story work is that they're so worried that they're wrong. That's the entire drama. That's why the story sort of climaxes in Vegas, where they all finally figure out: Wow, I am right. I'm so right. And it's so satisfying.

Totally. It's funny, we've been talking about the narrative pleasure of being wrong, but he makes so much hay out of the narrative pleasure of being right the resolution of that tension in favor of the protagonists. That kind of pleasure makes a more obvious sense, I think, since we all love to be right.

Do you talk at all in your book about people who can never be wrong? I feel like I've known people who in an argument can never ever, ever admit they're wrong. And I find that such a fascinating and horrible thing. Those people are so embattled.

I do talk about it, yeah. Defensiveness and denial come up a lot; they really fascinate me. Part of the challenge for me in writing about it was almost like the interviewing challenge you described earlier trying to approach this really problematic position with empathy, to understand where these people were coming from and what's so frightening or intolerable to them about the possibility of being wrong.

That's really interesting. There are definitely lots of things that I don't want to be wrong about and will fight to the death over, and I'm totally obnoxious about it all the time. But I also feel like there's a kind of discovery that you're wrong that, in a safe situation, can be a real pleasure. Do you know what I mean? Like when you're arguing with someone you love and you realize, "I'm wrong, you're right," and you come together in that moment. It's such a relief. To me it's so obvious that some kinds of being wrong are OK.

Or better than OK, right? I think some kinds of wrongness can be intensely pleasurable or useful or revelatory or transformative.

That makes me think of something I've noticed in this writer we used to have on the show all the time, David Sedaris. He would tell stories about his family, and in those stories he was always the one who was the butt of the joke. He was the one who was wrong and everybody else in the family was right.

After he went through the most dramatic stories of his childhood he had to figure out what his next book was going to be about. So what did he do? He moved to France, where he would always be wrong again. I don't know if he thought it through this way or if it simply happened I think it's the latter but he couldn't have written that book [ Me Talk Pretty One Day ] in New York, where he knows his way around and speaks the language and feels at home. Whereas living in France was just constant wrongness. He was always going to be the butt of the joke again. I guess what I'm saying is that that being wrong turns out to be a very natural place for a lot of people to write from.

That's so fascinating about Sedaris. I would never have made the connection. It makes me want to talk to him about his relationship to wrongness. Which leads me to ask you: If you could hear someone else interviewed about being wrong, who would it be?

The first person that comes to mind although I don't know if he would give an honest interview is Eliot Spitzer.

Funny you should say that. He was one of the first people I invited to participate, but he turned me down.

Well, what's in it for him, right? Hmm. Who else? I don't know who the person would be, but there was a Radio Lab episode on stochasticity, which is the science of random chance, and they talked to someone who measures randomness. I feel like there must be somebody out there who's, like, measuring the amount of wrongness around us.

I love that idea. Quantum wrongness. Is that possible?

Nah, I guess it isn't possible.

 

Kathryn Schulz is the author of Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error , published this week by Ecco/HarperCollins . She can be reached at kathryn@beingwrongbook.com . You can follow her on Facebook here , and on Twitter here .

This interview is part of a series of Q and As in which notable people discuss their relationship to being wrong.  You can read past interviews with celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain , Sports Illustrated senior writer Joe Posnanski , education scholar and activist Diane Ravitch , and criminal defense lawyer and pundit Alan Dershowitz .

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May 31 2010 8:32 PM

Eat Your Words: Anthony Bourdain on Being Wrong

Anthony Bourdain's first nonfiction book, Kitchen Confidential , introduced the world to a kind of one-man alt-FDA: a 6-foot-4-inch executive chef and former heroin addict who wrote like Kerouac by way of Blackbeard and would happily fillet your sorry ass with his own kitchen knife if you showed up late to work. More books and the hugely successful Travel Channel show No Reservations soon followed. His latest book, Medium Raw , will be published by Ecco on June 8.

I got interested in talking to Bourdain about wrongness because of a disagreement over strawberry-rhubarb pie. I hate it; my girlfriend loves it. It wasn't that I wanted him to adjudicate the dispute (I had a sinking feeling he would side with her); it's that I was curious to hear his thoughts on why people tend to act as if they are objectively right even with respect to matters of taste in this case, literally. This impulse is, of course, not limited to food. Even though we know better, it's remarkably easy to feel as if our own aesthetic judgments reflect reality and that, therefore, anyone of sufficient intelligence and sensitivity should share our view.

In addition to talking about wrongness and taste, Bourdain and I talked about wrongness and travel. Thanks to No Reservations , he spends most of his time on the road these days, and he was thoughtful on the subject of how leaving home upends a lot of your beliefs and how travel forces you to think hard about people and practices you disagree with. He also had interesting things to say about how cooks think about mistakes, what it's like to skewer celebrity chefs and then become one, and why heroin keeps you humble.

A couple of years ago, a hedge-fund manager whom I interviewed about wrongness pointed out that in the circles he moved in, being right was essentially synonymous with making money. During my conversation with Bourdain, he suggested that, in the cook's universe, a very different stand-in for rightness prevails: "Is it good? Does it give pleasure?"

OK, let me start with the basics. Should the categories "right" and "wrong" apply to food?

Personally, I think right and wrong are maybe a little too apocalyptic as terms. But you know, food is everything we are. It's an extension of nationalist feeling, ethnic feeling, your personal history, your province, your region, your tribe, your grandma. It's inseparable from those from the get-go. Even before we get into food professionals or food bloggers or food nerds, you're already talking about something that people identify very closely with their identities.

Are professional chefs more or less likely to use right and wrong as a yardstick? It's easy to imagine that with your training, some food preparations just do seem right or wrong.

Chefs are fond of hyperbole, so they can certainly talk that way. But on the whole I think they probably have a more open mind than most people. Chefs are more likely to understand the mechanics of taste, and they know, as a simple matter of fact, that some people perceive flavors differently than the next person.

On the other hand, you can run into some seriously hidebound attitudes. I mean, do not tell a Roman how to make cacio e pepe, for instance. And, certainly, most chefs have very strong opinions on the right way to do most classic dishes and strong opinions about departures from that.

So is there a dish no one should tell you how to make?

I feel that if Jacques Pepin shows you how to make an omelet, the matter is pretty much settled. That's God talking.

I'm interested in this relationship between doing things right and doing things the way they've always been done. It's almost like being right is synonymous with conforming to tradition.

Yeah, or with authenticity. There's enormous respect and a romanticized reverence for what's considered the "right" way meaning, the classic way and I think most chefs feel powerfully that one should know that before moving on. Like, "I've researched this, this is the way they were making it in 1700, goddamn it, and that's the way it should be made." Or: "This is the way they make laksa in Kuching and Borneo; that stuff I just had on Ninth Avenue is definitely not the same; ergo it's wrong." But, you know, what does "real" or "authentic" mean? The history of food is the history of migrating ingredients and occupation and foreign influences and accommodation.

Somebody who'd be very interesting to speak to on this is Grant Achatz [one of the pioneers of molecular gastronomy]. Here's a guy who's been trained in the classics, who knows the quote-unquote "right" away to do everything, but made a very deliberate decision to subvert it all. I think that's admirable. We need people like that. We would never have had Jimi Hendrix if he'd stuck to the right way to play guitar.

Is there a part of the culinary universe that finds that kind of subversion upsetting?

It's getting smaller and smaller. Anyone who's a chef, who loves food, ultimately knows that all that matters is: Is it good? Does it give pleasure? The right way to do things, the wrong way to do things I think chefs have always in some ways sought to undermine that. Creativity means going against what you've learned. So however much you might hear people say there's a right way and a wrong way, that will always be accompanied by, "Except when I do it."

How would you characterize the overall attitude toward wrongness within cooking culture?

I think when you've lived your life under similar pressure to an air traffic controller, when you come out of a very rigid, semi-militaristic system, chances are you were either praised or punished depending on your adherence to certain rules. The real god of professional cooking is consistency, so making a mistake basically means being inconsistent. It's all fine and good to be a genius in the kitchen, but if you cannot execute consistently, you're doing it wrong.

That's interesting. The equation between wrongness and deviance comes up a lot in areas like business and manufacturing, too. A fellow reporter once told me that there are signs on GE's factory floors that say "Variation is Evil."

Right. That's something a lot of home cooks don't understand. They read cookbooks, they assume that professionals just see the recipe and cook it, right? No. Professional cooks learn through trial and error. You make an omelet 20, 30, 40, 50, 60, 100 times under pressure. Eventually you get good at it. It's all about repetition. You'll never understand how to make certain complex sauces without screwing them up. Particularly emulsions, you know, hollandaise there's a case where there is clearly a wrong way to do it. A butter sauce either stays together the way you expect it to or it breaks into something that I think just about everybody in the world would find disgusting, and everybody who was familiar with the sauce would recognize as having gone terribly wrong.

If cooking is all about repetition, I assume that when you first started out, you spent a lot of time getting things wrong. What was that like?

Some kitchens are more tolerant than others. I grew up in a fairly tolerant kitchen, meaning if you screwed up, it wasn't a good thing, but it was understood and even considered funny: You fall on your face, you're gonna get laughed at. If you came up 20 years ago in a three star bistro in Paris, doing something wrong was an altogether different matter. You had your entire six hours' worth of mise en place thrown on the floor by the chef. Back then, they still hit cooks. It was a truly terrifying to be wrong in the eyes of the great chef. It made grown professionals cry.

You've been out of the kitchen for a while now, but back in the day, how did you handle it when your employees made mistakes?

It depends. You know, if it's just a stupid mistake accidents happen, mistakes are made, so it could be that I'd just tease them. If it's a stupid mistake they've made again and again, then it would be a decidedly more acid-tinged mockery. But if you treat me like an idiot, if you're insulting me and betraying your coworkers, then, yeah, I'm gonna get right up in your face and question your lineage.

After a whole lot of years in New York kitchens, you're suddenly traveling almost all the time, largely overseas. In my experience, that's an incredibly good way to be wrong pretty much hourly.

It's the most exciting thing about travel to me. You're constantly wrong. You're constantly challenged by your own preconceptions. You're forced to relearn such basic, basic things. Words you thought you knew the definition for become completely changed: the word work , the word hunger , the word generosity . Or you think an entire country's going to be one way and then it's another way. I like being wrong in that respect.

Can you give me an example?

I've experienced that kind of wrongness a lot in the Muslim world. The idea of otherness kind of evaporated for me there. You know, sitting down in a Saudi home, observing Saudi Arabians, seeing that they, too, watch Friends , that they're funny you know, sense of humor often surprises me most. That, and random acts of kindness. I used to believe, deeply, that people were basically bad that given a slight change in the our situation, we would all revert to packs of wild dogs who would devour each other and sell each other out. I took a very dim view of human nature. Travel has made me more optimistic. I believe now that for the most part, the world is filled with people doing the best they can under the circumstances.

Do you think that travel has made you kinder?

Yeah, I do. It's made me more tolerant, for sure. Anything that introduces doubt is a good thing. I doubt everything. Certainty to me is rarely a good thing, so anything that makes anybody more willing to question their own beliefs is almost always good in my view.

Yeah, I love that about travel. It makes us deal with uncertainty and doubt all the time, and how we deal with those are central to how we think about being wrong.

Definitely. Something else fundamental I learned, which really changed me, came from sitting down to dinner with very nice people who have done very bad things. I spent a lovely afternoon mushrooming and eating lunch with the former head of counterintelligence for the KGB, a guy who'd sent his former friends and colleagues back to Russia to be executed when he found out they were working for us. I sat down with head hunters under a bunch of human heads, they had little tattooed rings on their fingers, proud reminders of the heads they'd taken nicest folks in the world. That's confusing.

That's for sure. I should have said, uncertainty and doubt and confusion and moral ambiguity.

Right. One place where I'm struggling with it, though, is I'm a relativist, mostly. But racism is just wrong, right? I believe that absolutely. And yet many of the places that I love most in the world Southeast Asia, Japan are deeply racist in ways so engrained in their culture as to put the Jim Crow era to shame. There's a loathing of dark skin, an aversion, a phobia, that's extraordinary. Why is that acceptable to me? Why don't I have a problem with that, or not much of a problem?  

And yet in Africa I was just in Liberia recently, and although I find certain tribal practices personally deeply repellant, I'd always felt uncomfortable with the idea of these "enlightened humanitarians" going to Africa and lecturing people who don't have clean water and have been living with these systems for centuries about how to behave. And yet I gotta tell you, Liberia made me ask myself: Are some things just wrong? Genital mutilation would be one. Some of the practices of some of the traditional tribal elders witch doctors, basically are another. I really wonder whether there are absolutes in some cases. It's something I'm wrestling with, clearly.

You wrote in Kitchen Confidential that "good eating is all about risk," and risk to me means taking the chance that something could go disastrously wrong.

Well, sure. But, I figure, what's the worst thing that can happen?

You tell me.

[Laughs.] Well, good food is a willingness to step out of your comfort zone a little, take a shot at the unfamiliar, try something that, OK, might give you diarrhea. There were times that I was pretty damn sure I was going to be really, really ill if I ate this. But if you're lucky enough to have a passport and find yourself on the other side of the world, and somebody without a lot of money is being generous to you, then I think the onus is on you to help bring honor to your hosts.

You're famously opinionated, or maybe it's more apt to say that you're famous for expressing your opinions unsparingly. You've described vegans as "the hezbollah-like splinter group" of vegetarians, and Alice Waters as "Pol Pot in a muumuu." Yet you also seem able to change your mind. In my experience, that's a pretty rare combination.

I think it's in my nature to be a provocateur. A child psychologist would probably say it's an attention-getting device: I want to provoke, I want to get a reaction, even if the reaction is someone saying, "You're full of shit and dead wrong and here's why." I like talking. I like learning. I like conflict. Maybe it's one of the reasons I don't really feel any connection to clean, orderly countries with few social problems. You know, I'm not a big Scandinavia fan. I tend to like messy dysfunctional countries where people are passionate about things. I think that's perhaps why I enjoyed the restaurant business for so long. You've got plenty of conflict all the time.

But I also think I know a lot about my own flaws. You learn a lot about yourself as a heroin addict. You learn how low you're willing to go. You learn what kind of terrible things you're capable of. It's difficult to get up on a high horse when you can physically remember betraying people and whining and cringing and lying to get money. That's helpful in the long run, I like to think.

Are there things you wrote in Kitchen Confidential that you no longer believe?

Oh, sure, a lot. I have a more tempered view of celebrity chefs, for starters. I mean, I had no understanding at all of Emeril [Lagasse, the Food Network celebrity chef] back then. He was just this alien beast to me strange, way too cheerful, totally false. Now, having met the man and hung out with him and understanding the responsibilities of being the head of an empire, I think I understand what makes him tick a lot more. I've told him, "I still hate your shows, but I like you." He deserves a lot more respect than I gave him.

You've been merciless in the past with Rachael Ray. Hilarious, but merciless. Do you have a more tempered view of her now, too?

Maybe I'm just less angry than I was before. Kitchen Confidential was written by a guy who'd never had health insurance in his life. I'd never owned an apartment, never owned a car, never paid my rent on time, I was five years in arrears on my taxes, I went to sleep every night filled with terror and the certainty that I would never have anything resembling a normal life. So to some extent, I was bitter and resentful, and I didn't have the time or the inclination to look for nuance when watching the Food Network.

Well, it might not be the best place to go looking for nuance. But what about people who do have more nuanced views on food? What do you think about all these inquiries into the ethics of eating Michael Pollan's work, for instance, or Jonathan Safran Foer's Eating Animals ? You've been rather vicious toward vegetarians in the past.

Pollan is hunting big game, in the sense that he's wrestling with big issues. I think he's discussing them in a way that allows for honest disagreement. He's not an absolutist. I think he's a very valuable addition to the discussion. Safran Foer, while I liked the book, I disagree completely with it. I don't understand how we can acknowledge the importance of the human dimension of turkey dinner yet forgo it anyway. I guess it's just a question of priorities.

Let me ask you about a kind of wrongness that almost everyone over the age of 30 has faced, which is realizing that you were just utterly wrong about what your life was going to be like. From the outside, at least, it looks like you've experienced a particularly extreme version of that kind of wrongness.

Oh, yeah, absolutely. I mean, for a long time I lived with the assumption that I'd be dead by 30, so it came as a rude surprise when I found myself still around. And then of course I was just hugely wrong about Kitchen Confidential . I was certain before it came out that it was not going to change my life significantly. In reality, it changed my life over night.

What about fatherhood? In an interview in 2006, you said that you'd never regretted the decision not to have children, that you "would have been a shit parent." Your daughter, Ariane, was born in 2007.

Yeah, I changed my mind really, really quickly on that one. At the age of 50, shortly after meeting my second wife, I realized, Oh my God . To my credit, I think, I'd always been aware of how big a responsibility being a parent is and that I was not up to the job. Let me remind you again, I'd been in a very serious relationship with some very serious drugs, and long after I'd given them up, I was still living in complete financial insecurity. I thought I didn't have much of a future, if any. I just understood that I was not the guy to be having a kid. And then at 50, I suddenly woke up one day and looked my then-girlfriend in the eyes and realized, not only do I want a child with this woman, but finally, at 50 years old, I am old enough to be a good father.

Was it literally an epiphany like that? In one minute, you suddenly knew?

Yeah. In one second . It was a moment of rare certainty. I knew. There was no doubt. From that second I realized, I'm old enough now, I can be good father. And since that time I've never had a second thought. I never had a moment of, "Oh my God, what am I getting into?" Never. It's been a joy from that second on, every day, every dirty diaper.

Did your friends give you flak? One of the things that can be tough about being wrong about ourselves is that we make these really strong claims about our identity and organize our lives and our communities around them I'm never gonna have kids, or I'll always be a bachelor, or I only date women or whatever and then: oops, never mind. And sometimes even if we ourselves are totally comfortable with that, it flusters or angers the people around us.

Oh, I've been teased, for sure. And I certainly deserve it. It went against my reputation, and I understand that. But the thing is, I never took that reputation seriously. I never looked in a mirror and saw the Bad Boy Chef. If people wanted to call me that, fine, I understand, and I was certainly complicit in that process. But I know who I see when I look in the mirror.

Also, I've always been a moving target. If anything, I take a perverse pleasure in undermining expectations. Particularly on the show: I know that most of my fans want to see me chain smoking and getting drunk in a leather jacket and being snarky and cynical, so I did the most perverse thing I could do and made a warm fuzzy family episode with my baby and my new in-laws. I realize that was a real "fuck you" to a significant part of my fan base, but I just don't care. I'm not going to lie about who I am. I'm not going to appear in an off-Broadway production of King Lear just to prove I can stretch, but on the other hand, if I suddenly get the urge to do something off-brand, I'm going to do it.

As someone who's been very outspoken about the role of immigrants and especially Latino immigrants in your own kitchens and in the American workforce, what do you think about the Arizona immigration law? 

You know, I'm a little I mean, obviously I think it is wrong. I think it's embarrassing and shameful. But I'm sympathetic to the blind rage, fear, and confusion of people who live close to the problem. I think they're wrong, I disagree strongly, and I'm nauseated by the idea of demanding people's papers in the streets. But I resist the urge to demonize the people from Arizona who feel that way. I believe that however you feel on whatever issue, we should always be able to sit down at a table together and have a few drinks or a lot of drinks and share a meal together. If the level of discourse has moved beyond our ability to do that, then everybody loses. I mean, I disagree with everything Ted Nugent says, but I like the guy a lot.

Did you start feeling this way after sitting down to dinner with that the likes of that nice former KGB operative?

No question about it. I mean, if I'm hanging out with ex-KGB guys and former hit men and headshrinkers and murderers, and I find them charming and I allow for cultural differences and end up having a great time and finding common ground, why the hell can't I be friendly with Ted Nugent?

If you could hear someone else being interviewed about wrongness, who would it be?

Dick Cheney. And I'd like him to be water-boarded during the interview.

Kathryn Schulz is the author of the forthcoming Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error . She can be reached at kathryn@beingwrongbook.com . You can follow her on Facebook here , and on Twitter here .

This interview is part of a series of Q and As in which notable people discuss their relationship to being wrong.  You can read past interviews with Sports Illustrated senior writer Joe Posnanski , education scholar and activist Diane Ravitch , and criminal defense lawyer and pundit Alan Dershowitz .

 

 

May 23 2010 7:35 PM

"Finally, Something I Know About": Sports Illustrated Writer Joe Posnanski on Being Wrong

When I e-mailed sportswriter Joe Posnanski to ask him whether I could interview him about being wrong, I got a response right away: "Finally," he wrote, "something I know something about."

That wisecrack doesn't square with Posnanski's reputation; he's better known as one of the country's best and smartest sports journalists. A senior writer at Sports Illustrated and longtime sports columnist for the Kansas City Star, Posnanski has twice been voted Best Sports Columnist in America by the Associated Press Sports Editors and has garnered a passel of other honors and awards. He is also the author of three books most recently The Machine , about the 1975 Cincinnati Reds.

None of that expertise has interfered with Posnanski's self-described "awe-inspiring track record of being wrong." Perhaps thanks to that record, he is extremely thoughtful and extremely funny on the subject of screwing up. His reflections about wrongness touched on Babe Ruth, Tiger Woods, the myth of clutch hitting, the misery of the mistaken umpire, the dilemma of instant replay, and the enduring heartache of the Indians fan. In Posnanski's view, being wrong is an inevitable, illuminating, and sometimes uproarious part of life. (Indeed, on his blog , you can read about three of his own most memorable mistakes , including a hilarious one involving Magic Johnson.)   

I should start by warning you that I'm painfully ignorant about sports.

So am I, so this should work out well.

Ha. Well, at least you're not ignorant about wrongness, or so I gather from your e-mail.

In this profession, you're constantly trying to predict what's going to happen. Every day I make predictions that don't come anywhere close to the mark.

All sports fans make predictions. Does the fact that you do it professionally mean that you're supposed to be right at least slightly more often than the rest of us?

Maybe [sportswriters] have a little more insight from talking to the players, the coaches people who are on the inside. But in reality, I don't know that we're wrong any less often.

I do think, though, that a big part of the job is how you handle being wrong. Are you upfront about it? Do you play it off? Do you try to defend yourself? Every time you write anything, at least half your readers are going to disagree with you. A big part of sports writing is how you respond to that tension.

What's your own ethic around that? What do you see as your responsibility to your readers when you get something wrong ?

There's being wrong and there's being wrong. Being wrong on facts, that's something you have a real responsibility to correct. But being wrong in the fun sports way is part of the interplay. For me it's pretty easy to say, "Look at that, I blew that one again, I couldn't have been more wrong."

What puts the fun in the "fun sports way of being wrong"?

Part of it is the gambler's thrill: Who's going to win the NCAA tournament? Who's going to be No. 1 in the country? But it's also about narrative. The fun of the Super Bowl is the week leading into it; once it's actually played, the story dies down very, very quickly. But heading into it, all these stories and all these angles and all these different version of what could happen 95 percent of those are wrong, yet they constitute 95 percent of the thrill. In sports and I suppose this is true in life in general most of the time, things aren't going to turn out the way you think they are. And it'd be boring if they did.

The way you describe sports, it sounds like one big futures market. But, as we've all just seen in spades, people in finance are usually terrible at admitting their mistakes. Do you think people in sports are better at it?

It depends on what you mean. I'd be surprised if futures traders get as many nasty e-mails as sportswriters. You get plenty of people who are very, very happy to tell you on a daily basis how wrong you are. But for the most part, there is still a sense that at the end of the day, it's only a game.

About those nasty e-mails why do you think it makes people so happy to tell you that you're wrong?

The nastiest e-mails I get tend to be when I've picked a team to lose and then it wins. For the fans, winning is great, but proving somebody wrong is even better.

In sports, there's an extreme culture of playing off of the media. Coaches will go into their team meetings and say, "These guys think you can't do it, they picked you to lose," and fire them up that way. Same thing from the fan's perspective. You wake up in the morning and you read the paper and it's saying you're going to lose and then your team goes out and wins. Well they didn't just win, they proved somebody wrong. That's what's at the heart of the joy.

Is that part of what drives our deep love of underdogs the fact that we have a shot not just at winning but at proving other people wrong?

Absolutely. In 1980, when the U.S. hockey team beat the Soviets, there had been this narrative created, and the narrative was, you have absolutely no chance of winning . So that win was all about proving the narrative wrong. I think the love of the underdog is very much about hoping for the unexpected. And the unexpected gets to the heart of being wrong.

Totally. But for fans of real underdogs, the unexpected almost never happens, right? One of the things I write about in the book is a phenomenon I call "wrongness as optimism" you know, that thing where you're like, "OK, I'm going to write this whole column by noon, and then return those calls and pay the bills and do the grocery shopping." And then in reality, noon rolls around and you've checked your e-mail and eaten a bagel. I bring this up because I feel like sports fandom is the highest form of wrongness as optimism. Although maybe I just feel that way because I grew up in Cleveland.

Me, too.

Oh, really? So you grew up a fellow Indians fan?

Oh, yeah, Indians, Browns, Cavaliers, I grew up rooting for them all.

No wonder you have so much experience with being wrong.

What I have found about Cleveland fans and certainly it's been true of me is that at some point you know you're going be wrong, so you try to play tricks with yourself. You say, "Well, I know they're going to lose today," in an effort to be wrong in the other direction. The expectation level of a Cleveland fan is so filled with heartbreak that at some point you just try to turn the thing in your favor. But in Cleveland, it never works, because if you say "I know they're going to lose today," you are going to be right, and there's no joy at all in that kind of rightness.

I love the phrase wrongness as optimism, by the way.

Other than Cleveland, do you think there are particular fans that suffer from it the most?

Cleveland is an extreme case. It's been so long since we've won. Kansas City is now beginning to be like that as well; it follows me wherever I go. For years and years and years, the Red Sox were the unsurpassed example of wrongness as optimism. Red Sox nation is soaked in wrongness as optimism.

What do you think about the way sportswriters handled the Tiger Woods scandal? It's one thing to have missed his philandering side before the scandal broke, but I was struck by the way Phil Mickelson, after winning the Masters, was cast as the contrast case, the nicest guy on earth. Maybe that's true, but wasn't this exactly the same mistake we made with Tiger: confusing athletic prowess for human goodness?

It's so interesting with Tiger, because we knew nothing about him, and we thought we knew everything. He'd been in the public eye since he was 3 years old, he was in front of the camera more than anybody, and there's something in human nature that makes us think that if we see someone a lot, we can see through them.

And then, like you said, there's this sense that being good at a sport makes you a good person. That's been true of athletes going back probably to ancient times, and certainly here in the U.S. going back to Babe Ruth. People wanted to believe certain things about Babe Ruth, which meant not believing other things. You know, he wasn't drunk; he'd just had too many hot dogs the day before. And all those naked women chasing him in a car with knives didn't really reflect his true character. When that bubble gets burst, like it did with Tiger for a lot of people, it's just a real, real shock: "I can't believe this, this is not the guy I thought he was." There's a real refusal to admit that we don't really know these guys.

In the course of working on the book, I read about a couple of psychologists who studied the so-called "hot hand" in basketball the idea that players who are hot keep hitting baskets and players who are cold keep missing them. No matter how they crunched the stats, it turned out that the phenomenon didn't exist, but they couldn't get anyone to believe them. As I recall, they took it to Red Auerbach and Bobby Knight and both of them were like, "Who the hell are you and what do you know about sports?"

That's a big, big issue in sports, that attitude. There's an interesting fight going on in baseball about whether clutch hitting exists: whether a player can hit better in the ninth inning when there are two runs on, whether he can be a better player when the game is on the line. And once again, there have been countless studies done on it, and not one of them can find any statistical evidence that any person is capable of lifting his game in such moments.

Yet people continue to believe, and they continue to get angry that anyone would suggest that such a thing doesn't exist. It's like, "I know it exists because I've seen it." That's such a big part of sports. And that's one of the great things about Bill [James, the inventor of sabermetrics, a statistical method of analyzing baseball] who basically found out that just about everything anybody believes about baseball isn't true. And because of that a whole lot of people are very, very angry at him.

There's something pretty touching about people's desire to believe in clutch hitting. I think part of why people can't bear to imagine that it doesn't exist is because it says something to us about the human spirit: that we can be better than our everyday selves, we can rise to the occasion.

Right. You know, there are certain things that just make life more fun. They might be totally wrong, they might be totally untrue, but they make baseball more interesting, they make football more interesting, they make everything more interesting. It's more fun to believe that the guy got the hit in the ninth inning not because statistically it was his turn but because there was something about him in that moment, some kind of sports courage, that helped him do it. That makes sports a whole lot more fun to watch.

So I really do understand where this kind of superstition and stubbornness comes from. I also think that at a certain point when you're looking at plain facts and refusing to see them, that's not very good for you or for the world.

I'm curious about how the people who have to make the calls referees and line judges and so forth deal with being wrong.

Well, being wrong is not part of the fun of sports if you're an umpire. One of the most famous examples is Don Denkinger, who made the wrong call at first base during the 1985 World Series, which led indirectly to Kansas City beating St. Louis. It's been 25 years and Denkinger is still loathed in St. Louis. When he first made the bad call, he received death threats, his telephone number was given out on the radio, he had to deal with all sorts of horrible things. Over time that has mellowed, but it is definitely still there. All these years later, people still blame him for the team losing.

I've talked with him about how he deals with it, and his initial, reflexive response is, "You're an umpire and that's your job. You don't ever want to be wrong, but you know that sometimes you will be, and you just have live with the consequences." But I think another part of him is angry about it. Here's a guy who's probably been right 12 million times, and yet he'll always be remembered for the one moment when he was wrong. When you say Don Denkinger, people think "wrong." That's literally the first word that comes to their mind. And yet here's a guy who was an umpire for 30 years and was right much, much more often than he was wrong. It's really interesting, but it's also a little bit sad.

That reminds me that I wanted to ask you about instant replays and wrongness. These days the official makes the call and there's this technology that can tell you whether it was right or wrong.

There's a lot of famous stories about umpires from the old days who would make the wrong call and the batter would complain and the umpire would say, "It's a strike because I said it's a strike." Back then, the umpire did the best he could and he had the final say. Then instant replay came along and entirely changed the game. Especially professional football, because they use it during the game. It's changed everything about football how you watch it, how you coach it, how you play it, how you officiate it. In baseball, it's more of an outside influence, but it clearly shows. Last year during the World Series, the umpires blew several calls and that was one of the big stories of the world series: "Umpires can't get it right."

Do you think baseball and other sports are going to go the same direction as football?

The big question in baseball right now is: How much longer are we willing to put up with umpires being wrong? I think there's a constant struggle for fans to know whether or not instant replay has gotten too involved. It speaks so directly to what you're writing about, really. There's a big question of whether human error is and should remain a part of sports.

Where do you come down on it? Is instant replay good for the game or bad?

In some ways it's made the game better, and in some ways it's taken some of the humanity out of it. I was against replay in football because I think it changes the entire complexion of the game. But I also understand that when you know the right answer, it's probably not a legitimate stance to say, "Well, we're going to continue to go with the mistakes made on the field anyway." Sports are all about legitimacy the whole steroid issue was "Are we seeing legitimate or illegitimate results?" and as long as people can look at their televisions and say, "Hey, the umpire missed that call," I don't think it's viable to ignore that.

If you had one tip for getting better at predicting sports outcomes, what would it be?

Boy, I wish I knew the answer to that. The one thing I can say is that you have to try to not lose the forest for the trees. I remember going to the Super Bowl in 1995, when the San Diego Chargers were playing the San Francisco 49ers, and it was clear from the start that the 49ers were going to destroy the Chargers. They were a much, much, much better team. But I'm there all week, and as the days go by, you talk to more and more people, and everybody's telling you, "This game's going to be a lot closer than you think," and you're looking at the Chargers players and they seem very confident, and you're hearing behind closed doors that they have a little secret something they might use.  And it just builds and builds to the point where Sunday comes and suddenly you're like, "You know what? I think there's a surprise in store here."

And then on the very first play the 49ers hit like a 79-yard touchdown pass and they end up winning 173 to nothing or whatever. You were right the whole time, but you allowed all this information in and you started losing sight of what's important and what isn't. I think the more you can stick to the big picture, the better your odds of making a decent prediction.

What have you been most wrong about?

I could give you a long, long list, but here's one. During the 1996 Masters golf tournament, Greg Norman went into the last day leading by five shots, which is basically an insurmountable lead. So I wrote this whole column about how they shouldn't even play on Sunday, just roll it up, it's all over, let's go home. Then I go out the next day and watch him tee off and his first shot is just terrible, and about three or four holes in I realize that Greg Norman is completely falling apart. By the 11th hole he was out of the lead, there was no chance he was going to win.

I remember thinking, "Boy, what I wrote yesterday is really, really, really wrong." Everybody said he was going to win. But to write it as glibly as I did to basically tell everybody, "Don't even watch, just go home" I was a little bit off on that, huh?

You talk about being wrong with such good humor, but when you print the column and the next day it turns out you were totally wrong, do you cringe?

Well, yeah, sure. I mean, I'm not trying to be wrong. Coaches always talk about how winning is never as good as losing is bad, and I think the same is true about being right and wrong. But the thing about making predictions is that you have no control over them at all. Once you make the prediction, it's over; I'm not out there on the field, I'm not coaching, I'm not playing. So part of me was looking at Greg Norman and thinking "Greg, can you just show up? I mean, you're up by five shots, for crying out loud, you're making me look really bad here."

Do you ever get any grief from your bosses for being wrong?

Well, ha, there is one story, yes. My very first sports columnist job was in Augusta, Ga., and my bosses there came up with this idea that I would pick football games over the weekend and [readers] would write in their own predictions, and if they beat me they would get a T-shirt. They were called the "I Pounded Pos" T-shirts, and they had a picture of me getting booted through a goal post. I said, "I'll be happy to do this, but you should know, I'm not very good at picking games." They said, "Yeah, yeah, I'm sure you'll be fine."

Well, the first week, I think we got, I don't know, maybe 1,300 or 1,400 people writing in. I had a terrible week, and literally a thousand of them won. So of course the next week we got 5,000 in, because people were realizing it was really easy to get free T-shirts. The publisher of the newspaper, Billy Morris, who I'd never talked to he ran not just our paper but the whole chain I ran into him and he says, "You're the guy who's picking those game, right?" I said, "Yeah." He goes, "You might want to start picking better." That was the most direct response I've ever gotten to being wrong.

This was 18, 19 years ago, and to this day I still get letters from people about how they have five "I Pounded Pos" T-shirts in their house. I remember I got a photo from a guy who had clothed his entire family in these shirts. So, you see, you have good luck.  You couldn't have found someone who's wrong more often than me.

Well, that's made it very fun to talk to you. One last question: Whom do you want to hear interviewed about wrongness?

Let's see, who has really consistently been wrong? You know, Dick Cheney would be a good interview. I'm sure he'd be wide open to talking to you. 

Kathryn Schulz is the author of the forthcoming Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error . She can be reached at kathryn@beingwrongbook.com . You can follow her on Facebook here , and on Twitter here .

This interview is part of a series of Q and As in which notable people discuss their relationship to being wrong.  To read an interview with education scholar and activist Diane Ravitch, click here . To read an interview with criminal defense lawyer and pundit Alan Dershowitz, click here .

May 17 2010 12:53 AM

Diane Ravitch on Being Wrong

"We are in the grips of a kind of national madness," Diane Ravitch told me, "closing schools, firing teachers, shutting down public education." What makes this statement interesting is that, for many years, Ravitch was a powerful voice within the national education reform movement she now rejects as faddish, empirically unfounded, and bad for America's kids. 

As assistant secretary of education under George H.W. Bush, Ravitch became an outspoken supporter of educational testing, school choice, charter schools, and No Child Left Behind . Later, she championed those positions as a member of the National Assessment Governing Board (the entity that oversees education testing in the United States) and through her involvement with two prominent conservative think tanks, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and the Koret Task Force.

Today, Ravitch refers to the reforms she once championed as "deforms." Her new book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System , documents her own reversal and the impact of current education policy on communities, schools, families, teachers, and students. When I spoke with her, she was frank and thoughtful about the experience of coming to reject what were once some of her most deeply held beliefs. "For years," she told me, "people would say to me, 'Well, I don't agree with everything you write,' and I would think, ' Thanks a lot, that's some compliment.' But now I say, 'Well, I don't agree with everything I write, so why should you?' "

Thanks for agreeing to meet with me. Not everyone relishes talking about their mistakes.

This is something that I haven't really put into words, so I don't know if I'm going to get it right.  But when you're engaged in the political realm, you say, "This set of ideas is right and that set of ideas is wrong" right, wrong, right, wrong. And I sometimes wonder whether you might be attracted to the things that you say are wrong if you're kind of guarding yourself against something that secretly appeals to you. It's like people who are vehement, militant atheists; I think they could easily become religious crusaders, because they're almost religious in their atheism. You have to be careful what you choose to engage yourself with, because the thing you're fighting could be the very thing you want.

Fascinating. That's what the psychologist Carl Jung thought, but I've never heard anyone suggest that they've actually undergone that experience.

Oh, Jung thought that? I didn't know that.

Yeah. He argued that when we passionately defend a conviction, it's mainly against our own subconscious doubts, and that if we keep squelching them, they'll eventually surge into consciousness and completely shift our perspective. Which I guess is kind of what happened to you. Were you aware at the time of any kind of subterranean uncertainty?

No, I don't think so. But occasionally something will get dredged up in my memory and I'll think, "Yeah, that's something else that really annoyed me."

Can you describe the process by which you changed your mind about education reform? Was it more of a sudden epiphany the canonic conversion experience, like Paul being blinded by the light on the road to Damascus or just a gradual change of heart?

It was gradual. I think what happens is that over time you get to know all the arguments all the arguments on your side, all the arguments on the other side and you just say "Nah, they're wrong." And then at some point you think, Well, are they really wrong? What about this? Or Well , they're right about that . Or Maybe this thing I've been advocating for is wrong in this one situation . You start feeling the certainty begin to dissipate. I guess I started to see things that created a lot of chinks in my own intellectual defenses. I tend to be skeptical of things, and I found my skepticism turning toward the people that I was a part of and turning toward myself.

Was there a moment where you first thought: "Uh-oh"?

There were a number of moments, really, scenes of doubt. But one of them came about because of research I'd been asked to do about higher-education standards in Pakistan. What I discovered was that higher education wasn't the issue. The issue was that they have virtually no public-education system. So that gave me pause, because here I was running with people that were saying that public education is the problem.

Do you think there was something about looking at familiar issues in a foreign context that freed you up to see things differently?

Maybe. You know, here is a country that has a completely inadequate public-school system: So many of the kids that do go to school are in madrasas, and girls are not going to school at all. It made me think about the origins of American public education. I'd written about the history of the New York public schools and read lots of other histories of schooling, and it used to be that there was this hodgepodge of options private tutors and church schools and so forth. Those who had some resources could take care of their kids, and those who had none—well, their kids didn't get an education. So there was something that resonated for me. The more we turn kids over to the private sector and erode public education, the more we're going back to pre-public-school times, and those were not good times for education in this nation.

What other experiences nudged you along in your transformation?

Seeing the results of testing, for one. There was a long period of time where I thought, what's wrong with testing? We test people all the time; you go to the doctor, you have tests. But as I saw the consequences begin to kick in, I realized, this isn't just testing. People are being punished because of test scores. We've created a system where Mrs. Smith is going to teach nothing but what's tested. The arts aren't tested and the sciences aren't tested, and the conservative response to that is, "Well, test everything." But the problem is and this is another thing I found myself recoiling from then you'll do nothing but test. People tend to scoff at anything that's subjective, but it's the essays and the projects that make it fun for kids and give them an opportunity to show comprehension.

So that made me stop and think. And then, too, I became very outspoken in my criticism of Bloomberg, which created this tremendous tension between me and almost everyone else on the conservative side of the spectrum.

What was the hardest part of changing your mind on these issues?

I think the hardest thing is just to say you've made a mistake. If you can reach that juncture, which is very hard, then you can begin to understand how you got there. I'm not sure that I myself understand how I got there. I attribute it to having been in the [first] Bush administration. I didn't really have a strong position on choice and accountability when I started there, and I can see now how I was really shaped just by interchange with people. It's the social consensus; you're surrounded by people with the same ideas. You develop over the years a whole set of relationships with people who agree with you and you read the things on your side that say you're right, and you look at the things written on the other side and you say, "Oh, gosh, it's too bad they haven't seen the light."

Nowadays you don't seem to have any trouble saying you made a mistake.

Well, I have to; I wrote a book about it! Maybe I should feel ashamed that I was wrong, but if you're ashamed it's stigmatizing, and then you can't say it. It's like people with a mental illness who can't bring themselves to say they have a problem.

I agree, but it's rare for public officials or even former public officials to openly acknowledge that they were wrong.

I know. I've occasionally done talk shows where people call in and say "I'm sick and tired of Bush officials saying they made a mistake, and now they're cashing in on it!" And I say, "Really? I can't think of anyone else who's said that."

So what do you think it was about your personality or life experiences that made you able to change your mind? Plenty of other people who were exposed to the same body of evidence remained unmoved.

In some sense I'm a contrarian, so that was part of it. Another part was realizing how much money was arrayed against something as simple as public education. There's this notion that because these people are so wealthy, they can make decisions that change other people's lives, without thinking of those lives. It's kind of an anti-human approach that says, I'm rich, I'm smart, and you're just an ordinary person, therefore I have power over you. And I guess I have a kind of bedrock populism in me that just rejects that.

We have a stereotype that older people can become very set in their ways, but I wonder whether being older made it easier to change your mind?

Oh, yes. Absolutely. Because I didn't want anything. I wasn't thinking about getting a foundation grant or getting a job. I have no ambitions. I'm too old to be secretary of education, I'm too old to be chancellor of the New York City schools. All I want is to try to die with a clear conscience. I want to feel that I've set the record straight in terms of what I believe and where I erred.

How do you feel about your former colleagues now that they've become your ideological adversaries?

If you read the book, you know I don't criticize them. I never ever say anything ad hominem against them. I think they're brilliant. We disagree, and I'm trying to maintain a kind of respect for disagreement. And I try to credit their motives and intentions. I suppose most of us think that what we're doing is morally right. We hardly ever do something knowing that it's morally wrong.

Are they returning the favor?

[Laughs.] I suppose that some are and some aren't. I don't really know. Periodically someone will say, "Have you read all the attacks on you?" and I say no. I don't do attacks, and I don't read people attacking me. I made a very conscious decision about this. There were others time in my life when I said, "I don't let an attack go unanswered." Now I'm like: forget the attack. I have only so much energy to spend, and if I spend it on the guys back there shooting at me, I have less energy for moving forward.

What about the people you used to disagree with? Have they welcomed your change of mind?

There are probably people on the left who've said, "We don't want you, go back where you came from," but they're very few. Mostly people have said, "We're glad you see things differently, we're glad to welcome you to our side."

Have you gotten a lot of "I told you so"s?

Some. Recently I spoke at Harvard, and the great testing expert Dan Koretz said, "I've been saying this for years, why didn't you listen?" I said, "Because I'm not as smart as you."

It sounds like many of these people would have been strange bedfellows for you not terribly long ago. Do you find that part odd?

[Laughs.] It makes me laugh. The people who get what I'm saying tend to be way on the left. People who previously would not have even shaken my hand are saying, "You're telling it like it is!" Pacifica [radio station], which is about as far left as you can get, loved the book. After I gave a talk in Chicago, this very handsome young black man came up to me and said, "I'm Jonathan Jackson." I said, "Very nice to meet you, Jonathan." He said, "I wonder if you'd be willing to have dinner with my father." I said, "Well, who's your father?" He said, "Jesse Jackson." So the next day after I finished my lecture, I had dinner with Jesse Jackson. I said to my sons, "I can't believe this!"

Have your children been supportive?

Oh, yes. My youngest son said to me, "You know, your book is really a conservative critique of capitalism."

One of the strange things about being a convert to a cause is that you are often perceived as more credible than people who've been saying the same things all along. Has that been your experience?

Oh, definitely. I'm not sure if I should be [seen that way], but I am. People say to me, "You have more credibility because you were on the other side," when others who have been saying the same thing for many years just get discounted. Union people in particular get dismissed with, "Well, you're speaking for your self-interest" whereas I have no perceived self-interest in this.

You mentioned the social consensus earlier, and although you've described your change of mind as an intellectual crisis, it must have produced a massive social crisis for you, too. You spent decades of your life moving in largely conservative circles.

There are people I was friendly with both socially and ideologically with whom I have a strained relationship now. So that was not easy. I was on a lot of boards at one point, I was associated with a lot of think tanks, and I maintain only a couple of those connections now. I broke ties with several places.

But, you know, by the time you get to be my age, you have friends who are still your friends no matter what you do. The people who were real friends are still real friends. And I've been too busy to think about not getting invited to parties.

It must have been painful in the moment, though.

What was painful was to feel like I'd reached a point of being so out of sorts with everybody. It just got to be so unrewarding to come to meetings and to say no to everything, and know that everybody else was going to be on the other side. I'd go to meetings at the Fordham Foundation and block project after project. At the Koret task force, which has I think the most brilliant people on this issue on the conservative side of the spectrum, I began to be in the minority. The last big discussion we had was about the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind, which I had become really disenchanted with. My recommendation was "Let's just kill it, it's not working." And everyone said, "Well, you know, you can't throw out accountability, accountability is really important. We can improve it, we can tinker with it." I said, "No, you can't tinker with something that's this defective." So we had a vote and it was nine to one and I said, "Well, can we print my dissent?" And they said no.

I offered my resignation at both organizations and they both said "No, stay, stay," and for a while I did, because I liked the people. I still like the people.

It does sound difficult to be the lone voice of dissent for so many years.

You know, I've always had a concern for the one person with the dissenting voice, so it was OK with me to discover that I was that one person. I've written and thought a lot about civic education, and many years ago I went to Eastern Europe this was right after the fall of the wall and in a presentation there I talked about the importance of dissent, about being wary of crowds and open to the possibility that the loner is right. I've always been intrigued by books like Brave New World and 1984 and [Eugene Zamiatin's] We that whole genre of books about the lonely individual in a totalitarian society, about what happens to you when everyone agrees and you're the one who says the whole thing is a facade.

One thing that's hard about such situations is that the crowd consensus effectively becomes reality. So if you're voicing a dissenting opinion, people don't just think you're wrong. They think you're crazy.

That's why the Soviet Union dissenters got sent to psychiatric institutions: because everybody else was so strongly part of the consensus. When I go out lecturing now, I talk about how there is this dominant consensus that's funded by big foundations with tons of money, and they fund the think tanks, and the think tanks churn out advocacy materials that go to editorial boards, and then the corporate people say we're onboard with this, the Bush administration was onboard, the Obama administration is onboard. To me it's almost self-evident that No Child Left Behind is a failure, but people will say, "Well, Congress doesn't think so." It's like everybody agrees except for the teachers, who are the ones who have to do it.

Have you gone back and looked at the initial criticisms of No Child Left Behind from 2001, the year that it passed?

No. I'm sure there were people who predicted everything that would happen. But you know, as I often say, I was wrong, but I was in good company. Almost 90 of Congress voted for it, including more Democrats than Republicans. Ted Kennedy never, ever backed off from his strong support. He said it was underfunded, but that wasn't the problem. It wasn't underfunded. It was the wrong idea.

Now I think, "Well, if Teddy Kennedy didn't know, why should I have known?" Everybody thought it was a good idea. The difference between me and its supporters at the time is that I've decided it's wrong and they're still defending it. I'm trying to repair the damage and they're trying to keep it alive.

Do you remember how you felt about those criticisms at the time?

Yeah, I thought, you know, "These are just a lot of people who are afraid of tests."

Has the experience of changing your mind on this one belief caused you to question any other beliefs?

I'm trying to think. I can't say that I have deep passionate beliefs about other things where I would need to reconsider. I don't have any strong religious commitments. Politically I've been independent for years. Being a skeptic to start with, I don't have a whole lot that I have to re-examine. I'm always re-examining.

What do you think about the role of wrongness in education? It seems to me that making mistakes is crucial to learning, yet by and large mistakes are discouraged and punished in our schools.

We have reshaped the education system largely through federal legislation to an approach of "right answers, right answers, right answers." But life's not like that. We're putting a tremendous amount of value on being able to pick the right one out of four little bubbles. But this turns out not to be a very valuable skill. You can't take this skill out into the workplace and get paid for it.

My research assistant did a blog for the Washington Post about this mantra of "Failure Is Not an Option." Her point was, you can't learn anything unless you fail. Failure has to be an option. What does success mean if there's no failure? It just means that you've dropped the bar so low that everyone can walk over it.

If you could hear someone else interviewed about wrongness, who would it be?

That's a hard one. Donald Rumsfeld said he was wrong, but I don't even want to hear from him. [Former Treasury Secretary, former Goldman Sachs Co-Chair, and former Citigroup Chair] Bob Rubin would be interesting, but he'll never admit he was wrong. Right now what's coming to mind are people who have never admitted that they're wrong about anything.

Like who?

Like basically everybody I've been associated with for the last 20 years.

___________

Kathryn Schulz is the author of the forthcoming Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error . She can be reached at kathryn@beingwrongbook.com . You can follow her on Facebook here , and on Twitter here .

This interview is part of a series of Q and As in which notable people discuss their relationship to being wrong.  To read the previous interview, with Alan Dershowitz, click here .

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May 14 2010 4:46 PM

Alan Dershowitz and the Bias Blind Spot

In one of the more fascinating moments of my interview with Alan Dershowitz , he claims that his own beliefs about the Israel-Palestine conflict are grounded in the evidence while his adversaries' beliefs arise from (and attest to) their underlying psychological issues. Distilled down to its essence, the claim is: I'm reasonable, my opponents are crazy.

In making this claim, Dershowitz provides a textbook example of a phenomenon called the bias blind spot: the tendency to spot (or allege) bias in others while denying it in ourselves. In a sense, the bias blind spot is just an epiphenomenon of the Lake Wobegon Effect , that endlessly entertaining statistical debacle whereby we all think of ourselves as above average in every respect including impartiality. 

Virtually everyone who has ever studied the bias blind spot agrees that it is a consequence of another psychological phenomenon: naive realism, or the tendency to assume that the world is exactly as we perceive it. Nobody seriously subscribes to naive realism, mind you (at least, no sane adults, and certainly no high-powered legal minds). But that doesn't stop us from defaulting to the sense that our own beliefs perfectly reflect reality. From that often-unconscious assumption follows another: People who disagree with us must have a distorted view of the world. As the Princeton psychologist Emily Pronin and her colleagues put it in a paper entitled "Objectivity in the Eye of the Beholder: Divergent Perceptions of Bias in Self Versus Other":

"We cannot attribute [our adversaries'] responses to the nature of the events or issues that elicited them because we deem our own different responses to be the ones dictated by the objective nature of those events or issues. Instead .... we infer that the source of their responses must be something about them ." 

In other words, we have to think that our own beliefs reflect the facts —t hat's what it means to believe them, after all. As a result, when people disagree with us, we go looking for the source of that disagreement not in the substance of the issues, but in the depths of their psyches.

But what about our own psyches? When I asked Dershowitz why he wasn't just as susceptible to psychological biases as his adversaries, he replied that, "I've thought hard about my psychological connections and I think I've managed to separate out the psychological from the legal, moral, and political."

Here, too, he provides an eerily perfect example of a widespread psychological phenomenon: the tendency to verify our own freedom from bias by ... well, by searching our souls. The trouble is that soul-searching is a sure-fire way not to turn up any evidence of bias, not least because most biasing processes leave no traces in the conscious mind. At most, we might acknowledge the existence of factors that could have prejudiced us, while determining that, in the end, they did not. (After all, if we were convinced that a belief of ours reflected a personal bias rather than objective reality, we would presumably change our mind.)  

Unsurprisingly, this introspective method of assessing bias is singularly unconvincing to anyone but ourselves. As Pronin and her colleagues put it, "We are not particularly comforted when others assure us that they have looked into their own hearts and minds and concluded that they have been fair and objective." 

The bias blind spot is a shockingly robust effect. Researchers have found that even when you explicitly explain the bias to subjects before eliciting it from them, they still claim that they are less susceptible to it than others. If Alan Dershowitz reads this, I suspect he will feel the same way. 

So is there any way to counteract this bias? Only by remaining constantly alive to the very real possibility that we are in its grips, even if we cannot sense it. Alternatively, you could try consulting a few people with whom you disagree. They, no doubt, can spot your biases with perfect clarity.

Kathryn Schulz is the author of the forthcoming Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error . She can be reached at kathryn@beingwrongbook.com. You can follow her on Facebook here , and on Twitter here .

May 13 2010 2:15 PM

Whom Should I Interview About Being Wrong? You Tell Me.

There's only one question I've asked of every person I've interviewed for this Slate series: If you could hear someone else being interviewed about wrongness, who would it be? Now I'd like you to answer the same question. Who's got the most interesting relationship to error? Whose job requires them to think obsessively about being wrong? Who has made the biggest mistakes? Whose personality, background, or line of work impels them to deny it-or encourages them to admit it? Submit your ideas for potential Wrong Stuff interviewees in the comments section below. If you're the first person to suggest someone I wind up interviewing, I'll send you a free copy of the book.

 

Kathryn Schulz is the author of the forthcoming Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error . She can be reached at kathryn@beingwrongbook.com. You can follow her on Facebook here , and on Twitter here .

May 12 2010 5:41 PM

Alan Dershowitz on Being Wrong, Part I: Lawyers, Pundits, Error, and Evil

As a criminal appellate attorney, Alan Dershowitz has represented, largely successfully, some of the most notorious defendants of the 20th century: O.J. Simpson, Mike Tyson, Claus von Bulow, Leona Helmsley, Patty Hearst, Jim Bakker, and Michael Milken, to name a few. As a political commentator, he is an outspoken backer of Israel who has fiercely questioned the left's support for Palestine. More recently, he has attracted controversy for advocating the use of a "torture warrant" to regulate (or license, depending on your perspective) the use of torture.

Talking to Dershowitz about wrongness reminded me of a counterintuitive claim about the nature of certainty. Certainty, this claim holds, is merely a product of social interaction. In the privacy of our own minds, we treat every proposition probabilistically: Hypothesis X has Y odds of being true. It is only when we must communicate with others that we abandon this state of chronic doubt and generate absolutes. Put differently, it is only in writing a book, teaching a class, arguing a lawsuit, or appearing on Larry King that we commit to a cause.

If true, this theory helps explain the paradox of Alan Dershowitz. In the public sphere, he is widely regarded as an unyielding defender of inflammatory beliefs. Yet he is also a connoisseur of error: He believes all of common law emerged from mistakes and has written two books on the relationship between wrongness and rights. (You can read Part II of this interview, a conversation about the role of error in the origins and structure of the American legal system, here .)  Unsurprisingly, he had a lot to say about wrongness: his own, his students', his political adversaries', even mine.

Do you think lawyers have an unusually hard time admitting that they're wrong?

Oh, yeah. I think that lawyers are terrible at admitting that they're wrong. And not just admitting it; also realizing it. Most lawyers are very successful, and they think that because they're making money and people think well of them, they must be doing everything right.

I have the same experience with criminals. People ask me all the time, how could X, who's so rich and so successful, how could he or in [the late real estate and hotel billionaire Leona] Helmsley's case, how could she have been willing to expose herself to prison for a mere million dollars [in tax evasion] when she had three billion in the bank? And the answer is always the same. They didn't just slip this time. They've been doing this since they were kids, and this is the time they got caught. People who have been successful criminals or successful lawyers just do the same thing over and over again, without understanding that at least some of the things they're doing are mistakes.

Well, you're a successful lawyer, to put it mildly. Are you failing to recognize and learn from your mistakes?

I worry about it. That's why I always have young people around me; I insist on my students and the people who work with me telling me about my mistakes. And I think I learn from them.

Isn't your students' ability to confront you on mistakes rather compromised? You're the professor, the hot-shot lawyer, the one with all the experience and all the power, not to mention the one who gives out the grades.

That's not true at Harvard, for a couple of reasons. Number one, all grading is blind grading. Number two, students are taught to be assertive, and correcting the teacher is seen as a good thing, at least these days.

Also, I'm out there publicly and I'm very controversial; my e-mail is filled with people calling me terrible things and correcting all of my errors, including ones I haven't committed. So I'm getting negative feedback all the time.

Can you give me some examples of instances where you've been wrong?

I had an experience early in my career where I was working with a young woman who insisted on putting an argument in the brief. I thought the argument sucked and I didn't want to put it in the brief, and she said, "Well, you're the boss." I said, "No, that's not the way we do things. You're going to persuade me to do or it you going to persuade me not to do it." She ultimately didn't persuade me, but she came so close and she was so committed to the argument that I actually put it into the brief very reluctantly. I really thought I was making a mistake. And we ended up winning the case on that argument. I was just dead wrong and she was completely right.

That's an example from your life as a trial lawyer. What about your life as a political commentator? It's one thing to admit that you were wrong about a tactical issue which argument to use in which case, say. But what about your overarching political positions? Do you think about being wrong about those?

Of course. And I've changed my mind on a few issues. I was critical of race-based affirmative action early on in my career and I've changed my mind. And I've publicly acknowledged that I was wrong.

On torture, people misunderstand my views. I'm against torture, but I'm in favor of a torture warrant, which means I believe it [torture] will happen even though I'm against it, so I favor accountability. I've been having that debate now for, what, two or three years, and I have not changed my mind up until now, although I understand the other side of the position very, very well, and for me it's a close question. But all my life has been about accountability and not making decisions beneath the surface, and that's why it so important for me to recognize that we do terrible things, and that when we do them, we have to do them openly and we have to have accountability rather than deniability.

What made you change your mind on affirmative action?

I've seen it work. I've seen students who would not be admitted on just a colorblind basis who have done so extraordinarily well and have contributed so much to the life of the university and the law school that I realized that the principle was being overwhelmed by the reality. And, you know, I'm a pragmatist. I learn from experience.

That's interesting, because many people regard you as extraordinarily entrenched and inflexible in your political positions in other words, as someone who's convinced that he's right. How do you feel about that characterization?

First of all, there's some basis for it, because when I'm acting as a lawyer, I can't change my mind. I have a client. Nothing that the prosecution says will cause me to change my mind, because I have an obligation to defend my client whether he's wrong or right. But as a public intellectual, I have an obligation to keep an open mind, and I think I do. I understand that it's good tactics to categorize me as a close-minded, unobjective extremist, but nobody that respects me has those views.

The lawyerly obligation to not change your mind, to defend a position right or wrong do you find that it seeps over into the rest of your life?

No, it doesn't because I'm a professor first, and as a professor I'm always changing my mind. I mean, my students go crazy in my class because I'm the most orthodox Bayesian in the world. [Bayesian probability theory is a way of modeling how the human mind reasons about the world. It assumes that people have prior beliefs about the probability of a given hypothesis and also beliefs about the probability that the hypothesis, if true, would generate the evidence they see. Taken together, these beliefs determine how people update their faith in a hypothesis in light of new evidence.] I do everything based on Bayes analysis, and Bayes analysis is always based on shifting probabilities and constantly changing and being adaptive and fluid.

So can you imagine changing your mind on the issues you're currently most closely associated with? On torture? On the Middle East? What would it take for that to happen?

Sure. I mean, on torture I could easily change my mind, because that argument is largely an empirical one. If my approach produced more torture rather than less torture, I would change my mind.

I would find it very hard to change my views on the Middle East in general. I've been very critical of some Israeli actions: At the end of the Lebanon War where they used cluster bombs. I criticized that, and I criticized the use of phosphorus in Gaza. But about the two-state solution, about Israel's right to exist as a Jewish democracy I think that's too deeply part of me. This is a view I've had since I was 10 years old. I don't see myself changing it. I'm against the settlements, I'm in favor of a divided Jerusalem, I support a two-state solution, so I think of myself as moderate. I'm considered an extremist because people like Noam Chomsky are considered moderates. I'm not becoming a Chomsky.

So what do you make of Chomsky and the many other people who disagree with you on Israel? Obviously they think they're just as right as you do.

I think many of their reasons are more psychological than political. I think being Jewish is very, very complicated, and there are a lot of Jews who have to prove their self-worth by being willing to be critical of something very Jewish, namely the state of Israel. Obviously I look first for reasonable bases, but I often can't find them. So I look for psychological explanations. Because some of these positions, I cannot believe they could be based on any kind of rationality. When I look at the double standard by which Israel is judged in the world for instance, regarded by some as the worst human rights violator when it's clearly not you have to ask yourself what the psychological roots are.

So you're saying that your opponents' grounds for belief are psychological but yours are rational? What makes you think yours aren't psychological, too?

It's always possible. But I've studied the situation very closely, and I think I'm prepared psychologically to be critical. I'm prepared psychologically to do what I think is the right thing on Israel. I've thought hard about my psychological connections and I think I've managed to separate out the psychological from the legal, moral, and political. I don't think I'm hung up about my Jewishness. I'm not a religious person, my son is married to a person who's not Jewish, my grandchildren are half-Jewish, I'm not a synagogue attender, I'm not somebody who lives a particularly Jewish life, it's not a hang-up with me. I think I've thought through all the issues, I've written five books on the subject, moderate books. I think I've sorted through the issues and come to a reasonable conclusion.

Speaking of reasonableness, what do you think about the inflammatory rhetoric that tends to accompany these hot-button issues? One of the things I write about in my book is the ease with which we slide from believing that people who disagree with us are wrong to believing they're ignorant, idiotic, or evil.

I think it's a terrible approach. Certainly as a lawyer, I teach my students to respect their adversaries: They're sitting in class with you today, and tomorrow they're sitting on the opposite side of the courtroom. They're as smart as you are, they're as well-motivated as you are, they're as decent as you are, they're as open to new ideas as you are. The worst mistake you can make is underrating your enemy. Assuming that they're evil I think it's a terrible thing to do.

That's in the law. What about as a pundit? You've done it yourself, in that context.

Not idiotic. I don't characterize people who disagree with me as idiotic. Evil I use the word evil a lot. I like it. I think Richard Goldstone is evil. I think Norman Finkelstein is evil. I don't shy away from those terms. There are evil people in the world.

Define it.

Evil people are people who knowingly engage in conduct that is done for selfish reasons that don't reflect reality. I think there are really, really evil people on both sides in the Middle East conflict. Those Jewish extremists who would engage in violence to preserve the settlements are evil.

[In a subsequent e-mail in which he asked me to clarify his remarks on evil, Derswhowitz wrote: "I just want to re-emphasize that I never call those who disagree with me about Israel "evil." Indeed I admire and learn from Palestinians like Sari Nuseiba and others. I reserve that term for those who compare Israel to Nazi Germany or accuse it of having the worst human rights record in the world. There is no rational basis for making such comparisons. They can be motivated only by an evil intent. And I call it as I see it without mincing words." ]

Are you saying that you think these people consciously work toward immoral ends? It's my experience that most people think they're on the side of the angels, just as you do.

I think some are motivated by entirely selfish reasons. Goldstone wants to be loved and adored by the international human rights community, he wants to be promoted, he wants to get teaching jobs. I think he's purely, purely selfishly motivated. He knows what he's doing, he's making a calculated decision. People like Chomsky I think are motivated by an ideological hated for anything centrist or liberal or moderate or American or Western. And then he's prepared to lie to support his views.

But is this a debate about Israel or are we talking about mistakes here?

We're talking about wrongness, but part of what interests me is how we treat people when we think we're right and they're wrong. For instance, you've accused some people you disagree with of "hating America," which seems awfully Sarah Palin-ish for such a smart guy.

I don't ever accuse anybody who disagree with me of hating America because they disagree with me. I accuse Noam Chomsky of hating America, because he says so. I disagree with Pat Buchanan, but I don't accuse him of hating America. I have a different view of him.

Ha. OK. Well, tell me this, on a different topic. You've written, in Letters to a Young Lawyer , about being wrong about people, including some of your legal heroes, and about the intense disappointment that caused you. What about your clients? Have you believed in a client and then realized that you were wrong?

Well, first of all, I start out assuming all my clients are guilty and all my clients are lying to me. That's my operating assumption as a good lawyer, just like any good doctor would start out believing that the chest pain is not indigestion but a coronary, or the patient who says he never smoked or used cocaine may be lying. So I have rarely been disappointed by my clients because I have rarely expected much of them.

On occasion, though, I have fallen for the charm of a client, and believed that maybe they were telling the truth only to learn that they weren't.

What was that like?

Oh, it was pretty awful. Unfortunately, I can't tell you who it is, but she was a kind of prominent woman client who clearly misled me, and it was very difficult. But in the end I should have seen it coming, and I faulted myself.

What would you say you've been most wrong about in your life?

I think it's about people. Being wrong about people, misjudging people, expecting too much of people that's the one that has the most devastating impact, because how you interact with people is very personal. Ideas don't desert you, ideas aren't treasonous to you, but people can be.

Is there a specific experience you can share?

No, I don't think so. But the other thing I could say has disappointed me is the left, and particularly the hard left. I'm thinking of writing a book called Why I Left the Left but Couldn't Join the Right . In that respect, I feel sometimes without a home, because I was a person of the left all the way through college, law school, my first years of teaching. Remember, I came of age during the Vietnam War, so the hard left and the civil liberties left didn't have anything to disagree about. But after Vietnam, when the issue moved from Asia to the Middle East, a sharp division arose between liberals who supported Israel and the hard left that vehemently hated Israel. That to me was a big disappointment that I should have anticipated and didn't.

Last question: If you could hear someone else interviewed about wrongness, who would it be?

Bill Clinton. I think he's made some of the most interesting mistakes.

Like what?

His most interesting mistake was who he picked to be his lawyer when he was about to be impeached. You know, he made a terrible, terrible choice and his lawyer got him into terrible, terrible trouble by putting him through a deposition about his sex life, which no reasonable lawyer would ever do.

To read Part II of the interview, click here .

Kathryn Schulz is the author of the forthcoming Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error . She can be reached at kathryn@beingwrongbook.com. You can follow her on Facebook here , and on Twitter here .

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