Introducing The Wrong Stuff

What it means to make mistakes.
May 12 2010 4:05 PM

Introducing The Wrong Stuff

Welcome to The Wrong Stuff, a blog about wrong stuff: mistakes and how we respond to them (in politics, business, finance, domestic life, you name it); cultural conversations about fallibility and error; and provocative wrongness-related ideas of all sorts.

I've been thinking about wrongness for the past five years, at first recreationally it takes all kinds and later professionally, as I set to work on my now-forthcoming book, Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error . What piqued my interest, initially, were two curiously contradictory observations. The first is that there are a staggering number of ways to be wrong in the world. The second is that most of us go through life tacitly assuming (and sometimes noisily insisting) that we are right about nearly everything, from the genesis of the universe to how to load the dishwasher. Not coincidentally, when we do get things wrong, we tend to respond with denial, defensiveness, irritation, embarrassment, and blame.

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As a regrettably textbook example of such a person, I started wondering about the origins and consequences of this attitude toward error. Why is it so gratifying to be right and so maddening to be mistaken? When did the idea of error become tangled up with the idea of sin? What is it about human cognition that makes us so dazzlingly smart yet so liable to screw up? How is it that we as a culture embrace the idea of fallibility (some variant on the notion that "to err is human" is enshrined in every major religious, philosophical, and scientific account of our species) while we as individuals have such a hard time admitting our mistakes? Above all: How does this tortured relationship to error affect our other relationships whether between spouses, colleagues, neighbors, or nations?

The book that was spawned by these questions is done. But, for good and for ill, the same cannot be said of wrongness. So for the next eight weeks, I'll be borrowing space from Slate and, I hope, borrowing stories and insights from readers to start a conversation about the role of wrongness in our lives.

In addition to my own posts, this blog will feature a weekly Q and A with a notable person about his or her relationship to error. As you can probably infer, I'm not here to reinforce the notion that errors are humiliating moral or intellectual lapses, so the goal of these interviews is not to put people on the spot about their mistakes. Instead, I'm interested in understanding how people with different personalities, backgrounds, and job descriptions think and feel about being wrong.

In this week's interview , I talk about wrongness with Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, who is equally well known for his criminal defense work (of, among others, O.J. Simpson, Leona Helmsley, Claus von Bulow, and Michael Milken) and for his outspoken political commentary on such controversial issues as Israel-Palestine relations and state-sanctioned torture. You can read that interview here . Future interviewees will include This American Life host Ira Glass; author, TV star, and gonzo chef Anthony Bourdain; reformed education reformer Diane Ravitch; high-altitude mountaineer Ed Viesturs; sports writer Joe Posnanski, and others.

Stay tuned for more, and submit your own suggestions for people you'd like to hear interviewed about wrongness here . You can also listen to other people talk about wrongness here , and post comments and questions below. I'll look forward to reading them.

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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