Kathryn Schulz On Learning To Love 'Being Wrong' No one's perfect. We all make mistakes, and we hate to admit it. But Schulz argues that it's time to embrace our errors. In her book, Being Wrong, she explains why we make so many mistakes, why we find them so hard to admit and what we can do about it.
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Kathryn Schulz On Learning To Love 'Being Wrong'

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Kathryn Schulz On Learning To Love 'Being Wrong'

Kathryn Schulz On Learning To Love 'Being Wrong'

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

Once upon a time, everybody knew the sun revolved around the Earth, until we didn't. Right now, a bunch of things we all believe are probably just as wrong, on the large scale of celestial mechanics or something more mundane like the best route to avoid the beach traffic.

Either way, admitting we got it wrong just isn't easy. We like to be right. In fact, we assume we are right. And the rare admission that, I was wrong, is usually followed by the word "but." Wrong is stupid, dumb, disastrous or maybe sinful. But what if we're all wrong about being wrong?

In a new book, freelance journalist Kathryn Schulz argues that it's time to embrace our errors. Through anecdotes from ancient philosophers to stories about modern-day screw-ups, she explains where our errors come from, why we find them so hard to face, how we respond when beliefs fail us - and proposes a new model where errors can transform the world around us and ourselves.

So when was the last time you were - admitted you were completely wrong about something? Our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, post-Katrina New Orleans and the sounds of "Treme." We'll talk with the music supervisor of the HBO series. But first, Kathryn Schulz joins us now from our bureau in New York. Her new book is "Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margins of Error." And it's nice to have you on the program today.

Ms. KATHRYN SCHULZ ("Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margins of Error"): Pleasure to be here.

CONAN: And I imagine the task of copyediting the book on error was demanding, to say the least.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SCHULZ: Yeah, it sure was. There's nothing like writing a book about being wrong to make you very, very vigilant and aware of your own mistakes.

CONAN: And very humble, from time to time.

Ms. SCHULZ: That's for sure.

CONAN: No, no, no, I meant to be in the past pluperfect, yes. There are different kinds of wrongs, as you point out in the book: Oops, my car keys aren't where I thought I left them; and oops, I was wrong about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

Ms. SCHULZ: Right, absolutely. The kinds of things that we can make mistakes about are essentially unlimited in number. And as different as those errors can be, I think we stand to learn a lot by comparing them, and by creating this category called wrongness, into which we can put them all and sort them out and make sense of them.

CONAN: And there are also not merely errors of our perception or errors of intellect, there are errors like oops, it was wrong to push my brother down the stairs.

Ms. SCHULZ: Right. That is arguably not so much an error as a moral wrong, a moral mistake, if you will. And this book is not explicitly about moral wrong. I didn't set out to write about ideas of evil and immorality.

But it turns out that when you start thinking about the other kind of wrongness, you inevitably spend some time thinking about moral issues. Even the fact that we use the same word, you know, wrong, to connote these two different kinds of wrongness suggests that there's a real relationship in our minds between being mistaken and being immoral.

CONAN: Matters of fact and matters of morality, as you suggest. You begin, though, with the idea that our senses can truly fool us, as the analogy of, well, everybody can see the sun revolves around the Earth. Of course, it doesn't turn out that way.

And there is a whole revolution of thinking that evolves as people understand they were wrong about a whole bunch of things, including the sun going around the Earth.

Ms. SCHULZ: Right, exactly. I mean, that's such a canonic example, and one of the things that's really interesting about it is, as you point out, it's an error that's supported by our most basic senses. It makes complete sense that we look around us and we think that the sun revolves around the Earth, instead of vice versa.

And once you have that belief that's reinforced by your senses, suddenly you get an entire scientific system built around it. You get an entire religious system built around it. And so correcting the mistake doesn't turn out to be just a matter of checking your sensory perceptions against reality. You really wind up having to reconstruct an entire world view.

CONAN: This whole Ptolemaic - you look at the constructions of how the ancient astronomers figured out the rotations if everything did go around the Earth, and they're unbelievably complicated. Mercury in retrograde - that's where that idea comes from. And you wouldn't have thought - that they would've applied Occam's razor: The simplest solution has to be the best.

Ms. SCHULZ: You know, you would think so, but it turns out that when we're really attached to a belief, we will come up with unbelievably wild theories to justify it. And although we can kind of scoff at these ancient scientists for thinking, well, you know, maybe there are these 13 celestial spheres that move like this in order to preserve this idea that the sun rotated around the Earth, the truth is we all do this from time to time. We get so committed to a belief that we will come up with some really wild theories to support it.

CONAN: And even when we are proved to be wrong, as you point out, there are two expressions that almost immediately follow those three little words: Either, as I mentioned, "but," or the expression "mistakes were made."

Ms. SCHULZ: Exactly. And I love that one. It's so classic. On the surface, it's an acknowledgement of error. But when you really think about it, what is that expression doing, mistakes were made? It is explicitly failing to take responsibility for an error. There is no agent in that sentence. There is no me committing the mistake.

CONAN: And this is something that's so typical of human nature because, as you suggest, it's so good to be right.

Ms. SCHULZ: Right. We all really love to be accurate about things. In fact, although this is a book about being wrong, I really started out by thinking about being right and by reflecting on why it is that we all relish that experience, and why it's so fun and pleasurable to be right and the consequences of that, you know - what it means when we're so attached to being right that we can't entertain challenges to our theories and more to the point, even that we can't really treat people who disagree with us with perhaps the respect that they deserve.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. People who have different belief systems, well, clearly they are inferior, as you see in the attitudes of a lot of, you know, colonialists.

Ms. SCHULZ: Yeah. I think we often rush to make a series of assumptions about people who disagree with us. And the first assumption is that they're ignorant. They just aren't in possession of the same facts that we have, and if they were, they would obviously come around to our viewpoint.

And when that doesn't work, when they have those facts and they still don't agree with us, we decide that they're idiotic. They know the information, but they just don't have the brains to interpret it.

And when even that doesn't work, when they prove to actually be kind of clever, well, then we just conclude that they're probably morally bankrupt. So basically, people who disagree with us are ignorant, idiotic or evil.

CONAN: There's also different kinds of things that, as you point out, we believe in. Some of them, we believe in stuff we couldn't possibly know -that we believe in the Big Bang Theory, for example, or that, you know, probably the tide patterns in the Gulf of Mexico will eventually bring the oil around into the Atlantic Ocean. Neither you nor I have studied these things, but we believe them.

Ms. SCHULZ: Exactly. And, you know, the example I always think about is the number of arguments that happened over voting machines and whether they're rigged or whether they're accurate. And the reality is, I mean, what fraction of the American public understands how a voting machine works? I personally don't have the foggiest notion.

But this is actually, I think, a really wonderful thing about human beings. We're able to take advantage of one another's minds and of one another's expertise. And that's important.

We wouldn't be able to understand or enjoy, you know, most of the world around us if other people weren't experts in things that we're not. But it does mean that we're inevitably relying on someone else and quite often, when we say that we're right, what we really mean is: Well, I believe that this other person is right.

CONAN: I'm from New York and tempted to remark that I do know how voting machines work. Whatever lever you switch, it goes for the Democratic Party.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SCHULZ: Yes, as a fellow New Yorker, I can second that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: We're talking with Kathryn Schulz about her new book, "Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margins of Error," 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. Ryan's on the line from Davenport, Iowa.

RYAN (Caller): Hi, Neal.

CONAN: Hi, there. And I believe Davenport to be the home of Bix Beiderbecke.

RYAN: I'm sorry?

CONAN: The home of Bix Beiderbecke, the great cornet player.

RYAN: Yeah.

CONAN: All right. What did you call to tell us?

RYAN: Well, I'm a biology student and as a biology student, you know, we test our hypotheses, and we try to prove them wrong. I mean, I think it's a high - like a sign of maybe a superior intellect - or maybe not that, but it's higher critical thinking to, you know, look at yourself and admit you're wrong, and - your actions, your choices, your behavior, all that stuff.

Yeah. As far as her like, heliocentric universe example goes, I think it's an interesting point. We like to look at the world, and it looks like, you know, the sun's going around the Earth. But if you look at it the same way, you know, the Earth is also - I mean, it makes perfect sense to also look at it and say that the Earth is going around the sun.

And I think it says a lot about humanity that, you know, it kind of makes us - we think that we're more important, right? I mean, do you know what I'm trying to say?

CONAN: Yeah, no, I understand that. And indeed, she writes a lot about the scientific method, which you're talking about there, Ryan. And indeed, when you find something's wrong, it's almost celebration. You've proved something wrong, and now you can get on to a better truth.

RYAN: Right.

CONAN: And go ahead, Kathryn.

Ms. SCHULZ: Right. This is one of the distinctive things about science that, in theory - it's not always in practice - scientists are actually setting out to disprove hypotheses, whereas most of the rest of us just kind of latch onto an idea and look for everything that supports it.

And, you know, the caller mentioned that perhaps this is a sign of superior intellect. And I'm not sure if I would exactly agree with that, but I think the important thing we can learn from scientists is that this way of thinking about hypotheses and evidence is something we can all learn.

Scientists are good at this because they've been trained to do this, because they work in a culture where it is expected and permissible to be wrong.

CONAN: And rewarded.

Ms. SCHULZ: And rewarded, exactly.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Ryan.

RYAN: Hey, appreciate it. Thanks.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's see if we can go next - this is David, David with us from Hot Springs in South Dakota.

DAVID (Caller): Hello, great show, great topic. I used to work in the intensive care units, and often with patients on life support. And there was a lot of pressure to always have the answer. You know, why is this patient's - his health is declining. We've got to keep him alive. What's going on? There was a lot of pressure to be right all the time - on myself and especially, the physicians that I worked with.

And now that I'm in a - I find that I'm in a clerical support - or a clinical support role, where I'm more computer-based, and I assist them - it's just liberating to be able to say, you know what? I don't know. I don't have the answer. So I don't have this pressure to be right all the time, and it's absolutely liberating to be able to say, you know what? I don't know.

CONAN: Another phrase a lot of people - you write, Kathryn - have difficulty saying.

Ms. SCHULZ: Absolutely. A lot of us are really uncomfortable with not knowing, with that state of doubt or uncertainty. But David, I think you're exactly right. I think the capacity to say "I don't know really" can be very liberating, and it can open us up to learning and to hearing other people's opinions and ideas, and resolving a situation collaboratively.

I also think the point you make that - you know, you were in a situation of really critical stakes. These are people who are very, very sick and, of course, everyone wants to know the answer, and they want to be able to solve the situation.

And I think that really speaks to the heart of why we hate being wrong, which is that we don't - we're terrified of feeling out of control. We're terrified of not having the answers, and we would sometimes rather assert an incorrect answer than make our peace with the fact that we really don't know.

CONAN: Indeed, we evolved to come up with answers quickly, exactly for situations like David met in the ICU, and it's terrible to be wrong.

Ms. SCHULZ: Certainly in a deep, evolutionary sense, yes, it's very, very helpful when we're accurate about our environment.

CONAN: We'll talk more with Kathryn Shultz about "Being Wrong" in just a moment. I mispronounced your name right there. It's Kathryn. When was the last time you admitted that you were completely wrong about something? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Or drop us an email: talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

We're talking with Kathryn Schulz about her new book, "Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error." One reason we can be wrong is that our senses sometimes lead us astray. Illusions are one example. If you want to test that theory, go over to our website. There's a link to Edward Adelson's checker shadow illusion there. You'll also find an excerpt from Kathryn Schulz's "Being Wrong." Just go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And when was the last time you admitted you were completely wrong about something; 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. Again, that address is npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

An optical illusion - well, that seems to be a fairly simple and low-pressure way to test this idea of being wrong.

Ms. SCHULZ: Yeah, exactly. And one of the things that's wonderful, to me, about optical illusions is that it's an instance of wrongness that we can all be counted on to love. Almost everybody adores optical illusions.

We start loving them when we're very young children, and we really never stop. And the one that you just mentioned, Ted Adelson's checker shadow illusion, I particularly adore this illusion because - as your listeners can see if they go check it out on your website, it's unbelievably maddening. It's one of these optical illusions that you look at it, and you literally cannot believe your eyes. There's just no way to reconcile what you're seeing with the explanation of the illusion.

And this, I think, is an important insight into wrongness, which is that sometimes, that feeling of certainty, the feeling of conviction about the way things are, it can be as robust and vivid and persuasive as you can possibly imagine, and it can still be wrong.

CONAN: And it can still be wrong. And this is an illusion, you can know it's an illusion and look at it, and you still swear it cannot possibly be true. Go ahead, check it out: npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Let's go to Steve, Steve with us from Wichita.

STEVE: I sure am.

CONAN: Go ahead, Steve.

STEVE: Well, I fix airplane radios for a living, and that's a place where you don't want to make mistakes. There, you know, on - other parts of the airplane. But I received a notification from a customer that a mandatory service bulletin was supposed to have been done to a particular radio, and I ordered the bulletin. I found out that the bulletin had been out for eight - I'm sorry, for seven years.

CONAN: Oh, my gosh.

STEVE: See, on deed. So I had to go back - well, first of all, I had to tell my boss, and that was the hard part. And then we had to go back and find all of these seven radios - or seven years' worth of this particular model. Fortunately, it wasn't quite that many, but it was rather expensive and quite time-consuming. And was it my fault? Well, yeah, because I signed the units off as serviceable.

CONAN: And you, had you overlooked this bulletin?

STEVE: It's hard to say, because I had, you know, I have what's in my maintenance manual. Yeah, I guess I did.

CONAN: Wow. And I hope nobody got hurt as a result.

STEVE: No. This was the thing where if it doesn't work, the pilot switches to the number-two radio. So...

CONAN: I see, OK. Well, that's - it's gratifying to hear, but Steve, that must have been - was there, you know, that sensation of the pit of your stomach dropping out?

STEVE: If that was only it. Yeah, the pit in my stomach fell out and whatnot, and yeah, that's scary - just, you know, what's it going to cost and whatnot. It's tough.

CONAN: It's tough. All right, well, I'm glad you caught the error.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEVE: So am I.

CONAN: OK, Steve. Thanks very much. That feeling that he's describing, that's typical of discovering you were wrong about something, something important.

Ms. SCHULZ: Well, if it's something important, exactly. I think there's many instances where we don't feel that when we're wrong. We can actually feel a staggering range of very different emotions in the face of our mistakes, depending on what they are. But definitely in situations where there's a potential high cost, or in situations where there is not a material cost or a safety cost, but there might be a cost to our ego - yes, that feeling of your stomach dropping out from under you is very familiar.

And even the way that we talk about our mistakes - you know, we say that, you know, we want to fall into a hole in the ground; we want to disappear. We want to die. And these are actually quite exaggerated responses, in many cases, to less significant errors than your caller was talking about. And yet we often feel that really intense wave of - kind of shame and horror that we made this mistake.

CONAN: Jack in Sacramento emails: The subject today ties in with the subject from a couple of weeks ago: the gorilla - the invisible gorilla. We all rewrite history. I have a friend who's in his late 60s or early 70s. He sent me a tirade about a woman who spotted an omission in a Roosevelt quote on a World War II monument, when she claimed that the government had purposely omitted the phrase "so help us God."

I informed my friend, and sent him an MP3 of the speech - that Roosevelt never uttered that phrase in the speech. My friend never believed it. He heard the speech as a child and knows for sure that he heard "so help us God." He figures somebody has scrubbed all the records of that phrase, not that he remembers it wrong.

And that's reminiscent of the person you cite in your book, who says he remembers the day of December 7th, 1941, because the announcer broke into the baseball game he was listening to.

Ms. SCHULZ: Right. Memory is an astonishing realm for the study of wrongness. It's just so rich with incredible examples. And, you know, the - in some ways, the experience of being wrong about a memory is quite like that illusion experience, because it feels so convincing.

And I think - I love this example, actually, of imagining that the history books have somehow been completely scrubbed of every reference to this quotation instead of, as you said, Occam's razor solution, which is that it was simply never said.

And, you know, it ties back into what you mentioned earlier, which is that we have this incredible capacity to generate these totally contorted, wild theories to protect what we believe is the truth.

CONAN: You go through this whole explanation of what we think of as snapshot moments: Where were you on September the 11th or December 7th, 1941, or the day John Kennedy was shot? And experiments done to compare people's memories of that morning of September the 11th with what they -how they described it again three years afterwards.

Ms. SCHULZ: Right. These are called flashbulb memories, and they were really first studied after the assassination of John F. Kennedy - which is, of course, classically a moment that people who were alive for that can often tell you with what seems to be astonishing accuracy, and what truly is astonishing specificity: exactly what they were doing, what they were wearing, who they were talking to, where they were standing.

And those memories are incredibly vivid. And it turns out, that is the one and only distinctive thing about them. They're very vivid. They're much more vivid than everyday memories. Nobody remembers what they were doing on September 5th, 2001, or September 17th, 2001. But we all remember what we were doing on September 11th, 2001, and that vividness is really unique.

But as you just mentioned, it turns out that the actual accuracy of those memories is pretty much on a par with all the rest of our memories. They decline and erode over time, just like our, you know, totally mundane recollections.

CONAN: And even after, you know, the memories are compared, shown their original memories, people still don't believe it.

Ms. SCHULZ: Right. There's an amazing example from a study of the Challenger explosion, where one of the subjects recorded her memory, you know, the day or two days after the explosion, very close to the event itself, and then went back in several years later to recite to the researchers her very vivid memory, that she was very convinced of.

And it turned out it didn't match her original recollection at all. And they told her as much, and they showed her her own handwritten account from the day after the explosion. And she looked at it, and she said: I know that's my handwriting, but it can't be me. That can't have been me. This is not my memory.

CONAN: Let's go to Claudia, Claudia with us from Gardnerville in Nevada.

CLAUDIA (Caller): Hi.


CLAUDIA: Thanks for taking my call. I'm a fifth- and sixth-grade elementary school teacher, and I think the idea of being wrong is really interesting when it comes up in mathematics. And I'm also a doctoral student, studying mathematics education.

And what I find is the kids, once you've locked into their answer and they're afraid to admit that they are wrong - and I think society does that to them over time, that you have to have the right answer or something is wrong with you.

And so what we've been working on is trying to get the kids to see: If you have logical evidence and you have good reasons to change your answer, it's actually a smart thing to change your answer and say, oh, I was wrong. This is actually what it is - rather than lock in and refuse to listen to reason, which I find they do more often than not.

CONAN: Hmm. There's an example that you give, Kathryn, from mathematics, where it turns out that if you aggregate all the wrong answers, well, you're getting a lot of information.

Ms. SCHULZ: Right. I mean, in some ways, this is the fundamental insight of statistics, that instead of trying to get rid of every imaginable error, if you just gather all the data together, including all the wrong and erroneous data, ultimately, you've got a much more accurate picture of a given truth than if you try to get rid of all of those errors.

But I want to speak to this issue of education for a moment. First of all, congratulations. It sounds like you've got some great pedagogy going on in your classroom, and I'm happy to hear it.

I think you're exactly right, that we start teaching kids at a very, very young age that there is something shameful about being wrong. It's no wonder that, as adults, we carry that attitude because by the time you're in first or second grade, you understand what a red mark on a piece of paper means. You understand that the kids who are getting all those red marks are in some way, somehow inferior, either intelligence or in will or in discipline. And that, I think, is a really problematic thing to be teaching people.

Education at its best, in some ways, should mirror science. I think it should encourage kids to see the world as a bunch of hypotheses that you want to test as best as you can, and a lot of them aren't going to work out. And it's actually in that failure, in that collapse of your hypothesis, that the real joy of learning takes place.

CLAUDIA: Exactly, and I see them developing this math-phobia around: I'm wrong all the time. I'm wrong all the time. So I don't even want to engage in that type of thinking. And I feel like as educators, we need to flip that a little bit and let them see all those wrong answers, and let them know that that's actually a process of learning.

Like you said, we need to consider all the answers, and it locks in what - a better thinking process on how to find the right answer.

Ms. SCHULZ: Right.


CONAN: Or introduce the concept to the metaphor, which is never completely wrong.


(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Claudia, good luck.

CLAUDIA: Thank you very much.

CONAN: Bye-bye.


CONAN: This email from Rob in Fargo: No job is probably more humbling than being a meteorologist. Nearly every day, you're wrong to some degree - and sometimes utterly and completely. My best one was the night I said it would be a lovely evening. The tornado sirens sounded around 10 p.m.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SCHULZ: I love this email. I want a copy of this email. You know, I think, right - meteorologists, sports writers - there's a lot of people who are in domains where their bread and butter is really about making predictions about the world. And it turns out that making accurate predictions about the world is incredibly hard.

And one of the things that differentiates someone like a meteorologist from someone like, for instance, a political pundit is that the weather is a - gives you an instant-feedback mechanism. You say it's going to be lovely and the next thing you know, there's a tornado. You say it's going to rain, and it's a balmy day and everyone wishes they were at the beach. Whereas in many of the instances in life, we make forecasts, and the feedback mechanism, we can game it a little bit more and we don't have to face up to our wrongness as admirably as it sounds like the writer did.

CONAN: Let's see if we can go next to Bob, Bob with us from St. Paul.

BOB (Caller): Hey, thanks. I'm wondering about - if there's gender differences as far as how people, you know, the right and wrong issue. It - I mean, it doesn't seem to me that - from my experience, anyway, that women tend to come into situations generally more open-minded and make fewer presuppositions.

CONAN: Oh, Bob, you're totally wrong about that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SCHULZ: No, you're totally right.

BOB: They look for more and better information, and there's less ego involvement in terms of the right-or-wrong issue. I almost kind of wonder what would have happened if we'd have had a woman president with the whole weapons of mass destruction thing.

Ms. SCHULZ: You know, it's so interesting that you should bring this up. I've actually been thinking quite a lot recently about gender and wrongness, although I don't talk about it that extensively in the book. You know, in some ways, this is an empirical question. Either women are better at admitting their fallibility or they're not. We don't have, I think, a lot of data on that. But what we definitely have are some ideas about it.

You are not alone in thinking that women are somehow more able to admit their mistakes. This is something I hear very often. And what I specifically tend to hear is, I hear women complaining about the men in their lives being unable to admit error. But interestingly, I often hear men saying the same things about the women in their life. They'll say things like, you know, ha-ha-ha, my wife is always right - by which they mean, heaven help you if you contradict her.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Bob, thanks very much for the phone call. We appreciate it.

We're talking with Kathryn Schulz about her new book, "Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margins of Error." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's go to Randy, Randy with us from Charlotte.

RANDY (Caller): Hey. How are you doing?

CONAN: I'm doing well. Thank you.

RANDY: I just wanted to let you know the last time I had a major oops and had to admit my mistake was in California. I was in the midst of the dot-com boom in 2000, and my company hosted Web pages for several customers. And we were moving from one data center to another, and I was responsible for that move. And overnight, we had successfully moved some 400 customers from one data center to the other. And at 6 a.m. the next day, I tried to turn them all back on and they were completely invisible to the Internet. These are major retail customers, like WebMD and folks of that level.

CONAN: So they noticed.

RANDY: Yeah, they noticed.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RANDY: We spent three days troubleshooting and trying to figure out what we had done wrong. And before we had started the switch, I had made a checklist detailing everything that we had to do to be successful in the move. And so when we did not come back up the next day, I knew that whatever was on the checklist was not the issue. It had to be something outside of that. So we spent three days trying to track down something outside of that before we finally gave up and went back to the checklist. And sure enough, I had missed something on the checklist.

CONAN: But you knew. You knew that checklist was right.

RANDY: I knew for a fact that I'd gone over every single step.

CONAN: Right.

RANDY: But I'll tell you what I've learned.

CONAN: So how's insurance building now - business now, Randy?

(Soundbite of laughter)

RANDY: Yeah. Well, I'm still in the same line of work. You know, our company was fairly progressive. And I was explaining earlier - we have what we call a D'oh award. And I basically won the Homer Simpson D'oh award for that week from our company for having the biggest mistake of the week. So they're fairly healthy about their treatment of this - the mistake.

But what I've learned in that it's not fun to be wrong, and I don't like to be wrong very often. But what I am, I kind of - I've learned to take the initiative and jump on it and say, hey, you know what? That was my mistake and here's what I did wrong - because it kind of deflects the force of the explosion when somebody figures out that was your mistake.

CONAN: Yeah. And you can't duck it forever. Well, you might have been able to, but the company would have suffered. But...

RANDY: Yeah, yeah.

CONAN: Randy, thanks very much for the call. We appreciate it.

RANDY: All right. Thanks.

CONAN: And that leads us to your proposed model, Kathryn Schulz, of how we can continue to - not merely accept our mistakes, but embrace them.

Ms. SCHULZ: Right. I think that the reality about error is it's not going away. It's an absolutely inevitable part of life. And whether your goal is to try to prevent mistakes, assuming you're in a domain where that's crucially important - areas like aviation or medicine or, for that matter, data storage for Web services - or whether you are in a lower-stakes situation and you just want to improve the relationships in your life and how you handle your own mistakes and other people's fallibility, we need to deal with the fact that error is ubiquitous.

And the only way, I think, to get better at it is to stop pretending that we can sort of imagine it out of existence. We're a lot better off embracing the fact that it is going to continue to happen in our lives -and investigate it and get interested in it and get curious about it than, as I said, trying to deny it.

CONAN: And interestingly, once you need to explore what is wrong and how we deal with it, you're also dealing with what is right and how we deal with that. And as you point out, if we were right all the time, if we weren't willing to be wrong, if we weren't willing to make these ridiculous hypotheses and confabulations about the world, we would have never left where we grew up.

Ms. SCHULZ: Not only that, we wouldn't be human. I mean, the distinctive and the really remarkable thing about human beings is, we have these incredible contraptions in our heads. We have these minds that can collate a bunch of information about the world and organize it into some kind of interesting picture, and form beliefs about it - and act on the basis of those beliefs.

And every one of those minds - all 6 billion of them, or whatever we're up to now - is a little bit different, and it's going to come up with a slightly different vision of the world. And sometimes, it's going to be at odds with reality in a way that is really problematic. But quite often, it's that slight disjunction between the human mind and reality that makes us who we are as individuals, and it gives us our own identities. It gives us our art, how we express our view and our vision of the world. And it's really the most wonderful thing about us.

CONAN: We'll end with this quote that John sent us by email from Los Angeles: Experience is the name we give to our mistakes. That from Oscar Wilde, who may have made one or two in his lifetime.

Kathryn Schulz, thanks very much for your time today.

Ms. SCHULZ: Thank you so much. It's been a pleasure.

CONAN: Kathryn Schulz. Her book is "Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error." And she joined us from our bureau in New York.

Up next, David Simon set his latest HBO series in post-Katrina New Orleans, a series suffused with music. We'll talk with the musical director of "Treme." Stay with us.

I'm Neal Conan. TALK OF THE NATION, NPR News.

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