To Err is Necessary

The Importance of Getting it Wrong

Lonesome, by laurinkofler, with Creative Commons licence (Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic)Error is liberation in disguise, a chance to think again in another way, to be freed of old thoughts. Yet all too often we consider only its inconvenience. We might blithely insist that to err is human, but we all baulk at the imposed changes that come with being wrong and being seen to be wrong. In seeking to be superhuman, to move beyond the biological limits placed on our ability to know, we ignore our need to learn.

Neuroscientists have a name for what we do as we bumble our way towards knowledge – they point to a process featuring “reward-prediction error“, wherein experience, aided by dopamine,  allows us to narrow the gap between prediction and outcome until we can predict what we are likely to get. Most of us call this sort of thing trial and error, which is neither an abstract investigative technique nor a luxury bestowed on those with the time to experiment, but a necessity. It is error – comprising the many small but ultimately encouraging discontinuities of experience – that ushers in new understanding.

Now this is not merely an abstract way of saying we’re all wrong and we should just live with it. Error has social implications well beyond merely being incorrect. I work in a profession – writing and editing – in which error can be brutal; it can force away clients and, at worst, cost someone their job. But very early on I read a small piece of wisdom that I’ve carried with me ever since: if you make mistakes, admit them, and never be afraid to apologise. The openness disarms people; it Lattice, by Todd Huffman, with Creative Commons licence (Attribution 2.0 Generic)shows them that you’re willing to learn, and learn again. In your error people recognise how they, too, take account of experience.

And to move this onto a larger stage, it’s most heartening to hear someone who seems to know next to everything about a topic admit that, yes, they have erred. Presenting a lecture on globalisation and welfare to the London School of Economics last year, 2008 Nobel Prize for Economics winner Paul Krugman mentioned he had been wrong about the outlook for growth in developing countries. His enthusiastic predictions were “not as defensible” as he had thought. This wasn’t a major revelation, just one of two “chastenings” he levelled at himself. But it was enough to suggest that the man who pulled together the threads of new trade theory and made his name explicating the economic interconnections between and within countries could learn from his own mistakes.

Error makes us all a little more inward, a little reflexive, ready to challenge ourselves. The point is not just to try, but to try and fail. And fail enough to learn. Karl Popper called this ‘falsification‘ in the natural sciences, which differs from reward prediction in that the scientific method seeks to constantly refine hypotheses rather than confirm them. Who knows if they’re true? This is the search amongst possibilities for probabilities, a retreat from dogma at the extreme, or more commonly from what J.K. Galbraith labelled “the conventional wisdom“.

Right, by Image Zen, with Creative Commons licence (Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic)So I return to the personal level. In essence, we err to get by. As my youngest children grow older I want to fail in their eyes as often as I can, as harmlessly as I can, so they can learn from my lack of experience. Every day now I learn from theirs. As a small social unit, a father and his children – with their bemused mother watching on – we have the chance to benefit from ignorance as we learn. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

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