Embracing error

Being wrong is an essential part of being human. No matter how hard we try, we’re all going to make mistakes. You, me, your doctor, that politician on the telly – we’re all only human. Irrational, inaccurate, self-deceiving and all too easily led astray.

It is something we, of late, are repeatedly exposed to as established systems and institutions collapse and unravel.

But there are positives and learnings to be had from being wrong, as Benjamin Franklin (1762) once said: "Wrongness is a window into normal human nature – into our imaginative minds, our boundless faculties, our extravagant souls."

Some 200 years later this ethos is part of an emerging cultural celebration of all things ‘wrong’.

In Being Wrong, Journalist Kathryn Schulz explores why we find it so gratifying to be right and so maddening to be mistaken, and how this attitude toward error corrodes relationships—whether between family members, colleagues, neighbours, or nations. Along the way, she takes us on a fascinating tour of human fallibility, from wrongful convictions to no-fault divorce, medical mistakes to misadventures at sea, failed prophecies to false memories, “I told you so!” to “mistakes were made".

In this view, error is both a given and a gift - one that can transform our world views, our relationships, and, most profoundly, ourselves.

Away from the pages, this coming Friday 5 July, the Wellcome Collection welcomes in Wrong!, a carnival of human errors that brings together scientists, magicians, film-makers and performers to showcase human failures and the ways in which we can get things strikingly, fantastically, exceptionally wrong.

Back in February 2012 Wimbledon High School ran a failure week, during which students learned not to fear screwing up. The emphasis was on the value of having a go rather than playing it safe and perhaps achieving less.

Likewise, the health care industry is starting to take seriously the proposition that medical error is a systemic problem — one that cannot be solved by blaming individual doctors or denying the scope of the problem, but only by an equally systemic solution. In the US the health care quality movement is promoting public reporting of medical errors and has successfully pushed 35 states to pass “I’m sorry” laws, which prevent physicians’ apologies from being used against them in malpractice suits. Both innovations serve to foster a culture of openness where errors can be better understood, prevented, and resolved. Similarly, hospitals are increasingly adopting computerised monitoring systems to detect and prevent adverse drug events — instances where human error leads to dangerously incorrect drug combinations or dosages.

Recognizing that error is an inevitable part of our lives frees us from despising ourselves — and forbids us from looking down on others — for getting things wrong. Once we recognize that we do not err out of laziness, stupidity, or evil intent, we can liberate ourselves from the impossible burden of trying to be permanently right. For brands there is a learning that they do not always need to appear all-knowing – that they we are now culturally permitted to say that we are trying, failing but persisting. Where brand authenticity triumphs over the myth of infallibility.

John Murphy: Semiotic Shaman and wrongdoer (but not on purpose or through any fault of his own).