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The value of error

By Wendy McElroy
web posted June 2, 2003

Jayson Blair's fabrication of "news" stories for the New York Times has made life more difficult for journalists and commentators who make honest mistakes. More than ever, error is assumed to be dishonesty when, in fact, it is an unavoidable part of being human. I know because there was an error in my last Foxnews.com column and I intend to be as non-Blair as possible in dealing with it.

The error? In an analysis of HR 1298 -- a $15 billion bill to combat HIV/AIDS, mostly in Africa -- I misinterpreted the phrase "widow inheritance." The mistake slandered no one and deletion of the relevant paragraph didn't affect the column's line of argument. But my analysis was flat wrong.

There is nothing shameful in being mistaken, as long as the error is not deliberate, denied or a common occurrence. The key is to acknowledge a blunder and correct it. Yet, in our politically correct and contentious society, people are loath to admit to error. This is particularly true of those who question the current politics of gender or race because defaming the character of dissenters is standard procedure for many feminists and liberals.

The viciousness that now passes for public discourse compounds the common fear most people have of being wrong, especially in a public situation. That fear is intimately connected with the desire not to appear ridiculous or inadequate. Yet error in all its forms -- from misstatements to imprudent acts -- can and should serve a healthy role in personal development. Mistakes are reality's feedback ... but you've got to listen.

As a society, we badly need a levelheaded approach to error in its various forms -- three of the most common of which are errors of fact, errors of circumstance and errors of approach.

Errors of fact are simple misstatements, like 2 + 2 = 3 or the claim that Charles Dickens wrote Moby Dick. Such errors are inescapable -- everyone makes one sooner or later -- and they don't mean a great deal as long as you correct them and proceed with increased care.

Errors of circumstance are "reasonable" mistakes that occur due to the context of your knowledge and do not reflect a lack of care on your part. For example, several centuries ago if you stated "the earth is flat," you would be wrong but reasonably so because that was the common belief.

This applies to actions as well. For example, if you are suddenly fired the day after you buy on a much-needed new car, then buying the car may turn out to be a mistake. Nevertheless, you acted appropriately by basing the purchase on circumstances you had no reason to believe would change.

Nevertheless, even in these cases, a dose of reality can be a learning experience. The flat-earther might begin to question other of his surrounding assumptions; the car buyer might realize that financial planning should include the possibility of circumstances changing.

Errors of approach do not involve specific mistakes but refer instead to faulty methods of approaching ideas or facts. Perhaps you've developed the habit of never backing down from a statement even when you realize you're wrong. Or you sort through data in order to verify a foregone conclusion rather than to assess what it is telling you. Or you automatically launch into a personal attack of those with whom you disagree rather than dealing with the facts and arguments.

An error of approach is the most significant type of mistake you can make because it is neither reasonable nor open to correction. Instead it acts as barrier both to real-world feedback and to clear thinking.

Errors of fact can easily become errors of approach, usually through a fear of intellectual embarrassment. Through this process, people take a comparatively minor incident -- a simple misstatement -- and convert it into a habit that blocks their ability to reason and destroys their credibility. The habit also precludes the possibility of learning from error.

All of us make useful errors every day. For example, every time you date someone who is wrong for you, you move a step closer to knowing the sort of partner who is right for your life. But there is a catch -- or, rather, there are two of them. 1) You have to take responsibility for your error. You can't ignore it, blame others, curse fate or the myriad other methods of hiding from error. 2) You can't constantly berate yourself for the error or live in fear of repeating it. If you do so, you strip the mistake of any usefulness and turn it into an emotional problem.

I'm taking my own advice. The "widow inheritance" remark in my last column was a blunder that teaches me to use more care in the future. I could guarantee that it would the last blunder I'll ever make but, then, I'd be doing something much worse than erring. I'd be telling a lie.

Unfortunately, when the New York Times ignored Jayson Blair's years of deceit -- and, in fact, rewarded him through promotion -- it blurred the line between errors and lies in journalism.

That line needs to be redrawn. Not only for the sake of every writer and news agency with a commitment to truth, but also out of respect for the ultimate victim of dishonest journalism: the reader.

Wendy McElroy is the editor of ifeminists.com and a research fellow for The Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif. She is the author and editor of many books and articles, including the new book, Liberty for Women: Freedom and Feminism in the 21st Century (Ivan R. Dee/Independent Institute, 2002). She lives with her husband in Canada.

Other related stories: (open in a new window)

  • The meaning of Jayson Blair by Kimberley Jane Wilson (May 19, 2003)
    Kimberley Jane Wilson reflects on the scandal over at the New York Times and what it means to us all
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