Just about every Saturday (delivery is not as regular as it should be) the current issue of the TLS — Times Literary Supplement — arrives at my door. Why should I be a regular reader of an English publiscation that rarely if ever reviews books for younger readers, never books published only in America, and very often devolves into Oxbridge squabbles where a reviewer is in one school of thought lambastes book that represents a competing school of thought, and their mutual acrimony then spills into weeks of back and forth letters to the editor? This last reached a pitch of sillyness some months ago where a new history book (I think it was a history of a southeast asian country) was slammed by a critic, but it turned out the author and critic are two out the grand total of, say, three experts in the world on this subject and have been bashing each other, like Seuss characters with or without stars on their bellies, or butter on the top of their bread, for decades. I read the TLS because our world — the world of kids, books, schools, libraries, parents too often turns insular. We recycle the same ideas and beliefs– nodding in confirmation as someone else confirms a version of what we already believe. The TLS aerates my world — lets in ideas and authors and studies that shake up what I thought I knew.
Which brings me to two examples from the current issue (Monica, wait until the last paragraph, that is for you). The first is book by Kathryn Schulz that gets a full page review, it is called Being Wrong http://beingwrongbook.com/ This is a great subject — not, why did some battle alter world history, or some leader transform a nation, or some genius scientist make an outstanding discovery but, rather, why are we so often wrong? What leads you, me, a leader, a nation, a scientist to be wrong? This week’s issue of the New Yorker has an article about the Barry Bonds perjury trial (if you are not a baseball fan, Bonds was arguably the best hitter in baseball history, but he insisted he never knowingly took steroids, while there is a great deal of evidence that the did, so he is on trial for perjury — the steroids themselves were legal during much of his career). A lawyer on his team points out that the challenge in a court case is “confirmation bias.” That is, once you have a narrative in you mind, you see and hear the bits that confirm that story. A laywer needs to change the story in your mind, then you can consider the bits of evidence. I always liked Kathleen Kudlinksi’s Boy Were We Wrong About the Dinosaurs. But really we — individually and collectively — are wrong much of the time every day. We have confirmation bias, we have cognitive dissonance (when we get counter evidence we assume we made a mistake, not that our belief is incorrect — the classic example is a UFO cult that comes to a mountain top and no alien arrives, but the cult then says they were impure, not that their belief in UFOs was incorrect), we have the rage that rises up in us when we someone disagrees. Wouldn’t it be great if some class in what? 5th grade? 8th grade? could spent a week on Being Wrong — how we come to false conclusions and stick with them, come hell or high water.
Monica asked if the term “speculation” is used positively in the academy. This week, a professor at the British University in Egypt states explicitly that “speculative judgement, where specifically factual evidence is lacking is plainly part of the historian’s task.” The professor requires only that “the author’s speculation is clearly identified as such, separate from sections about fact, and carefully informed according to the rigorous standards of evidence and agrument.” (Letter from Leslie Croxford, TLS, March 18, 2011) That sounds very much like what I was arguing for here, and in the pages of the HB, very recently. Unless that is, I’m wrong.