Jewish World Review May 28, 2003 / 26 Iyar 5763

Wendy McElroy

Wendy McElroy
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Consumer Reports

The value of error | 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 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.

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JWR contributor Wendy McElroy is the editor of She also edited Freedom, Feminism, and the State (Independent Institute, 1999) and Sexual Correctness: The Gender Feminist Attack on Women (McFarland, 1996). She lives with her husband in Canada. Comment by clicking here.


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04/28/03: The Great Lie
04/16/03: War may redefine gun control
04/09/03: Why we must discuss a post-war U.S.
04/02/03: Leftist feminists using war as podium
03/26/03: Laying down 'the white woman's burden'
03/19/03: Iraq War may kill feminism as we know it
03/13/03: A woman to replace Saddam
02/19/03: Elder abuse demands family solutions
02/13/03: Iraqi women brutalized by Saddam
01/29/03: There ought not to be a law
01/22/03: Gambling with race and gender cards
01/02/03: The future of fatherhood
12/26/02: U.N. complicit in forced sterilizations
12/20/02: Compassion, kindness killed by fear, paranoia
12/11/02: Affirmative action insults immigrant contributions
12/04/02: Stand up for yourself
11/27/02: Feminist fighting: Aren't we all women?
11/20/02: Rights & responsibilities
11/14/02: Feminist "urban legends"
11/06/02: Equal access does not guarantee equal outcome
10/24/02: Battered Women's Syndrome: Science or sham?
10/17/02: I demand a civil society that respects the individual and acknowledges the existence of honest disagreement between human beings of good will
10/09/02: Abortion debate is about to be ratcheted up yet again
10/02/02: 'Restorative justice' offers battered women more options
09/25/02: Why is prez promising to embrace UN radical social engineering programs?
09/18/02: Dirty dealings kill men's panel
09/11/02: Taking back your power
09/05/02: Calm down, Hootie!
08/21/02: Will Congress empower a group of radical feminists to oversee money slated for Afghan women?
08/14/02: Empower the U.N. with power to sculpt American laws and institutions into the image of gender feminism!?
08/01/02: Practicing 'intellectual virtue'
07/24/02: All male, bad. All female, good: Your tax dollars at work
07/11/02: Put Up or Shut Up
07/03/02: NOW they've done it, again!
06/19/02: A dark cloud shades U.N. Women's Treaty
06/10/02: This Father's Day, send justice
05/31/02: When good women do nothing
05/28/02: Feminists claiming motherhood as liberal cause
05/20/02: Wounds in health care system are self-inflicted: Or, why "my son the lawyer" makes more sense
05/10/02: Are parents boycotting public schools?
05/03/02: Women can't be gun-shy about defense
04/25/02: The Bill of Intellectual Rights
04/19/02: World Bank or World Government?: The World Bank is blackmailing impoverished nations
04/12/02: Victims From Birth: Engineering Defects in Helpless Children Crosses the Line
04/05/02: The professor made me cry, now I will make him pay!
03/31/02: Doctors and teens --- parents be on guard
03/22/02: I was born, now I'm suing you!
03/15/02: The 21st Century is knocking at the barricaded door of feminism
03/08/02: Fun and games at the Ms mag Bulletin Board
03/01/02: Andrea Yates, NOW, and Feminist Jurisprudence
02/22/02: Lady, Your Slip is Showing
02/14/02: 'Abusing' Valentine's Day
02/11/02: Is NOW Pro-Choice or Pro-Abortion?
02/01/02: Are 'fathers' rights' a factor in male suicide?
01/25/02: Is the U.N. Running Brothels in Bosnia?
01/18/02: 'Freedom' at another's (moral) expense
01/11/02: Feminists hit Ground Zero with WTC funds grab
01/04/02: Males winning "diversity discrimination" cases is good?
12/21/01: Good will toward men
12/14/01: "Boss Tweed" feminism
12/07/01: Call me 'anti-woman'

© 2001, Wendy McElroy