Culture

Smoke and Mirrors

Making mistakes is the human footprint of our existence. Mistakes spawn across a broad range of consequences, often making them hard to forget. However, realizing that one is wrong hurts the egos of students, researchers, politicians, and any social being. But why? Why is erring seen as such a downfall? In high-risk or high-reward situations, we want to do everything to ensure our moves are strategic and thorough enough to ensure our odds of choosing the best choice, which can only be achieved by imagining all the possible errors to ensure complete rightness. The two components that make up an error are the misunderstandings in our thought process and our reaction we know we have erred. Humankind is synonymous with screwing up, with no one or thing to blame except the basic truth of normalcy with being human.

Making errors is far from a dishonorable quality. Author Kathryn Schulz admits that it is far from being a moral flaw as we all deem it to be. Instead of being dishonorable and embarrassing, Schulz believes it is one of the most humane and honorable qualities. Being wrong or failing reveals some of the most honorable qualities like empathy, imagination, optimism, and courage. The biggest mistakes we make are vital parts of how we all learn and change. This idea is seen often during the Scientific Revolutions and through the Enlightenment Period. The French mathematician, Pierre-Simon Laplace, formed the distribution of error curve, known as the “bell curve.” Laplace created this curve to test his work of the distance between planets. His findings differed from others because scientists and mathematicians were focusing on the accuracy of their human observations. Laplace had the ability to explain and obtain a more accurate picture of the galaxy with the use of errors. Unlike earlier scientists, Laplace tried to get more data to aggregate the variety of findings to take a glimpse of what the truth was through all the flaws. Essayist Louis Menand critiques this formula as a great mathematical proof because errors help us see the correct answer better by throwing out all the fog created by error. This idea is similar to getting rid of the “distractors” in multiple-choice problems. Out of the four answers, we can find the correct answer by ridding the ones that are incorrect first. The bell curve’s wrongness unintentionally coaxes us into revealing the opposite. 

A big aspect of erring is illusions. Illusions have a relationship with making mistakes that we call “visions.” Visions convey both delusion and revelation. In 1818, the Scottish explorer John Ross fell victim to one of the greatest errors in human history. He was a celebrated explorer with thirty years of naval experience and was chosen to find the Northwest Passage. During his expedition, Ross recorded in his journal that he distinctly remembers seeing a mountainous figure, ultimately, “ending” his expedition to the Pacific due to the landmark ending his journey early. When in reality, something odd happened that day when Ross’ second-in-command, William Parry, did not see this mountainous figure. Less than a year after the 1818 expedition returned, William Parry was sent back to Lancaster to take a second look at the route. This time, he saw the mountain rage and sailed right through it. Ross fell short to the optical phenomenon when he saw a mirage. This phenomenon is an illusion of light rays in different climates. Ross was not the first nor the last to fall short due to this illusion. The bridge that ties seeing and knowing is both real and metaphorical. People who know “truths” are enlightened, insightful, or visionary. In contrast, the ignorant are said to be in the dark about other topics. However, the failure in our optical sense is an important part of error that is inevitable. No matter the size of the error, there is no true reality out there that everyone can agree on. If one’s senses differ from others, that is when their realities must differ. This error is compelling and draws you in to try and understand it. But, similar to wanting to discover as many errors to reveal a greater truth, we might get a deeper satisfaction in discovering illusions than just being right. 

Despite the benefits of making errors, our culture despises errors for the havoc they wreak on our emotions. It is ultimately the mistakes we make that teach us who we are and about the things around us. Plato thought that our primordial self was in sync with the universe, and when we are mistaken, it is because we have separated our physical form from the cosmic truths. The same philosophy is seen in the works of John Locke and Martin Heidegger who also believe that errors derive from a gap. This gap varies from individual to individual, but ultimately, it is between our minds and the rest of the world. The sunken feeling you get from erring should be seen as a spirit of hope. We put things forth because we have the confidence to face the possibility of making a mistake in the first place, and that is far from a step outside one’s normal curiosity and courage. 

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