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See Inside July 2007

Justifying Mistakes--Getting Better--Tracking the Anasazi

Getting Better: A Surgeon's Notes on Performance
by Atul Gawande. Henry Holt, 2007
Gawande is a Boston-area ­surgeon, a staff writer for the New Yorker and a MacArthur Fellow. His first book, Complications: A Surgeon’s Notes on an Imperfect Science, was a finalist for the 2002 National Book Award. In this collection of 12 original and previously published essays adapted from the New England Journal of Medicine and the New Yorker, Gawande focuses on performance. “What does it take to be good at something?” he asks. In response, he gives three core requirements for success in medicine or any field that involves risk and responsibility: diligence, ingenuity and “doing right.” He illustrates each of these qualities with dramatic stories, from hand washing in hos­pitals to inoculating four million Indian children against polio. (Gawande is master of the telling anecdote—no small thing.) He concludes that it is the human qualities that are most important: monitoring and improving clinical performance would do more to save lives than advances in laboratory knowledge.


Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts
by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson. Harcourt, 2007
Social psychologists Tavris and Aronson answer the question they pose in the title by examining cognitive dissonance, “the hardwired psychological mechanism that creates self-justification and protects our certainties, self-esteem, and tribal affiliations.” They elaborate on how self-justification can increase prejudice, distort memory, perpetuate injustice, warp love. And they go on to give the “good news”: understanding how this mechanism works is the first step toward finding solutions that will defeat the wiring. The goal is to become aware of the two dissonant cognitions that are causing distress and to find a way to resolve them or learn to live with them. They quote as an example then prime minister of Israel Shimon Peres, who, when Ronald Reagan did something that disappointed him, said: “When a friend makes a mistake, the friend remains a friend, and the mistake remains a mistake.”

House of Rain: Tracking a Vanished Civilization
across the American Southwest
by Craig Childs. Little, Brown & Company, 2006

Childs, a naturalist and writer, draws on scholarly research and his own years of exploration in the Southwest to trace the disappearance of the Anasazi, the native people who in the 11th century built a flourishing cultural center in what is now New Mexico that vanished abruptly two centuries later. He writes passionately about his search:

“At first I saw only a high stack of rocks, obviously set by someone’s hand into a crack. As I looked closer, I began to see the concealed outline of a tidy masonry structure that had been tucked behind a leaning flake of cliff....

“I immediately started for it, climbing hand over hand up the cliff base.... I had found a secret. In past travels I had seen many [such storerooms] belonging to the Anasazi, but they had all been broken open, emptied by archaeologists, by pot-hunters, by erosion, or even, perhaps, by the residents themselves returning many centuries later....

“This was no casual find. I had been looking for this for a long time, traveling untrailed desert for most of my adult life, poking into canyons and caves hoping to find intact signs of people here long before me. Their presence gave context to my brief life, to my civilization.”

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