The Scientific Joy of Being Wrong

Esther Dyson Patch

Esther Dyson Patch
Always Make New Mistakes
Credit: Gisela Giardino

From time to time I find myself deeply fascinated with the Golden Ratio and its relation to the Fibbonacci set. I even bought a cross-section of a nautilus shell to proudly display in my cabinet of curiosities because they grow along the golden ratio. Then this article clearly illustrated that nautilus shells grow in a logarithmic spiral. Now I’m even prouder of my nautilus cross-section because it tells a story of just how wrong I was about a beautiful hypothesis.

I feel as though a similar thing happened with the band They Might Be Giants, who released a song in 1993 titled Why Does the Sun Shine?, a cover of a song by Tom Glazer & Dottie Evans, that included the following lyric:

The sun is mass of incandescent gas,
a gigantic nuclear furnace,
where hydrogen is built into helium
at a temperature of millions of degrees.

Not bad, but 16 years later on their album Here Comes Science, they rereleased this cover and followed it with a new song titled Why Does the Sun Really Shine? that presents a more accurate description:

The sun is a miasma
Of incandescent plasma
The sun’s not simply made out of gas
No, no, no
Forget that song
They got it wrong
That thesis has been rendered invalid

They didn’t try to erase the fact that they (and the original songwriters) were wrong; they republished the inaccurate song and accompanied it with a correction, turning it into a teachable moment. The original song doesn’t lose any value, the tune is just as catch as it ever was, only now the listener has additional, more accurate insights into its meaning.

xkcd: Airfoil

xkcd: Airfoil

Here’s the thing: It’s OK to be wrong, but it doesn’t always feel that way. We live in a world where less emotionally mature minds equate being wrong on even a few points with being fully discredited. Under such silly zero-sum-game social pressures, people are backed into ideological corners, unable to concede any error or alter their position on a subject in light of new evidence. We see this in politics all the time, where any politician who changes their mind is labeled “flip-flopper.”

But in the world of science and academia admitting to being wrong demonstrates integrity and exhibiting the plasticity of mind to adjust one’s position to fit the evidence is a virtue. Richard Dawkins tells the story of a Professor at Oxford being presented with incontrovertible evidence falsifying one of his strongly-held beliefs (emphasis mine):

I have previously told the story of a respected elder statesman of the Zoology Department at Oxford when I was an undergraduate. For years he had passionately believed, and taught, that the Golgi Apparatus (a microscopic feature of the interior of cells) was not real: an artefact, an illusion. Every Monday afternoon it was the custom for the whole department to listen to a research talk by a visiting lecturer. One Monday, the visitor was an American cell biologist who presented completely convincing evidence that the Golgi Apparatus was real. At the end of the lecture, the old man strode to the front of the hall, shook the American by the hand and said – with passion – ‘My dear fellow, I wish to thank you. I have been wrong these fifteen years.’ We clapped our hands red. No fundamentalist would ever say that. In practice, not all scientists would. But all scientists pay lip service to it as an ideal – unlike, say, politicians who would probably condemn it as flip-flopping. The memory of the incident I have described still brings a lump to my throat.

Every time a fundamentalist rejects empirical evidence, they put the vice of obdurateness on display. Every time an ideologue exclaims “Ah-Ha!” in response to someone conceding a point in expressing a nuanced position, they parade their nescience before the public. We feel embarrassed for these diminutive minds because they lack the awareness necessary to feel embarrassed for themselves, and rightly so, but it is never appropriate to feel embarrassed for someone who believes in even a large number of inaccurate ideas because that’s simply being human.

xkcd: Certainty

xkcd: Certainty

One thing that becomes apparent when talking to members of the Baby Boomer generation for longer than a few minutes is that they have a lot of misinformation in their heads, but that’s not surprising. They grew up in a world without an Internet and instantaneous fact-checking. Memory is incredibly fallible, and without perpetual reinforcement from easily-accessible references, the data in our heads corrupts and degrades. In fact, it seems that the more we recall a memory the more our brains alter the details.

As part of Generation X, I grew up in a world without an Internet. Then for the first decade of the mainstream World Wide Web, it was considered a cesspool of disinformation. It wasn’t until I was in my 30’s that the Internet became a resource for reference material, and I remember discovering the habit of checking every bit of knowledge I took for granted online at that time and being shocked at all the disinformation in my head.

Ideologues and fundamentalists simply don’t understand the world well enough to know they are as fallible as the rest of us. “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge,” as Charles Darwin said.

Consider one of the most famous examples of brilliance in the modern world. “Einstein” is synonymous with “genius,” but history forgets Albert Einstein was wrong about key tenants quantum physics that he rejected because he could not understand them. The world of physics, in turn, largely ignored his later efforts to develop a Unified Field Theory. Einstein doesn’t stop being a genius for being wrong many times in his life, but he does start being human.

The moment you realize it’s okay to be wrong, you are free. The moment you can recognize when you are wrong about something and shrug off the faulty factoids without a moment’s hesitation, the more adaptable and youthful your brain will remain. As William Cowper mused:

Knowledge and wisdom, far from being one,
Have ofttimes no connection. Knowledge dwells
In heads replete with thoughts of other men,
Wisdom in minds attentive to their own.
Knowledge is proud that he has learned so much,
Wisdom is humble that he knows no more.