00:00 – Welcome and introduction

00:58 – What being wrong means to us

04:00 – Being wrong in science

06:48 – The power of peer review

10:07 – The Michaelson and Morley experiment

13:38 – Take-aways from the episode

15:22 – Ending and outro


You can listen to The Method Section by using the player above, searching for “The Conduct Science Podcast” on any place you listen to your podcasts, using any of the links below or you can download it HERE!

Welcome back once again to The Method Section. This week Tom is talking about being wrong! Something that we are all so afraid of and learn in school as a bad thing, but in reality is the underpinning nature of science and our knowledge. Find out what about being wrong in science, the power of peer review and some big failures that led to monumental discoveries! Music by: Joakim Karud – https://soundcloud.com/joakimkarud.

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The Method Section: Being Wrong

Tom:                      Hello Ladies and gentlemen and welcome. I am your host Tom Jenks, and today I’m going to be talking about being wrong, what being wrong means to us, what it means in science and why it’s so important. Stay tuned to The Method Section.

Tom:                      Yes, that’s right. Welcome to The Method Section, a short form podcast aimed at scientists old and new, and today really speaks out to that key concept being wrong. Our ability to deal with that and why it’s, it’s good. This applies to scientists, old and new. This is something we lose as children, our ability to be wrong, and why actually it’s one of the most important things in the scientific method. So this was inspired by an amazing Ted talk called “On Being Wrong” by Kathryn Schulz. So firstly, I’m just going to go through what it means to be wrong for us. You know, when we’re wrong, we feel embarrassed, we feel annoyed, we feel very deflated with ourselves. We’re very defeatist towards people who are wrong and we don’t like to put ourselves in that situation. In school we learn those people who get things wrong are lazy or stupid. You know they, they don’t do their homework or they don’t listen and people who are successful make zero mistakes. We very much tie those feelings with us and attach them to ourselves so we don’t like to feel that we are wrong. We kind of create this bubble where we know everything, we create our own truths and this is in all aspects of life, not just science. In school, we don’t teach uncertainty, we don’t teach how to deal with it and how it is through uncertainty that we find understanding. The concept that I’ll come onto in a little bit is even if you are wrong, you have found out something, you have found out how not to do something.

Tom:                      On the other hand then when we think someone else is wrong, we tend to make certain assumptions and it generally goes in this order. Firstly, we assume they are ignorant that they just don’t have access to the same information that we have and if they did they would come to the same conclusions as us. If that fails, we assume they are idiots or they are stupid. We assume that if they have the data and they haven’t come to the same conclusion that they must just be stupid and not able to put it together. The last assumption we make then if neither of those two work, if someone has the data and they still don’t arrive at the same conclusion, but we know that they are smart, they must be evil, we assume that they must be distorting the truth for their own benefit in some way. This is the kind of pitfall trap that especially here in the Western society we fall into in assuming the worst in ourselves if we are wrong and if other people, if we believe them to be wrong. But then contrasting to this entirely. There are times when we love to be wrong. For example, when we’re watching a film or reading a book and there’s a major plot twist and it didn’t come out how we expected at all. We enjoy being wrong. That’s what makes these forms of entertainment so entertaining, so we should embrace this feeling of enjoying to be wrong when it comes to nature. When it comes to research and hypothesis testing, we shouldn’t see being wrong as a waste of time, but that you’ve learned something.

Tom:                      Moving then onto being wrong in science. I think this is a good segue now is as scientists, you know, old and new, we are scared to be wrong. If you’re new, you don’t want to be wrong and think that you’re wasting time or you want to show that you have the ability and when you’re old, you know you’re respected in your field, you don’t want to be wrong then because there’s also kind of a pressure on you to be right. And our experiments reflect this, the way we talk about them. We’re always trying to prove something, prove a hypothesis. And if someone asks, what we’re doing, especially at the university level that I have experience with is, you know, what are you doing for your thesis? Uh, I’m looking at this and trying to see that this is happening or I’m trying to prove that this is happening. I’m trying to understand this and our language and our minds are focused on being correct or having an ultimate end goal that we will arrive at the correct answer. Now, that’s not bad. That is good because it drives curiosity and it gives people the passion to pursue it, to finding out the correct answer and yes, of course we should be looking for the correct answer. We just shouldn’t be afraid of being wrong on the way we lose this ability to be wrong in front of people from when we are young. As we get older and older, it becomes more and more of a difficult thing to be wrong in front of people. However, being wrong is science being wrong is making progress and something that one of my lecturers said to me that really stuck with me was sometimes being wrong is far more exciting than being right because if you are right, you know what’s going on. You know what’s happening you, your predictions are correct. You, you can kind of figure out the whole system, but if you’re wrong, why are you wrong? What don’t you understand yet that is causing you to be wrong. That’s exciting because there’s more depth to what you’re studying. We need to lose this fear of being wrong, especially in front of other people. And you know, Thomas Edison has a quote that’s been distorted a lot throughout the years. However, it’s something along the lines of “I have not failed 700 times. I have not failed once. I have succeeded in proving that those 700 ways will not work.” This of course in reference to finding the most efficient light bulb construction idea. But it is true every time he didn’t have the correct answer, he failed in quote marks. He knew not to attempt it that way to attempt it a completely different way. And that is how science has built up from the ground.

Tom:                      Good examples then to look at in this kind of spectrum, is the science of peer review. So a lot of time scientists, you know, they, they have done very well to stick to their educational integrity and pursuit of knowledge because lots of discoveries have come from where people either were wrong or they thought they were wrong. Yet they published anyway to allow their peers to help them. And this is one of the most important things is as scientists in the scientific community, whatever field you pursue, you are not alone. Don’t try and do it alone. There is this air of ego flowing around as I’ve been told in certain different sectors and unfortunately we are humans. At the end of the day we, there will be a, a sense of ego, but the more that we can distance ourselves from that, the more that we can cooperate and be like, oh, I’m wrong. Can you figure this out? Can you help me? Ah, that is where we all start to get somewhere even more rapidly than we are now.

Tom:                      There are some great examples of this. One is by Brian Schmidt. Now. During his postdoctoral research, he was looking at the speed of the universe expanding and his data showed him that the universe was accelerating in its expansion. Now he thought he must be wrong. He looked over it for weeks and months and just couldn’t figure out where he was going wrong, so he said, okay, I’m going to publish it because on his academic integrity, I guess it was that which drove him to publish it anyway and he was like, okay guys, you figure out maybe what is going wrong here because he couldn’t, so he published it, his peers looked at it. They did their own experiments to test in the same way and they found that actually he was right and that the universe was accelerating in its expansion rate because of this. He went on to win the Nobel prize. But that brings up the other point of peer review. Peer review is absolutely fantastic because say you do get the correct answer, take evolution by way of natural selection, for example. The reason why that is such a good theory, I think it’s more than a theory now, to be honest. It’s nearly a law, but it’s so good and it’s held up all these years because people cannot disprove it. So being wrong, you can even attempt to prove something wrong. And in your, I guess failure in quote marks, again, it’s not a failure, in your failure of being wrong, you are furthering the knowledge that something is correct. In this case evolution, over the past hundred and 50 years, people have not been able to say that this is wrong. And that is why is so good as in a theory. That is why we hold that as the standard theory. Of course, there are other theories, but generally this is the one that people point to when we think of evolution.

Tom:                      Some of you might have heard of the Michelson-Morley experiment. So this was two physicists, Michelson and Morley in 1887. And in this time they thought space was, like a liquid ether. They called it the ether. They didn’t realize it was a vacuum because all they knew was that light being a particle must have a medium through which to travel through like water. So they presumed space was a type of liquid that they named the ether. Now this experiment is widely regarded as the biggest failed experiment ever conducted. So they created a machine to measure the ether as the Earth moved through it because they would be, they would see the traces, the ripples in this liquid. Their device, however pointed to a null response that there was nothing to be picked up. So in front of everyone, in front of their peers, each other and everyone else that was highly anticipating this experiment. They were wrong. But yeah, they were wrong. But it was the first evidence, strongly disproving the presence of the ether. It was after this that people started to change their mind about what might be there and that wouldn’t have happened. People would have thought there was an ether, a liquid in space for a longer amount of time. Now there is the notion that all kinds of discoveries will come out at some point, but it wouldn’t have come out in 1887 or the, the train of thought wouldn’t have started there. So they had to wait until 1908 for Einstein and the general theory of relativity to kind of come about and explain this result. Which brings me onto-to that even as an example, Einstein’s theory of general relativity is held as the cornerstone of knowledge and advancement in physics. However, we know it’s wrong at some level, at some point, that theory will prove to be wrong because it doesn’t match up with quantum physics. So the general theory of relativity being the how really big things behave in the universe and quantum physics and quantum mechanics being the very small things and these theories, the equations, when you kind of try and fit them together, it doesn’t work. They do not compliment each other. So we know at some level the theory of general relativity and I guess quantum mechanics is wrong. At some point it’s going to break down. And Einstein knew this because at first he was completely against the idea of quantum mechanics. Over time he, it grew on him and he kind of accepted the idea that there is mass randomness. However, knowing that his theory would break down at some level, you know, he still championed it and to this day is still our best interpretation of the universe. And it doesn’t matter in this sense that, okay, yes, at some point it will break down, but when we find that point where it is wrong, it gives us more information to figure out how to get it right. And that is why being wrong is so important in science.

Tom:                      It is good to be wrong and that kind of brings us onto the main takeaways. As you guys know, this is a lot shorter form podcasts. I try and aim for 15 to 20 minutes. So it’s good to be wrong. We shouldn’t punish others for it or make these assumptions that I talked about at the beginning because okay, whilst that might be the case it’s also not always the case and the more people there are around to help us the better it is. When we are wrong we are learning something, we are refining our models, we are refining our methods and you know science as a whole is built on the ground of forgotten truths and this ground is getting more and more solid as we progress. We thought the ether was the truth, the true nature of space and it turns out it’s literally nothing. It is the vacuum is the true nature of space. I want to end this episode on a quote by Richard Feinman. He was a Nobel Prize winner in 1951 for his contribution to quantum mechanics and he says something, I’m paraphrasing a lot here. Scientists have a lot experience with ignorance, doubt and uncertainty, but this experience is a very great importance when a scientist doesn’t know the answer to a problem, they are ignorant. When they have a hunch, they are uncertain and when they are pretty sure of what the outcome will be, they are still, in some doubt, science is a satisfactory philosophy of ignorance, a way of thinking in which doubt is not to be feared, but welcomed and discussed.

Tom:                      But that’s it from me this week, guys. So if you want to check out all the latest goings on, you can go to conductscience.com you can find us on Facebook and Twitter by searching @ConductScience. And if you have any questions for me on this show or for me and Mitch on the main podcast, please use the #AskConductScience. We’d be more than happy to help answer those for you. But as I said, that’s it from me this week. So I’ll see you guys…. A-next time