Advertisement

Real Scientists Admit When They're Wrong

Real Scientists Admit When They're Wrong
From Wired - February 12, 2018

What do you do when you discover youre wrong? Thats a conundrum Daniel Bolnick recently faced. Hes an evolutionary biologist, and in 2009 he published a paper with a cool finding: Fish with different diets have quite different body types. Biologists had suspected this for years, but Bolnick offered strong confirmation by collecting tons of data and plotting it on a chart for all to see. Science for the win!

The problem was, hed made a huge blunder. When a colleague tried to replicate Bolnicks analysis in 2016, he couldnt. Bolnick investigated his original work and, in a horrified instant, recognized his mistake: a single miswritten line of computer code. Id totally messed up, he realized.

But heres the thing: Bolnick immediately owned up to it. He contacted the publisher, which on November 16, 2016, retracted the paper. Bolnick was mortified. But, he tells me, it was the right thing to do.

Why do I recount this story? Because I think society ought to give Bolnick some sort of a prize. We need moral examples of people who can admit when theyre wrong. We need more Heroes of Retraction.

Right now society has an epidemic of the opposite: too many people with a bulldog unwillingness to admit when theyre factually wrong. Politicians are shown evidence that climate change is caused by human activity but still deny our role. Trump fans are confronted with near-daily examples of his lies but continue to believe him. Minnesotans have plenty of proof that vaccines dont cause autism but forgo shots and end up sparking a measles outbreak.

Never underestimate the power of confirmation bias, says Carol Tavris, a social psychologist and coauthor of Mistakes Were Made (but Not by Me). As Tavris notes, one reason we cant admit we have the facts wrong is that its too painful to our self-conception as smart, right-thinking peopleor to our political tribal identity. So when we get information that belies this image, we simply ignore it. Its incredibly hard, she writes, to break out of the cocoon of self-justification.

Advertisement

Continue reading at Wired »