Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Science: The ability to say "I was wrong"

Just a quick read of a freakonomics post where Dubner was advocating that we say "I don't know" more often reminds me of the two least uttered terms IMO in the English lexicon.

I don't know

I was wrong

And that reminds me of the gift of science. True science dwells in a world of "I don't know" with an attitude of "this is my best guess". Science (although rarely the individuals involved) seeks for opportunities to say "I was wrong"

I now find there are many more planets in the Milky Way than the "almost none" I was taught in school.

Gravitational lensing is a technique that allows us to see planets that are a/ less massive and b/ further from their parent star. The result: science now believes there are more planets.

For sure, the guy who built his whole academic career saying there were no planets - well he/she will be resisting it - but science is happy to say "I was wrong"

Similarly I was taught that an electron was the smallest particle, then watched science think about quarks and now, again, dwell in the "I don't know" world of string theory. Of course once "atom" had the literal meaning of "smallest, indivisible piece of matter"

And just a note on the big bang. I was distressed to hear an affiliated theist I respect (I am an unaffiliated theist who likes Jesus) speak about how "well some people believe God created the world and science speaks of the big bang".


Accepting (for now) the current theory of the big bang does not mean tossing God out of the mix.

But back to science. I like the way it is happy to say "I was wrong"

UPDATE Sat Jan 13

Freakonomics radio just put a podcast up, speaking about a similar thing:

"What I’ve found in business is that almost no one will ever admit to not knowing the answer to a question. So even if they absolutely have no idea what the answer is, if it’s within their realm of expertise, faking is just an important part. I really have come to believe teaching MBAs that one of the most important things you learn as an MBA is how to pretend you know the answer to any question even though you have absolutely no idea what you’re talking about. And I’ve found it’s really one of the most destructive factors in business — is that everyone masquerades like they know the answer and no one will ever admit they don’t know the answer, and it makes it almost impossible to learn."

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