Why it's crucial that young scientists are taught the value of being wrong

02 March 2016 | Story by Newsroom

Albert Einstein is the most famous scientist of all time. From Calgary to Cape Town the image of the wild-haired, contemplative lone genius holed up in a messy office, changing the universe, has evolved into the archetype of how society sees scientists. More than that, it has shaped the social perception of the whole scientific endeavour.

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True science, we are led to believe from a very young age, is never wrong. True scientists – the Galileos, Newtons and Curies – stare into the abyss and return with deep truths about the universe we inhabit. Anything less and, well, you might as well throw in the towel. And so scientists spend their careers desperately trying to be right in every classroom, seminar and paper.

But this is not how science works. It's not even how science is supposed to work.

The scientific method is built on four cornerstones: observation, hypothesis, experiment and the revision of the hypothesis based on the results of the experiment. The last is just a fancy way of saying “admitting that you were wrong”.

And since it is this sequence by which hypotheses evolve into theories which grow into paradigms, science itself cannot progress without scientists admitting – to themselves even more than to society at large - to being wrong.

Even Einstein erred

By now, few people are unaware of the recent monumental detection of gravitational waves by the LIGO team. This was heralded as the final great test of Einstein's General Relativity.

But many people probably don't know that in 1936 Einstein himself, together with Nathan Rosen, submitted a paper for publication claiming that such gravitational waves could not exist. The paper was rejected. Einstein was wrong! It wasn't the first, nor the last time either.

More recently, in 2014, the BICEP collaboration announced that it had detected evidence of gravitational waves from the cosmic microwave background. After much fanfare in popular media and back and forth in the scientific community, it emerged that they, too, were wrong.

So, why is it so important to realise that scientists being wrong is not a bug but a feature of science?

Guarding the future of science

First of all, we live in an age where information has never been more accessible. Ironically, with this growth of access to information has come a commensurate distrust in the expertise of scientists and even in the very science that has brought humankind to this juncture.

One has only to think of the surge of the anti-vaccine movement, resistance to GMOs, anxiety around wi-fi and even the raging non-battle between evolution and intelligent design.

In each of these cases, a small but vocal body pursuing its own agenda latched onto uncertainties and doubts expressed by scientists. Instead of appreciating this as the natural progression of the scientific process, these groups painted it as a dramatic failing of science and of scientists.

In some cases, as in former South African president Thabo Mbeki's HIV/AIDS denialism, these views can have life or death consequences.

A second, perhaps more important reason, is for the very future of science itself. Even scientists sometimes don't take the importance of being wrong seriously enough. This is due in no small part to the confirmation bias that seems built into our humanity. We are more likely to seek out and place value in information that confirms our own existing beliefs.

These views and the culture in which they form are then passed on to the next generation – our students pursuing science degrees at university.

The way forward

The current generation of students go through their degrees petrified of being wrong or of looking “stupid” among their peers and lecturers. This is particularly true in patriarchal environments that pervade Africa, where indeed many young people are taught not to question anything they're told by elders.

And so no questions get asked. No guesses get made and no risks get taken as students grow more and more uncomfortable with being uncomfortable in lectures. For a continent that's striving to produce the next Einstein, this is a cycle that desperately needs breaking.

Fortunately breaking the cycle is not as difficult as it might seem. As much as we'd like to think otherwise, being wrong is something we as humans are inherently very good at. It is something that is manifest in how young children learn about the world, through play.

Natural scientists learn by trial and error, without fear of getting the answer wrong. Perhaps we as adults, students and teachers alike ought to take some lessons from them, cast aside our egos and embrace losing to nature.

But what do we know – we're probably wrong anyway.

By Jeff Murugan, Associate Professor of Mathematical Physics, and Amanda Weltman, South African Research Chair in Physical Cosmology, Department of Mathematics and Applied Mathematics, University of Cape Town. 

Photo by Michael Hammond.

This article first appeared in The Conversation, a collaboration between editors and academics to provide informed news analysis and commentary. Its content is free to read and republish under Creative Commons; media who would like to republish this article should do so directly from its appearance on The Conversation, using the button in the right-hand column of the webpage. UCT academics who would like to write for The Conversation should register with them; you are also welcome to find out more from carolyn.newton@uct.ac.za.

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