On Being Wrong

“People always come in and argue with me about the true/false questions. Always English majors, actually; the scientists accept that you can be wrong about stuff.” Yes, this is another blog post inspired by a quote by my Shakespeare professor, Pierre Hecker – aside from being a bit of a mentor to me, he’s extraordinarily quotable. But also, this is an issue that is extraordinarily important in science education: being wrong.

It’s been talked about by just about everyone, but it always bears repeating: being wrong is a natural part of life, and an even more natural part of science. The scientific method is all about testing lots of different hypotheses until one is right – the right one may be the academically important one, but all the hypotheses leading up to that one were wrong. If we don’t try the wrong hypotheses, we may never even get to the correct ones. I talked with teacher Paul Grossi about this some time ago: science is not a body of knowledge. Yes, we know many facts through science, but it is really about a way of viewing the world, a flexibility of opinion and a willingness to learn new things. A culture of competition and exams and GPAs can lead students to believe that being wrong is some sort of heinous mistake. The propagation of that belief is the truly heinous problem, though. If students can never admit that they are wrong, they will never be able to learn from their errors.

So, here is where I admit that I’m wrong sometimes. I am actually, believe it or not, wrong once in a while (although I do try to be right as often as possible). I’m wrong even more often now that I’m studying physics: I don’t have a natural aptitude with numbers, and physics has a lot of numbers. I understand the merits of being wrong, and even I have a hard time admitting that I’m wrong pretty often. Maybe it’s pride, maybe it’s conditioning, who knows; but it is certainly a pervasive problem. I know for a fact that I’m not the only one affected.

For the record, this is not a post about how we all think that we’re special little snowflakes and that every answer is “interesting” and that we’ll all have a wonderful straight path with no bumps (although clearly I have feelings about that). It’s not about learning to accept our flaws, either. It’s about allowing ourselves to be wrong and striving for an understanding of how to be right next time. I wrote in my last post about how science is constantly changing. That is only possible because of scientists’ willingness to admit that sometimes, we are wrong. We build knowledge by acknowledging what we don’t understand and searching for explanations.

So I guess what I have to say about what Pierre said about being wrong is, great! The science students ought to be able to admit they’re wrong. The students of literature get a bit more leeway, since in their case it is actually true that there is often no exact right or wrong answer. Yes, defending one’s position is often necessary. Yes, being right is pretty much the best. But being right is not useful: being wrong is where we learn, and admitting our incorrectness is the first step to increasing our knowledge (and increasing our knowledge is the first step to being right more often, and I personally really really like being right).


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