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Seth Zenz | Imperial College London | UK

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In Science, it’s OK to be Wrong

It’s sort of a recurring theme for me, but a recent Washington Post article on the BICEP2 result, among others, has me wanting to repeat the idea, and keep it short and sweet:

Screen Shot 2014-05-18 at 8.15.54 PM

The issue at hand is whether BICEP2 has really observed the remnants of cosmic inflation, or if in fact they have misinterpreted their results or made a mistake in the corrections to their measurement. It’s frustrating that the normal process of the scientific method – that is, other experts reviewing a result, trying to reproduce it, and looking for holes – is being dramatized as “backlash.” But let’s not worry today about whether we can ever stop the “science news cycle” from being over-sensationalized, because we probably can’t. You and I can still remember a few simple things about science:

1. If scientists think they’ve found something, they should publish it. They should say what they think it means, even if they might be wrong.
2. Other researchers try to replicate the result, or find flaws with it. If flaws are found or it can’t be reproduced, the original scientists have to go back and figure out what’s going on. If other researchers find the same thing, it’s probably right. If lots of other researchers find the same thing, we can agree it’s almost certainly right and move on to the next level of questions.
3. Science makes progress when you say what you know and the certainty with which you know it. If everything you say is always right, you might be being too timid and delaying the process of other researchers building on your results!

But I think Big Bird says it best of all:

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6 Responses to “In Science, it’s OK to be Wrong”

  1. Francois lagrange says:

    I’m not a scientist, so maybe I missed a few things, but in my understanding, the problem with BICEP2 is not whether they may be proven right or wrong. But if one makes a pre-announcement, telling the world that something great is to come, then one should be damn sure about the result – or face the public backfire.
    Sure, the press will amplify everything, but that’s only one more reason to be careful when touting the news around.

  2. Seth Zenz says:

    I disagree, Francois. Why not say, if you think you know something important, that it’s important? (And yes, why not say it in a press conference?) I don’t know how scientists can ever be “damn sure” they haven’t made a mistake, or why the anyone should be interested in making sure that there’s a “public backfire” if they have.

    • Guido says:

      In the case of BICEP2, most people working in the field knew that foregrounds and dust would be problematic for a B-mode detection. In the light of how the BICEP2 team treated this contamination – that is, basing their analysis on a slide taken from somebody else talk – I agree with Francois: more prudence with the media would have been advisable. I say this regardless of whether the result turns out to be true or false. When these announcement are made, it is the credibility of the whole field at stake, not only the pride of a single research team!

  3. Ervin Goldfain says:

    Nobody would deny that mistakes are a natural part of the human endeavour to understand Nature. The problem is overstating a tentative result, which seems to be the case not only with BICEP2 but with previous announcements such as the OPERA anomaly and the PIONEER anomaly. Perception is almost everything when it comes to the general public and funding agencies. Going to the press before waiting for independent confirmation is often a risky enterprise, as it may likely tarnish credibility in the long run.

    • Guido says:

      If I remember correctly, the OPERA people where very cautious with their faster-than-light neutrinos result. What backfired in that case was the tremendous size of the potential discovery, not the scientists’ approach towards the press.

  4. Seth Zenz says:

    Hi Ervin: I’m a bit confused what you mean by “going to the press before waiting for independent confirmation.” Surely you can only seek independent confirmation by making your results public, and surely the press can report on public results. So the whole issue, then, must be in what kind of press conference you old and which words you choose — but those things seem like such a very small part of the scientific process to me.

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