Fear of being wrong

By February 5, 2022Science

There is a story floating around which relates to the physicist, Albert Einstein, teaching a class. Whether it is true or not, I haven’t been able to determine. Given how many bogus quotes are attributed to Einstein, I’m sceptical of its veracity. However, the story goes like this. 

Einstein is supposed to have written the following equations on a blackboard:

9 x 1 = 9

9 x 2 = 18

9 x 3 = 27

9 x 4 = 36

9 x 5 = 45

9 x 6 = 54

9 x 7 = 63

9 x 8 = 72

9 x 9 = 81

9 x 10 = 91

Upon writing the last equation, chaos erupted in the classroom because Einstein had apparently made a mistake. The correct answer to 9 x 10 is not 91. When everyone had calmed down, Einstein said: “Despite the fact that I wrote nine equations correctly, no one congratulated me. But when I made one mistake, everyone started laughing. This means that even if a person is successful, their slightest mistake will be highlighted … So don’t let criticism destroy your dreams. The only person who never makes a mistake is someone who does nothing.”

The last sentence rang a bell with me because I have known a couple of people in my scientific field who, although employed, published very few papers during their long careers. For many years I could not work out why, as their organisation actually paid them to do research and probably had an expectation that they would publish much of that research. One of those I mention above, published two single-author papers during their entire 30+ year career. What this person presumably did was only provide internal assessments of the age of particular rock units on this continent, which was being geologically mapped at the time. While this is useful work, it is lacking in detail and justification for the assessments, as they are often only mentioned as a ‘personal communication’. I have seen the fossil collections this person had access to, and have worked on some of them, so it was not their lack of access to items for study, that prevented them from publishing. I, and most others in this profession publish as much as we can. This is because, if your work is not published, it effectively doesn’t exist.

The only reasons I can suggest as to why someone like this would not publish, is that they were afraid of criticism. When you publish scientific papers, your conclusions are open to being challenged by anyone who has an interest. I have been involved in publishing a few papers which engendered a considerable amount of criticism. Two were single author papers, the other two were jointly with a few colleagues from across the world. All were eventually shown to be largely ‘correct’ and the criticisms to be mostly in error, which was nice. As a consequence, the conclusions have entered into the body of knowledge in that field of science.

If you do not have the confidence to publish your work because you are afraid of criticism then you should get out of science. Criticism of previous work is part of the game, and in very many cases it is helpful in the long run. Science is an iterative improvement of the understanding of the natural world. If you are a scientist everything you do will eventually be proven completely wrong, partly wrong, or perhaps incomplete. It is solely a matter of how long that takes.

10 Comments

  • Arthur Baker says:

    My High School mathematics teacher said: “I’ve only been wrong once in my life. I thought I’d made a mistake, and I hadn’t.”

  • James Faulkner says:

    As an artist with high social anxiety and other associated mental health issues, I understand why someone might resist publishing or putting their work out there. Now, I totally agree with the main point Blot made about science being about getting knowledge out there and rigorous criticism will be a part of that play. It’s the same with my product, and it’s vital to get it out.
    However, if one has already been bullied cajoled and made feel insignificant by the world and it’s human people (who are, we must admit, pretty horrible at times) the very idea of putting one’s heart-mind-passion out there for yet more relentless criticism can be fucking daunting, scuse the franch.
    I suspect there’s more of a cultural influence at play here as well. Australians can be unforgiving of the smallest mistake, especially if one is already on the perimeter of social normality, not to mention an anti intellectual culture supported by sport, sportswear and sports advertising that has little to no respect for academics. We also haven’t quite gotten our heads around mental illness and emotional trauma and the dire effect it can have on a person.
    I can’t cite like Blot here for back up sources, but I do assume that anyone reading this is already so far outside the perimeter that they probably are smart enough to know this already. If there are citable resources, let me know.
    Thanks Blot

    • admin says:

      James,
      I had not considered that it could also be a characteristic applicable to artists. While my game is sometimes referred to as an art, it is not artistic in its ethos. It is all about facts and an interpretation of those facts. Of the two people to whom I referred in the item, one I only knew by her interactions with a colleague of mine, which were not very pleasant. I had not considered that she may have had a mental illness. As you say, it is not something that people have got their heads around. The other one I know well and he reminds me of Morrison; he is a narcissistic misogynist who is solely out for himself, and like Morrison does not cope with criticism at all well. As you suggest, I come from well inside what is laughably called normality (some of my friends would debate that assertion), so I find the concept of mental illness difficult to deal with, despite having a few acquaintances, friends and colleagues who have mental illnesses. I suspect most people do have such colleagues and friends, in many cases without realising it. I think part of the problem with most people is that they cannot ‘walk a mile in another’s shoes’. One of my colleagues, who had a mental illness, used to do a great deal of technical work for me. He was slow but meticulous and kept detailed records of what he did. It was simply a matter of coping with his slowness, which was sometimes frustrating. However, his results were peerless, and because I now have to do all that stuff myself, I’d give my eye teeth to have him back! As I say in the item, I have had some criticism of my work, with one of the doyens of the game (from Kansas) telling me I had got it wrong. However, over the following decade others have started to realise that I was closer to the ‘truth’ than he was. While I put my heart and soul into my work, I do not have a visceral attachment to it. Once it is published, it is done and dusted, and concerns me very little afterwards; it is onto the next project or the next paper. Whether an artist could do that, I don’t know.

      • Warren says:

        “Once it is published, it is done and dusted, and concerns me very little afterwards; it is onto the next project or the next paper. Whether an artist could do that, I don’t know.”

        I’m surprised that you would not be interested in the opinions of those that you respect. And that you may be persuaded to “modify” your professional opinion. And I wonder if artists listen to “good” critics?

        • admin says:

          Warren,
          I could be peculiar in that regard. Most of the positive or negative feedback you get is from the referees before it is published. They are usually experts in the field, most of whom I respect (there are only a few of us on the planet). I have modified my opinions on some topics based on that feedback, and subsequently after discussions with those colleagues. However, the paper that started any controversy is already published, cannot be changed or altered in any significant way, and is already starting to fossilise. It is one of the steps on the journey. It is like climbing a staircase; your eyes are always on the step in front, not those behind. As my old man used to say; ‘never worry about something you cannot do anything about’. It is a reasonable way to decrease stress in your life, and that includes science. I published by first solo paper over 40 years ago, and I have not looked at it in at least three decades. I suspect if I did, I’d be embarrassed by it. It is how the game is.

        • James Faulkner says:

          Generally, it’s the insecure artists who listen to criticism. So, everyone, bar the psychopaths and sociopaths or the overly confident (is there a difference?)

          I think this applies across the board.

          It’s how the criticism effects future projects that becomes problematic.

  • Mark Dougall says:

    Headmaster Scott Morrison stood in front of the class and said listen to me. .

    1+1=2, the moon is made of baby cheeses, God is real and I talk to him and he talks back, I tell the truth, black is white, coal is great, Captain Cook circumnavigated Australia, there was no slavery in Australia, we will look after those in aged care, we have enough vaccines, we will buy your subs,there are enough RATS for all, I bought one at Terrigal, at least no-one died. I am a great PM.

    There is something badly wrong with our education system.

    • Mark Dougall says:

      You will notice that the Headmaster did get something right. This allows him to tell people that he does not lie and at the same time shows to a basically innumerate class his mastery of complex mathematical equations. They ooh and aah at his genius.

  • James Faulkner says:

    Most of the arty types I know are mental in some way. Mostly extro/introversion and the black dog. It could be related to the field of self expression.
    On the other hand as you suggested there is a vast range of human behavioural oddities that almost make defining normality impossible. I myself would define mental “illness” as having a negative or retarding effect on a person’s potential. A bit like a legless fellow isn’t quite as good at reaching the top shelf, or a blind person never getting to appreciate the visual gag. It’s not an excuse, it just is. Sad but true.
    I’d never quite realised why my own strange behaviours were as they were until well into my thirties, by which time I had fucked up and lost everything several times ( boring career, relationships, credit status, self respect). Turns out I’m more than just a little bit autistic/OCD, among other possibly genetic tendencies, not useless but enough it’s created problems that weren’t recognised well enough at the time by either myself or professionals.

    I’m not defined by these brain farts, yet I could not deny how they have effected my life and those around me. I also actively face up to my own wrongs, a lesson learnt too late perhaps but learnt.

    If only Scat Morrison could cast aside his pride and admit mistakes. If he could, I may start to think he might be a human and not a sentient turd.

    • admin says:

      James,
      I cannot begin to imagine what that is like. I have never had to cope with anything like that. My life has had its trials, but most were external rather than innate. One thing I have learned over the decades is that if you own up to your shortcomings and mistakes nobody can accuse you of being a hypocrite, a liar or much else. As for Morrison, he cannot cast aside his pride or admit mistakes. Even when he pretends to do so, he uses ‘we’ instead of ‘I’ as a way of avoiding any direct responsibility. He is what I am fairly reliably informed is a malignant narcissist (a relative is a clinical psychologist), just like Trump. Morrison never makes mistakes, or takes responsibility for anything, and everything he does, or has others do, is in his service; for his benefit, and his alone. He is an appalling person.

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