Freedom to Make Mistakes – the perception of personal time scale in science

The Case for Blunders by Freeman Dyson is a book review in the NYRB about Brilliant Blunders: From Darwin to Einstein—Colossal Mistakes by Great Scientists That Changed Our Understanding of Life and the Universe by Mario Livio.

The book looks interesting – I’ll likely read it. But I admit to loving to read book reviews – for books that seem interesting, but I don’t have time, a book review fills my need for a quick summary of What It’s About.

Briefly this book is about five significant “blunders” by Charles Darwin, William Thomson (Lord Kelvin), Linus Pauling, Fred Hoyle, and Albert Einstein. One quote from the review is:

Each of these examples shows in a different way how wrong ideas can be helpful or unhelpful to the search for truth. No matter whether wrong ideas are helpful or unhelpful, they are in any case unavoidable. Science is a risky enterprise, like other human enterprises such as business and politics and warfare and marriage.

I pair this with another quote from the end of the article:

In Livio’s list of brilliant blunderers, Darwin and Einstein were good losers, Kelvin and Pauling were not so good, and Hoyle was the worst. The greatest scientists are the best losers. That is one of the reasons why we love the game. As Einstein said, God is sophisticated but not malicious. Nature never loses, and she plays fair.

While its always good to read about the greats and what they did right or wrong, that’s not me, nor most likely, the people I train and work with. My concern is with the trainees I’ve got, and the ones I’ve had and the ones I (might) have in the future.

My question: does room to blunder exist? Or is this kind of blundering only for the the Einsteins & Darwins of our world right now?  [Aside: do we even know who they are? I know lots of people who think they are, starting with my former thesis advisor] Or (more likely) are those the only blunders that we ever get to see, because if us lesser being blunder its just ignored (as our some of our best work).

There are two points worth exploring here: (1) the inherent randomness of what science gets noticed, and how that game is played by all types of people and (2) what this means for the seed corn of today (i.e. young scientists).

Number 2, first: I made lots of blunders in my distant youth. Actually I still do in my grey-haired dotage. Personally, I’m much better at laughing it off and moving on that I was at 24. But when I made my youthful blunders (either wrong choices in what to work on, or just bad science that I subsequently recanted), there was lots of room to move on, even if I was prematurely grumpy.

I don’t think that there is as much room today to make scientific mistakes. If you are a young asst prof, you need to be publishing. I think lots of blunders, probably more, are being made, because publishing quickly is being pushed much harder. But the room to look at the mistake, learn from it, and grow from it? Not so much.

What does it take, having made a blunder, to accept the mistake gracefully and move on. This is part of both the book and the review. Lack of pride? Are young people more prideful today? It seems so to me, but I have NO data to back that up. Maybe I’m just getting more grumpy. Or is it just fear? If I, a young starting out Asst Prof, recant I won’t get tenure, I won’t get funded, I won’t be a success. Admitting to being wrong is very hard, and I know that its much harder when one is young and one feels that the world, their world, is at stake.

As for PhD students/post-docs, there is very little room to be doing enough of your own work to be able to make your own blunders. I was the PI on my PhD project (heck, my advisor didn’t understand a lot of it). There are some subdisciplines where this is still true – organismic/field biology, for example), but very few. That’s sad, in my book.

It would be nice to live in a world where unicorns fart rainbows

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and we all had time, space and resources to do the science that drives our souls. But we don’t. I’m looking for solutions to this problem, which to me, is just a bit of the big problems that face scientific research right now.

But tomorrow is another day, and I’ll rant and rave about what science gets noticed, the big dogs, the BSD’s and why ultimately I am leaving my MRU which is full of both.

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