Nobody’s perfect

January 5, 2011 • 1:42 pm

Over at Wired, Brian Romans noted what he considers the best scientific comment-and-reply sequence ever published.  Well, I’m not sure it’s the best, but it’s certainly the most honest!

Here’s part of the critique of a paper published in The Journal of Geology in 1963:

It is obvious that this error in presenting sedimentation rates has no effect whatever on the ages given in the paper. Therefore, the main body of the paper and the conclusions reached by Rosholt et al. require no modification.

And here’s the authors’ reply:

Only once in my life do I remember a biologist admitting he screwed up in a paper. That was my advisor, Dick Lewontin, in response to a pretty severe criticism of a paper that he wrote with Jesse Kraukauer. I can’t remember the details, but I’m sure at least a few others have admitted error when called out in a journal. The custom, of course, despite the idea that scientists freely and willingly admit error, is to dig in your heels!  After all, we’re human.  If you know of any stories to the contrary, post them below.

h/t: Ed Yong for the “tweet”

UPDATE: I remember now that Steve Gould Richard Dawkins,* in one of his essays books, recounts the story of one of his professors who, after hearing his own pet theory demolished in a lecture, announced to the audience that his theory was indeed wrong and then shook the hand of his opponent, congratulating him for having shown him the light.

*I was WRONG! LOL!

51 thoughts on “Nobody’s perfect

  1. Argh. This is bugging the hell out of me. I read a criticism of a paper in a high profile glossy mag (Science or Nature I think) that had the criticism listed first with a response listed second. In the response, they acknowledged the criticism, verified at least one flaw, and then proceeded to talk about future collaboration with the critics on improving the methodology. But damned if I can’t remember it.

    However, that’s pretty rare. I can think of no other examples, though I suspect they exist. It is just so much more common to shore up one’s argument.

    To be honest, I actually think that there is some utility in the authors digging in their heels. At least their perspective will get a thorough defense. Then the whole community will be that much more confident in rejecting their perspective. There are limits, of course.

  2. Surely the most famous, and stirring, mea culpa in the history of science is Adam Sedgwick‘s (Darwin’s field geology mentor) 1831 admission that the Noachian flood theory, which he had long supported, was wrong:

    In retreating where we have advanced too far, there is neither compromise of dignity nor loss of strength; for in doing this, we partake but of the common fortune of every one who enters on a field of investigation like our own….

    Bearing upon this difficult question, there is, I think, one great negative conclusion now incontestably established — that the vast masses of diluvial gravel, scattered almost over the surface of the earth, do not belong to one violent and transitory period. It was indeed a most unwarranted conclusion, when we assumed the contemporaneity of all the superficial gravel on the earth. We saw the clearest traces of diluvial action, and we had, in our sacred histories, the record of a general deluge. On this double testimony it was, that we gave a unity to a vast succession of phenomena, not one of which we perfectly comprehended, and under the name diluvium, classed them all together.

    To seek the light of physical truth by reasoning of this kind, is, in the language of Bacon, to seek the living among the dead, and will ever end in erroneous induction. Our errors were, however, natural, and of the same kind which lead many excellent observers of a former century to refer all the secondary formations of geology to the Noachian deluge. Having been myself a believer, and, to the best of my power, a propagator of what I now regard as a philosophic heresy, and having more than once been quoted for opinions I do not now maintain, I think it right, as one of my last acts before I quit this Chair, thus publicly to read my recantation.

    We ought, indeed, to have paused before we first adopted the diluvian theory, and referred all our old superficial gravel to the action of the Mosaic flood. For of man, and the works of his hands, we have not yet found a single trace among the remnants of a former world entombed in these deposits. In classing together distant unknown formations under one name; in giving them a simultaneous origin, and in determining their date, not by the organic remains we had discovered, but by those we expected hypothetically hereafter to discover, in them; we have given one more example of the passion with which the mind fashions upon general conclusions, and of the readiness with which it leaves the consideration of unconnected truths.

    (from his Presidential Address to the Geological Society; see C.C. Gillispie, 1951, Genesis and Geology, Harvard University Press, for more context and background )

    1. Yeah, I think it was Dawkins as well – some research by one of his lecturers involving the Golgi body, as I remember it!

      1. sure it also gets a mention in God Delusion, as i ahvent read Unweaving the Rainbow but immediately thought it was Dawkins, not Gould

    2. Well, religion is the same. If they evidence calls for it, all religious leaders will immediately and publicly change their positions. [/Mooney]

      If only!

  3. This puts me in mind of the first of (Arthur C.) Clarke’s Laws: “When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right; when he states that something is impossible, he is probably wrong.”

    A while ago I posted a comment on a discussion of climate change in response to a serious doubter, who clearly said he was probably misinformed and asked for others to help him out. I wrote a reply wherein I linked to estimates that said that the melting of Greenland’s icecap alone would significantly raise sea levels. Not only that, but I pointed out that mountain glacier and snowfall runoff would recede, meaning that over a billion people who depend on that source for their freshwater supply from the Himalayas, the Alps and other mountain ranges would start running short.

    He thanked me. That doesn’t happen often on comment pages.

    1. assuming you are in the US, now you can set your conversion skills to work on the freakin’ Republicans in the House.

      Was it the incoming speaker of the house who stated CO2 is a carginogen?

      1. He said it wasn’t a carcinogen. As if that was anyone’s actual complaint about it.

        Of course, this is the same John Boehner who handed out tobacco lobby cheques on the floor of the House. Maybe he just didn’t update his “how to defend an industry on the wrong side of science” files since then.

      2. Matt, Yes, I am in the US (although our politics often make me wish I could be somewhere else). However, while it might be possible to bering around a doubter, the deniers are another matter altogether. They’re like creationists, in a way – they choode their conclusions and deduce their reasoning and cognitive dissonance takes care of the rest.

  4. What a coincidence. Just last week I was reading an article in the December, 2010 issue of Freethought Today, which struck me as a wonderful example of scientific integrity. I wanted to forward it to WEIT, but as most of FT is not online, I put it off till “later.” (Audio here, under “James F. Crow:” )

    The article is a transcript of an introductory speech by Dr. James Coors of Dr. James Crow, delivered at the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s 2010 Convention. I have typed out a relevant excerpt below, followed by capsule bios of both men. ( I could scan & send the entire speech to anyone who’s interested…)

    Crow came to UW-Madison in 1948 and published a paper affecting the trajectory of my life as well as the careers of many others. I wasn’t even born yet, nor had Watson and Crick published their landmark description of DNA.
    Why was this 1948 paper so important? It was entitled “Alternative hypotheses of hybrid vigor,” and it traced back to one of Darwin’s most important observations about natural organisms, namely that “nature tells us, in the most emphatic manner, that she abhors perpetual self-fertilization” (Darwin, 1862), and later, “cross-fertilization is generally beneficial and self-fertilization injurious” (Darwin, 1876).
    The generality of these observations is widely appreciated, but they also have immense practical utility. For example, the hybrid seed corn industry depends entirely on the crossing of inbred parent strains to create the marvelously productive varieties upon which the world now depends. Billions of dollars worth of seed each year are developed according to our understanding of the genetics underlying hybrid vigor. Crow’s 1948 paper settled some long-simmering controversies about the genetics of inbreeding depression and the benefits of cross-fertilization.
    I arrived at the UW-Madison in 1983 as a corn geneticist and plant breeder. Jim’s 1948 paper was iconic on what was then referred to as the “overdominance theory” of hybrid vigor. I thought it was settled ground, scientifically, at least until I started attending his seminars, where, much to my surprise, Dr. Crow started arguing against his own theories! He began to proclaim that his 1948 paper was wrong.
    Of course, scientific controversies are common in academic circles, but they typically involve scientists challenging other scientists’ ideas, not their own. Academic researchers whose careers are firmly rooted in such iconic pronouncements as the overdominance theory of hybrid vigor typically become obsessed with protecting their scientific turf. Not so for Crow. He began to conduct a vigorous intellectual battle with himself, and he was doing it joyfully and in public!
    His new arguments were so effective that he succeeded in convincing himself and the rest of the scientific world that he was wrong in 1948, and that our theories about hybrid vigor needed revision. In 2000, he published an article entitled “The rise and fall of overdominance.” This was a great title for a great paper because Dr. Crow was largely responsible for both the rise and the fall of the theory.
    As I look back on those early days when I was being initiated as a new professor, I now know how fortunate I was to witness the “rise and fall of overdominance.” Dr. Crow provided a wonderful display of intellectual integrity, dispassionate critical thought and respect for the scientific method. He always asks the hard questions, and I can’t help but contrast his behavior with those who insist on the inerrancy of obtuse, historically remote religious scripture.

    Jim Coors is professor emeritus of the Department of Agronomy and teaches population genetics, evolutionary biology and bioethics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and has been a member of the Plant Breeding/Genetics program since 1983. He is the officer at large on the Freedom From Religion Foundation Executive Council.

    James F. Crow, pioneering geneticist, is Professor Emeritus of Genetics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Crow, a past president of the Genetics Society of America and the American Society of Human Genetics, chaired the Wisconsin Department of Medical Genetics for 5 years and the Laboratory of Genetics for 8 years. He served as Acting Dean of the UW Medical School for 2 years. Crow received the prestigious UC San Diego/Merck Life Sciences Lifetime Achievement Award of $25,000 in “recognition of his research achievements, his dedication in furthering his field and his efforts to broaden the public’s understanding of the implications of new discoveries in genetics.” In 2009, UW-Madison named its new evolution institute the J.F. Crow Institute for the Study of Evolution.

    1. I recall a case (I’ll not name names) where a scientist gained fame and his first job by claiming X, and demonstrating it so well that X became the conventional wisdom. Several years later he got tenure and further fame by showing that conventional wisdom was wrong. Unlike Crow, he argued against “conventional wisdom”, eliding the fact that it was he that made it so.

  5. I have previously told the story of a respected elder statesman of the Zoology Department at Oxford when I was an undergraduate. For years he had passionately believed, and taught, that the Golgi Apparatus (a microscopic feature of the interior of cells) was not real: an artifact, an illusion. Every Monday afternoon it was the custom for the whole department to listen to a research talk by a visiting lecturer. One Monday, the visitor was an American cell biologist who presented completely convincing evidence that the Golgi Apparatus was real. At the end of the lecture, the old man strode to the front of the hall, shook the American by the hand and said – with passion – “My dear fellow, I wish to thank you. I have been wrong these fifteen years.” We clapped our hands red. No fundamentalist would ever say that. In practice, not all scientists would. But all scientists pay lip service to it as an ideal–unlike, say, politicians who would probably condemn it as flip-flopping. The memory of the incident I have described still brings a lump to my throat. Richard Dawkins

    1. In fairness to politicians, there is a reason for criticising them for changing their minds. That is the habit of some politicians of swapping sides on an issue, not because of new evidence or arguments, but because popular support for one side has gone from 49% to 51%. Or because their party leader holds a different view. Politicians – and by implication the electorate – need to be educated that there is a difference between changing ones mind due to evidence and changing ones mind on a whim.

    2. Thanks for the direct quote! That anecdote will forever be burned into my mind (well, at least until my brain goes mushy.)

  6. “Oh well, nobody is perfect.”

    And it was just a coincidence that Some Like It Hot had come out four years earlier?

    I guess they got all that funding for their reply, not by applying for it, but just by working on it in working hours.

  7. This reminds me of the very first article I read at–Dan Everett was arguing that the Piraha language doesn’t have recursion and that that spelled trouble for Chomsky’s theory that recursion is a universal feature of language. The funny thing was that Chomsky, Hauser, and Fitch were using Everett’s earlier research where he stated that Piraha *did* have recursion to refute him, and in the article Everett is basically jumping up and down shouting, “I was wrong! I didn’t know the language as well then and my conclusions were *wrong*! Don’t use that paper!”

    It’s an interesting article, btw–Everett originally went to the Amazon to convert the natives to Christianity. He discusses his deconversion in the article.

    1. Several things mixed up here. If you re-read the Edge articles. Chomsky, Hauser and Fitch were not involved in the dispute. It was three different linguists, whose paper can be read here: Their issue was not whether Everett had the right to disagree with his own earlier data and conclusions, but whether he had misrepresented this work by ignoring his own previously published data that contradict his new position (and whether he had even suppressed access to some of this data that was previously published on a web archive).

  8. Didn’t Steven Hawking originally come out opposing the idea that Black Holes exist before admitting he was wrong?

    1. I think you mean Einstein. The irony being that Einstein didn’t accept the reality predicted by certain solutions to his general relativity formulae.

      1. No, I meant Hawking. I know Einstein didn’t accept some parts that relativity predicted (like his famous quote “God doesn’t play dice”), but I saw something about how Hawking was initially opposed to the idea. I think it was on a Discovery Channel special on Black Holes from the 90s that he talked about it.

        1. A more accurate translation of Einstein’s quote (in the original German it’s “Raffiniert ist der Herr Gott aber bösehaft ist er nicht”) is “God is clever but he is not perverse”.

          There are a number of ways to translate “bösehaft” but I prefer “perverse”

          1. Interesting! Somehow, the inaccurate English idiom doesn’t really hold the same meaning for me. So it’s like the version I’ve known for so long turns out to be a misquote.

        2. The dice-playing in question was the Copenhagen interpretation of QM, not anything predicted by relativity.

          Einstein never took back his belief that there was no genuine indeterminacy in the laws of nature, as QM would have it. He held on to some or another “hidden variable” theory to secure determinacy.

          Bell’s famous inequality (mostly) put the nail in the coffin of hidden variables.

  9. I’ve also encountered scientists (in fact exceptional scientists) and yet even they can have their fixed ideas and reject evidence. That was all in correspondence though, not in a journal. I did get comments like “this is stupid, if you tried to publish this I wouldn’t support it.”

    I also knew a seismologist who spent over 10 years analyzing data to show that some commonly accepted ideas about plate tectonics were just plain wrong (this was long before the age of digital seismographs and computers were only for universities which had money to burn). He was so angry about all the criticism and rejection letters that he got that he destroyed his manuscripts. Less than a decade later ‘everyone’ knew that those old ideas were wrong and now the model is more like my old friend’s model – except that it’s later and credited to other people. So sometimes people have a very hard time promoting an idea because everyone else is wrong and doesn’t understand the work presented. It’s a bit like trying to convince a christian that there really isn’t a god.

  10. I used to be one of a few engineers who owned a business, and I routinely made design mistakes. There was never an available alternative to admitting them, otherwise they wouldn’t be fixed.

    Once as I was going into a meeting I was notified of a new problem, asked to have it demonstrated, found the fault and issued a new software release. As a consequence I was late to the meeting and found everyone frightened because of the problem. “We’re shipping”, I told them, which made me a hero, because I’d fixed my slipshod coding.

    Many, many years before, my father told me about delivering a paper at a conference during which he discovered that he’d made an error, and corrected himself during his presentation. He was, of course, mortified, but everyone congratulated him afterwards.

    The moral is that you’re rewarded for making things right even when you screwed up in the first place.

    1. As a working engineer of several decades in industries where our products have direct impact on people’s lives, I say:

      Hear, hear!

      In my experience, in engineering, admitting error is always viewed favorably (if not outright rewarded) and covering-up errors is cause for termination and/or legal action.

  11. The Dawkins quote can be found in his essay, “Drawing Room of Dukes” the second one in his superb book of essays (one of my all-time favorites and my introduction to Dawkins — I was a bit slow on the uptake in the 70s and 80s …), Unweaving the Rainbow.

    Nevertheless, the confidence with which scientists sometimes state how much we know and how useful science can be, may spill over into arrogance. The distinguished embryologist Lewis Wolpert once admitted that science is occasionally arrogant, and he went on to remark, mildly, that science has a certain amount to be arrogant about. Peter Medawar, Carl Sagan and Peter Atkins have all said something similar. {30}

    Arrogant or not, we at least pay lip-service to the idea that science advances by disproof of its hypotheses. Konrad Lorenz, father of ethology, characteristically exaggerated when he said he looked forward to disproving at least one pet hypothesis daily, before breakfast. But it is true that scientists, more than, say, lawyers, doctors or politicians, gain prestige among their peers by publicly admitting their mistakes. One of the formative experiences of my Oxford undergraduate years occurred when a visiting lecturer from America presented evidence that conclusively disproved the pet theory of a deeply respected elder statesman of our zoology department, the theory that we had all been brought up on. At the end of the lecture, the old man rose, strode to the front of the hall, shook the American warmly by the hand and declared, in ringing emotional tones, ‘My dear fellow, I wish to thank you. I have been wrong these fifteen years.’ We clapped our hands red. Is any other profession so generous towards its admitted mistakes?

    Science progresses by correcting its mistakes, and makes no secret of what it still does not understand …

  12. This story is not quite the same but I find it very instructive.

    60 or so years ago there was a heated debate about the nature synaptic transmission. On one side was Henry Dale who said that it must be chemical; on the other was John Eccles who said it must be electrical. Opinion favoured Dale and Eccles apparently became very despondent, realizing that he might be on the losing side of an argument and wondering what his work had been worth. Supposedly he then expressed this to Karl Popper who encouraged Eccles not to be despondent but instead to frame his hypothesis as clearly as possible and to test it in the most definitive way he could. Consequently Eccles devised an experiment, got the opposite result to what he predicted and immediately switched views to the chemical hypothesis. Or so the story goes.

  13. Let me deal with the important things first: I am convinced that evolution is true. But I find that the world moves too fast for me. I am an 85 year old emeritus professor(of economics, syracuse). I can think, spell, read but I type pretty badly. I do know my name, and email address. But I have no idea what Twitter is, nor what LOL means. Thank goodness, i haven’t run out of space.

  14. oops, I lost the comment. I’ll try again. First things first: I believe that evolution is true. I find that the world moves too fast for me. I do know my email address, and can send and receive emails. I am an 85 year old emeritus professor of economics–syracuse. I can think, write, read and spell quite well, but I am a lousy typist. I don’t know what Twitter is, nor what LOL means. Thank goodness, I haven’t run out of space.

  15. A good friend of mine got his PhD from the London School of Economics. A couple days before his dissertation was to be defended, he realized a flaw in the central proof of the dissertation– not only did his proof not work, but what he had “proved” wasn’t provable, because it was false! None of his advisors had caught it, and they all said they were ready to pass the thesis, but he fessed up, failed his defense, and had to significantly rewrite the dissertation, and graduate at a different time.

    If you knew the man in question, this wouldn’t be a surprise. He was (is) painfully honest, to the point of sabotaging his best interests many times over. But I don’t know anyone who doesn’t love him to death.

      1. This (in different context) has happened to me many times: In the final review, I catch my own errors that no one else does. In fact, and very disappointingly, it happend to me day before yesterday!

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