Real Heroes Have the Guts to Admit They’re Wrong

What can you do if you discover you’re incorrect? That’s a conundrum Daniel Bolnick recently faced. He’s an evolutionary biologist, also in 2009 he published a paper with a cool finding: Fish with different diets have quite different body types. Biologists had suspected this for decades, but Bolnick offered strong confirmation by amassing tons of information and plotting it on a chart for everyone to see. Science for the win!

The difficulty was, he’d created a huge blunder. When a colleague attempted to replicate Bolnick’s investigation in 2016, he couldn’t. Bolnick investigated his original work and, in a horrified instant, recognized his error: one miswritten line of computer code. “I’d totally awakened,” he realized.

But here ’s the thing: Bolnick immediately owned up to it. He contacted the writer, which on November 16, 2016, retracted the paper. Bolnick was mortified. However, he tells me, it had been the ideal thing.

Why is it that I recount this story? Since I think society needs to provide Bolnick some sort of a decoration. We need ethical cases of individuals who are able to admit when they ’re wrong. We want Heroes of Retraction.

At the moment society has an epidemic of the reverse: too many individuals with a bulldog unwillingness to admit when they ’re factually wrong. Politicians are shown signs that climate change is due to human activity but still deny our role. Trump fans are faced with near-daily examples of his lies but continue to believe him. Minnesotans have plenty of proof that vaccines don’t induce autism but forgo shots and wind up sparking a measles outbreak.

“Never underestimate the power of confirmation bias,” states Carol Tavris, a social psychologist and coauthor of Mistakes Were Made (but Not by Me). Since Tavris notes, one reason we could’t even admit we now have the facts wrong is that it’s debilitating to our self-conception as smart, right-thinking individuals–or into our political tribal identity. So if we get information which belies this image, we simply ignore it. It’s incredibly difficult, she writes, to “break out of this cocoon of self-justification. ”

That’s why we need moral exemplars. If we want to resist the power of self-delusion, we need tales of honesty. We should locate and loudly laud the awesome folks who’ve completed the painful work of recognizing error. To put it differently, we need more Bolnicks.

Science, it turns out, is a great place to locate these men and women. After all, the scientific method requires one to recognize when you’re wrong–to do so happily, in fact.

Granted, I don’t even need to be overly starry-eyed about mathematics. The “replication crisis” still rages. There are loads of academics who, if their experimental consequences are cast into doubt, dig in their heels and insist all is well. (And instances of blatant fakery and fraud can make scholars less likely to admit their sin, as Ivan Oransky, the cofounder of the Retraction Watch blog, notes.) Professional vanity is powerful, and a sexy paper receives a TED talk.

Nonetheless, the scientific lodestar still excels. Bolnick isn’t alone in his Boy Scout–like rectitude. In the last year alone, mathematicians have pulled newspapers when they ’t learned their proofs don’t hold and economists have retracted work after finding they ’d misclassified their information. The Harvard stem-cell biologist Douglas Melton needed a hit 2013 paper that got cited hundreds of times–but if coworkers couldn’t replicate the finding, he pulled it.

Fear of humiliation is a powerful deterrent to facing error. But acknowledging you’re confused can really fortify your cred. “I got such a positive answer,” Bolnick told me. “On Twitter and on blog articles, people were saying, ‘s, you outed yourself, and that’s fine! ’& ” There’s a lesson there for all people.

This article appears in the February issue. Subscribe now.

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