It’s the fall again, and I’m in the middle of teaching a class to our research students, on “Statistical Methods in Astrophysics.” You can think of it as us coping with our uncertainties by getting together to talk about them. One of the themes of the course is that you can’t do inference without making assumptions: the best that you can do is to say what your model is, and then test it. As scientists we get into trouble if we make assumptions that are too strong, or get too attached to our theories: we soon get found out, either by better data, or a cannier colleague, or both!
Despite this, I often feel as though being right matters more to most of my colleagues than anything else. As a young postdoc this competitiveness was just starting to bother me when I met Ski, a professor in the physics department in Santa Barbara. One day, at afternoon tea, Ski was telling us excitedly about some new observational result he had come across. I thought he was going to give us all some neat explanation for it that he had come up with, but he didn’t - he just got to the end of his show and tell, and admitted he had no idea what was going on.
I asked him later why he had been so excited, and he told me: “Because it’s a puzzle! As soon as I understand something, I lose interest in it.” This was a real eye-opener. I had spent literally years studying for exams which tested my ability to understand things and be right about them, and had ended up spending most of my time with a lot of other people who delighted in being right - to my increasing annoyance. But here was Ski, a professional scientist, with a very different attitude. He got me wondering: why do we prize being right so much? What if being right, being certain, was getting in the way of our learning? The more I thought about it, the more it seemed as though our job as scientists was actually to be wrong, most of the time - to have lots of ideas about how the world works, and test them, and have to discard, successfully, most of those ideas. We learn by making mistakes: so being wrong seems like something worth celebrating!
Some of the best scientists are children, of course. As educator Ken Robinson likes to say: “If they don’t know, they’ll have a go.” He tells a good story about a little girl, painting a picture at school; when asked what she is doing, she says to her teacher, “I’m painting a picture of God.” The teacher replies, “But nobody knows what God looks like,” to which the little girl says, “They will in a minute.”
Trial and error - science - comes naturally to little kids. They give things a go, generating hypotheses and testing them, making mistakes, being wrong, and as a result, learning fearlessly at an incredible rate. It’s as we get older that we seem to lose these skills, and end up relying on our assumptions more and more instead. Sometimes we become so certain that we completely lose the ability to learn anything at all! I don’t think it’s hopeless, though. I’ve made a few new friends in the last few years, in the 2-6 year-old age bracket, and we have fun together investigating things, being wrong, trying something else, and seeing what happens. Now, when I say something that sounds a bit too certain, I hear a little voice of self-doubt. It makes me feel anxious that I might be wrong, but the voice has just a little bit of Ski’s excitement in it - and I remember that I Officially Approve of Being Wrong! So I try to listen to that inner child, and pretty soon the two of us are off playing science again.