Girl, Interrupting

August 20, 2010

It is damn hard to admit you are wrong

And I don’t mean when you get the facts unequivocally wrong like in a pub quiz, you kind of have to say you were wrong when you find out Sylvia Plath wrote the Bell Jar after you claimed it was Charles Darwin.

What is hard to see – really hard to see – is when you only might be wrong. For instance you think X, someone asks you have you thought about Y? which might make you change your mind about X. Lots of us just a) choose to ignore Y, b) spend a long time justifying why really Y doesn’t matter or c) get really angry and argue more about X.

Its the standard criticism people a large portion of the scientific community have about Homeopathy. Practitioners of homeopathy say it works, scientific evidence says it doesn’t. Homeopaths ignore scientific evidence, so the story goes.

What is true is that data is data, data doesn’t lie – but the interpretation of data, and this is what scientists spend, arguably, most of their time doing, is an entirely different matter. Even though we don’t like to admit it, especially in science (because, after all scientists are supposed to be entirely rational), its hard to alter your pet theory when the data doesn’t quite match up, when it is not obvious that you might be wrong.

BUT, even though this is difficult, it is also part of the job. You must to try to weigh the evidence rationally, and when your theory is wrong just say it is wrong.

The Ben Goldacre/Samira Ahmed twitter ‘debate’ is a good example of this – Goldacre said he was wrong, but not without a flood of excuses…
(see here and here)

So Ben Goldacre tweeted that an upcoming news show (which included maths formula, he assumed was not kosher) was ‘bollocks’ on Twitter and invited heckler’s from the Twitter community to reiterate this point. Turns out, he was wrong, so admitting his mistake he tweeted:

BenGoldacre: @samiraahmedc4 humblest apologies, all the outward signs of bullshit were there, and was impossible to tell from PA report. sorry!

and quoting Suw Charman-Anderson:
It was entirely unsurprising that he should see Samira’s tweets and dismiss them out of hand, given the PR industry’s history of producing bunkum formulae to promote their own brands.

Maybe so, we all have reasons why we are wrong, but and here is the point… its a not easy to say what probably should be said. In this case something like – “I was wrong because I didn’t read the evidence and just had a knee-jerk reaction, even though most of my articles are about gathering evidence and in this case I didn’t bother before I reacted” – would have maybe been more appropriate. And more difficult.

Its much easier when you make a mistake to blame it on other stuff, rather than just saying ‘that was stupid, sorry’
I have caught myself doing this, and even with regard to my research, but in my job there is a standard I have to live up to. If I want to be worth my salt as scientist I have to try to read and collect the evidence before I just decide something is crap.

I think this is a good lesson, for lack of a better word, about what ‘evidence-based’ should mean. It means actually listening to the evidence, reading the evidence, before you say anything, even if it is from sources you don’t always respect. Evidence is not about the people or venue its reported in, it is about the evidence. This is not always so easy, but it is an ideal we should strive for.

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1 Comment »

  1. So true! Especially the need to consult a variety of sources regardless of how much you generally may disagree with some of them. It is valuable to get many points of view, including the uninformed ones, in order to begin to discriminate among them. And fools can have great ideas.

    Comment by Teresa — August 23, 2010 @ 2:48 am | Reply


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