When being wrong is a good thing for science
22 October 2022 | 8 min read
By Lesley Thompson, Ph.D
Iteration is at the heart of the scientific process — essential for progress — so why are so bent on portraying science as the indisputable truth?
We often think of science as a fixed truth or a guaranteed fact. But it’s not. A lot of effort is rightly directed towards building public trust in science, but in doing so, are we forgetting or skating over the very essence of science and how we go about making discoveries that affect the world?
Science is and always has been an iterative process. Facts held true today — such as the Earth being round or just another planet at the edge of a quite ordinary galaxy in a small part of the universe — would have once been thought of as ridiculous, so accepted was the scientific view back then. Even Sir Isaac Newton found himself challenged during his time, his discoveries questioned continually in contrast to the respect he receives today.
To admit that science might not always be right is an uncomfortable idea. Science advances by building on the shoulders of giants, with researchers using the understanding gained from great thinkers who have gone before them. Much of that insight is described in research papers and articles that have been scrutinized by peer review. In our world of misinformation and skepticism of experts (as Lord Chancellor Michael Gove proclaimed(opens in new tab/window) in 2016, “I think the people of this country have had enough of experts …”), it is a natural reaction to champion the success of science. We find it comforting to think that science is something reliable we can hold to.
Actually, the answer is not to hide away from the fact that science and scientists can be fallible but to celebrate it — and explain why. After all, this is the essence of the research process.
Watch the full panel discussion
Find out why getting things wrong can be good for progress when we question the problems and opportunities of discovery and innovation. In this panel discussion, experts explore how the research community can improve trust in the scientific process. Hosted by Elsevier and Moderated by Sense About Science(opens in new tab/window) Director Tracey Brown, OBE(opens in new tab/window), it was held on October 23, 2021 at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History as part of the Oxford Science and Ideas Festival.
Explaining the scientific method should build confidence
At Elsevier, we’re constantly striving to understand how we can better support scientists. We want them to be confident in the research their work is built on — and to communicate not only their findings but how they got there so others can follow the same path or dispute the pathway itself.
Creating, publishing and reading high quality research drives scientific progress and improves outcomes for communities, patients and society at large. It’s a long, steady, cumulative process with occasional major breakthroughs all documented in scientific journals or papers. The structure of today’s scientific papers is familiar to all researchers, regardless of discipline or geography — like a recipe book to a chef, containing methods, images and charts, and a reflection of the work — an importance that shouldn’t be underestimated. A uniformity of reporting and collaboration means researchers must assimilate previous work, state their research question and why it is important, disclose their results, and then show their step forward and subject their work to peer review. It’s a rigorous process that exposes the “thinking” of every published researcher.
Research is hard and progress is hard-won — sometimes enhanced, albeit frustratingly, by getting it wrong or adjusting the direction of travel. Against our human instinct of simply wanting to be right — explaining and exploring the scientific method — being critical, being wrong — should build confidence with people because ultimately, the research process, the ethics of researchers and the process of iteration yield the biggest progress and the most benefit for society.
George Bernard Shaw once said, “Science can never solve one problem without raising ten more.” While Shaw was known for his comedic drama , his statement is as true today as it was almost a century ago in 1930. When finding faults or questioning research, we often find new areas to explore and new reasons to keep looking. With so many truths across disciplines yet to be unlocked, we cannot hope to unearth these mysteries without making mistakes or reaching unintended outcomes.
One example is the former planet Pluto. How many of us were taught — and believed without question — that Pluto would remain the ninth planet, a seemingly guaranteed fact following its discovery and description in 1930? A focus of much debate, Pluto no longer meets the criteria the International Astronomical Union now uses to define planets. Sometimes it is years later that additional knowledge helps clarify a decision on the accuracy of discoveries.
Where does this leave scientists and all those involved in the research process? As consumers of scientific culture, through pocket-sized technologies or as recipients of 4.5 billion doses (and counting) of a coronavirus vaccine, we all might embrace and understand the iterative process that is science. Rarely is it the case of a “lightbulb “moment; instead, it’s a long, methodical and thorough process that ensures quality progress.
But how public is this process?
We all need to be more vocal about the work that goes into scientific research and the checks and balances in place — to make sure everyone can be as confident as possible that research is accurate, even if it might, down the line be proven wrong.