Aug 17, 2020

Science Versus False Certainty: The Importance of Learning from Errors

As the world faces two major crises — the coronavirus pandemic and climate change — we must be willing to test, prove and disprove our own hypotheses.

By Pranab Das

In late January, as my students were arriving back for last spring’s semester, they asked me about Covid-19 and the news out of China. I told them not to worry, that the outbreak would settle down, stay in local clusters, and soon be controlled by the health authorities. Boy was I wrong.

A month later, when more data became available, I sat them down again and we talked about the scientific method. I admitted my mistake and told them that science is special because it embraces error. Every time we make a scientific hypothesis, it has to be falsifiable. This means that a good scientific claim has, at its core, the instructions for someone to prove it wrong. In other words, a big part of a scientist’s work is looking for errors. It’s a win for science when we discover a mistake and correct it. In that sense, scientists love to be wrong.

I can’t say this strongly enough: Scientists like discovering errors. It means we’re making progress, figuring things out, and coming closer to the truth. If someone were to write an op-ed about me and say that I was wrong in January, I’d say “darn tootin’!” I’ve learned something new since then and have a better grasp of complex facts. The world is a bit clearer to me now and I’m a better teacher and a better thinker because of it.

There is a virtue in recognizing, owning, and learning from mistakes. This virtue is at the very heart of the scientific project. And it’s all the more important when new situations crop up presenting novel challenges. That’s when a scientist says “look, here’s my hypothesis. But if new data come in, I may have to revise some of these expectations.” That’s an honest, virtuous scientist telling it like it is.

Presently we’re dealing with two novel situations. Right now, and changing very fast, is this pandemic. New data are emerging at breakneck speed and really fascinating science is happening. For example, you might have read about a recent debate on the tiniest droplets called ‘aerosols’ that come out of our mouths when we talk, sing, and shout. It’s kind of a surprise, based on results from other viruses, but it’s beginning to look as if aerosols may be real sources of infection. Good science went into building this hypothesis but even more science will go into testing its validity. We can choose to act on the hypothesis (and bear the costs of that action) or wait for more data. This is a reasonable conversation to have and is exactly what the debate at the WHO is all about. That’s good science.

The other new challenge is climate change. None of us knows exactly how this is going to play out so we make hypotheses. For example, most researchers now think it’s likely that the whole world will heat up by about 3 degrees Fahrenheit no matter how hard we try to rein in greenhouse gas emissions and that it could be much hotter if we don’t. But they could be wrong about that (in either direction) — it’s a hypothesis pending further testing. Again, we can choose to act on best scientific hypotheses or wait and, perhaps, pay a heavy price for inaction.

In both of these cases, we have a choice. Do we trust the virtue, honesty, and careful research that these scientists strive for? Or do we simply hope that they’re wrong? This is a basic social choice with tremendous implications. And it begins with each of us individually.

Are we drawn to people who are certain of everything and don’t change their minds in the face of facts? Or are we more comfortable with folk who recognize their fallibility and do everything they can to adjust when new facts come in?

This is the choice facing each of us in the short term, with the pandemic, and the long term with climate change. I’m a scientist so I may be biased but I’ll take virtue, honesty, and fallibility over the seduction of false certainty any day.