Wednesday, May 11, 2011


Some days back, I was reading a book by Bill James called Solid Fools Gold. James is a baseball writer and thinker who is considered a pioneer of the more evidence-based, mathematical analysis of the game. It's the sort of very nerdy stuff I'm really into. What struck me was that one of the chapters was on the importance of humility to the scientific method.

This is something I have rarely heard stated but that I've found, working as I do within the scientific community, to be very true. In order to be successful as a scientist (and by successful, I mean successful at science, not successful at making money with science), one must be willing to recognize and accept when one is wrong. Being incorrect is a very important part of the scientific process. If we knew our hypotheses were true, they wouldn't be hypotheses. Just because something is fathomable or makes sense in theory doesn't mean it is true.

While it is true that scientific consensus can be wrong on occasion, and in such cases, a dissenter who insists on the truth of an idea others find implausible is a true asset, more often the consensus is correct. The beauty of science is that the truth is always a moving target. A real scientist knows that the ultimate truth is unknowable and does not claim to have all the answers. She is only making her best guess given the severe limitations imposed by the human condition.

Real science does not deal in certitude. It deals in likelihood. We can never say, "This is true." We use confidence intervals and define something as "true" if we have determined that there is a 95 or 99 percent chance of it being true. But we acknowledge the existence of those other few percentage points.

Someone is always coming along with a better idea. Sometimes it is a refinement of an old idea, and sometimes it is a complete paradigm shift. A good scientist needs to be able to recognize when a new idea is better and scrap old preconceptions, even if it means giving up one's own ideas in favor of those of another.

With that in mind, nothing that I say in this blog is set in stone as fact. Nothing is intractible. I am not afraid to say, "Oops, I was wrong about that." Of course, that won't stop me from posting my half-baked ideas.

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