Scientists and Mistakes (If You Cry Easily, Get Your Kleenex Ready)
A blog post for National Public Radio almost made me weep with its heartbreakingly naïve statement of faith in the culture of science and scientists. The author, Adam Frank, praises Science for catching the apparent error -- a loose cable -- that resulted in the big news, now fading, that neutrinos exceeded the speed of light. Pointing to "climate, evolution and all the other fronts in the ever-expanding war on science," Frank laments:
The spectacle of watching politicians fall over each other to distance themselves from research validated by armies of scientists is more than depressing. Our current understanding of climate, for example, represents the work of thousands of human beings all working to make mistakes as fast possible, all working to root out error as fast as possible. There is no difference between what happens in climate science or evolutionary biology and any other branch of science.Scientists sound the way some little children think of their parents -- heroically larger than life, all knowing, beyond corruption, seeing all clearly and without bias, concerned only for the truth no matter where it lies, capable of error but always faultless in self-criticism -- until those same children grow up and their parents break their hearts by revealing they were human all along.
Honest people asking the best of themselves push forward in their own fields. They watch their work and those of their colleagues closely, always looking for mistakes, cracks in reasoning, subtle flaws in logic. When they are found, the process is set in motion: critique, defend, critique, root out. When science deniers trot out the same tired talking points, talking points with no scientific validity, they ignore (or fail to understand) their argument's lack of credibility.
Eventually, science always finds its mistakes.
I thought, "Poor Adam Frank, especially if he's thinking of going into science himself, this kid is in for a big disappointment some day. He's probably some intern at NPR, fresh out of college and all eager and earnest and full illusions waiting to be toppled."
Boy, was I wrong. I looked him up on the Interest and turns out he's a professor of astrophysics at the University of Rochester! He's written a couple of books and it says here he was born in 1962. That's him in the photo. Who knew? Talk about mistakes!