Real Scientists Admit When They're Wrong

What do you do when you discover you’re wrong? That’s a conundrum Daniel Bolnick recently faced. He’s an evolutionary biologist, and in 2009 he published a paper with a cool finding: Fish with different diets have quite different body types. Biologists had suspected this for years, but Bolnick offered strong confirmation by collecting tons of data and plotting it on a chart for all to see. Science for the win!

The problem was, he’d made a huge blunder. When a colleague tried to replicate Bolnick’s analysis in 2016, he couldn’t. Bolnick investigated his original work and, in a horrified instant, recognized his mistake: a single miswritten line of computer code. “I’d totally messed up,” he realized.

But here’s the thing: Bolnick immediately owned up to it. He contacted the publisher, which on November 16, 2016, retracted the paper. Bolnick was mortified. But, he tells me, it was the right thing to do.

Why do I recount this story? Because I think society ought to give Bolnick some sort of a prize. We need moral examples of people who can admit when they’re wrong. We need more Heroes of Retraction.

Right now society has an epidemic of the opposite: too many people with a bulldog unwillingness to admit when they’re factually wrong. Politicians are shown evidence that climate change is caused by human activity but still deny our role. Trump fans are confronted with near-daily examples of his lies but continue to believe him. Minnesotans have plenty of proof that vaccines don’t cause autism but forgo shots and end up sparking a measles outbreak.

“Never underestimate the power of confirmation bias,” says Carol Tavris, a social psychologist and coauthor of Mistakes Were Made (but Not by Me). As Tavris notes, one reason we can’t admit we have the facts wrong is that it’s too painful to our self-conception as smart, right-thinking people—or to our political tribal identity. So when we get information that belies this image, we simply ignore it. It’s incredibly hard, she writes, to “break out of the cocoon of self-justification.”

That’s why we need moral exemplars. If we want to fight the power of self-delusion, we need tales of honesty. We should find and loudly laud the awesome folks who have done the painful work of admitting error. In other words, we need more Bolnicks.

Science, it turns out, is an excellent place to find such people. After all, the scientific method requires you to recognize when you’re wrong—to do so happily, in fact.

Granted, I don’t want to be too starry-eyed about science. The “replication crisis” still rages. There are plenty of academics who, when their experimental results are cast into doubt, dig in their heels and insist all is well. (And cases of outright fakery and fraud can make scholars less likely to admit their sin, as Ivan Oransky, the cofounder of the Retraction Watch blog, notes.) Professional vanity is powerful, and a hot paper gets a TED talk.

Still, the scientific lodestar still shines. Bolnick isn’t alone in his Boy Scout–like rectitude. In the past year alone, mathematicians have pulled papers when they’ve learned their proofs don’t hold and economists have retracted work after finding they’d misclassified their data. The Harvard stem-cell biologist Douglas Melton had a hit 2013 paper that got cited hundreds of times—but when colleagues couldn’t replicate the finding, he yanked it.

Fear of humiliation is a strong deterrent to facing error. But admitting you’re mistaken can actually bolster your cred. “I got such a positive response,” Bolnick told me. “On Twitter and on blog posts, people were saying, ‘Yeah, you outed yourself, and that’s fine!’” There’s a lesson there for all of us.

This article appears in the February issue. Subscribe now.