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The Guardian view on scientific progress: it’s important to get things wrong | Editorial | Opinion


Albert Einstein once remarked that God is subtle, but not malicious. The material world, he thought, was unpredictable. This made the world interesting but not impenetrable. Einstein, who brought lucidity to the deeply hidden, reasoned that “nature hides her secret because of her essential loftiness, but not by means of ruse”. Seen like this, science advances as much through what thinkers get right as what they get wrong. A scientific theory aims to understand the world. But it is only when nature reveals an error that it can be refined.

Few understood this better than Freeman Dyson, an insightful and brilliant theoretical physicist, who died last week. His cosmic genius roamed freely. Dyson wrote about religion, biology and the future of human society. He was a cheerful heretic – for example, calling work on nuclear fusion a “welfare programme” for engineers. He was also absurdly wrong about global warming. But his refusal to conform was essential to his view of a scientist as someone who produced theories that were right and wrong but believed in them with equal conviction.

Progress always involves making mistakes and then recognising them. That is because we are all struggling to understand why and how things are the way they are. When Dyson considered the idea that the limit to an energy supply that a species could have is all of the starlight in their solar system, logic would dictate that a sophisticated civilisation would build a structure to harness the entire power of its sun. This seemed eccentric at the time. Yet in 2015 it was discovered that a star 1,500 light years away was being shielded by matter circling the star. The speculation was that this mass could be the elusive “Dyson Sphere”.

A scientist will be leniently judged if led astray by a false hypothesis. Their reputation, however, may not survive if the work is sloppy or if they claim to have discovered a fact that turns out to be wrong. There is a concern, especially in social sciences and medicine, about the preponderance of studies that have proved impossible to reproduce. If the original errors do not get corrected when scientists try to take the work further, then science’s capacity to remedy itself will be called into question. There are questions here about the value system in academic publishing and the funding mechanisms that have led to too many researchers thinking it is fine to move on from mistakes without publicly acknowledging them.

Science must be self-correcting and allow for even its greatest practitioners to be wrong. History is littered with examples of major figures who erred. Charles Darwin is famous for his theory of evolution by natural selection but came up with a bizarre – and mistaken – theory to explain why inheritance is a random process. It was Gregor Mendel, the father of genetics, who worked out the first set of rules of heredity. Mendel’s brilliance was unrecognised in his lifetime. He left science for God, later becoming an abbot. In every century and every science there are brilliant blunders. The trick is to learn from them.

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