An exercise in wrongness

Wrongness isn’t a word, you say? Then I’m off to a great start. (It is, though).

My department makes a pretty big deal of our second year projects. We don’t have any qualifying exams, just an oral presentation and paper. We’re still 4 long weeks away from presenting these projects, but there have already been plenty of eye-opening moments for me to write about. For many of us, this is the first time we’ve done a project of this nature and magnitude from start to “finish” (are these projects really ever over?) largely independently. This means that there are a lot of surprise moments for making mistakes.

Going back to last summer when I started running the experiments that will be included in my project, I screwed up plenty of things. My sloppy programming meant that the experiment crashed sometimes. Other times, I failed to communicate important details to the research assistants running the experiment, and we had to trash the data. It turned out that the data collection was actually the phase of the project in which I made the fewest mistakes, though. The process of analyzing the data was a cycle of mistakes and inefficiencies that were usually followed up by more mistakes and inefficiencies. Every once in a while, I’d do something useful, and that was enough to keep me going.

Sometimes, I’ve gotten annoyed at myself for making these mistakes, especially when deadlines are approaching or when my advisor has to be the one to point them out to me. I’ve been frustrated by the messiness of the data, though logically I know that I should probably be skeptical if my data weren’t messy), and all those things I should have done differently continue to come to mind and nag at me.

"Piled Higher and Deeper" by Jorge Cham

“Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham

Luckily, I’m pretty sure I’m not alone. A handful of older grad students have told me about their second year project mistakes, and mine start to look like par for the course.

And then I discovered a Nautilus interview of physicist David Deutsch. It’s a pretty philosophical interview on the importance of fallibility, but the takeaway is that the ability to be wrong is something we should embrace because the very fact that we’re error-prone means that it’s possible to be right. He points out that so often in science, people prove things wrong that have been assumed for many years to be truths.

What makes progress possible is not whether one is right or wrong, but how one deals with ideas. And it doesn’t matter how wrong one is. Because there’s unlimited progress possible, it must mean that our state of knowledge at any one time hasn’t even scratched the surface yet. [As the philosopher Karl Popper said], “We’re all alike in our infinite ignorance.”

This interview lifted a lot of weight off my second-year grad student shoulders. I’ve made lots of mistakes throughout the process of putting together this project (and I’m not finished making them, I feel pretty confident), and therefore, there is a such thing as doing the work correctly. In the end, the p-values that I find when I analyze my data aren’t really the important part (though, unfortunately, they’re what will determine if and where the work gets published…). Instead, it’s a reminder to focus on the ideas – the ones the work was based on and the one the work opens up – and embrace the wrongness.


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