Oz Blog News Commentary

Fear of being wrong

February 5, 2022 - 14:12 -- Admin

There is a story floating around which relates to the physicist, Albert Einstein, teaching a class. Whether it is true or not, I haven’t been able to determine. Given how many bogus quotes are attributed to Einstein, I’m sceptical of its veracity. However, the story goes like this. 

Einstein is supposed to have written the following equations on a blackboard:

9 x 1 = 9

9 x 2 = 18

9 x 3 = 27

9 x 4 = 36

9 x 5 = 45

9 x 6 = 54

9 x 7 = 63

9 x 8 = 72

9 x 9 = 81

9 x 10 = 91

Upon writing the last equation, chaos erupted in the classroom because Einstein had apparently made a mistake. The correct answer to 9 x 10 is not 91. When everyone had calmed down, Einstein said: “Despite the fact that I wrote nine equations correctly, no one congratulated me. But when I made one mistake, everyone started laughing. This means that even if a person is successful, their slightest mistake will be highlighted … So don’t let criticism destroy your dreams. The only person who never makes a mistake is someone who does nothing.”

The last sentence rang a bell with me because I have known a couple of people in my scientific field who, although employed, published very few papers during their long careers. For many years I could not work out why, as their organisation actually paid them to do research and probably had an expectation that they would publish much of that research. One of those I mention above, published two single-author papers during their entire 30+ year career. What this person presumably did was only provide internal assessments of the age of particular rock units on this continent, which was being geologically mapped at the time. While this is useful work, it is lacking in detail and justification for the assessments, as they are often only mentioned as a ‘personal communication’. I have seen the fossil collections this person had access to, and have worked on some of them, so it was not their lack of access to items for study, that prevented them from publishing. I, and most others in this profession publish as much as we can. This is because, if your work is not published, it effectively doesn’t exist.

The only reasons I can suggest as to why someone like this would not publish, is that they were afraid of criticism. When you publish scientific papers, your conclusions are open to being challenged by anyone who has an interest. I have been involved in publishing a few papers which engendered a considerable amount of criticism. Two were single author papers, the other two were jointly with a few colleagues from across the world. All were eventually shown to be largely ‘correct’ and the criticisms to be mostly in error, which was nice. As a consequence, the conclusions have entered into the body of knowledge in that field of science.

If you do not have the confidence to publish your work because you are afraid of criticism then you should get out of science. Criticism of previous work is part of the game, and in very many cases it is helpful in the long run. Science is an iterative improvement of the understanding of the natural world. If you are a scientist everything you do will eventually be proven completely wrong, partly wrong, or perhaps incomplete. It is solely a matter of how long that takes.