Everyone knows the feeling of being wrong. It’s a combination of needing to go for a wee mixed with the feeling you get when you see someone you fancy hug an attractive person who always has food in their teeth. When science is wrong it corrects itself. Simple. It rewrites textbooks, retracts papers and adjusts its lectures to indoctrinate the next wave of scientists with the new truth. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about scientists. Scientists try their very best to be objective but are still humans who, like everyone else, feel the social pressure to shave their private parts to impress people.
In science, being wrong about something is not a weakness at all. However, being a dick about being wrong is a huge weakness. Being on the other side of the fence and catching someone out for being wrong is a great feeling, it feels just as good as catching your mum eating chocolate even though she and your dad are on a diet. A simple protocol to follow if you catch someone being wrong is as follows:
- Suppress your excitement and limit physical tells to a punchable smirk.
- Tell the person they are wrong and politely explain to them why.
- If the person becomes confrontational, the quick rush of adrenaline will serve to limit your ability to put a sentence together and save you from infuriating them further (evolution working wonders).
- After explaining yourself (with increased hand gestures), remove yourself from the situation and tell everyone for the next week about how right you were – perhaps blog about it.
When you are the unknowing Pinocchio of science, the first instinct after realising you are wrong is to proclaim that you are still right. I’ve done it. It’s easy to do because if you are found to be wrong by a very small number of people it doesn’t really matter. Academics are busy enough to not really care about you and your shitty opinions that you parade as fact. The most embarrassing time is when you are wrong and you have either been wrong for a very long time or you are wrong about something someone else is excited about. I once spent a week analysing what I thought was a nanocomposite fibre of interwoven carbon nanotubes and silver nanowires – a super strong conductive fibre for flexible electronics and fabrics. Whilst perusing the fibres through a microscope a forensic scientist looked over my shoulder and, while I was explaining about the awesome new fibres I had spent all week making, he said with a punchable smirk on his face “they look a lot like polyester fibres from a T-shirt”. After the warm rush of embarrassment left my face and I had proclaimed that I was still in fact right, I slowly came to realise that the fibres which, I had spent the last week telling everyone about, were indeed the result of a poor cleaning procedure and a student in the lab who had a preference for shitty polyester T-shirts.
I spent the next week batting away questions asking how my wires were turning out. I felt deflated and embarrassed. However, upon arriving home I needed a little pick me up and said to my partner “say those three little words to me” and knowing how to cheer me up she said “Andy, you are right”.