Don’t underestimate the power of pretty scientific models! On the catwalk of the universe they are all we have.
Being Wrong is a well-written account of our understanding of error. The author points out how central error is for all aspects of cultural proress. It is not an academic treatise, but still gives the history of thinking about scientific and religious truth a fair treatment, by mentioning for example St. Augustine’s fallor ergo sum, expressed an entire millennium before Descartes. It gives the beautiful definition of the French Larousse dictionary from the 1600s: Error is “a vagabondage of the imagination, of the mind that is not subject to any rule.”
The book references the idea of household philosophy names like Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn, but its real strength and appeal are the many well-researched anecdotes. Being deceived by our senses is illustrated by the story of captain Ross and the phenomenon of a superior mirage; there is the story of the Millenarians who thought the world would end in 1844 (and how they behaved as it the apocalypse didn’t happen); there is the story of a woman losing faith twice and an apt description of the emotional twilight zone in between; there is Abdul Rahman who converted from Islam to Christianity (losing everything), or Alan Greenspan, who after the financial crisis of 2008 found the courage to admit his entire way of thinking was wrong. We also find a gripping crime story of innocent prisoners who are eventually released on the basis of dna-evidence. The author documents the ultimate deception of divorce by visiting a celebrity divorce lawyer. The wealth of anecdotes makes this book an entertainining and interesting read. I learned that it takes courage to be wrong in the right way.
It is not because I have conclusive evidence of it, but because I enjoy teaching new things to my daughter Miru, that I believe we should introduce the most basic concepts of science to our children as early as possible. When Miru and I were wondering if the sea could freeze over, I suggested that we could do a little experiment with two cups of freezing water, one with and the other without salt. She is only five, so I decided a binary setup was enough: “does contain salt” versus “does not contain salt”. I explained her what a hypothesis is and that ours was that the water in the salty cup would not freeze. We filled two small cups with tap water and placed them in the freezer.
The next morning I reminded her of our experiment.
“Oh yes yes yes the experiment!” my little girl shrieked, rushing to the freezer to open the door. I took out the two cups. When she found out that the pure water had turned into a block of ice, while the salty water only had a layer of frost on the top, she smiled victoriously and we high-fived.
the scientific attitude at its most fundamental defies any authority that doesn’t try to defy itself
What did she actually learn from this experiment? Can she design experiments now in order to answer questions about the structure of the world around her? Can she judge a good experiment? Does she know the difference between a hypothesis and a wild guess? Perhaps not. But she has been primed and prepared for more experiments. She has been introduced to the scientific attitude, that at its most fundamental defies any authority that doesn’t try to defy itself (I just came up with that definition, let me know what you think). Eppur si muove.
Soon, she will learn that the theory generating our hypotheses should be falsifiable, and that the experiment should be repeatable. I don’t plan to replace her bedtime reading of Tolkien and Roald Dahl with Karl Popper or Thomas Kuhn, but to do more experiments with her. Don’t take daddy’s word for it – trust only that what you can most readily question – your own senses and mind.