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How scientists should admit their mistakes

Scientists reflect on their own errors and how to deal with them
May 25, 2017 | Comments

Have you ever made a mistake? If you’re human, and you’re being honest with yourself, the answer to this question has to be “yes.” (If you are a robot, you can stop reading this now – it probably won’t be so useful to you.) If you’re now reflecting on mistakes you’ve made, perhaps you’re thinking about relatively small ones (fender benders in the car, accidentally under-tipping at the restaurant you went to last night, forgetting about a meeting, or dropping your cell phone in a bowl of soup). Or maybe you’re thinking about bigger mistakes (picking a fight with your spouse, quitting your job when you didn’t have great prospects lined up, buying a house you couldn’t really afford, or getting a PhD in the humanities – just kidding, that one’s not a mistake, it’s an excellent life decision).

Some mistakes are more difficult than others to face. And it’s true that we humans expend quite a bit of energy on justifying our decisions to ourselves after the fact. Indeed, we have the incredible ability to rewrite history in all kinds of creative ways to ensure that we can continue to tell ourselves “everything’s okay, I made the right decision.” The alternative – “everything’s not okay, I made a mistake” – usually causes quite a bit of dissonance and in most cases will push people toward making a change. Of course in many cases you can’t change the situation so the psychological incentive to keep justifying your actions and decisions to yourself becomes much greater.

But what if you’re a scientist? Or a healthcare provider? What if you made a mistake in a study and no one caught it? What if that study was published and led to other studies that took you down a path that defined your career? Or what if you’re a doctor and you think you misdiagnosed a patient, gave them a medication that doesn’t really work, or gave them some other kind of medical advice that’s not really based in the best evidence? Do you come out and admit that you’ve made these mistakes? What kind of consequences will that have for you? Will admitting your mistakes actually help anyone?

These are some of the questions scientists must face every day, especially in light of growing signs of distrust of science and medicine in this country and around the world. In the face of this crisis of confidence, many people have called upon scientists to be more transparent and forthcoming about the mistakes they do make in order to mitigate public notions that scientists are somehow involved in vast conspiracies and engage in secretive behaviors to mislead the public.

Of course, as we discuss in Denying to the Grave, conspiracy theories are complex and result from a combination of psychological and social phenomena that come together at an opportune time. So scientists’ transparency cannot be the answer on its own. But it is an important factor in dealing with negative attitudes toward science. We can’t help but wonder whether this was on Nobel-prize winner Daniel Kahneman’s mind when he publicly admitted recently that he relied too much on some relatively weak studies in a particular chapter of his bestselling book Thinking, Fast and Slow. 

You can find our thoughts on the topic and some admissions of our own in our most recent blog post for Psychology Today. We hope you enjoy and look forward to hearing your thoughts.

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