A Moment of Science

Mistakes in Science

They laughed at Columbus, and the Wright Brothers and Einstein too!

This is a common response when people are defending or excusing some pseudoscience like creationism or astrology. Does science resist new ideas?

There aren't many examples of the supposed resistance of science to new ideas. When the evidence is clear, scientists readily accept new ideas. In fact, coming up with a new idea that can be substantiated with evidence — that's every scientist's dream!

H Ronald KabackThere was an article this past May in The Scientist about the life and work of H. Ronald Kaback, Professor of Physiology at UCLA. Kaback talked about how, when he was a young man in college, he attended a lecture by the biochemist and Nobel Prizewinner Arthur Kornberg who spoke about then-recent work in transfer RNA. Transfer RNA are bits of RNA that recognize amino acids in the building of proteins. "A light goes off in my head," said Kaback, "And I think: there must be another species of RNA, located in the [cell] membrane, that's involved in amino acid transport [into the cell]."

So Kaback spent all of his spare time doing research into this problem. For years. Then, one day, he got to meet with Sir Francis Crick of Watson-and-Crick fame and tells Crick about his work. "Sir Francis listened patiently and, looking down his nose, said, 'No, no. That can't possibly be right.'" But Kaback doesn't give up, thinking to himself "What the hell does this guy know'" about what he's working on. Eventually, said Kaback in the article, he discovered that Crick had been right. "But that"s what science is all about," said Kaback,

You come up with some idea, do some experiments, and eventually your idea turns out to be total baloney. [page 52 of the May 2011 issue of The Scientist]

The philosopher Karl Popper emphasized that all of human understanding is gained through a process of trial and error. And truth comes at a high price: the cost is a lot of work and a monumental amount of error. This is true not just in science but in all the rest of life.

But, it is better to be ignorant than to be in error. It's well worth keeping in mind at all times!