Scientists aren't always right

Remember how scientists discovered alien-esque life forms in California and the Internet was all, "Oh, sheeeet!" But then other scientists started critiquing the research and there was a giant debate about whether one scientist could call out another scientist for bad data on a blog, rather than in a peer-reviewed journal, except that the peer reviewed critiques basically said the same thing and the "discovery" turned out to be totally incorrect? I'm making light of arsenic life here just a bit, but this story of de-discovery continues to be interesting and important. Today, on NPR's Science Friday, science journalist extraordinaire Carl Zimmer will explain why, and will talk about what happens when scientists are wrong.


  1. It can get messy when scientists are wrong (ego, shame, deception), but it’s still generally a lot better than when non-scientists are wrong. A lot.

    1. As long as the error wasn’t due to deception, I don’t see it as a problem. The idea of quantum entanglement came about because Einstein thought of it as an example to show how ridiculous quantum mechanics was.

      Additionally, scientists aren’t always going to be completely correct in their theories. Part of it may work, but the other part may be wrong. Pointing out these errors, per the scientific method, has advanced science. A good example is the development of the punctuated equilibrium theory.

  2.  Are they even usually right?  I know this was a quick, off-the-cuff headline but still – implying that scientists are *almost* always right plays into the anti-science crowd.  Science isn’t about “right” and “wrong” – leave that to religion please.

    1. Most of the Scientists I know are very different from almost everyone else, in that they are incredibly careful, in their professional context, to not make unfounded assumptions.  You’ll notice this right away if you read any number of scientific papers. Even when discussing a mechanism or idea that has significant support in both evidence and scientific consensus, many statements will begin with phrases like “if so-and-so’s theory of X is right” or “assuming y because of evidence in papers g, h and r, we can propose jz”.

      Even colloquially Scientists tend to use more exact phrasing than other professionals, as it is simply considered scientific accuracy.  

      Now no one can or will ever know if “scientists are usually right” as that statement is a bigger hypothesis than can possibly be tested in any accurate historical sense.  But they are almost always *more often* right than everybody else.  

      1.  I would agree that scientists are likely more precise and careful in what they say (to the point of being annoyingly didactic sometimes, I’m sure ;).  What I was really getting at is that being “wrong” is an important and accepted part of science, no?  That scientists are careful BECAUSE they know how HARD it is to be “right”.  How many confounding factors there are.  How often they are, in fact, wrong.

        And most importantly, scientists know (should know) that something that is “right” one day may very well turn out to be wrong the next.  Which is the opposite of religious dogma which purports to be universally and eternally right. 

        Being wrong… accepting that being wrong is part of the process — that’s the strength of science.  Let’s revel in being wrong… ;)

  3. If you watch “science” headlines for long at all, you’ll see that scientists are never right.  They change every “fact” every 3-4 years.  I’ve always believed its a funding scam.  Science is a business like any other, and can’t get funded unless there’s something new to fund.

    1. “If you watch “science” headlines for long at all, you’ll see that scientists are never right.  They change every “fact” every 3-4 years.”

      And if you’re not slow of mind, you’ll realize that it’s the non-scientists as headline writers that are at fault there.

    2.  That’s the strength of science.  It’s willing to accept that things change, that we always learn.  That as new evidence comes out, our understanding deepens.

      Forget the crappy headlines – that’s the fault of journalists looking for a quick bump on page views.

    3. If this were true, every time those scientists changed their “facts” your car would spontaneous combust while you were driving it since the scientists got the gas/air mixture wrong.  Your oven would light on fire since those wacky scientists don’t actually understand gas dynamics.   Your computer would never work, since the generations of scientists who struggled for centuries to understand electricity, heat, computation, plastics, electronics, and physics that at the time were very theoretical; none of these would work because scientists are ‘always changing what is true to get more funding’.


  4. I forget who said it, and I am sure I am paraphrasing:

    “Science isn’t about being right, science is about BECOMING right.”

  5. Whether they are right or not depends on which kinds of questions they choose to ask themselves, doesn’t it? Anybody can almost always be right if they get to choose the questions.

  6. Yes, scientists are wrong! That’s the point of science: You can be wrong. 

    This is very different from religion, politics, and conspiracy theorists. In those fields, you are never wrong no matter what the evidence says.

    1.  EXACTLY!  Thank you.  Being wrong is part of science.  It’s the opposite of dogmatic world views.

    2.  … which is what bugged me about the headline.  The response to “Scientists aren’t always right” is … “well, duh”. :)

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