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Scientific American

The Dangers of Keeping an Open Mind

published September 2013 | comments (15)
Why great scientists make great mistakes
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“Alien abductors have asked him to probe them.” “Sasquatch has taken a photograph of him.” The “him” is the “Most Interesting Man in the World,” the faux character in the Dos Equis beer ad campaign, and these are my favorite skeptical lines from a litany of superfluities and braggadocios. (“In a past life, he was himself.”)

My candidate for the most interesting scientist in history I’d like to have a beer with is Alfred Russel Wallace, the 19th-century naturalist and co-discoverer (with Charles Darwin) of natural selection, whose death centennial we will marking this November. As I document in my 2002 biography of him— In Darwin’s Shadow (Oxford University Press)—Wallace was a grand synthesizer of biological data into a few core principles that revolutionized biogeography, zoology and evolutionary theory. He spent four years exploring the Amazon rain forest but lost most of his collections when his ship sank on his way home. His discovery of natural selection came during an eight-year expedition to the Malay Archipelago, where during a malaria-induced fever, it struck him that the best fit organisms are more likely to survive and reproduce.

Being open-minded enough to make great discoveries, however, can often lead scientists to make great blunders. Wallace, for example, was also a firm believer in phrenology, spiritualism and psychic phenomena, evidence for which he collected at séances over the objections of his more skeptical colleagues. Among them was Thomas Henry Huxley, who growled, “Better live a crossing-sweeper than die and be made to talk twaddle by a ‘medium’ hired at a guinea a séance.”

Wallace’s adventurous spirit led him to become ahead of his time in opposing eugenics and wasteful militarism and in defending women’s rights and wildlife preservation. Yet he was on the wrong side when he led an antivaccination campaign. He was a first-class belletrist, but he fell for a scam over a “lost poem” that Edgar Allan Poe allegedly wrote to cover a hotel bill in California. Worst of all, he scientifically departed from Darwin over the evolution of the human brain, which Wallace could not conceive as being the product of natural selection alone (because other primates succeed with much smaller brains) and thus must have been designed by a higher power. Darwin snarled, “I hope you have not murdered too completely your own and my child.”

Wallace is the prototype of what I call a “heretic scientist,” someone whose mind is porous enough to let through both revolutionary and ridiculous ideas at the same time. Other such examples abound in astrophysicist Mario Livio’s 2013 book, Brilliant Blunders (Simon & Schuster), in which he skillfully narrates the principle that “not only is the road to triumph paved with blunders, but the bigger the prize, the bigger the potential blunder.” Livio’s list includes Darwin’s stumble in postulating the incorrect theory of pangenesis, based on the inheritance of particles he called gemmules that carried traits from parents to offspring; Lord Kelvin’s gaffe of underestimating the age of the earth by almost 50 times, not because he ignored radioactivity, Livio argues, but because he dismissed the possibility of heat-transport mechanisms such as convection; Linus Pauling’s misstep in building a DNA model as a triple helix inside out (because he rushed his research in the race against Francis Crick and James Watson); Fred Hoyle’s bungle of siding with the steady state model of the universe over what he dismissively called the “big bang” model despite overwhelming evidence of the latter. As for Albert Einstein’s “biggest blunder” of adding a “cosmological constant” into his equations to account for the expanding universe, Livio claims Einstein never said it: instead Einstein applied the notion of “aesthetic simplicity” in his physical theories, which led him to reject the cosmological constant as an unnecessary complication to the equations.

How can we avoid such errors? Livio quotes Bertrand Russell: “Do not feel absolutely certain of anything.” He then conveys a central principle of skepticism: “While doubt often comes across as a sign of weakness, it is also an effective defense mechanism, and it’s an essential operating principle for science.”

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15 Comments to “The Dangers of Keeping an Open Mind”

  1. un tacons Says:

    Risking seeing beyond the confines of the standard canon in any field is what makes both great discovery and great blunders possible. The blunders will get fixed in time, so keep risking and testing. Academia can become ingrown and irrelevant until bold thinkers break us of our habits.

  2. Bill Britton Says:

    Most of the “blunders” cited above occurred in the days before the so-called Information Age arose, when reflection and contemplation were in fashion. Now, blunders themselves are de rigueur. Think Fukushima, Snowden, Challenger shuttle, cold fusion, to name just a few.

  3. whose blunder Says:

    BB: huh? Whose blunder is “Snowden”??

  4. Terry M Says:

    “Wallace is the prototype of what I call a “heretic scientist,” someone whose mind is porous enough to let through both revolutionary and ridiculous ideas at the same time.”

    Shermer seems to have done this with respect to Global Warming – the one area where he won’t apply skepticism.

  5. Robert St. John Says:

    Snowden was the blunder of Goldman-
    Sachs.
    They trusted him.

  6. Robert Neary Says:

    @Terry M – actually Shermer was a climate change skeptic himself for a number of years until he discovered the overwhelming evidence supporting the fact of anthropogenic climate change. The fact that you still refer to it as “global warming” would indicate you have a bit of catching up to do yourself. Shermer has already.

  7. Bad Boy Scientist Says:

    It would be exhausting to list all science blunders (and non-science blunders) by scientists since the scientific endeavor began ~400 years ago. In fact, the process of formulating hypotheses and testing them virtually guarantees that some will be wrong. Are we surprised that not all proposed explanation by brilliant minds are ‘right’? We should be surprised that anyone is surprised.

    Also, why be surprised about non-science blunders? When a scientist works outside his/her field of expertise s/he is a layperson – like the rest of us. Consider Newton, who was deeply involved in spiritualism and alchemy and Linus Pauling who helped start the mega-vitamin craze. It’s like being surprised that some famous scientist was a poor ball room dancer or couldn’t play chess well.

    Again, the most surprising thing to me is that so many are surprised that scientists are fallible. Way back in graduate school I was taught:

    Always remember that people do science.

  8. Dorothy Thrower Says:

    I strongly approve of your consistent policy of warning us against ‘bad science’. Hyper-vigilance is necessary.

  9. Frederick VAQUER Says:

    Bad Boy Scientist got it right:scientists are people and. Subject to falling under the influence of the prejudices and false beliefs held by many of their peers, Scientists are not infallible and may hold beliefs that they doubt yet firmly espouse and adhere to in practice

  10. Terry M Says:

    @Robert Neary: While you may hide behind the fig leaf of “Climate Change” to attempt to justify belief in the religion of AGW, the models from all the warmists predict increasing temperatures ad infinitum, despite evidence to the contrary.

    http://www.drroyspencer.com/wp-content/uploads/CMIP5-73-models-vs-obs-20N-20S-MT-5-yr-means1.png

    Climate is more closely associated with the solar cycles which impact Earth directly and by blocking cosmic rays, which, of course as shown recently at CERN, influence cloud behavior.

    http://www.thegwpf.org/cern-finds-qsignificantq-cosmic-ray-cloud-effect/

  11. EJH Says:

    Well said Terry M!

    I have always been concerned at “The Skeptics” refusal to accept skepticisn re the claims of “Climate Change Alarmists” (aka Chicken Littles)

  12. un tacons Says:

    Regarding cosmic rays and climate change: http://www.skepticalscience.com/cosmic-rays-and-global-warming-advanced.htm

  13. Nathan Pen Says:

    Be skeptical, question everything … except global warming of course. Oh! I forgot! They’ve changed the name to “climate change”! Publish the source code for the “climate models”!

  14. Nathan Pen Says:

    “How can we avoid such errors? Livio quotes Bertrand Russell: “Do not feel absolutely certain of anything.” He then conveys a central principle of skepticism: “While doubt often comes across as a sign of weakness, it is also an effective defense mechanism, and it’s an essential operating principle for science.”” Except global … oops … Catastrophic Climate Change!

    Shermer you disappoint me, perhaps if you apologized for being a fiscal libertarian more often you could make amends.

  15. Lorna Salzman Says:

    Being an honest skeptic, as opposed to one motivated by political ideology or economic investment, means giving up the basis for skepticism when contrary evidence proves you are wrong. The climate change skeptics, when they are not
    swallowing unproven theories of climate contrarians, keep coming up with their own bizarre and untested theories, none of which are substantiated by evidence or peer review. A skeptic who rejects evidence-based science without putting his own theory to rigorous testing and falsification is not a real skeptic but someone pretending to believe in science while praying that something else will rescue him. Moreover, while accusing their adversaries of “prejudice and false beliefs”, they claim that they and only they are free of such pressure, while failing to present evidence of the falsity of of their adversaries’ claims. Meanwhile the empirical evidence of increasing climate change mounts in an upward curve mercilessly. Where is the skeptics’ evidence that the curve will suddenly reverse downwards? The skeptics haven’t even looked for such evidence but insist on proof that the upward curve is mistaken. This kind of skepticism is nothing but ignorance and blind faith, no different from that extracted by organized religion.