Sunday, August 1, 2010

So you are wrong...big deal...Pluto is NOT a planet

"There's no shame in being wrong"

Kathryn Schulz says we learn through making mistakes


Nick Aveling

July 31, 2010

The Vancouver Sun

It took astronomers 76 years to get Pluto right. The glorified snowball -- smaller than our moon -- continued its charade as the solar system's ninth planet from its discovery in 1930 right up until 2006, when it was redesignated a "dwarf planet" by the International Astronomical Union.

The demotion was not universally well received by Earth's 6.5 billion inhabitants. By arcane decree, we'd been forced to recalibrate, however slightly, our understanding of the celestial family tree. Posters would have to be torn off the walls of elementary-school classrooms; models in museums would have to be rebuilt.

Even in cases of mere taxonomy, it's no fun being wrong. But it's about time we got used to it.

In fact, says author Kathryn Schulz in her first book, Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error, we would do well to embrace it.

"I wanted to challenge our entrenched, if unexamined, attitudes toward error. As I see it, that involves two major pieces," Schulz says from her home in Beacon, N.Y.

"One is that error is this rare, anomalous event that just kind of flies out of left field and astonishes us every time. Actually, error is pretty much ubiquitous in our own lives and on a societal level.

"The second is this notion that getting something wrong is somehow an indication that there's something wrong with us, that our errors are a sign of either intellectual or moral inferiority. As I argue in the book, no, quite the contrary."

Not only are life's addenda, its red herrings and its wrong turns inevitable, Schulz says, they are also the source of, if not all wonder, then at least most of it.

Her argument is beautifully, comprehensively rendered in Being Wrong (Ecco/HarperCollins, 416 pages), which jumps from philosophy to history to neurology and back again, guided all along by a patient and reassuring wit.

Schulz isn't exactly sure how she came to be preoccupied by error. But the idea for the book cleared its throat in the fall of 2004 as the United States shouted itself hoarse over a choice between John Kerry and then-president George W. Bush.

"There was this unbelievably entrenched set of convictions in the air, and nobody could entertain the possibility that they were wrong about anything," she says.

She also credits a long history of travel for eroding her own assumptions of personal infallibility and introducing her to the notion of being "deeply, chronically wrong.

"You're wrong hourly when you're in some other country. You get the language wrong, you misconvert the currency, you forget about time zone differences, you don't understand the culture," she explains.

There is her career in journalism, too, which forced her to think deliberately and responsibly about the nature of truth, the limits of hard facts and the consequences of mucking things up.

It would also appear to have taught her the importance of exhaustive research. Being Wrong spans millennia of brain power, drawing on Plato one moment and Freud the next.

Schulz further employs a battery of case studies and historical footnotes, as fascinating as they are illustrative, such as the blind woman who thought she could see and the French magician who helped Napoleon pacify the Algerians with displays of mighty "sorcery."

But she leans most heavily on an obscure argument from the philosophy of science, known as the Pessimistic Meta-Induction from the History of Science.

'The gist,' she writes, "is this: because even the most seemingly bulletproof scientific theories from times past eventually proved wrong, we must assume today's theories will some day prove wrong, as well."

A flat Earth, the geocentric model, even the planet Pluto -- all have been usurped. It turns out the history of discovery is less one of getting things right than of having things wrong.

But that's not all, Schulz says. Political, religious, economic and other so-called truths are replaced almost generation-ally. Why not have a Pessimistic Meta-Induction from the History of Everything?

She answers her own question in the book's final chapter. Yes, human beings have an incredible knack for being wrong, but there's no reason to be gloomy about it. Embracing, rather than denying, the innate fallibility of the species allows us to plan for, and better avoid, disaster.

What we really need is an Optimistic Meta-Induction from the History of Everything.

"There are many wonderful things about 'being wrong,'" Schulz says. "The most basic one is that it suggests we are dynamic and not static creatures. Our understanding of the world is always going to change, and there's always room to have our minds boggled by some new insight.

"To me, that's just about the most exciting thing in the world."

Being Wrong is not self-help or how-to, nor is it chicken soup for the soul. It will, however, remind readers to forgive themselves -- and perhaps even others -- for the unavoidable litany of mistakes that define life on planet Earth.

And there's nothing wrong with that.


Laurel Kornfeld said...

The problem is that Kathryn Schulz is wrong in not recognizing the ongoing status of the debate over Pluto. She clearly has not done her homework on this issue.

"Astronomers" didn't "get it right" in 2006. 424 out of 10,000 IAU members came up with a very controversial definition that was rejected by an equal number of professional astronomers. Pluto is not a "glorified snowball." It is estimated to be 75 percent rock and geologically differentiated into core, mantle, and crust just like Earth is. Nothing has to be "recalibrated," no posters have to be torn off school classroom walls, and no museum models have to be rebuilt.

Shame on Schulz for falsely portraying one point of view in an ongoing debate as "wrong." I recommend she visit the site of the Great Planet Debate, held at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab in August 2008 and listen to the audio transcripts before erroneously portraying this issue in black and white, when this is far from accurate. She can find the conference proceedings here:

Mercury said...


Well, you didn't disappoint responded. Now I think Kathryn Schulz is correct in a categorical sense in that admitting one is "wrong" is a very positive attribute. Despite what I think, Schulz may have made a rather large mistake by using Pluto as an example. It's currently a popular subject, stirring passion [:)]. and fair game for criticism. I still maintain arbitration is acceptable.

Laurel Kornfeld said...

There are a lot of issues Schulz could have chosen instead to make her point--issues where things are much more black and white. In astronomy, she could have used the Copernican principle and how it was initially rejected only to be proven correct with Galileo's observations. Or she could have chosen the 1920s debate over whether the universe is made up of one galaxy or of many. These are issues that are clearly resolved and there is no question of portraying one side in an ongoing debate as fact. Plus, her description of Pluto as a "glorified snowball" is patently wrong.

Mercury said...


Well, Pluto is hogging the limelight not the boring [for many] astronomy debates of past. She isn't interested in the technicalities but a popular example of "wrongness" to support her thesis of accepting a "non-truth"/mistake and moving on with a feeling of admitting and error and feeling better in making the right decision.

"The Day We Found the Universe"--H. Shapley & the Milky Way

"The Great Debate" [1921]--Shapley & Curtis

The astronomy/cosmology debates of the 1930's & 1940's