The Science in Errors09 May
One of the reasons I believe in the Power of Observation is that when I am working with others, we always make errors. Something doesn’t go right. We are never perfect.
These errors are gifts of gold given to me for free. They highlight opportunities to do better, if only I can see them and honestly examine what they have to teach me.
This is the scientific method, this is the power of the Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle. You have a plan/expectation, you do it, you check how it went as dispassionately as you can, and you adjust the plan just enough so that you can actually improve and do it again.
This is how I avoid feeling defeated or beating myself up when we make an error. I have come to believe this is how we can grow in what we do. Even more importantly, it is how our team learns to trust and talk and be more committed to each other and the people we serve.
In this, I am inspired by a footnote in The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic generation discovered the beauty and terror of science by Richard Holmes. Chapter 2 describes William Herschel, an 18th century self-taught astronomer who discovered the planet Uranus because of his disciplined observation of the skies. Early in his career, Herschel thought the moon was inhabited and that the craters were actually architectural forms (an error). Talking about this, Holmes says this,
[this] bears on the whole nature of science history and biography. Michael Hoskin has suggested in his essay ‘On Writing the History of Modern Astronomy’ that most histories of science continue to be ‘uninterrupted chronicles,’which run along ‘handing out medals to those who “got it right” ‘. They ignore the history of error, so central to the scientific process, and fail to illuminate science as a ‘creative human activity’ which involves the whole personality and has a broad social context.
I think that’s tremendously important. The history of error is such an intimate part of science, and it’s so often suppressed in ordinary, conventional science history. You just get to the result. You also ignore things that don’t look right to us now. The history of error is very rich.
We do a disservice to our teams when we only tell the stories of what worked. When we fail to help them embrace errors. Failing to embrace error holds at bay the human – and spiritual – dimension that is vital if we are to discover what is truly valuable.