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Getting It Less Wrong

Paul Grobstein
May 2006

The drawing in the photograph to the left appeared one day in May 2006 on the circulation desk of the Bryn Mawr College science library and proved to be the work of Elizabeth Diamond, who took a course in neurobiology and behavior with me the previous year. The quotation is from a letter I wrote in 1993. For more of Beth's thoughts see her getting it less wrong.

Beth's drawing made me realize that much of my work since 1993 has involved exploring the implications of and further refining the "less wrong" idea. That in turn stimulated me to try and trace some of the ways the idea has evolved, and relevant pieces of that are provided here. "Getting it less wrong" is, of course, applicable not only to the trajectory but to the idea itself. Your thoughts are more than welcome. To contribute to the continuing evolution of the idea of "getting it less wrong", you can either email me or share your thoughts in an on line forum.

A chronological sampling of my use of "less wrong" on Serendip and elsewhere
  • 1993 - The original letter, about science and discovery
    People in our culture, by and large, tend to presume that someone, somewhere knows what is "right," and that each individual's task is either to be that particular someone or to work as hard as they can to learn from that someone what "right" is ... the mindset long predates science as a social activity, but ... science certainly encourages it, and so it is appropriate that science should contribute to correcting it ... In an enormous variety of distinct fields of inquiry the same general pattern is becoming clear: there is no such thing as "right," the very concept needs to be replaced with "progressively less wrong." The difference is far from semantic. "Right" is measured by proximity to some fixed idea, "progressively less wrong" by how far people have gotten from where they started. It is the aspiration to be "right" that leads to rigid hierarchical social organizations of all kinds, including educational systems. Wanting to be "progressively less wrong" takes one (and societies) in quite different directions entirely: it encourages life-long inquiry by every individual, a respect for past wisdom and enthusiasm for contributing to future understanding, and an appreciation of the enormous value of interactions between unique individuals each of whom has unique perspectives to contribute.
  • 1993 - Getting it less wrong: some thoughts on introductory science teaching. an essay
    Can appealing and engaging "less wrong" science teaching spread through disciplines and institutions and become a stable part of undergraduate science education? Yes, of course, but some other aspects of our educational and scientific communities are going to have to become "less wrong" too if they and we seriously want it to be so.
  • 1996 - Two cultures or one?, an essay
    As comfortable and productive as it has been for Weinberg and others to believe that they can stand apart from their subject matter and uncover external truths, science itself does not depend on the validity of either of those beliefs. Neither neutrality nor external reality are concepts essential to the process of continually remaking world views to accomodate new observations (a process which predates science as a profession and may well outlive it). Nor is either necessary to legitimize scientific understanding, the validation of which derives instead from the increasing breadth of observations effectively summarized as time goes on.
  • 2002 - Summer institutes for philadelphia teachers, a news article
    A major theme of the program is to get teachers to be comfortable with being wrong and to convey that comfort to students
  • 2003 - Getting it less wrong, the brain's way: science, pragmatism, and multiplism, a book chapter
    Science proceeds not by proving "truth" or "reality" but rather by disproving falsity, not by painting the "right" picture but by painting a picture "less wrong" than prior pictures. And that, rather than either "objectivity" or some other privileged access to "reality" is in fact the basis of the demonstrable power of science.
  • 2003 - A vision of science (and science education) in the 21st century: everybody 'getting it less wrong' together, a talk
    Endless self-correcting story telling is, I assert, one component of the essential core of science as it is actually done. The other, I suggest, is the communal nature of the process. We are all of us (both those currently engaged with science and those not) constantly engaged in a process of self-correcting story-telling in which our intuitions interact with our observations of the external world, of other people, and of ourselves ... it is what we mean by culture ... we share both observations and stories with each other, and from that sharing emerge more rapidly common stories "less wrong" than any of us could create alone.
  • 2003 - A summer institute forum posting, see also The perils and potentials of "I believe ..."
    I don't "believe" in stories, wherever they come from. I listen to them, learn from them, and make use of them when I find them useful. To "believe" in a story is, for me, to end the ongoing process of discovery, of "getting it less wrong", and that's not something I'm inclined to do. I'd rather go on changing/evolving/emerging.
  • 2003 - Science Matters ... How?, an essay
    The distinctive role that science has played in our culture, and can if it is valued continue to play, is not to resolve social (or individual) ills but rather to be the embodiment of permanent skepticism, of a persistant doubt about the validity of any given set of understandings reached by whatever means (including those of science itself). It is the insistence on doubting existing understandings, not the wish to eliminate humans ills nor to find "answers", that has always animated science and has always been the source of its power and successes.
  • 2004 - Writing Descartes: I am, and I can think, therefore ...", an essay and dialogue/discussion
    ... to express an attitude of engaged skepticism, an interest in and willingness to listen to stories not because they are "right" (no story can ever be) but because they have the potential to help one's own story become "less wrong"
  • 2005 - Intelligent design and the story of evolution: no need for drawing lines in the sand, an essay
    The story of evolution is not something that "denies or seeks to explain away" anything ... and is certainly not "ideology". It is a scientific story, one that usefully summarizes a very large number of observations and creates questions that motivate new observations. It is not "Truth" nor a candidate/competitor for the status of "Truth". It is a product of curiosity, and a stimulus for ongoing curiosity ...
  • 2005 - Revisiting science in culture: science as story selling and story revision, Journal of Research Practice
    scientific statements are not either claims or approximations to "Truth," but provisional stories, reflecting human perspectives, that get progressively less wrong.
  • 2005 - Science as story telling in action: the web, the brain, and society, a talk
    Science is about change, about getting it less wrong
    The brain is about change, about getting it less wrong
    Stories can/should be used to encourage change, getting it less wrong
    People (scientists included) need to become more comfortable with change and the capability/role that individuals can/should play in it
  • 2005 - On beyond post-modernism: discriminating stories, a talk
    IF/when one begins to have the feeling that there really ISN'T any such thing as "Truth" or "Reality" outside oneself, at least not a useful one that one can rely on as a fixed and stable motivator of and guide to one's own behavior, AND one has the feeling that PC/postmodernist solipsism (all stories are equally good) is not an adequate response to this feeling, THEN the notion of generativity as a primary basis for story adjudication has some appeal
  • 2006 - Science as story telling or story telling? A conversation about science education ... and science
    Describing science as a process of getting "less wrong" is intended to acknowledge not only that there is no claim being made to having "Truth" but, equally importantly, that there is no claim being made to there being any single path along which all stories can be positioned and evaluated, not even all "scientific" stories. There may well be multiple "less wrong" paths from any given point
  • 2006 - Philosophy of science, from a course forum (see also figure)
    a process of inquiry that
    • that has neither a designer nor a goal
    • lacks any motivation by the concept of "reality"
    • involves inquirers who are necessarily embedded in and an influence on what they are inquiring into
    • has, as part of its very fabric, the existence of multiple interpretations/stories which are not only acceptable but essential (along with randomness) for the creation of the new interpretations/stories that give the whole process a "progressive" character
"less wrong" elsewhere on the web

A google search on the phrase "progressively less wrong" yielded more than 150 returns at locations other than Serendip and on "getting it less wrong" more than 300 (May 2006). A sampling of those that clearly derive from material to the left includes ...

  • 1995 - Quote of the week, from About Archaeology
  • 2000 - Between positivism and relativism: a middle path for public administration, John Little, Troy State Unversity
  • 2001 - Strings and things: a brief history of chemical languages, John Bradshaw, Daylight Chemical Information Systems
  • 2003 - A scientist's responsibilities, Chris Quigg
  • 2004 - Wasteflake Manifesto
  • 2006 - Trial and Error, David Dobbs, NYTimes Magazine
  • 2006 - Muddling through the literature: Trial and Error, DB's Medical Rants
  • 2006 - The Weight of the Errors, brothersjudd.com
  • Chronological sampling of "less wrong" discussion on Serendip

  • 1996 - somehow, especially in teaching science, it would be good to get "back to our roots" and recognize that science is like what Bertrand Russell wrote about philosophy in the chapter mentioned above: "While diminishing our feeling of certainty as to what things are, it greatly increases our knowledge as to what they may be; it removes the somewhat arrogant dogmatism of those who have never travelled into the region of liberating doubt, and it keeps alive our sense of wonder by showing familiar things in an unfamiliar aspect."
  • 1997 - My name is Ivan Teixeira, I'm a Biology student in Brazil and admirer of your work. I read your "Getting It Less Wrong... Teaching after Biology 101" text, which I've downloaded from the Internet. I found it so interesting that I gave a copy to my Psychology teacher. It's very good to know that someone cares about making people think of science not as science for the matter of itself, but as something in benefit of society. One of the things I liked most was the issue about trying to make students and teachers see each other as colleagues exchanging ideas
  • 1998 - We began the semester talking about how what we know (what anyone knows) about science is not right- just less wrong. Thats a hard way to begin- thank god we don't have a final because studying would get me nowhere. What we have talked about in class I feel I almost understand, in fact, had we not started the way we did, I would almost say I knew it. But now I'm sitting under a cloud of self-doubt. I understand molecules, macromolecules, celles, tissues and organs, but am continually intrigued by all of the things I do not understand, or even know exist.
  • 2000 - A young friend of mine currently enrolled in biology 103 suggested that i check out theforum. I did so, was impressed ... I expect that in some sense, Steve Weinstein may be correct--that somewhere out there is an objective reality of the way nature works. Problem is,since we must filter our observations of nature through human sensory and neurological machinery, confounded with thick layers of shifting cultural baggage, we are hopelessly unlikely to ever get it exactly right. So professor Grobstein's goal of getting it progressively less wrong is about the best we can aspire to.
  • 2001 - I used to think (before I took this class) that scientists ALWAYS get things right and that there were no wrong answers in science, but now I'm starting to think that maybe science like life flourishes on getting things wrong, thereby making it possible to get things less wrong the next time
  • 2002 - I will look at my life experiences as getting things "less wrong". This has been such a freeing concept. I hope to bring this to my students, teachers, and parents that I work with
  • 2003 - this class has taught me that there really aren't too many "right" answers. Proving something doesn't necessarily mean proving it "right"; it means proving it "less wrong." ... Before, I would read the NYT "Science Times" or some other science related article and pretty much believed everything that was said. Now, I have come to terms with the subjectivity of science ... Finally, as cheesy as this may sound, I learned that it's ok to be wrong. Wait...not just that it's OK to be wrong, but that we should be wrong at least once a week (I think that's what was said on the first day of class...)! It is through the process of "being wrong" that we open ourselves up to new ideas and thought processes and learn to think more critically
  • 2004 - In my experience, it is human nature to want stasis in life. It makes it easier to live. If I come along and say "You know the way that you have been treating your billion dollar operation is wrong, you should change" people tend to get upset. Especially when they are paying me to give them the best solution.
  • 2005 - We spent two weeks wrapping our brains around getting things less wrong...then this week we return to the experiment format with expectated results. My poor brain is smoking!!!!!! How can the concept of getting it less wrong translate to experimentation and safety rules?
  • 2006 - It seems to me that when you say "less wrong," you might mean something very similar to what I mean when I say, "more useful."
  • 2006 - It has taken me years of practice, and years of unlearning, to admit that it is not my business to be right, but that I must instead strive to be less wrong, for as things are, there is no better method. To assume the opposite, to believe that what we know now is the only immutable Truth, is to invite catastrophe. In science there are few hard truths, and we should never learn anything more if we ceased to question what we know.
  • Related quotations/references




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