Monday, January 18, 2021
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TED Gallery: On the Virtue of Being Wrong

I ran across another fantastic TED talk that gave me a great idea for an aggregation. The topic is about being wrong, and the videos are worth the watch. We’ll start with a guy who talks about how science has evolved as a result of learning from errors, then hear from a woman who spent the last 5 years studying the subject of being wrong, and end with a teacher who believes that the education system is totally off track with their teaching philosophy. These videos are about embracing our human fallibility.

Tim Hartford Advocates Trial and Error

Tim Hartford gives a five-star TED talk, beginning and ending with the work of Archie Cochrane, a doctor in a prisoner of war camp, in World War II. He talks about how trial and error can and should be used, and how it has made a positive difference in our world so far.

“You think it’s obvious?” he asks, as I suspect you might have as well. His response is well articulated, though you should see the video for the full statement.

I will admit it’s obvious when schools start teaching children that there are some problems that don’t have a correct answer. […] When a politician stands up campaigning for elected office and says, “I want to fix our health system [and] education system. I have no idea how to do it. I have half a dozen ideas. We’re going to test them out. […] We’ll find some that work. We’ll build on those. We’ll get rid of the ones that don’t.” When a politician campaigns on that platform, and more importantly, when voters like you and me are willing to vote for that kind of politician, then I will admit that it is “obvious” that trial and error works…

They knew that their hospitals were the right place for patients. And they knew it was very unethical to run any kind of trial or experiment. Nevertheless, Archie managed to get permission to do this. He ran his trial. And after the trial had been running for a little while, he gathered together all his colleagues around his table, and he said, “Well, gentlemen, we have some preliminary results. They’re not statistically significant. But we have something. And it turns out that you’re right and I’m wrong. It is dangerous for patients to recover from heart attacks at home. They should be in hospital.”

There’s this uproar, and all the doctors start pounding the table and saying, “We always said you were unethical, Archie. You’re killing people with your clinical trials. You need to shut it down now. Shut it down at once.” And there’s this huge hubbub. Archie lets it die down.

And then he says, “Well that’s very interesting, gentlemen, because when I gave you the table of results, I swapped the two columns around. It turns out your hospitals are killing people, and they should be at home. Would you like to close down the trial now, or should we wait until we have robust results?”

Kathryn Schulz May Be Wrong

There’s not much to say about this TED talk. Shulz is clearly a storyteller, and has evidently thought more about  being wrong in the last few years than most people in their entire lives. She gives an interesting tour of how we go about our daily lives in terms of our beliefs. “Think for a moment about what it means to feel right,” she says. “It means that you think that your beliefs just perfectly reflect reality. And when you feel that way, you’ve got a problem to solve, which is: How are you going to explain all of those people who disagree with you?”

A couple of years ago, a woman comes into Beth Israel Deaconess medical center for a surgery. Beth Israel’s in Boston. It’s the teaching hospital for Harvard — one of the best hospitals in the country. So this woman comes in and she’s taken into the operating room. She’s anesthetized, the surgeon does his thing — stitches her back up, sends her out to the recovery room. Everything seems to have gone fine.

And she wakes up, and she looks down at herself, and she says, “Why is the wrong side of my body in bandages?” Well the wrong side of her body is in bandages because the surgeon has performed a major operation on her left leg instead of her right one.

When the vice president for health care quality at Beth Israel spoke about this incident, he said something very interesting. He said, “For whatever reason, [the surgeon] simply felt that he was on the correct side of the patient.” The point of this story is that trusting too much in the feeling of being on the correct side of anything can be very dangerous.

Shulz also brought her insight to the PopTech stage (as far as I’m concerned, it’s practically the same as TED). It’s a completely different talk, and I actually like this one a little bit more, because it spends a little more time on psychology. Regardless, in both talks she describes that we ought not to fear the possibility of being wrong.

Diana Laufenberg Learns from Mistakes

Laufenberg is a teacher whom you can tell “gets it.” She extols mistakes for their important role in learning, and emphasizes an empirical approach to learning.

And when I sat the students down, I said, “Who’s got the best one?” And they immediately went, “There it is.” Didn’t read anything. “There it is.” And I said, “Well what makes it great?” And they’re like, “Oh, the design’s good, and he’s using good color. And there’s some … ” And they went through all that we processed out loud. And I said, “Go read it.” And they’re like, “Oh, that one wasn’t so awesome.”

And then we went to another one — it didn’t have great visuals, but it had great information — and spent an hour talking about the learning process, because it wasn’t about whether or not it was perfect, or whether or not it was what I could create; it asked them to create for themselves.

And it allowed them to fail, process, learn from. And when we do another round of this in my class this year, they will do better this time. Because learning has to include an amount of failure, because failure is instructional in the process.


If you have watched the videos above, then you already know what I’m going to say. To err is human. No one is above it, and no one should fear or deny it. But it’s an opportunity that can go to waste if not used properly. Because without learning from mistakes, we miss the point of them.

“An expert is a person who has made all the mistakes that can be made in a very narrow field.” –Niels Bohr

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