January 11, 2011

Quote: Darwin about the possibility of being wrong

To consider the possibility that you are wrong is the hallmark of any good researcher and scientist. Darwin made the following observation in his autobiography, in a passage discussing why "On the Origin of Species" was so successful:

I had, also, during many years followed a golden rule, namely, that whenever a published fact, a new observation or thought came across me, which was opposed to my general results, to make a memorandum of it without fail and at once; for I had found by experience that such facts and thoughts were far more apt to escape from the memory than favourable ones. Owing to this habit, very few objections were raised against my views which I had not at least noticed and attempted to answer.

It's a good standard to follow. What separates science from dogma is that in science you must know what it would take to make you change your mind, and you must consider it seriously.


  1. Very good quote, thank you! Alas, I made the experience that it is very hard for people to change their views due to scientific findings. They just tend to reject them. With rare and notable exceptions, i.e. Susan Blackmore:

    Best wishes!

  2. It's funny you should comment. I'm aware of your work on the evolution of religion through Tom Rees' blog Epiphenom, and I've been following the debate over the purported adaptive effect of religion for a while.

    I say it's funny you should comment since I happen to think that most of the attempts to assign an adaptive quality to religion fail exactly in that they don't note what it would take to falsify their claims. It's a particular brand of dishonesty the whole field suffers from. If you read the Feynman quote in the Sandwalk post I link to above it says: "Details that could throw doubt on your interpretation must be given, if you know them. You must do the best you can — if you know anything at all wrong, or possibly wrong — to explain it." There are many details that throw doubt on religion being evolutionarily adaptive; details that evolutionary biologists know very well but that most proponents of religion as adaptive handily ignore.

    So it's not really only about admitting when you are wrong; it's about being honest about what it would take to make you change your mind.


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