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On this page, observations of various kinds will appear that are related to big history teaching as well as to big history in general.
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July 29, 2019
Why is it so hard today to show one’s errors within academia? And what happens when one does so? Most academics whom I know would not like to show their mistakes openly, as if doing so constituted an admission of incompetence.
Yet all of us make errors from time to time. But today academics are supposed to hide them and only show the finished product, the success story. In doing so we are conveying an image of the academic enterprise that does not correspond very well with what happens in reality.
Surely, all of us would like the results of an investigation to be as good as possible. Yet they may never be totally flawless, or completely closed off from further scrutiny or discussion, while the road toward achieving such results is usually far from flawless. Why is there so much emphasis on reporting only the results while the road toward it is usually hidden from view? And what happens when one does so, such as, perhaps most famously, James Watson’s rather revealing account of the discovery of DNA called The Double Helix?
How different things were in the early 19th century, at least among some competent investigators. While recently reading the accounts by captain Robert Fitz-Roy and naturalist Charles Darwin of their trip on the Beagle between 1831 and 1836, I was struck by their open reporting of many errors of judgment as well as what they learned from them. They may not have reported all that went wrong. But surely they told us much more about their mistakes and failures than any scientist would do today. As a result, one obtains a great insight into their exploits as part of life as a learning process. Those books were official publications commissioned by the British Admiralty ‘for the benefit of Seamen.’
Do similar things happen today for the benefit of academics? Hardly anything, or so it seems to me. Almost all of that is now kept out of view. So how are academics going to learn from that? As a result of this situation, instead of learning from each other many academics are now mostly only learning from their own experiences, including their errors, while seeking to hide all of that from their peers so that their reputations will not suffer. What a sad situation that is.
Some fifty years ago during the Apollo moon program, of which we have seen so many commemorations in 2018 and 2019, NASA was rather open in showing what they were doing. They may have tried to hide a few problems here and there. Yet ‘live’ television was granted access to all major events, including the most risky ones.
When things went wrong, such as with the Apollo 1 fire on the launch pad, or the Apollo 13 oxygen tank explosion on their way to the moon, NASA did not try to hide those problems. Instead they worked very hard, and openly, on establishing their errors as well as on finding fixes for them. All of that was part of an effort to showcase the ‘open’ American society versus the closed, far more secretive, Soviet Union, which tended to report only successes while seeking to hide failures.
Contrast that with today’s situation. With the vastly improved camera technology, we can now enjoy spectacular images of rockets being launched into space, or of their boosters soft-landing while returning to Earth. Yet as soon as something goes wrong, such as an exploding test vehicle on the launch pad, or a booster that missed its landing spot, we are hardly seeing anything while being told that there was an ‘anomaly.’ Perhaps this is part of the fact that such launches are now being performed by commercial companies, which may want to hide their problems from both their customers and the competition. Yet in my view their reputation would greatly be enhanced if they reported their failings more openly.
Let me now give a few examples of my own errors as well as what I learned from them. While studying biochemistry in the 1970s at Leyden University, I spent almost two years in a laboratory seeking to isolate a piece of bacterial DNA called a plasmid. In those days, doing an M.Sc. was much like doing a Ph.D. today. I spent a great deal of time and energy as well as a huge number of expensive ultra centrifuge runs in trying to get that done. Yet I produced virtually nothing but junk, for reasons that could have been foreseen if my supervisors and I had spent more time reflecting on this project before starting it.
The first cause of that situation was that everybody was in a hurry, not least because of a worldwide competition in what was correctly seen as a very promising field of genetic modification. As a result, far too little time was spent in advance on careful reflections. We paid dearly for that with two years of expensive failures. Yet this hurry was also part of a fairly common Western Dutch attitude of trying to rush while aiming for average quality which is subsequently hyped up.
During those two frustrating years I began to notice that, and started aiming to improve things. What I remember best is the following. To trace that plasmid DNA during its isolation from all the rest of the bacterial stuff after these tiny organisms had been killed, these bacteria had been fed radioactive substances that were subsequently built into their DNA but nowhere else. The radiation given off by this DNA was subsequently used to trace it during the purification process.
I had noticed that in comparison with other bacteria, the strain that we used, Agrobacterium tumefaciens, did not incorporate this radioactive food very well into its DNA, while it grew relatively slowly as well. I reported that to my supervisors, adding the suggestion that I would spend a few weeks seeking to improve that situation by offering the bacteria a series of different ‘soups’ in which they were growing to see what would work the best.
That idea was rejected out of hand because it would cost too much time. So I waited until my supervisors were absent and performed those experiments, which dramatically improved those efficiencies. I did not receive any praise from my supervisors after their return. Yet my findings were immediately accepted by the whole research group as the new standard procedure. My reward was getting an excellent overall grade for my research, while I was generously incorporated into the list of authors of an article about that subject.
Yet as far as I know there was no attempt to learn from that situation. But I surely did so myself. My two years of mostly wasted efforts became a lesson for life. When I subsequently engaged in cultural anthropological research in Peru in the 1980s into religion, politics, and ecology, a type of investigation that can hardly be controlled, if at all, because so much depends on the social circumstances, I spent extraordinary amounts of time and efforts in advance reflecting on my research plans: what I wanted to know as well as how to obtain that information.
Yet there was an almost endless number of unknowns, which was inevitable, because if everything had been known in advance, there would have been no point in doing the research. In fact, a beginning visiting cultural anthropologist often acts much like a three-year old: making the most obvious errors –obvious to those who already understand the local culture– while being corrected by the locals. Such a learning process is inevitable for anyone who is trying to become part of a culture in which one has not grown up oneself.
Let me give a small example. While harvesting potatoes in 1986 on a rather steep slope together with my Andean compadres, comadres, and their family, it was hard for me to distinguish between rocks the size of potatoes and the desired product. So I left some of them in the ground simply because I missed them. My clumsy efforts were watched closely by sharp-eyed five- and six-year olds, who began joking that I was hiding potatoes. That gave all of us a good laugh, and they subsequently helped me to do better.
This is only one example of a great many errors that I committed during my research. I will not report on any that further here. But as a result I went through an extremely steep learning curve. Fortunately, the Andeans always treated me kindly, while my sharpened instinct of the importance of admitting errors instead of hiding them helped me a great deal in trying to do better, including recognizing potential errors before actually committing them, for instance by watching the people’s reactions very carefully all the time to detect any such possible signals.
Back in the Netherlands I expected that among my colleagues there would be lively discussions exchanging such experiences. But none of that has ever happened. Even worse than what I had experienced in biochemistry, virtually all of them instead sought to dress their own windows, while an admission of errors was seen as showing incompetence.
Yet one keeps making errors. That is inevitable in life. Errors may also happen in a teaching situation, in which one can say certain things at the spur of the moment that one may regret a little later. I have always followed the policy of being very open about that while seeking to correct my mistakes publicly. But what to do if one finds oneself within a social environment in which admitting errors is seen as exhibiting incompetence?
In particular I remember such a situation while giving a talk on big history at Leyden University on invitation for a group of astronomers on February 25, 2016. As part of my own observations with a rather modest telescope, while comparing that with what Galileo saw when he first aimed his telescope at the heavens, I told them that the great scientist might have overstated the magnification of his telescope, as reported in this blog. A visiting professor of astronomy from the Canary Islands, Juan Antonio Belmonte Avilés, gave me a great suggestion that immediately corrected my apparently erroneous view.
That was a painful moment, of course, and it may not have enhanced my reputation among those mostly Dutch astronomers, even though I was immediately willing to entertain Belmonte’s suggestion in public. I do not know what happened next, because right after my talk I received a phone call saying that my mother had passed away. So I had to leave immediately. Yet I am inclined to think that at least Professor Belmonte was not too hard on me, because we had a nice email correspondence afterwards.
These are only a few examples of errors that I have made in my academic career. Yet like captain Fitz-Roy and Charles Darwin, I have learned to be as open as possible about them while seeking to learn from them. That is a never-ending process, yet it may yield the best possible academic results. I think we should teach and discuss all of that far more openly than we are doing today, for the benefit of all of us, most notably the younger generations of academics.
International Big History Association
Un. of Amsterdam big history
Cosmic Evolution
Big History Project
Book: Teaching Big History
Bill Bryson: Short History of Nearly Everything
Other useful stuff on the web
Other big history
How to use the book
Course models
Learning goals and objectives
Teaching tools
Assignments (little big histories)
Answers to FAQs by students
Questions by students and teachers that go beyond the book
Examination models
Teaching big history