Humbling lessons from the Umbrella Man about science

upside downHow sure are you that your last paper was right?

Could you be wrong about something big even though you are sure you are right?

The reality is that there’s a bigger chance than you think that you are totally wrong about many things, especially those you are most sure that you are right about.

Wait, what?

A while back I did a post about the traps that we humans are prone to fall into not just in the stem cell field, but also more generally including linear thinking, group think, and binary thinking. Check it out.

More recently I read an intriguing article in the NYTimes called The Umbrella Man. It is about the Kennedy assassination. Turns out that there was  a curious man standing by the roadside that day in Texas and right as JFK’s car came by this man, shots rang out. What was so strange about this man was that he was wearing a dark suit and holding an open black umbrella on a warm, sunny day.

Millions of Americans were convinced that this “Umbrella Man” had something to do with the assassination. No other explanation made any sense.

People were 100% sure this guy was in on the plot, but as it turns out, the guy was almost certainly completely innocent. In fact he opened his umbrella on that fateful day as an odd protest for something that JFK’s father had done long ago, not having anything to do with Kennedy’s assassination.

People were sure he was guilty, but he wasn’t and in fact some crazy, out of left field explanation was instead true.

Now look at the picture at the top of this post of me hiking about 20 years ago in the North Cascades of Washington State my freshman year at Reed College.

What is going on?

It looks like I’m standing next to an upside down mountain, right? But in fact, it is a crystal clear reflection of a mountain in an alpine lake on the shore of which I was standing. If you look closely you can see a big rock underwater.

In science what we call fact, future scientists may prove wrong.

Then we may realize, assuming we are still alive, that no matter how sure we we that we were correct that in fact we were totally wrong.

What this means is that a good scientist  and in fact a good thinker in any field has an open mind and avoids falling in love with his own ideas and models of how things work.

And he or she sometimes has to have the modesty to realize that no matter how good a scientist they might be, not only is data the king but also it can take a long time for us to really understand what it means and more data can make “old” data suddenly not seem so correct any more. Data is only king until more data dethrones it.

Often times our hypotheses are wrong precisely at the moment we most strongly think we are right.

So the next time you are convinced of something such as that an experiment 100% proved something, pause and think of the umbrella man. Think of how an entire country was sure he was guilty of contributing to the JFK assassination, when in fact he was simply trying to make a very odd political statement with his umbrella.

That darn umbrella fooled a nation.

Each of our experiments or projects or even papers may have umbrellas in them and we think we know what those means, but do we really?