Owning Our Mistakes

“I’m always right” is something I say frequently, if jokingly, to my partner. It usually comes up in conversations about time or scheduling. I have an obsessively detailed memory when it comes to when something happened, or what is scheduled in the future; his concept of time aligns more with Doctor Who than with most others I know.

The Doctor Who concept of time (Source)

But I have been known to say “I was wrong,” too. This acceptance of one’s mistakes is the reason for this post. I noticed something happen a few times on Twitter this past month. People posted pictures to which others commented, suggesting it might be nice if the original photographer were credited. The person posting the picture reposted it with the correct credits given and an apology for not doing it sooner. These exchanges made me happy. – not because someone was called out for being wrong, but because the whole conversation was civil and the person making the mistake owned it and apologized. They could have just deleted the original tweet and pretended it never happened, but they didn’t.

I think that the reason these interactions went so well (or at least as well as anything can go when as mistake has been made) is due to both the mistake-maker and the corrector. No one likes making mistakes, and it is especially bad when they are called out on their mistakes in a public forum; however, there are times that a public forum may be the only way to point out a problem. The corrector did not mock the mistake-maker; rather, they pointed out the mistake and suggested a solution. The mistake-maker responded gracefully by owning the mistake, apologizing, and fixing the problem.

A few months ago I was finalizing a paper. We were reading the final proofs from the journal and the senior author asked me to clarify something. When I went back to my notes and sources, I realized I had made a mistake. I had misinterpreted an acronym. I was mortified to the point that I was actually shaking with anxiety when I called her to tell her what I had found. I imagined anger and a promise to never work with someone as reckless as me again. I apologized and informed her I had made a mistake. Her response was that it was okay, and that she was glad we had found it now. It was kind (and, as far as I’m concerned, far too nice given that I had screwed up). If I should work with her again and make a mistake (although I hope like hell I don’t make a mistake again!), while I will still be ashamed to admit it, I would never consider trying to hide it, or blaming someone else.

Embarressed Tigger
Tigger attempting to illustrate just how embarrassed I felt at having made that mistake.

In science, though, this happens with great frequency. “Mistakes were made”. The blame is pushed around and no one wants to take responsibility. Having observed this myself, I can say with certainty that much of this behavior probably has its roots in the attitude of the P.I. and other senior staff. If a student makes a mistake in their work and they are mocked or even “fired” from the lab, it leads to a culture where no one wants to admit a mistake. People will go to great lengths to hide mistakes that may eventually make their way to publications, in turn leading to potentially significant negative career ramifications if ever discovered.

This problem is not unique to research. Medicine is another prime example where we do not want to make a mistake. Mistakes can be a matter of life or death; however, they do happen. Some mistakes happen because people are too afraid to admit an initial error, which can result in a set of problems spiraling out of control. This is a serious problem. A culture of shaming people who admit wrongdoing still abounds, which silences those who have. Students and residents may be asked to perform procedures they aren’t comfortable with, but due to a culture of shame they may be too embarrassed to admit their discomfort. Evidently, this can lead to serious problems.

We are all human (I assume). I am pretty certain none of us are perfect. Even the most senior researcher in any lab has made a mistake or gotten something wrong at some point. Sometimes it is carelessness, but sometimes it just happens. All the obsessing and re-checking in the world might not prevent a mistake.

I was wrong

It is important that we create a culture wherein a person is able to admit an error. When the system is designed such that people are more afraid of the shame and penalty of being wrong than of the direct consequences of their mistake, then we have failed. Scientists fight hard to support their theories despite evidence to the contrary for fear of being the one who was wrong. Students desperately try to hide mistakes that lead to the publication of incorrect data. I am not saying that we should let people off the hook when it comes to making a mistake – sometimes there should be consequences (a surgeon who amputates the wrong leg because they weren’t paying attention, for instance). But if the error has no lasting consequences? If, once the error is fixed, there is no damage done? Do we really need to humiliate people for being wrong?

It is always hard to admit a mistake, be it publicly (such as on Twitter) or more privately (to your P.I.), but we can make it easier by being more gentle. Let’s try and create a culture where people are more scared of the consequences of a mistake than they are of being caught being wrong.

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