on being wrong as a scholar

I mentioned this in an earlier post, but I’m promoting it to a post of its own because I believe it’s important.

It is important for scholars to admit when they are wrong.

Whether it is a mistake in their data collection, or a misreading of the data in their analysis, or a conclusion that is later refuted by stronger evidence or more recent discoveries, or a claim regarding evidence that is better explained by another scholar’s theory – it is important for scholars to concede when they come to believe the evidence has led to some other conclusion.

This can serve as a quick lesson to students both in the sciences and in the humanities, but I’m especially thinking about students in religious studies. The beauty of science and the scientific method is that scholars are free to admit they were wrong when better evidence and arguments come along. In fact, we are encouraged to do so. Rather than dig in our heels and argue until our dying breath for interpretations that have long been disproved by new evidence, critical scholars celebrate peer-review and the discussion of ideas among learned individuals, who offer new proposals and bring knowledge and familiarity with evidence from their respective specialized fields to the discussion.

Through the scientific process, a consensus is often reached that is based upon a consideration of all of the latest evidence, and not just the claims of those who made them first or the loudest, or worse yet, who bypassed the scholarly process altogether to take their sensational claim directly to the public for the purposes of selling a popular book.

This is difficult to do for the proud, or for those who have invested much time and money in arguing for one interpretation. But when new data comes along, a scholar must be willing to set aside what he or she previously held to be true and interpret the data according to the new evidence.

Now, I fully acknowledge that this is particularly difficult for those in religious studies, especially for those who hold to a personal religious belief. However, it is essential that critical scholars be objective enough to follow the evidence where it leads, and if that evidence leads to a conflict with one’s personal faith claims, the scholar must have the courage to amend his or her personal beliefs, that is, if one wants to remain a critical scholar.

The field of religious studies is full of apologists who claim to operate within the critical method of science, but who are quick to abandon a critical method when it conflicts with their personal religious beliefs. These individuals are constantly seeking ways to explain away evidence that contradicts their claims, or to attempt to reconcile what they believe with the facts and evidence before them, however twisted that outcome might be. A true scholar must have the humility and the courage to admit that new evidence has caused the scholar to rethink his or her position, concede that the old interpretation was wrong, and move forward in the pursuit of truth.

As a scholar, I am humbled, and yet pleased when I can admit when an interpretation I previously held was wrong, because it means I am still learning from my colleagues and peers, who have taken the time to engage me in academic debate.

6 Responses

  1. Reblogged this on Zwinglius Redivivus and commented:
    Right on the money, Robert.

  2. Reblogged this on and commented:
    Dr . Cargill has some great thoughts on “Being Wrong as a Scholar”. Might I also add that this is good advice for being wrong as a person as well.

    I particularly liked these parts, “The beauty of science and the scientific method is that scholars are free to admit they were wrong when better evidence and arguments come along. In fact, we are encouraged to do so… As a scholar, I am humbled, and yet pleased when I can admit when an interpretation I previously held was wrong, because it means I am still learning from my colleagues and peers, who have taken the time to engage me in academic debate.”

    The ability to digest new data, admit to being wrong, and finally improve your own categories for understanding, with humility and recognition that like any other human being you have the ability to make mistakes and be wrong are wonderful characteristics.

    I hope to be that sort of person!

  3. Come on man. Name names!

  4. Bob, you couldn’t be more right if you tried! And I’m not just agreeing with you because your point of view aligns with my personal beliefs! ;)

    This post should be standard reading for all students learning to be a scholar of some type (and I’m including scientists, religionists, and ordinary people here).

    I see so many of your points presented in so many different ways, especially on the religious and atheist channels on YouTube. It seems that (for the most part) a real atheist’s default position is exactly as you described here – and yet… atheists who follow these principles, and who *are* humble and eager to learn are almost universally called “arrogant” or “doctrinated” by the religious apologists (or crackpots!) they’re trying to argue with. Talk about the pot calling the kettle black!

    It’s actually a really interesting issue, where religious apologists and “true believers” of almost every persuasion so often accuse their antagonists of the very weaknesses they display themselves. It’s also frustrating, because it seems to be almost ingrained – or ‘encultured’ in that type of believer, without being explicitly learned. I wonder if it’s a personal attitude that “that type” of person comes preinstalled with, or if it’s a learned or reinforced attitude? It would seem to me that it’s unlikely that so many disparate subjects (zero-point energy, homeopathy, religion, and so on) would have exactly the same sort of effect on so many people. But maybe this has already been discussed to death…

    My own personal mantra is that as long as I live, I’m learning. No matter what I’m doing, I seem to learn something new, every day. The day I stop learning is the day I pop my clogs!

    Thanks again for such a wonderful, concise portrayal of the best type of human to be.

  5. Is this like calling the James ossuary a fake and then not being able to prove their accusations in court because all the scientists say the inscriptions are authentic?

    I see you link to the IAA.

    If you don’t know discrete mathematical logic that science uses to verify conclusions based on the data, then how will you ever be able to acknowledge you are wrong?

    Isn’t that the point of your post? Admitting when you are wrong?

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