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How a Scientist Gets Things Wrong

Albert Einstein, writing to fellow physicist Hendrik Lorentz in 1915, describes how a scientist gets things wrong:

1. The devil leads him by the nose with a false hypothesis. (For this he deserves our pity.)

2. His arguments are erroneous and sloppy. (For this he deserves a beating.)

“Einstein himself certainly committed errors of both types,” the astrophysicist Mario Livio writes in, Brilliant Blunders: From Darwin to Einstein – Colossal Mistakes by Great Scientists That Changed Our Understanding of Life and the Universe.

“More than 20 percent of Einstein’s original papers contain mistakes of some sort,” Livio writes. “In several cases, even though he made mistakes along the way, the final result is still correct. This is often the hallmark of great theorists: They are guided by intuition more than by formalism.”

Carl Zimmer, in his New York Times review of Brilliant Blunders, describes some of Charles Darwins “mistakes:”

When Charles Darwin presented his theory of evolution in 1859, he built a foundation for all of modern biology. Crucial to his theory was the fact that animals and plants inherited traits from their ancestors. Natural selection favored some traits over others, giving rise to long-term change. But Darwin didn’t know how heredity worked. He devoted a lot of time to developing ideas that, in hindsight, seem daft. “Darwin had been educated according to the then widely held belief that the characteristics of the two parents become physically blended in their offspring,” Livio writes, “as in the mixing of paints.” By this logic, each ancestor’s genetic contribution would be halved in each generation.

This idea wasn’t just wrong. It undermined Darwin’s own theory of evolution. If our traits are just a result of blended particles, it shouldn’t be possible for natural selection to change traits over the generations. But try as he might, Darwin couldn’t figure out a better explanation.

Yet right around the time that Darwin published “On the Origin of Species,” the Czech monk Gregor Mendel was discovering genetics. Crossing pea plants in his garden, he got a glimpse at how heredity actually does work. Darwin apparently never became aware of Mendel’s work, nor did he discover Mendel’s results for himself.

Still curious? Read the book

The Art of Reading: Analytical Reading

Analytical reading is the fourth part in my series on ways to improve our reading skills.

The first rule of analytical reading is that you must know what kind of book you are reading.

Are you reading a novel, a play, or is it some sort of expository work – a book that conveys knowledge?

This sounds simple but it’s not. For example, is Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint a work of fiction or a psychoanalytical study? Is Gone with the Wind a romance or history of the south?

Any book that consists primarily of opinions, theories, hypotheses, or speculations, for which the claim is made more or less explicitly that they are true in some sense, conveys knowledge in this meaning of knowledge and is an expository work.

The goal is more nuanced than distinguishing fiction from nonfiction, because there are various kinds of expository books.

It is not merely a question of knowing which books are primarily instructive, but also which are instructive in a particular way. The kinds of information or enlightenment that a history and a philosophical work afford are not the same. The problems dealt with by a book on physics and one on morals are not the same, nor are the methods the writers employ in solving such different problems.

The best way to do this is through inspectional reading.

Practical vs. Theoretical Books

One of the things we need to focus on is the distinction between practical and theoretical works. While we all use these words not all of us understand the meaning.

The practical has to do with what works in some way, at once or in the long run. The theoretical concerns something to be seen or understood. If we polish the rough truth that is here being grasped, we come to the distinction between knowledge and action as the two ends a writer may have in mind.

But, you may say, in dealing with expository books, are we not dealing with books that convey knowledge? How does action come into it? The answer, of course, is that intelligent action depends on knowledge.

Books only interested in conveying knowledge itself limit themselves to one type of communication and leave the rest to others. Others, it can be said, have an interest beyond knowledge for the sake of knowledge and concern themselves with problems that knowledge can solve.

Making knowledge useful involves the transformation of knowing that and knowing how.

Theoretical books teach you that something is the case. Practical books teach you how to do something you want to do or think you should do.

Practical books will tell you how something should be done along with an argument for the right way of doing something. A theoretical book, in contrast, will argue that something “is” true.


Every book has structure. This leads us to the second and third rules for analytical reading.

The second rule of analytical reading is state the unity of the whole book in a single sentence, or at most a few sentences (a short paragraph).

This means that you must say what the whole book is about as briefly as possible.

The third rule is to set forth the major parts of the book, and show how these are organized into a whole, by being ordered to one another and to the unity of the whole.

The reason for this rule should be obvious. If a work of art were absolutely simple, it would, of course, have no parts. But that is never the case. None of the sensible, physical things man knows is simple in this absolute way, nor is any human production. They are all complex unities. You have not grasped a complex unity if all you know about it is how it is one. You must also know how it is many, not a many that consists of a lot of separate things, but an organized many.

There is a difference between a heap of bricks, on the one hand, and the single house they can constitute, on the other. There is a difference between a single house and a collection of houses. A book is like a single house. It is a mansion having many rooms, rooms on different levels, of different sizes and shapes, with different outlooks, with different uses. The rooms are independent, in part. Each has its own structure and interior decoration. But they are not absolutely independent and separate. They are connected by doors and arches, by corridors and stairways, by what architects call a “traffic pattern.” Because they are connected, the partial function that each performs contributes its share to the usefulness of the whole house. Otherwise the house would not be livable.

The analogy is almost perfect. A good book, like a good house, is an orderly arrangement of parts. Each major part has a certain amount of independence. … As houses are more or less livable, so books are more or less readable.

The best books, Adler argues, are those that have the most intelligible structure.

Though they are usually more complex than poorer books, their greater complexity is also a greater simplicity, because their parts are better organized, more unified.

How important is it to determine the structure of a book?

We think very important. Another way of saying this is to say that Rule 2— the requirement that you state the unity of a book— cannot be effectively followed without obeying Rule 3— the requirement that you state the parts that make up that unity.

A very simple example will show what we mean. A two-year-old child, just having begun to talk, might say that “two plus two is four.” Objectively, this is a true statement; but we would be wrong to conclude from it that the child knew much mathematics. In fact, the child probably would not know what the statement meant, and so, although the statement by itself was adequate, we would have to say that the child still needed training in the subject. Similarly, you might be right in your guess about a book’s main theme or point, but you still need to go through the exercise of showing how and why you stated it as you did.

If these rules seem like they could also apply to writing, they can. “Writing and reading are reciprocal, as are teaching and being taught.” While the rules can work for both, the roles are not the same. Readers try to uncover the skeleton of the book. The author starts with the skeleton and covers it up, say, by putting meat around the bones.

The fourth rule of analytical reading is to find out what the authors problems were.

The author of a book starts with a question or a set of questions. The book ostensibly contains the answer or answers. The writer may or may not tell you what the questions were as well as give you the answers that are the fruits of his work. Whether he does or does not, and especially if he does not, it is your task as a reader to formulate the questions as precisely as you can. You should be able to state the main question that the book tries to answer, and you should be able to state the subordinate questions if the main question is complex and has many parts.

This doesn’t mean you need to go into what the critics call, the intentional fallacy. That is, thinking that you can discover what the author was thinking as he wrote the book. Commonly this applies to literary works. An example of this would be trying to psychoanalyze Shakespeare from Hamlet. There is a big difference between trying to figure out what questions the author set out to answer and trying to determine what they were thinking at the time of writing.

How do you Find What a Book is About?

1. Classify the book according to kind and subject matter.
2. State what the whole book is about with the utmost brevity.
3. Enumerate its major parts in their order and relation, and outline these parts as you have outlined the whole.
4. Define the problem or problems the author is trying to solve.

While there are four levels to reading — the fourth being syntopical reading — I’m stopping here. If I’ve whetted your appetite to learn more, you should read the book.

The Art of Reading: How to be a Demanding Reader

In order to improve our reading, we need to learn to ask the right questions in the right order.

Don’t forget, reading a book, for any reason other than entertainment, is essentially an effort on your part to ask the book questions (and to answer them to the best of your ability).

There are four main questions you must ask about any book, found in How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading:

1. What is the book about as a whole? You must try to discover the leading theme of the book, and how the author develops this theme in an orderly way by subdividing it into its essential subordinate themes or topics.

2. What is being said in detail and how? You must try to discover the main ideas, assertions, and arguments that constitute the author’s particular message.

3. Is the book true, in whole or part? You cannot answer this question until you have answered the first two. You have to know what is being said before you can decide whether it is true or not. When you understand a book, however, you are obligated, if you are reading seriously, to make up your own mind. Knowing the author’s mind is not enough.

4. What of it? If the book has given you information, you must ask about its significance. Why does the author think it is important to know these things? Is it important to you to know them? And if the book has not only informed you, but also enlightened you, it is necessary to seek further enlightenment by asking

How to Make a Book Your Own

Asking a book questions as you read makes you a better reader. But you must do more. You must attempt to answer the questions you are asking. While you could do this in your mind, Adler argues that it’s much easier to do with a pencil in your hand. “The pencil,” he argues, “becomes the sign of your alertness while you read.”

When you buy a book, you establish a property right in it, just as you do in clothes or furniture when you buy and pay for them. But the act of purchase is actually only the prelude to possession in the case of a book. Full ownership of a book only comes when you have made it a part of yourself, and the best way to make yourself a part of it— which comes to the same thing— is by writing in it.

Why is marking a book indispensable to reading it? First, it keeps you awake— not merely conscious, but wide awake. Second, reading, if it is active, is thinking, and thinking tends to express itself in words, spoken or written. The person who says he knows what he thinks but cannot express it usually does not know what he thinks. Third, writing your reactions down helps you to remember the thoughts of the author.

Reading a book should be a conversation between you and the author. Presumably he knows more about the subject than you do; if not, you probably should not be bothering with his book. But understanding is a two-way operation; the learner has to question himself and question the teacher. He even has to be willing to argue with the teacher, once he understands what the teacher is saying. Marking a book is literally an expression of your differences or your agreements with the author. It is the highest respect you can pay him.

Adler goes on to argue that there are many ways to mark a book. He recommends you underline major points, draw vertical lines at the margin to emphasize a passage too long to be underlined, place a star, asterisk, or other “doodad” in the margin to emphasize the most important statements in the book, place numbers in the margin to indicate a sequence of points made in the natural development of an argument, place page numbers of other pages in the margin to remind you where else in the book the author makes the same points, circle keywords or phrases, and write your questions (and perhaps answers) in the margin (or at the top or bottom of the pages).

When you are giving a book an inspectional reading, you won’t have much time to make notes. Yet you, as a demanding reader, are still asking questions about the book. Primarily 1) what kind of book is it? 2) what is it about as a whole? and 3) what is the blueprint the author lays down to develop our understanding of the subject matter?

These answers should be recorded when they are fresh in your mind.

At this point your notes primarily concern the structure of the book and not its contents or the strength of its argument. You know the general idea and the blueprint.

The best way to start reading better is to form the habit of reading well. Setting aside time to read help makes you smarter.

Reading is like skiing. When done well, when done by an expert, both reading and skiing are graceful, harmonious activities. When done by a beginner, both are awkward, frustrating, and slow.

This is the third part in the how to read a book series.

The Nature of Explanation

We unconsciously construct mental models of the world and these models help aid our thinking.

This idea is not new. In fact, in 1943 Kenneth Craik proposed that thinking is the manipulation of internal representations of the world in his book The Nature of Explanation.

“This deceptively simple notion,” argues Philip Johnson-Laird in Mental Models, “has rarely been taken sufficiently seriously by psychologists, particularly by those studying language and thought.”

They certainly argue that there are mental representations — images, or strings of symbols — and that information in them is processed by the mind; but they ignore a crucial issue: what it is that makes a mental entity a representation of something. In consequence, psychological theories of meaning almost invariably fail to deal satisfactorily with referential phenomena. A similar neglect or the subtleties of mental representation has led to psychological theories of reasoning that almost invariably assume, either explicitly or implicitly, the existence of a mental logic.

Explanation depends on understanding. If you don’t understand something you cannot explain it. Although what is explanation? “It is easier to give criteria for what counts as understanding than to capture its essence — perhaps because it has no essence,” writes Johnson-Laird.

This will no doubt strike many of you as fuzzy. Justice Stewart found it impossible to formulate a test for obscenity but nevertheless asserted, “I know it when I see it,” so can we, in an inexact, yet useful way, when it comes to explanations.

Explanations certainly require knowledge and understanding. Johnson-Laird writes:

If you know what causes a phenomenon, what results from it, how to influence, control, initiate, or prevent it, how it relates to other states of affairs or how it resembles them, how to predict its onset and course, what its internal or underlying “structure” is, then to some extent you understand it.

The psychological core of understanding, I shall assume, consists in your having a “working model” of the phenomenon in your mind. If you understand inflation, a mathematical proof, the way a computer works, DNA or a divorce, then you have a mental representation that serves as a model of an entity in much the same way as, say, a clock functions as a model of the earth’s rotation.

This is where Kenneth Craik comes into the picture. His 1943 book The Nature of Explanation was one of the first, if not the first, to propose that human beings think by manipulating internal representations of the world. This manipulation — or reasoning — involves three distinct processes:

1. A translation of some external process into an internal representation in terms of words, numbers, or other symbols.
2. The derivation of other symbols from them by some sort of inferential process.
3. A re-translation of these symbols into actions, or at least a recognition of the correspondence between these symbols and external events, as in realizing that a prediction is fulfilled.

In The Nature of Explanation Craik writes this beautiful passage:

One other point is clear; this process of reasoning has produced a final result similar to that which might have been reached by causing the actual physical processes to occur (e.g. building the bridge haphazard mid measuring its strength or compounding certain chemicals and seeing what happened); but it is also clear that this is not what has happened; the man’s mind does not contain a material bridge or the required chemicals. Surely, however, this process of prediction is not unique to minds, though no doubt it is hard to imitate the flexibility and versatility of mental prediction. A calculating machine, an anti-aircraft ‘predictor’, and Kelvin’s tidal predictor all show the same ability. In all these latter cases, the physical process which it is desired to predict is imitated by some mechanical device or model which is cheaper, or quicker, or more convenient in operation. Here we have a very close parallel to our three stages of reasoning-the ‘translation’ of the external processes into their representatives (positions of gears, etc.) in the model; the arrival at other positions of gears, etc., by mechanical processes in the instrument; and finally, the retranslation of these into physical processes of the original type.

By a model we thus mean any physical or chemical system, which has a similar relation-structure to that of the process it imitates. By relation-structure I do not mean some obscure non-physical entity which attends the model, but the fact that it is a physical working model which works in the same way as the process it parallels, in the aspects under consideration at any moment. Thus, the model need not resemble the real object pictorially; Kelvin’s tide predictor, which consists of a number of pulleys on levers, does not resemble a ride in appearance, but it works in the same way in certain essential respects-it combines oscillations of various frequencies so as to produce an oscillation which closely resembles in amplitude at each moment the variation in tide level at any place. …

My hypothesis then is that thought models, or parallels, reality — that its essential feature is not ‘the mind’, ‘the self’, ‘sense-data’ nor propositions but symbolism, and that this symbolism is largely of the same kind as. that which is familiar to us in mechanical devices which aid thought and calculation. …

If the organism carries a ‘small-scale model’ of external reality and of its own possible actions within its head, it is able to try out various alternatives, conclude which is the best of them, react to future situations before they arise, utilize the knowledge of past events in dealing with the present and future, and in every way to react in a much fuller, safer, and more competent manner to the emergencies which face it. Most of the greatest advances of modem technology have been instruments, which extended the scope of our sense-organs, our brains or our limbs. Such are telescopes and microscopes, wireless, calculating machines, typewriters, motor cars, ships and aeroplanes. Is it not possible, therefore, that our brains themselves utilize comparable mechanisms to achieve the same ends and that these mechanisms can parallel phenomena in the external world as a calculating machine can parallel the development of strains in a bridge?

Small models of reality need neither be wholly accurate nor correspond completely with what they model to be useful. Your model of an iPhone may contain only the idea of a rectangle that serves multiple functions such as sending and receiving data, apps, displaying moving pictures with accompanying sound. Alternatively, it may consist of an understanding of the programming necessary to make the device work, the protocols, the physical limitations, and how the display actually functions, in which case you’ve eclipsed me. Your model may be deeper still, into the hardware and how it works, etc. A person who repairs iPhones is likely to have a more comprehensive model of them than someone who only operates one. The engineers at Apple are likely to have a richer model than most of us.

What must be questioned now is whether adding information increases the usefulness of the model. If I explain how operating systems and API’s work, you will have a much richer model of an iPhone. For some of you that will mean a more useful model and for some it will not.

“Many of the models in people’s minds are,” Johnson-Laird writes, “little more than high-grade simulations, but they are none the less useful provided that the picture is accurate; all representations of physical phenomena necessarily contain an element of simulation.”

So the nature of an explanation is to understand something – to have a working model of it. All explanations are incomplete because at some point they all must take something for granted. When you explain something to another person, “what is conveyed is a blueprint for the construction of a working model.”

Obviously, a satisfactory blueprint for one individual may be grossly inadequate for another, since any set of instructions demands the knowledge and ability to understand them. … In most domains of expertise, there is a consensus about what counts as a satisfactory explanation — a consensus based on common knowledge and formulable in public criteria.”

Still Curious? Try reading these three books in the following order: 1) The Nature of Explanation; 2) Mental Models; and 3) How We Reason.

The three types of specialist 

The success of any revolution requires, as Kurt Vonnegut writes in Bluebeard, three types of specialists.

Slazinger claims to have learned from history that most people cannot open their minds to new ideas unless a mind-opening team with a peculiar membership goes to work on them. Otherwise, life will go on exactly as before, no matter how painful, unrealistic, unjust, ludicrous, or downright dumb that life may be.

The team must consist of three sorts of specialists, he says. Otherwise the revolution, whether in politics or the arts or the sciences or whatever, is sure to fail.

The rarest of these specialists, he says, is an authentic genius — a person capable of having seemingly good ideas not in general circulation. “A genius working alone,” he says, “is invariably ignored as a lunatic.”

The second sort of specialist is a lot easier to find: a highly intelligent citizen in good standing in his or her community, who understands and admires the fresh ideas of the genius, and who testifies that the genius is far from mad. “A person like this working alone,” says Slazinger, “can only yearn loud for changes, but fail to say what their shapes should be.”

The third sort of specialist is a person who can explain everything, no matter how complicated, to the satisfaction of most people, no matter how stupid or pigheaded they may be. “He will say almost anything in order to be interesting and exciting,” says Slazinger. “Working alone, depending solely on his own shallow ideas, he would be regarded as being as full of shit as a Christmas turkey.”

Slazinger, high as a kite, says that every successful revolution, including Abstract Expressionism, the one I took part in, had that cast of characters at the top — Pollock being the genius in our case, Lenin being the one in Russia’s, Christ being the one in Christianity’s.

He says that if you can’t get a cast like that together, you can forget changing anything in a great big way.


The Power of I Don’t Know

It’s ok to say I don’t know.

“There seems to be a widespread presumption that writing is prescriptive (or proscriptive) rather than simply observational or meditative,” writes Tim Kreider in his New York Times op-ed.

Confident authority is an appropriate tone for straight reportage, but it’s become the default of columnists, essayists and bloggers, one that’s so reflexive that some of them seem to forget it’s a pose. To some extent this is a deformative effect of the space restrictions within which most of us work; in a thousand-word essay you can’t include every qualification or second thought that occurs to you or you’d expend your allotted space refuting your own argument instead of making it.

Just because you vomit out an opinion on something doesn’t make it so. Too often we fail to consider that maybe what we’re reading or writing is wrong. We’re scared to say I don’t know.

What you’re not supposed to say

The one thing no editorialist or commentator in any media is ever supposed to say is I don’t know: that they’re too ignorant about the science of climate change to have an informed opinion; that they frankly have no idea what to do about gun violence in this country; or that they’ve just never quite understood the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and in all honesty they’re sick of hearing about it. To admit to ignorance, uncertainty or ambivalence is to cede your place on the masthead, your slot on the program, and allow all the coveted eyeballs to turn instead to the next hack who’s more than happy to sell them all the answers.

As information continues to explode “and actual expertise so rarefied, that almost nobody knows enough about anything anymore to have the right to any opinion at all.” Opinions are hard work.

It’s ok to say I don’t know.

Kreider is the author of We Learn Nothing, a wonderfully insightful book about human nature.