Science's Greatest Discovery: It's Okay to Be Wrong

25/03/2013 23:15 | Updated 25 May 2013
  • John Worne Director of Strategy, the British Council

I'm just back from CERN - home, among other things, to the biggest physics experiment on Earth - the Large Hadron Collider - and the invention of the internet by our own Tim Berners Lee.

It's quite a place. Much like a campus university; a jumble of blocks and walkways, car parks, corridors and doors of many ages, styles and states of repair. But the scale and precision of what is done underground is uniformly cutting-edge.

What's even more impressive than the huge tunnels, control rooms, detectors and machines, though, is the people.

CERN is the closest I've ever experienced to an idealist's world where people of all nations come together to advance the sum of human knowledge and achievement - all on an 'international' patch of land between the French Jura and the Swiss Alps.

But what's nice is not everyone is a particle physicist - most are engineers. I met a young Danish marine engineer in the control room who explained that you have to be able to fix anything on a boat - which is the ideal training for looking after a particle accelerator.

There are a small number of universal human languages which are very widely understood. English itself is one, the arts are another, there is sport - especially football - and there is science.

The language of science, underpinned by the Scientific Method, is one of humanity's purest languages - perhaps second only to maths.

And science is a beautiful thing - constantly evolving to better approximations of the truth, closer descriptions of reality and a deeper understanding of life, the world and everything.

But everyone who knows the language of science also subscribes to a very rare and even more beautiful idea: It is OK to be wrong.

I love what Carl Sagan had to say on this:

"In science it often happens that scientists say 'You know that's a really good argument; my position is mistaken.' And then they actually change their minds and you would never hear that old view from them again. They really do it.

"It doesn't happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion."

Over and above everything that science gives us - understanding, innovation, technology, better health and sheer wonder - the Scientific Method and the willingness to be wrong is one of its greatest gifts.

Because the pace of change in technology, social and global development means anyone who thinks they have all the answers can be sure of only one thing: they're wrong. Being open to learning - at any and every age - is a crucial attribute in international work in the information age.

I was at CERN to judge a heat of the British Council and Cheltenham Festivals' Famelab competition, where scientists under the age of 35 compress knowledge, wonder and entertainment into a three-minute description of what they are researching or working on. And what an array of talent - for 90 minutes of rat-a-tat-tat presentations from young virologists, psychologists, aerodynamicists and string theorists, I was rapt. The winners will take the stage at the Cheltenham Science Festival later in the year.

We need more young people learning and speaking the universal language of science around the world. We need more young people who can bring science to life for their peers, youngsters starting out in science and people with short attention spans in positions of power and leadership.

Most of all, we need more young people around the world learning the openness and humility which comes with the Scientific Method.

Being ready to think, try, be wrong, learn and try again is a good recipe for international cooperation and human achievement - CERN discovered that well before the Higgs Boson.

POSTSCRIPT: Scientists among you - including my friends at CERN - have pointed out a HUGE mistake in my opening line. Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web, not the Internet. But it's okay to be wrong: assertion falsified, truth more closely approximated, I stand corrected - science in action.