The Grandeur of Error Correction

On December 17 the New York Times published a correction of a December 3 Times story which said that polonium-210 had been used to power U.S. spacecraft after a December 14 Secrecy News story showed that the claim was almost certainly incorrect:

    “An article on Dec. 3 about the many uses of polonium 210 referred incorrectly to the radioactive material utilized in early American satellites. While plans were drawn up to use polonium 210 as a power source, and one federal document said it was used, nuclear experts say that the government decided instead to rely on plutonium 238; no American satellites ever flew with polonium 210,” the Times wrote.

The error was trivial but the correction was grand.

Some institutions and some government officials have an aversion to admitting error, viewing it as a sign of weakness. But admitting and correcting errors paradoxically enhances credibility, not diminishes it. It makes it possible to approximate the truth ever more closely.

An openness to admitting error is also essential to a vital functioning democracy.

The president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Gilbert S. Omenn, touched on this point recently in a wide-ranging address published in Science Magazine:

    “Science works best in a culture that welcomes challenges to prevailing ideas and nurtures the potential of all of its people. Scientific ways of thinking and of re-evaluating one’s views in light of new evidence help strengthen a democracy.”

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