Sometimes You Have to Say “Oops.”

One of my favorite books about creativity is titled Beautiful Oops. It makes sense because creativity, by definition, means thinking in new ways—sometimes incremental changes, but sometimes a complete change of course, a different perspective. Sometimes that means recognizing that ways we’ve thought before don’t work any more. Sometimes we have to say “Oops, I was wrong.” Certainly those “oops” moments are important in scientific progress.

Recently I read about an “oops” moment in archeology, courtesy of A Mighty Girl Facebook posts. The posts concerned the remains of a high-ranking Viking warrior discovered in Birka, Sweden. The burial site contained all the trappings of a warrior– a sword, an axe, a spear, armor-piercing arrows, a battle knife, shields, and two horses. The warrior was buried holding a battle-strategy planning game. When the site was excavated in the 1880s, and for more than a century afterwards, archeologists assumed that the buried warrior was male. But two years ago, researchers using DNA testing discovered the corpse was female. Oops.

The notion that a Viking warrior could have been a woman was not popular among all readers. Critics suggested that the researchers might have somehow accidentally tested bones from a second body, or that perhaps the warrior-related artifacts did not actually relate to the body in the grave. Continued research affirmed that the body in question was, indeed, female. Whether she actually used the artifacts is impossible to determine with certainty, but it is certain that if the body had been male, no one would have asked the question. Of course critique and questioning are important parts of science. Sometimes what researchers thought they found isn’t what it appeared. But sometimes, creative thinking and scientific progress require saying, “Oops. Maybe a warrior could be a woman. Maybe I was wrong.” You can read more about the discovery, and the controversy, here.

Schools are places where being wrong is a problem and questions almost always have right answers. If we want students to envision the world of science—or any other kind of creative progress, for that matter—they must be able to envision intelligent people making mistakes as they make progress. That premise is the basis of Mario Livio’s book Brilliant Blunders: From Darwin to Einstein, in which he chronicles the missteps of some of the world’s most famous scientists. And lest you think scientific errors are all in the past, in 2000, the website Discover collected the 20 biggest mistakes in the past 20 years, with problems ranging from fake fossils to a malfunctioning 185 million dollar Mars lander. Double oops. And there are most such lists an easy web search away.

As you are teaching students about great scientific discoveries, be sure to teach about the “oops” moments as well. It is important not to leave the impression that scientists always know the right answer—they don’t. That is what science is about. I’ve written before that students may learn science better when they learn about scientists’ struggles—I suspect that includes the moments of mistake and frustration. Don’t leave students thinking great minds know all the answers. Many of them are yet to be discovered!

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