I ran across a pretty great blog post this week that I wanted to call attention to. It’s by a PhD/science communicator Bethany Brookshire who blogs at Scicurious.com and hosts a podcast Science for the People*.
The post recounts her tale of being wrong on the internet in a Tweet that went viral.
For those too lazy to click the link, it happened like this: early one Monday morning, she checked her email and noticed that two scientists she’d reached out to for interviews had gotten back to her, one male and one female. The male had started his reply with “Dear Ms. Brookshire”, and the woman “Dear Dr Brookshire”. She felt like this was a thing that had happened before, so she sent this Tweet:
After sending it and watching it get passed around, she started to feel uneasy. She realized that since she actually reached out to a LOT of people for interviews over the last 2 years, she could actually pull some data on this. Her blog post is her in depth analysis of what she found (and I recommend you read the whole thing), but basically she was wrong. While only 7% of people called her “Dr Brookshire”, men were actually slightly more likely to do so than women. Interestingly, men were also more likely to launch is to their email without using any name, and women were actually more likely to use “Ms”. It’s a small sample size so you probably can’t draw any conclusions other than this: her initial Tweet was not correct. She finishes her post with a discussion of recency bias and confirmation bias, and how things went awry.
I kept thinking about this blog post after I read it, and I realized it’s because what she did here is so uncommon in the 2018 social media world. She got something wrong quite publicly, and she was willing to fess up and admit it. Not because she got caught or might have gotten caught (after all, no one had access to her emails) but simply because she realized she should check her own assumptions and make things right if she could. I think that’s worthy of praise, and the kind of thing we should all be encouraging of.
As part of my every day work, I do a lot of auditing of other people’s work and figuring out where they might be wrong. This means I tend to do a lot of meditating on what it means to be wrong….how we handle it, what we do with it, and how to make it right. One of the things I always say to staff when we’re talking about mistakes is that the best case scenario is that you don’t make a mistake, but the second best case is that you catch it yourself. Third best is that we catch it here, and fourth best is someone else has to catch us. I say that because I never want staff to try to hide errors or cover them up, and I believe strongly in having a “no blame” culture in medical care. Yes, sometimes that means staff might think confessing is all they have to do, but when people’s health is at stake the last thing you want is for someone to panic and try to cover something up.
I feel similarly about social media. The internet has made it so quick and easy to announce something to a large group before you’ve thought it through, and so potentially costly to get something wrong that I fear we’re going to lose the ability to really admit when we’ve made a mistake. Would it have been better if she had never erred? Well, yes. But once she did I think self disclosure is the right thing to do. In our ongoing attempt to call bullshit on internet wrongness, I think giving encouragement/praise to those who own their mistakes is a good thing. Being wrong and then doubling down (or refusing to look in to it) is far worse than stepping back and reconsidering your position. The rarer this gets, the more I feel the need to call attention those who are willing to do so.
No matter what side of an issue you’re on, #teamtruth should be our primary affiliation.
*In the interest of full disclosure, Science for the People is affiliated with the Skepchick network, which I have also blogged for at their Grounded Parents site. Despite that mutual affiliation and the shared first name, I do not believe I have ever met or interacted with Dr Brookshire. Bethany’s a pretty rare first name, so I tend to remember it when I meet other Bethanys (Bethanii?)