On Not Admitting You Are Wrong, or What Dembski and Wolfram Have in Common

Science often depends on experiments, and experiments are notoriously prone to error. Even if the experiment’s results are correct, the conclusions may be wrong. And even if the experiment and conclusions are correct, they may represent only part of the truth. Sometimes scientists are simply wrong, and they need to admit it. While they don’t do experiments, a similar obligation falls on mathematicians.

Most mathematicians and scientists recognize this obligation. In 1989, for example, the mathematician I. J. Good published a corrigendum to one of his previous papers. This wouldn’t be noteworthy except that the paper he was correcting was published in 1941, nearly 50 years before.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work that way. A classic case is that of René Blondlot (1849-1930), a French physicist who believed he had discovered a new kind of radiation, which he called “N-rays” in honor of Nancy, his native city. You can read about this case in Walter Gratzer’s book The Undergrowth of Science and I am following Gratzer’s account here.

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