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Science - Essay from Newsletter 44

My third word for 2021


Somehow we’ve come to value someone with strong opinions over someone with considered and footnoted opinions.

From the moment John Kerry was labeled a “flip-flopper” there was no room for those who asked, “what’s wrong with that?”

What’s wrong with changing your mind when you’re provided with new information?

Newton’s view of the physical world was pretty good and stands up pretty well as a first approximation - until you know more.

It’s not that Newton wasn’t smart enough but science and the tools we had to create and analyze grew tremendously between his time and our own.

At the turn of the century - hang on, we’ve had another turn since the one I’m talking about…

In the late 1800s, did a famous experiment to prove that “just as water waves must have a medium to move across (water), and audible sound waves require a medium to move through (air), so also light waves require a medium, which was called the ‘luminiferous’ (i.e. light-bearing) ‘ether’.”

Their experiment proved just the opposite.

They set out to prove something was true and found that it wasn’t.


They didn’t fudge their results or otherwise hide them.

Case Western Reserve University (Michaelson was at Case and Morley at Western Reserve) still celebrates this failure.

The failure to prove what you set out to prove.

In fact, this failure was an important step along the path from Newton’s understanding of the world to Einstein’s.

Not Knowing

One of the many things that attracted me to Kim was that if she didn’t know something she would say, “I don’t know.”

I loved that about her.

She wasn’t taking pride in ignorance or taking a stand against facts.

She was incredibly smart and curious but there were many things she didn’t know.

It’s, perhaps, the most important thing I learned in my PhD program. You could be very smart and still not know something. There’s a comfort in competence that allows you to say, “I’m sorry, I don’t know.”

I don’t understand people who are aggressively opposed to knowing more or basing policy on facts and educated guesses.

There’s no shame in not knowing.

I don’t understand not being curious or respectful of those who know something I don’t know.

I don’t understand being angry with or hostile to these people devoting their lives to filling out our collective understanding of the world around us.


This morning I had a question about something going wrong in some code I am writing for my Combine book.

The code had nothing to do with Combine, but it changes the look of the app we’re creating. The question had to do with SwiftUI.

I’ve written a book on SwiftUI. Shouldn’t I know everything about it? How can I publicly admit my ignorance and maintain credibility?

Obviously, I don’t believe any of that. There was something I didn’t know and I don’t mind letting people know that and asking for help.

Within minutes I had half a dozen suggestions and one worked perfectly.

So I shared it and credited the person who helped me.

That’s how we build knowledge.

And that’s how we encourage others to share what they’ve learned.

What is known

There’s the famous Rumsfeld quote that “there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”

As we plan it is important to pay attention to all three categories.

We depend on the known knowns.

We try to account for the known unknowns.

We work to move the unknown unknowns into one of the other two categories.

The known knowns

There are things we know to be true.

Some amount of evidence has convinced us within some sort of standard that some fact is true.

In the early days of COVID the science about masks led, “there’s no reason to be walking around with a mask.”

But then we learned more and Dr. Faucci changed his guidance.


There are those who feel to this day that it would have been more manly to stick with his original opinion.

Even though he has learned that the data now suggests a different conclusion.

To this day there are thousands who will tell you, “well Dr. Faucci said that masks aren’t necessary,” without saying “but now he recommends that we all do so.”

I say thousands but know that it’s millions.


There are times it’s important to guess and times that it isn’t.

A great technique in solving an elementary problem in mathematics is to make a guess and check it. Often checking the answer leads you to an algorithm for solving the original problem.

There are studies that show that when teachers present students with options for an answer and get them to make a guess before solving the problem makes the students more invested. They will pay better attention.

This is harmless guessing. Actually, it’s guessing with a positive impact.

Harmful guessing is what we see from panelists every day.

No one is willing to say they don’t know. Instead they outshout each other with ideas that even they may not believe is true.

This week I saw an interview with Dr. Faucci and he couldn’t have been happier. He is now in a situation where the science can be presented and can steer the conversation. He isn’t being pressed to guess about things he doesn’t know are true. He’s not surrounded by people using alternate facts.

It was truly delightful to watch how happy he was that he could be a scientist again.

And so that’s my third word to live by this year: Science.

Being open to having my mind changed. Depending on people I trust who use data sets they are willing to share.

Looking to challenge my known knowns, account for my known unknowns, and dig deeper to root out the unknown unknowns.

Essay from Dim Sum Thinking Newsletter 44. Read the rest of the Newsletter or subscribe

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