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It’s Okay to Make Mistakes, Even About Galileo


Recently, I’ve been talking a lot about mistakes and what happens when mistakes are compounded. But something came up today that makes me think some people could use a reminder that it’s perfectly okay to make mistakes, despite what people – including the male supremacists who harass me every day – may tell you.

On Twitter this morning, I saw this in my reply feed:

I don’t normally click links where there’s a nearly 100% possibility of reading some bile-filled bit of idiocy directed toward myself, but I have to say that the “Rebecca Watson is the cause of all things I hate” meme truly amuses me. In this case, the link goes to a conversation between commenters Oolon and David Jones (aka Metaburbia).

Oolon says:

Particularly I remember your bringing up the Rebecca Watson Galileo “mistake”… Created by Franc Hoggle and one of the rare lies from the pit that was so bad even some on there called it out. She corrected it! But apparently not fast enough for Franc “speedy” Hoggle… Thus proving she is no sceptic and repeated as if gospel by one Metaburbia/David Jones.

Also not even mentioning that she acknowledged the mistake and corrected very quickly. One of many pieces of bullshit repeated ad-nauseam by you.

David Jones responds:

>’She corrected it’

I heard her make the mistake on the SGU. It was corrected on the SGU the following week. She made the mistake.

I don’t know David Jones at all, nor do I know his apparent pseudonym Metaburbia (I can’t be expected to keep track of these losers), so I can’t say for sure whether this is an example of him blatantly and knowingly lying or simply repeating someone else’s lie so often that he believes it actually happened to him, but in either case, it’s absolutely fascinating.

I did in fact once say that Galileo was executed by the Catholic Church, but I didn’t say it on my podcast, SGU. I said it in the midst of this rant I put on YouTube:

A few minutes after uploading it, a friend of mine pinged me to point out that I was thinking of Giordano Bruno, and that Galileo had been condemned to house arrest for life. Whoops! I immediately hopped back on YouTube and edited the video to include an annotation pointing out and correcting my mistake:

Galileo correction

When a few people kept Tweeting me to point it out, I Tweeted to make sure everyone saw the correction:

As you can see, that Tweet came just 20 minutes after the one announcing the new video:

I’ve never removed a video from YouTube, and I believe that if I make a mistake, the best thing to do is not to hide it but to acknowledge it, correct it, and move on. That’s not what my haters believe, though. They’ve turned this incident into a major talking point to support their primary thesis that I’m a stupid, uneducated slut who no one should ever listen to. Seriously: here’s a blog post from noted misogynist Franc Hoggle (aka Victor Ivanoff), written 17 days after my video went live, and at least 16 days, 23 hours, and 40 minutes after my correction was made:


Here we are, 1.75 years later, and this is still one of the best points against me that they’ve got. Look how gleeful they are in the comments on the video, slapping their hands together and chuckling over how stupid I am:

“Galileo was not executed”
Yes, but Rebecca isn’t going to let something as silly as facts get in the? way of a good story.

Oh, the irony!

The male supremacists desperately try and fail to convince the world that I’m not worth listening to, and to do it they’ll happily sacrifice two of the best things skepticism has going for it: the idea that you don’t need to be highly educated to be a critical thinker, and the idea that it’s okay to admit mistakes and change your mind as you learn more. What a shame.

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  1. The raging stupidity in those comments makes me lose my appetite. These people go on and on about facts and evidence, but are happy to by pass whatever facts and evidence don’t support their opinion. It makes me tired. I don’t know how you do it, Rebecca, but you have my admiration and respect. Thank you for being a public figure and a voice for those of us who cannot be out.

  2. There’s nothing that annoys me more than some of these facts that escape into fictions in the retelling. You did exactly the right thing, though. You left up the original video with the mistake, but an annotation with your correction. You didn’t run from or hide the mistake. You corrected yourself visibly and then moved the fuck on like normal people do.

    I really wish people made more of a deal about editorial policy in this regard: if you make mistakes beyond simple grammar/spelling, make your corrections as some kind of annotation (different font, video annotations, a * with an Edit: or Update: at the bottom of the post, whatever) to preserve the record accurately. Then, don’t make that same factual mistake again. Having it unedited in the past may make it searchable if you can’t remember how apocryphal or exaggerated what may (in your mind) be doubtful.

    Also: You have to have made some bigger mistakes, no?

  3. The mistake in this case had no relevance to the case being made. The Catholic Church did persecute Galileo and the Catholic Church did have people executed for practicing science. The fact that they merely threatened rather than practiced execution in the case of Galileo is a distinction, not a difference.

    One of the reasons I am less enthusiastic about Wikipedia than some is the fact that if you go to articles like the one on the Spanish Inquisition you will find that it is maintained by a cabal assiduously pushing a point of view. Well yes, the Protestant countries did use torture as well. But one of the reasons they gave up torture was I suspect the fact that the use of torture by the Catholic church was something everyone (well everyone whose view mattered) could agree was wrong and demonstrated the moral bankruptcy of the papacy. Once this fact is realized and put to work as a propaganda tool there will of course be moves to eliminate all uses of torture. So what begins as a purely opportunistic propaganda gambit evolves into a principled position.

    I suspect a similar effect may have occurred when the Romans faced the Carthaginians in the Punic wars. There is some evidence of Roman human sacrifice before the Punic wars but it stops when the Romans are up against the Carthaginians whose worship of Baal allegedly requires hundreds of child sacrifices.

  4. First off I apologise as its not on to @mention Rebecca in the ongoing #FTBullies farce. I usually just type “Rebecca Watson” or RW and made a mistake there. I’d imagine its no fun to be presented with the idiocy of these people in your mentions either from them directly or someone else by proxy. Anyone feeling they are just too damn happy and optimistic about humanity can always choose to browse #FTBullies, #bravehero or #wiscfi, assuming they have the spoons for it! Luckily this one was just wrong, many are much more abusive.

    The ultimate irony is when Metaburbia (He is known here BTW) agreed it was a mistake his response was… so what. The important thing is obviously that SHE made a minor mistake not MEEE!!!11! Ignoring the fact that he was wrong about pretty much everything in that thread.

    Jason Thibeault has a good post on how these Slyme-myths get a hold –
    Must be seriously depressing to have to deal with it over and over, Ophelia is constantly getting various out and out lies about her repeated ad-nauseam that originated in the Slymepit. All the time they are claiming the sceptical high ground as the “true sceptics” while creating this bullshit. To say that having to deal with lies day in day out is not harassment is missing how this cumulatively chips away bit by bit.

    Keep up the good work and carry on making mistakes and correcting them like every other sceptic / human being out there. Don’t let the mythologisers grind you down!

    • oolon, I find it amusing that “David Jones” on that CFI comment thread really only has one gripe: that RW “doesn’t do her homework”. Amusing, because he clearly didn’t do his when he accused her of making the Galileo remark at SGU. He was just relying on his memory and making an assumption… kind of like exactly what she did when she misspoke and said Galileo instead of Bruno.

      This seems to be part of the pit pattern. Jump all over something that RW or one of the FtBloggers and scream ¡OUTRAGE! at some perceived transgression, one that they themselves are responsible for in spades.

  5. There is also Rebecca Watson derangement syndrome by proxy.

    Yeah everyone here knows about projection, why haven’t these clueless dweebs learned about it:
    “If you love rebecca fucking watson so much maybe you should? ask her out for coffee and tell her all about how you bravely and without thought for your own safety defend her with your doctorate on youtube.How many times man? Please just fuck off, I don’t have the inclination to help egotistical hamster-rapists promote themselves. You keep twisting what I say, I cant be any clearer than this: GO SUCK A STOCKINGFUL OF GOAT SEMEN. And yes, before you say it, I know you have a doctorate from oxford.”

    Now it did take a little more than a few responses to provoke this reply. But I do think it rather sexist to imagine that the only reason that a man would be interested in arguing the side taken by a woman is to sleep with her. Unfortunately it is really not unreasonable to imagine a similar motive for making the type of comment above.

    Just a bit of context, the reason the doctorate came up was that Moran’s initial argument was that Watson is unqualified to discuss this issue. That is bogus at many levels, not least because every part of science has to be accountable to the rest. If you have to be an Evolutionary Psychologist to have an opinion on it then whatever else it is, it ain’t science. There are plenty of examples of non-experts debunking ‘scientific’ fields. The Freudian psychologists were demolished by Karl Popper, a philosopher. Richard Feynman, a physicist debunked the American linguists claiming to have deciphered Mayan texts.

    Anyway, when I answered that I do have a credential in science Moran immediately accused me of trying to intimidate him by stating that I do have a science credential. Then as the argument continued it gradually emerged that Moran is no more qualified than Watson. So it really does appear that the credential he thinks matters is having a penis.

    The fact that the EP folk have been unable to respond to Watson in a coherent form is a pretty sure sign that there is a rottenness at the center of their field. I think she is slightly overstating the case but not by much. But it really behooves the EP folk to clean their own stable. They need to do a much better job of policing their own charlatans. They also need to admit that 11,000/20 = 550.

    Five hundred generations is ample for adaptation to emerge. Just take a look at us all and ask if some of us look different. The effects that the EP studies purport to demonstrate are far less distinct than skin color so we are not even talking about adaptations. Without a model of how social structures emerge we have no way to know how long it takes to adapt. There is plenty of variation in social patterns among closely related species. Whether monogamous pair bonds or patriarchal groups are the best survival strategy is likely to change according to the environment. It might well take no more than a slight change in the level of testosterone in the males for the social pattern to flip. It may even be that a change of that type was an enabling change necessary for agriculture to emerge.

    • I should maybe at this point disclose that the reason I started watching the video in the first place is that I am trying to find out why social media has this tendency towards an unpleasant mode of discourse. Someone said that I should investigate RWDS.

      My techniques are not scientific, my interest is not to develop a scientific model of nasty discourse. All that I am interested in is getting some ideas on how we might build something less unpleasant. I am an engineer, for me maths and science are tools, not ends. So if you are wondering why I would do something so unscientific as to participate in these discussions its because I am interested i speed, not accuracy.

      So no Rebecca, you are not the wind beneath my wings, you are the bug beneath my microscope.

      That was meant to appear less stalkerish. But looking at the hate file, I doubt I am going to add to her concerns greatly.

  6. I just don’t understand how you can claim to be a skeptic and expect yourself or others to never make a mistake. I fuck up almost daily about facts. It’s hard to admit when you’re wrong. Why would a “skeptic” ever want to discourage disclosures of being wrong? *sigh*

  7. Apparently, the rules are that dudez can make mistakes all they like, and it’s not nice to call them on any of those mistakes…but if a woman makes a mistake, it’s evidence to be touted to the heavens for all eternity that her silly ladybrainz can’t do thinky stuff, or something.

  8. Quite coincidentally, I’m the director for our HHMI student research program here at my university, and we give them ethics training — I actually stepped out of our training session half an hour ago.

    The lesson for the day? “It’s OK to make mistakes. Scientists make mistakes constantly. The shame is in trying to cover it up.”

    It’s pretty basic stuff. But it’s essential to nip fraud in the bud.

    Otherwise, you get stuff like David Jones/Metaburbia making up lies and expanding on them years after the fact. I can tell he needs an ethics lesson.

    • Falsely accusing someone of fraud is itself fraud. It should be treated the same as fraud is treated. That is anyone whoever falsely accuses someone of fraud is no longer considered to be a scientist because they are not.

  9. Twenty minutes between mistake-made and correction-added? No TRUE skeptic would have taken that long! Also, the font that you used in making the correction was far too small, Rebecca. A TRUE skeptic would have used at least 900-point, and probably would have selected Papyrus as the font itself. Clearly, your detractors have got you dead to rights here.

  10. Masturbia! Everyone’s least favorite pseudo-intellectual and language abuser. When he showed up in the comments, we had all KINDS of fun ridiculing him. The less time we try to understand that obsessive creep’s ravings, the better.

    Note to those who don’t think skepticism has a sexism problem: all the rogues on SGU have made mistakes (I’ve been listening to the show since 2005.) They issue corrections regularly, and everyone has been guilty. All the rogues also regularly talk outside their area of expertise (Though Steve seem omniscient…) Yet, for some reason, the obsessive weirdos are all over Rebecca for her “lack of credentials.” We see these creepy websites with photoshopped pictures attacking Rebecca’s mistakes. There are five rogues, all of whom could be criticized for exactly the same things we constantly hear about Rebecca. But all this criticism is directed at the only female on the show.

    • That is an excellent point delphi_ote! I personally will never forgive the rogues in general, and Steven in particular, for stating in one of the first episodes of SGU I listened to that all classes of vertebrates yawn. HELLO? Jawless fishes anyone? Superclass Agnatha? And yet they never, NEVER, issued a correction (in an episode I listened to). Yawngate will forever be a black mark against the SGU, proving that everything they say is surely nothing but an outright fabrication. NEVER FORGET!

      My seething rage directed at the non-female rogues surely proves that I myself have not a drop of sexism in my blood. Which is important for everyone to know.

      To be fair, I listened to the above SGU episode prior to my second date with Skepchick Jamie, during which I mentioned the travesty. I can’t help but think that my extensive knowledge of vertebrate taxonomy helped me “seal the deal”, as it were. So maybe I should cut the rogues some slack…

      NO! NEVER!

  11. A key thing to skepticism is trying out new ground, saying things, making mistakes and making corrections along the way and not hanging onto falsehoods. That is what I love about skepticism. And then if you make some mistakes, there are others out there who may have better knowledge and steer you better making life a touch bit better. I like that! I like that Rebecca made a mistake, then did not remove the video, which would have let the mistake hang out there, but made a correction on it. Yeah, Rebecca and everyone that does the same.

    Totally antidote, in my chemistry class you are not allowed to erase or scratch out anything on your lab sheets. You have to put a single line through it, and initial off and move on with the lab. For one thing it makes you think before you write, but also there is something to knowing where you have been and on what evidence you are drawing your conclusions from. I LOVE THAT.

    And, oh yahoo calling Metaburbia. Very above it all in deed. /Sarcasm/

  12. To the zealot, there is no sin so great that it can’t be excused if committed by a friend, and no infraction so minor that it can’t be constantly harped on if committed by an enemy.

    It would be funny if it weren’t so utterly tiresome.

  13. OK how about this for a summary?

    People like to say that ‘extraordinary claims require extraordinary justification’. But that misses the fact that some claims have more significance than others. Whether there was a real Jesus or not, the manner in which Galileo was persecuted for his beliefs is actually of little consequence in 2013. What is of real consequence is when people make claims that have policy consequences.

    I don’t see the skepticism movement as being necessarily atheist in character, I think the real issue is the authority of the clerics. Demolish the religion and the clerics fall with it of course. But the real problem is the clerics and the consequences, not whatever supernatural beliefs people hold. If someone wants to go wave crystals above their head and it makes them happy, well go for it. If someone wants to tell other people they should be buying said crystals from them for thousands of dollars because of supposed magical powers it is exploitation. So I think skepticism is really the modern incarnation of a long tradition of anti-clericalism that goes back 500 years.

    A better test is that ‘claims that have policy consequences demand extraordinary proof’. The claim Jesus existed does not in itself have policy consequences but the claim that he gave a body of divine law that must be obeyed without question does. So the burden of proof is much higher.

    Making mistakes is also much more consequential. Galileo was not even consequential to the argument. Reinhart-Rogoff on the other hand made a series of errors that have had catastrophic policy consequences but haven’t even bothered to give so much as a proper apology, let alone admit that the errors are serious.

    The problem with Evolutionary Psychology and Rational Choice is not that people are applying dubious methods, it is that they claim policy implications for their conclusions. Rational Choice is a modeling approximation that frequently works when dealing with very large sample sizes. It is not a fundamental truth of economics or social behavior.

    • The phrase about extraordinary evidence is only a colloquialism of Bayes’ Theorem. The question of consequence of statements is only relevant so far as we consider our ability to handle questions in a limited sense of resources and time. The claim that Nostradamus made correct predictions, for instance, isn’t very relevant policy-wise which is why we do not bother considering it: it’s a distraction. It still requires extraordinary support, but not “requires” as in it must be addressed, but in it must be addressed in a particular way if it shall be.

      So I don’t really see there being a point to saying whether one statement (Bayes’ Theorem or yours) is more appropriate since they’re not at odds; they just address different questions.

      • Fair enough, my concern her is the pragmatic question of how to build coalitions that can get the theocrats out of our lives.

        Specifically to build a coalition against God’s Own Party, the GOP we need a broad coalition of progressives and minorities. And one structural problem that I see is that when we have people blasting the bigotry of the Catholic church they tend to do so in ways that upset people of faith across the board. In particular they don’t seem to appreciate that to win elections, progressives need the support of the black community where political organization is centered on the churches.

        The question is not what people think it is how they vote and how they interact. I don’t have a particular problem with people attacking the Catholic Church as an institution that coddled pedophiles and preaches bigotry. Nope, they are guilty as charged. But it does cause problems if the start of the conversation is something like ‘all Christians are bigots’. And yes I have seen just that.

        In the old days, before the Web we used to talk about netiquette. I need something of the sort so that we can build a sufficiently broad coalition to defeat the theocrats.

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