A humorous yet relevant comment from the scientific past: “Oh, well, nobody is perfect.”

When I look at sociology journal articles from the past, a few things strike me: the lack of high-powered statistics and a simplicity in explanation and research design. In the current world of publishing demands and the push for always high-quality, ground-breaking work, these earlier articles look like they were from a more innocent era.

I was reminded of this by a recent Wired post. In this case, a geology journal had published an article in the early 1960s and another scholar had responded in print to this article by pointing out a mistake on the part of the original authors. This is not uncommon. What does look particularly uncommon is the response by the original authors: “Oh, well, nobody is perfect.”

In a perfect world, isn’t this how science is supposed to work: just admit your mistakes, don’t repeat them, and move on? But I can’t imagine that many current scholars could give such a reply, perhaps in fear that their career or reputation would be in jeopardy. And in the world of scientific journals, is this sort of back and forth (with candidness) even possible much of the time?

I also infer a sense of humility on the part of the original authors. Instead of going on for pages about how their mistake was defensible or trying to pass the blame, a quick one-liner admits the mistake, diffuses the situation, and everyone can move on.