I was wrong (Did I just say that?)

I wrote previously discussing how minds are changed, based upon a segment of “This American Life” and an article published in Science. This week that paper was retracted when it was found that the author had simply made up the data. A longer explanation of the fraud can be found here, but as the lead author who retracted the paper states,

“… what’s incredible is that LaCour produced all sorts of conclusions and evaluations of data that didn’t exist. … There was an incredible mountain of fabrications with the most baroque and ornate ornamentation. There were stories, there were anecdotes, my dropbox is filled with graphs and charts, you’d think no one would do this except to explore a very real data set.”

I found the story of the retraction, although covered in the media, accidentally. My initial reaction was embarrassment that I had written and expanded upon a lie. I want to believe that empathetic communication can change minds. The “findings” of the study confirm my beliefs; confirmation bias describes this behavior. You see evidence that confirms and ignore evidence that discredits your beliefs. But I want to dwell on my embarrassment and the pause it gave me in saying anything more about the retraction.

I was embarrassed that I had promoted a lie and therefore failed myself. I was, in a small sense shamed, and this was an uncomfortable feeling. I really hesitated, before I acknowledge my ‘innocent mistake’ and begin to write this retraction. How much more difficult is it to admit to one’s failures to our patients and ourselves before our peers?

We work in an environment where the cost of error can be high and the immediacy of outcome to our decisions quite clear. It is difficult to overcame guilt and shame in oneself, it is difficult to have that embarrassing uneasiness displayed before your peers. We use code to distance ourselves from the narrative and make it more palatable; for surgeons “my patient was sicker” while my medical colleagues use “we are comparing apples and oranges” or obfuscate behind an unemotional literature review. Ira Glass, from This American Life, said “the facts were correct at the time of the broadcast.”

Charles Bosk wrote about surgical error more than 25 years ago in Forgive and Remember. An anthropological study of a surgical residency he found that clinical mistakes related to technique or judgment, when admitted, was forgiven. But errors of conscience, failing “the conscious discharge of care” was not. I feel guilty when I make a mistake and shame when I fail to be who I think I am. Both are social emotions necessary to prompt changes in behavior. The challenges for a culture accepting of error is not in communication, but in finding ways to accept the emotions our narrative surfaces and make it difficult to reflect upon our actions.