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When you’re wrong, how do you react?

Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson hosted a TV miniseries in 2014, “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey,” for which this photo was provided by the Fox network. The series explored how humankind discovered the laws of nature and found our coordinates in space and time.
Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson hosted a TV miniseries in 2014, “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey,” for which this photo was provided by the Fox network. The series explored how humankind discovered the laws of nature and found our coordinates in space and time. for Fox via AP

“Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me” is an NPR radio show that pits celebrities against quiz questions outside of their areas of expertise. During the Feb. 25 show, astronomer Neil Degrasse Tyson, head of the Hayden Planetarium, was the guest.

Tyson has worked hard to bring science to the broader world and make it fun. Of course, sometimes that can remove a sense of false fantasy: When he saw the movie “Titanic,” Tyson realized that the star positions in the sky were wrong, which agitated him a bit. (Lesson: Don’t go to movies with him!).

On the radio show, the host asked Tyson three questions, not about cosmology but about cosmetology. If Tyson could answer two of three questions correctly, he would win a prize for a radio listener.

The segment was hilarious, as the astronomer analyzed each question using science. One question, for example, was about whether “hot lava” would be used for a spa treatment in Bali. His response went something like this:

Well, first, all lava is hot. And it’s so hot that it would burn a hole in your body. So it would be a onetime (spa) treatment. So that can’t be right.

You have to love a guy who uses science to get out of a pickle. As the movie “The Martian” showed, scientists use knowledge to think through questions or problems that some of us would simply guess at, or think one answer “feels” more right than another.

But that use of science wasn’t what impressed me most about Tyson. It was his attitude about getting an answer wrong.

During the quiz, he answered just one of three questions correctly. The host kidded with him and asked if this could destroy his reputation as the smartest person in the world.

Tyson said that, in fact, he liked to be wrong. If he had gotten all of the answers right, he would have learned nothing. But because he got two wrong, he “learned two new things today.”

So I’ll never worry about being wrong again. When I find out the correct answer, I will have learned something new.

Maybe this is an attitude that might serve us in education, let alone in business and beyond.

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