How could anyone not know that Titan's atmosphere is mostly nitrogen?

Of course, I'm kidding.

However, the question, which springs from this mea culpa post by Phil Plait on his always-entertaining Bad Astronomy blog, speaks to one half of a serious issue that has puzzled me for many years, and, in more recent times, caused me considerable concern as a parent.

If everyone makes mistakes -- and they do -- why are so many people unwilling to accept the mistakes of others (not to mention their own)?

From Plait's post:

Well, I blew it, and I suppose I should make it official.

In my second video answering questions from sixth graders, I said that Titan's atmosphere is mostly methane.

Bzzzzzt. It's mostly nitrogen (specifically, N2, like in Earth's atmosphere). It's only about 1% methane.

A simple slip of the tongue, albeit repeated twice, he explains.

In this case, comments on the post are understanding, sympathetic and even amusing -- "It's OK, dude. It's hard to answer questions like that when you're ducking to avoid sniper fire." That's as would be expected, given that those writing are fans of the blogger.

But it isn't always that way, as anyone who has put their words and thoughts before the public for any length of time can attest. I cannot imagine there are too many writers who have not been on the receiving end of this question: "How could someone who doesn't know (fill in the blank) write for (fill in the blank)?"

My temptation has always been to reply that I have considered their point, tendered my resignation, and expect that they will help pay for next week's groceries.

One of those responding to Plait's mistake raises a more useful point:

In actuallity, your providing those 6th graders (and many others) with an invaluable lesson about how science works. Science makes mistakes. Science can change when better answers are found. I think those kids will be much richer in their quest for knowledge because of it. Kudos.

Yes, I left the spelling errors in there on purpose; can't tell you whether the writer intended to do the same.

After all, it's OK to make mistakes, not only in spelling, science, journalism and responding to bloggers, but in all walks of life. That doesn't mean that mistakes don't have consequences or that there isn't a world of difference between saying methane when you mean nitrogen ... and, say, drunken driving.

But, in general, it's OK to make mistakes. I've said as much to my daughter Emma countless times (as has her Mom), including a stretch when it was a bedtime ritual that I would utter that exact phrase 100 times as fast as possible while I counted and she giggled. That she can be so devastated by her own mistakes -- at age 6 -- is no laughing matter.

Emma knows that her Dad writes stories on the Internet ... and that he makes mistakes. Tonight I'll get to show her the story about the really smart scientist who made (for him) a really silly one. Maybe that will help.

Not sure what to do about the infallible and those unwilling to forgive.

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