My dissertation has quite a few footnotes in it--although that is to be expected from dissertations generally. In one of the footnotes, I make an offhanded comment about a possibility that there is something else going on in the text than what I discuss in the bulk of the text. It appeared largely because I did not want to fail to acknowledge other perspectives on and avenues of approach to the text; I do not think that it is academically responsible to not at least gesture toward other ideas.
That footnote, though, stuck with me. When I could (and I have discussed not being able to do so), I started to develop the idea hinted at in the footnote (and I have discussed that, as well). I had thought I was making progress in the matter...until I started to do some other research, looking at how the text compares to its contemporaries. I had thought that it was distinct in one particular regard, but when I began to look at texts printed around the same time, I found that such was not the case. In fact, the text is remarkably in line with its contemporaries in that regard.* Accordingly, one of the major underpinnings of the idea I wanted to work up is shot. At the very least, I shall have to rework the paper (I do still think that the central thesis is sound, even if one of the premises is not). At worst, I shall have to abandon it (I could be wrong).
It is part of the scholarly life that evidence proves ideas wrong, and those engaged in scholarship are obliged to adjust their opinions and interpretations to suit the best evidence available. I know that and accept it, and I am thankful that I found out I was wrong before I got further into the paper than I did. That does not mean, however, that I am happy to have been in error. I do not think that anyone is pleased to be wrong. The distaste for mistakes is worse for those involved in the many types of research, however, since researchers must justify their work by having and supporting good ideas. While it is very much part of the process of doing so that bad ideas are identified and discarded, to have a line of inquiry end in the recognition of a mistake is a bit embarrassing, and it all too often leads to questions about the utility of the work of the mind in any event.
There are already entirely too many things in the world that try to undermine the ability of thinkers to spend the time, and devote energy to, thinking, and they work very much to the detriment of all humanity. They therefore need nothing to aid and abet them, and lest it be thought that I am arming them by admitting my error (albeit with some circumspection), I offer the following:
By identifying where I am at fault, I can work on ways to correct the fault.
By admitting the error, I show that I am secure enough in the ability of my mind that I do not always have to be right to merit attention.
By admitting the error, I do a bit, even if only a small bit, to ease the burden on those who live a life of the mind. Too often, they are compelled by those around them to always have the answer, to always know what to do--and they internalize those expectations. In the sense that they are driven therefore to increase their knowledge and understanding, it is a good thing. In the sense that they are likely not to be able to forgive themselves the faults that they, being human, will make is far, far less so. And it need not be the case that they are thus bound (those who are thus bound).
*I'll not say which text or which regard. Those who have read, or read about, my dissertation will probably be able to make some guess about the former. They may be able to figure out the latter, too. Why should I ruin people's joy in solving a puzzle? (Maybe because I'm a hateful person, but I'm still not going to give the answers.)