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I recently posted something related to this (If an assumption proves to be false, is the research then meaningless?), but it is still bothering me.

As I mentioned in that last post, I conducted my first research project in high school last year, and I am now having doubts about one of my assumptions (I was not used to making assumptions at the time). I actually learned that one of my assumptions were invalid from a judge at a science fair.

As a matter of fact, I had not even noticed that I had made that assumption until he brought it up (and penalized me for it). Despite all of the people that I had proofread and check my research, no one brought it up. Furthermore, I competed at science fairs prior to that one and none of those judge brought it up (I am not sure if they caught it or not). I was successful at those science fairs, but I am now feeling guilty. I feel as if me not mentioning that one assumption is the only reason I was as successful as I was (although I cannot justify it).

Is it wrong that I withheld this information, despite the fact that I was not even aware of it? Is that considered cheating? This question has been bothering me and I would appreciate any help. (I am now working on a different research project and I am being much more cognizant about my assumptions.)

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    I wouldn't even start thinking that you cheated. We all have errors/mistakes, and we learn from them and (eventually) move on. Now, maliciously leaving things out would be another story. – NZKshatriya Jan 28 '17 at 4:06
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    If you publish enough, you will publish something incorrect. Probably not before that long. As a PhD student I was asked 'Have you found the mistake in your thesis yet?' by a researcher I had just met. They then turned to another researcher and began discussing when they spotted ones (ie before or after printing the final copy). – Jessica B Jan 28 '17 at 15:17
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    Given that you didn't know there was a problem, how could you possibly have done anything differently? – Paul Jan 28 '17 at 16:20
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If you were not aware, you did not "withhold" because that requires intention.

With time, you will practice insight about what implicit assumptions you make - this is part of the scientific development and even great scientists have not been free of that. Galilei transformation, for instance, was taken for granted for centuries, which was initially fine, but was sustained to the point where "ethereal" concept-bending had to be introduced to keep it alive.

As Einstein said: "The fish is last to discover water." Do not be too hard on yourself, as long as you put it firmly into your agenda to do your best to be fully aware of your assumptions and their validity. Discussion with friends/colleagues can help here.

  • Galilei transformation, for instance, was taken for granted for centuries. – This may not be an adequate comparison, as the Galilei transformation is not really a wrong assumption. Sure it’s not precisely correct, but it’s a still a sufficiently close approximaton and thus a valid assumption for many applications. Aether or phlogiston may be better examples. – Wrzlprmft Jan 28 '17 at 17:31
  • @Wrzlprmft I chose Galilei on purpose. I am not talking about perfectly valid approximations inside a well-understood domain, but holding on to assumptions when they clearly didn't work. Namely, with the discovery of the Maxwell equations, I do not think people realised immediately what was amiss here. They built lots of "ethereal" assumptions to save Galilei invariance which they just took for granted. Einstein didn't discover the whole set of transformations to make things fit, his achievement was realising that changing one fundamental assumption made everything fall in place. – Captain Emacs Jan 29 '17 at 1:03
  • @Wrzlprmft Changed the response slightly to address your comment. I hope it is better now. – Captain Emacs Jan 29 '17 at 1:07
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Doing wrong without knowing it may not save you in a court case, but morally you're fine. You made an honest error, it's good.

As long as you accept the correction and go with it now (i.e., don't use that assumption anymore, now you know it's invalid), it's OK. Science is full of occasions where things proved to be wrong after the fact.

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    Sometimes a major scientific breakthrough comes from realizing that everyone has been making the same wrong assumption. – keshlam Jan 28 '17 at 14:24
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It sounds like you're feeling shame because you are thinking that you somehow "cheated" and wrongly benefitted from the work you presented. If you are telling yourself that you are a cheater and a fraud that's bound to be found out, that self-shaming and it gives you no room grow.

If you recognize that you made a mistake and resolve to avoid doing the same in the future, you can allow yourself to learn and stop dwelling on this.

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