The importance of being wrong

I feel it is about time I broached this subject.  With an eye to the last posts, as well as to the response to my Chemex videocast, I feel the need to make something very clear.

The internet is full of information, though it is also full of keyboard heroes, and has something of an issue with its signal to noise ratio.  Identifying who is a useful purveyor of information is tricky and, while there is growing use of indicators in forums, often it is he who shouts loudest that wins.

I started blogging to chart my own learning, and to share what I found out with others.  Sometimes this information was very useful, and sometimes it really wasn’t.  With the videocasts the idea was to share techniques that people could use at home that would be repeatable and help them make better coffee.  It was argued (quite correctly) that my Chemex technique was flawed – that the top of the cone was likely underextracted compared to the coffee at the bottom of the cone.

I was wrong, and this was a good thing – it was useful because I learned and hopefully others reading too.  1

It could be said (and it was) that I shouldn’t abuse my position and ‘release’ techniques that hadn’t been completely tested, because I could (in theory) quickly spread misinformation.  2 While I saw the point I couldn’t help but feel that if I had to reach some sort of perfection then I would never ever get there on any technique.  I don’t think we’ll ever reach close to perfection.  If I am brewing coffee in ten, or even five, years time the same way I am today I have failed as a professional or we have failed as industry.

Good scientific method is about throwing an idea out there to find out what is wrong.  The internet is a great way to communicate ideas, to spread them.  Being wrong is a very important step in learning and needs to happen regularly.  I am sure each and every one of us is appalled by something we used to do differently even a couple of years ago.

If you say you have the perfect technique – I don’t believe you.  If you say you have the perfect espresso blend – you’re going to look stupid very soon.

Distrust those with all the answers.

Test other people’s ideas and techniques.

If you disagree then throw your opinion into the mix.  If you agree then do so too.

Don’t take what I say, or what any other (coffee) blogger says at face value because I/we/they are going to be wrong. Often. And that is ok.  You only look a fool when you are wrong but refuse to accept it.

  1. Because it was aimed at home brewing I had been trying to come up with a technique that could be done without special equipment – I am sure there are more chemex’s in homes than pouring kettles.  I hadn’t meant to direct the method at the industry.  I really don’t want this to sound like an excuse, though it probably does already.  ↩︎
  2. I should be clear in pointing out that selling information does change all this a little  ↩︎

42 Comments

  1. When thinking about something I often feel differently in two hours, let alone 5 years. I too, thank you for writing this. Without being challenged, we never learn. Lucky for me, people tell me I’m wrong all day long.

  2. Post of the month, if not year. Applicable to vocations and avocations far and wide.

    “Success teaches us nothing; only failure teaches.” –H. G. Rickover

  3. If we all held back and didn’t make public our views on coffee (and I believe this is true for most industries) for fear of ridicule, or fear of that information becoming obsolete in the near (or not so near) future then our industry wouldn’t be one tenth as evolved as what it is today.
    Looking at the evolution of coffee society on the whole, we are discovering new and exciting things at such a rapid rate these days vs say 20 years ago. And I put this down to the open sharing of information.
    Without out this open exchange, and challenging of others ideas progressed would be thoroughly stalled.
    I mean, how many people really questioned the brewing method of the chemex before scott rao’s rant on coffeed vs after?
    Progress is great, and being proven ‘wrong’ is a necessary and vital step in the process.
    I always think back to my initial learning by plowing through David Schomers articles, many of which are obsolete now, yet still pivotal in my journey of trying to understand espresso extraction.
    I pity the day when every post, podcast, blog, video, book, magazine, article and tweet needs to be prefixed with a statement of “true to my belief as at XX-XX-XXXX(date). Subject to change without notice”

  4. This is exactly why I read your blogs James. It is the constant learning that keeps us in coffee.

  5. It could be said (and it was) that I shouldn’t abuse my position and ‘release’ techniques that hadn’t been completely tested, because I could (in theory) quickly spread misinformation. 


    Cripes it sounds like there’s a secret society (other than coffeed.com) testing new and interesting brewing techniques, while working to censor the release of them!

    I feel like the “spread of bad information” argument is a non-starter; how can you claim that a specific technique will be the best forever more?

    I personally don’t agree with your Chemex method, but um… so what, right? Where’s my video etc..

  6. Such a big importance too, especially in an industry where ego’s inflate at the drop of a hat.

  7. James, thanks for the post. It’s said that the only good leaders are the ones who can admit their mistakes and faults. Sometimes in the pursuit of our craft, our egos and feelings get wrapped into the responses and feedback of others and to be able to step back is a great and good thing. The most success that I’ve had in my occupation have been after failures, learning, growing, and asking questions. I hope in the coffee community we can set up a space where we can enjoy our craft, test new ideas, and love those we pursue excellent coffee and community with.

  8. Excellent post. This is why you’re James Hoffman and we’re not.

    Odd coincidence, we’re going to be losing some long-time staff this year due to graduations and relocations. So we decided to start rewriting our training manual earlier today to reflect our current brewing and maintenance techniques as so much of it has changed since the last rewrite in 2007.

  9. well said article, and not everyone will be pleased even if you consider one to have a perfect blend. that is still based on peoples taste.

  10. This post is right on the money. Coffee is my hobby rather than my profession so I always have to take a more cautious approach to how I present my experiences. In my professional life I have discovered that the more I learn about my area of expertise the more I realise just how little I know. I’ve found the same holds true in coffee and the capacity to admit error is enourmously valuable in allowing you to make use of that error in learning more.

  11. In my professional life I have discovered that the more I learn about my area of expertise the more I realise just how little I know

    so true on this, but some people didn’t realize this, all they know is to show off their little knowledge and try to dominate.

  12. Add my voice to the chorus of “Thanks for this post, James.” There’s much I’d like to chime in with, but I’ll leave it at that for now—I’m still stinging a bit from having recently had a few of my opinions handed to me myself, and I definitely appreciate this post and everything it dredges up.

  13. I’ve a great urge to print this and post it over our espresso machines.

    I think we’ve all had the arrogant moment that says ‘I know this better than you’, whether it be with a customer, another barista, or even just a random guy off the street. It’s very nice to see a lot of the best people in the industry recognise that they don’t have all the answers. And even if people think they do have all the answers, some of them are going to be wrong. I change my mind about the best way to do something about once a week, and some of the guys I work with change my mind for me with some absolutely incredible ideas almost daily. It’s a great time to be in this industry.

  14. what bothers me is that this post is so … novel.

    i applaud your humility, james. in a movement of exploration such as this, it’s hard to fathom why it isn’t more commonplace.

  15. Your posts have shown your depth of learning, I promise not to take what you say at face value and we agree the internet IS full of people who fit the category of “he who shouts loudest wins”

    p.s. good science is coming up with hypothesis and then set about trying to disprove it, but I like your description

  16. Pingback: Interesting Posts
  17. Well, er… I, er, don’t like your pourover technique! So, er, there!

    But your iced coffee – that was the shit…..

  18. There’s something wrong with your Chemex method? Works for me. Just had an amazing cup of Fazenda Kaquend CoE using your method, and it rocked my world.

  19. Well, since I’m the one responsible for half of all this I’d like to make a few points:

    My argument was that you have a very influential position in our industry, perhaps the most influential one among baristi and I suggested that you use this position carefully because people believe your words are truth, automatically. In regards to Chemex, the issue was NOT, and will never be, that you are expected to have perfected a technique before sharing it.

    But I argued that you should put in effort to do genuine experiments and research, and perhaps check with others when appropriate or useful (i.e. an informal peer review) , before publicizing a technique. Such effort at research and experimentation would be the most helpful, valuable thing you could offer.

    You wrote:
    “Good scientific method is about throwing an idea out there to find out what is wrong.”

    That statement is exactly the issue. Good science is not about throwing ideas out there (especially when everyone tends to agree with you because of your status). That takes little effort. Good science is about carefully testing hypotheses, and it takes time, patience, and precision. Once you’ve done the work, sure, then throw your results out there. I for one will be waiting to catch them.

  20. Funny, I was just thinking as I brewed this morning about 1. the greatness of your chemex video in propagating good pourover technique and 2. the abundance of bogus information on the internet. Funny to read this post this morning!

    James, I admire your willingness to step up and assert your own fallibility. It’s a great sign of humility. It needs to be said over and over that simple existence on the internet and/or the notoriety of the original poster don’t make something de facto “true”. The scientific method of hypothesis-making and experimentation do a pretty good job of proving things, and we need to do a better job at that. Agreed all around.

    Be careful, James, not to break your own rule here! Your declaration about your technique being “wrong” is no more proven than any unspoken implication that it was “right”! The science hasn’t been done to prove either the “wrongness” or the “rightness” of your chemex technique, so let’s not make the error of either condemning it or trumpeting it as “the truth”. Instead, let’s recognize it for what it is, an excellent tutorial for using the Chemex to brew great coffee! Any detractors of your video have some science to do themselves, I reckon.

    Our species has a problem in constantly searching and believing in absolutes. “True” and “False” exist, as do right and wrong etc., but these absolutes are much harder to come by than most people want to believe. Your Chemex video was “proven” neither right nor wrong (can a video be proven “wrong”?), it was a great video about a successful brewing technique that spread a lot of positive habits around.

    Your video never claimed to be a standard, or absolute. It said “I brewed coffee this way and it tasted good”. You should not apologize for that. Actually, the detractors who say it is “wrong” are the ones that bear the weight of the proof!

    for right or wrong,

    Peter G

  21. Good science is about a whole range of things, one of those is the production of rational testable hypotheses. The technique in the video was presumably a pretty rational, valid one based upon the evidence that it has resulted in a good cup in the opinion of its author. (Who testimony to that result can also be considered to have a justified weight.)
    Once the hypotheses is offered with enough grounds for it to be tested then the means by which it can be tested are hugely varied. The important point being that it can be tested! Bad science is to offer an argument or position that cannot be proven false.

    I see no reason to condemn the practice of offering a technique to a community and allow the community to test and evaluate and replicate the findings of the author.

    Science is a communal affair, so it the development of coffee.

  22. If the coffee tasted great, how the hell could it be wrong?

  23. James, I have always taken your thoughts and techniques on board for many years, not because you kept beating me at the many competitions we have both entered but because what you told me made my coffees taste better. Since watching the chemex video I have enjoyed brewing coffee this way a whole lot more and it tastes better.

    When you take coffee analysis to the level you take it to and start talking science (which I really enjoy reading) there are no right and wrong answers as far as I’m concerned. At university to achieve a 1st class degree you need 70% not 100% because at this level everything is subjective thats why WBC’s only get around 700 points out of over 1000.

    I’ve read Scott Roa’s book too and that also lead to me making better tasting drinks. I think this is the most important thing my coffees are getting better and better all the time. We are all learning and we can’t expect 100% correct answers from anybody……except maybe our taste buds.

  24. share share share! how selfish we would all be if we kept our ideas and experiments to ourselves! this is industry is moving at such a fast pace if you don’t share and get feedback you will get left in the dust! go james!

  25. James, I agree with Peter, be careful in apologizing too quickly. Let’s all agree, and very quickly I might argue, that in coffee there is no ONE Way. The dialectic is a useful approach, and it is this approach that should be embraced on this forum. James throws out an approach and idea, we agree or counter and James refines or retrenches. This is the method of discovery that has been tried and true for thousands of years. Heated debate among professionals is always a good thing, it keeps everyone honest, and weeds out the pretenders. I for one, am not willing to declare a victor or a casualty. Coffee is not science, and it is not happenstance. It is a craft, which employs a high degree of skill, bravery, ingenuity, hope, passion, education, and above all dialogue. Both you and Anette are frontiers in the world of specialty coffee, and your willingness to educate, prod, expound, motivate, and all of the rest is a great contribution to the community. Don’t stop, whatever you do, and don’t apologize. Dialogue and the dialectic are essential ingredients in the recipe for life; especially a life in specialty coffee.

  26. Perhaps we (as a community) are too obsessed with being right or finding the “ultimate” methodology.

    As some others have indicated, there is just discovery. The discovery of new technique, of improved technique and of change. I think the dissemination of information (both proven and unproven) allows for greater thought on any particular subject. It is the discovery of information and technique, your proof and your synthesis of that data into your own that is most important.

    My recent travels and discovery on vacuum pot brewing brought me all over, reading, watching and listening to various individuals and schools of thought on technique and methodologies. Only by taking this discovery and testing those results were we able to arrive at a standard that we deemed acceptable. Our standard may not be acceptable to others, but it has been borne out and proven for our use.

    Of course, as time progresses, things change. In fact, yesterday we had an example where a mistake was made in technique that led to the discovery of a potential improvement in our cup quality. A serendipitous event. Perhaps next week we’ll sit down to test and vet it thoroughly to see if an improvement can be made.

  27. Thanks for what you posted on coffeed about that article “Terry Acree and the science of taste. Great article! I’m not a member of coffeed but read often. Thanx

  28. wrong is the way to learn and if you learn there is no way to be wrong, you just have your opinion and you find a different point of view.
    Great post James, keep your amazing work so we can learn something from your mistakes that we refuse to do because we afraid the failure.

  29. well, one has its own taste, or maybe shall we shall, one has its own will to be a detractor.

  30. Being wrong sometimes make right things and decisions. Its nice to be wrong on the first time, but not on the second or third outings.

  31. James ,
    Though I am least eligible to jump into this discussion, yet I would draw a parallel. A few friends and I are trying to promote specialty coffee in India through our efforts. We promote the freshly roasted coffee for consumption. However with our knowledge of coffee , which is at times in sync with the rest of the world, we as a rule never tell the new enthusiasts to try one particular method of preparation. For example one of our friends only liked Filter Coffee, which is hot milk poured over the percolated coffee, and we prepared his coffee with our roasted coffee beans. That was more than enough for him to realize the potential. Most of the aficionados will disapprove Filter Coffee, but then this is how we converted this friend of ours .
    Secondly we in India consume the same food in different forms.
    There are so many other examples hidden in the consumption of our day to day food, which varies from the sublime Biryanis/ Kebabs to crude sauces and chutneys . While there is perfection in none, yet all are equally great.
    On last thing , which I had been told to me by my grandfather,” Those who know will never tell, and those who tell never know”.
    Cheers!
    Abhihsek Rai

  32. Hi,

    I’m wondering what everyone’s thoughts are on Lever Espresso machines?

    Can anyone offer me their experiences with Lever Machines (in recent years).

    Thanks

    Mark

  33. Comment about “being wrong”.
    James you strike me as a polite, helpful young man with a great talent and an infectious honesty. Carry on being enthused right and wrong, its all about being open to each learning situation.
    Will

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