William Shakespeare may well have foreshadowed the modern television sitcom. His comic misadventures were expertly crafted. In A Comedy of Errors, for example, twins (with twin servants), each separated at birth, converge unbeknownst to each other in the same town. Mistaken identity leads to miscommunication. More mistaken identity follows, with more misdelivered messages and yet more misinterpretations. Hilarious consequences ensue. It is a stock comedic formula in modern entertainment. A character first makes an unintentional error. Then ironically, in trying to correct it, things only get laughably worse.

Science, we imagine, is safeguarded against such embarrassing episodes. In the lore of scientists, echoed among teachers, science is “self-correcting.” Replication, in particular, ensures that errors are exposed for what they are. Research promptly returns to its fruitful trajectory. Serious stuff, science.

But just such a case of compounded error occurred in science in the late 18th century. Joseph Priestley discovered...

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