Failure in Science

I’ve been thinking about how we often paper over the flaws in science because they don’t fit into 7,000 to 10,000 word journal articles. Failure and mistakes in science don’t invalidate the scientific process. Not talking about the things that go wrong can be damaging for early career researchers.  

The beautiful aspect of this quote by Columbia biologist Stuart Firestein is his celebration of the messiness of scientific discovery.

“Much of science is failure, but it is a productive failure. This is a crucial distinction in how we think about failure. More importantly is that not all wrong science is bad science. As with the exaggerated expectations of scientific progress, expectations about the validity of scientific results have simply become overblown. Scientific “facts” are all provisional, all needing revision or sometimes even outright upending. But this is not bad; indeed it is critical to continued progress. Granted it’s difficult, because you can’t just believe everything you read. But let’s grow up and recognize that undeniable fact of life…

So what’s the worry? That we will become irrationally impatient with science, with it’s wrong turns and occasional blind alleys, with its temporary results that need constant revision. And we will lose our trust and belief in science as the single best way to understand the physical universe. . . . From a historical perspective the path to discovery may seem clear, but the reality is that there are twists and turns and reversals and failures and cul de sacs all along the path to any discovery. Facts are not immutable and discoveries are provisional. This is the messy process of science. We should worry that our unrealistic expectations will destroy this amazing mess.”

Quote via Brainpickings:


14 thoughts on “Failure in Science

  1. Awesome quote and thoughts. I really believe we need a MUCH greater focus on science education in the USA. People simply don’t understand it. I know that I’m looking for Mark Bruce’s #ScienceSunday summary, even knowing most of it is beyond me, simply because I love seeing what else is being learned around the world. Not enough people have any idea what is being learned, revised, upended, etc.


  2. Thanks for your thoughts Charles Payet! Yes, I believe with better education we can build up the public’s scientific literacy. Having more people understand how to read science news articles critically would be terrific. It’s sometimes tough to convey that scientists make mistakes and that it doesn’t invalidate the scientific process.


  3. In science, we learn as much from the process of discovery as from the final result itself. I agree 100% with Charles Payet in wishing that the public had a better understanding, not only of science but of the scientific method. On the topic of science news, it has been argued that journalists have no choice but to hype up the findings with sensationalistic (and often, misleading) titles. I think scientists are quite aware of the need to sell their findings too, but they can do so in a way that is more scientifically accurate and does not cross the line of credibility (thanks to the painful process of peer review). Therein lies the difference: it’s the deep understanding of a subject that allows the expert to write a playful/humorous/catchy title and still be accurate. We need more practicing scientists to get out there and communicate directly with the people who fund them. 


  4. Excellent commentary Rajini Rao! Yes, science communication needs to be engaging, but as you write so eloquently, it also needs to be meaningful. There is so much great science that no one gets to hear about because it doesn’t get picked up by mainstream media. Outreach is a better way for scientists to foster the conversations that will expand people’s worldview.


  5. Agree with the  emphasis on meaningful communication! Those popular IFLS type pictures with some catchy claim “Scientist find a new way to cure X” are particularly meaningless. 


  6. I’ve been thinking about how we often paper over the flaws in science because they don’t fit into 7,000 to 10,000 word journal articles. Failure and mistakes in science don’t invalidate the scientific process. Not talking about the things that go wrong can be damaging for early career researchers.

    Don’t you think, though, that at least some scholars massage not just their data but also their findings in an effort to get published (at all, or in more prestigious venues)? And that what starts at, “Well, just until I get tenure—why should I be the one to martyr myself for the sake of integrity and attempting to change the system?” can become the slippery slope of, “Well, just until I get promoted to full professor…” to “Big Award X would bring much needed attention to this topic I have been investigating for the past three decades”?

    I don’t mean to come off as completely cynical. Only as a little cynical. 🙂


  7. Matthew Timothy Bradley , falsification and inflation of findings is plain wrong, and there is no justification for it. On the other hand, I’m all for promoting one’s work and presenting it in the best light. Coincidentally, I just got off a hangout with my neurosurgeon colleague and two lab members on data presentation of the paper we are working on. Yes, indeed, we make the figures eye catching and add art work to show experimental schematics wherever possible. For example, showing two movie clips side by side, instead of having two separate videos makes it easier to see the differences. But I’m no cynic. It’s three years of hard work from two laboratories on an important topic (brain cancer). I’m absolutely excited and committed in sending it to the best journal that will take it. No data massaging involved, the results are dramatic and convincing. But we do put in a lot of effort in presenting it so it makes an impact. I don’t see a problem with that. 


  8. “It’s sometimes tough to convey that scientists make mistakes and that it doesn’t invalidate the scientific process.”

    For me, the selling point is that this is the scientific process: the mess, the do-overs, the “I didn’t expect that to happens”. It humanizes science, keeping me from feeling like participation is an unattainable goal. Science isn’t ancient bearded men musing over rote laws in stentorian tones, it’s all kinds of people trying really hard to learn cool new things, and enjoying the thrill and wonder of discovery.

    It’s like the first time you try to make a cake: flour is all over the kitchen, batter is in your hair and your hair is in your eyes, one oven mitt is inexplicably in the sink, the frosting spatula is stuck to the curtain. And it’s FUN! And the cake is delicious, even if it isn’t exactly what you planned.

    I wish more people of all ages and walks of life had the chance to experience the progress and the missteps that are part and parcel of the scientific process. And cake.


  9. Matthew Timothy Bradley I’ve got a blog post coming out on falsification and ethics in the sciences. Some disciplines do it more than others, but data suggest it’s not the norm to falsify when you look across the board.

    What I’m interested in is addressing why it happens at all. I see hierarchies of power as a problem. We teach only the “best bits” of science, as if the “big” names in science get everything right the first time. We don’t talk about what happens with all the survey questions that yield crappy data; we don’t talk about failed experiments; we don’t talk about mathematical and computer models that don’t work the first time around. 

    Teaching science without showing the “back stage” of how science happens in the field/lab leads to problems.


  10. Michael Verona Yes, great cake analogy! Science is indeed messy. Pretending it’s anything otherwise does make it seem unobtainable, as you’ve noted.

    One of the best things my PhD supervisor ever did was to talk about how science still makes him nervous. While a number of us postgrads that he supervised were getting ready for a big national conference, he said he always feels nervous before a talk. He said that the day he stops feeling nervous is the day he feels he needs to worry about whether his head is still in the game. 

    As I was writing my first journal article, he told me he still gets rejected from time to time, and talked about his recent paper that got rejected and why. He said it doesn’t feel good, but you take on board the critique and rework the paper and submit somewhere else.

    These little bits of advice about things not being perfect, even after a successful 20 year career, was invaluable to me as a student.


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