Field of Science

Pursue your scientific failures

It is no exaggeration I think to say that I have had my share of failures, but I have also had a bit of luck. The path of trial and error epitomized by "" [I am still trying to remember this one] and "chance favors the prepared mind", while perhaps trivial or, in some situations, unavoidable, is the way to succeed.

Now, as detailed in a Wired article, Accept Defeat: The Neuroscience of Screwing Up, research on research suggest that scientific researchers should embrace their failures a lot more than they apparently do. Rather than taking failures in experiments at face value, research shows that researchers explain them away because they don't conform to theory. Here's how to correct that:

There are advantages to thinking on the margin. When we look at a problem from the outside, we’re more likely to notice what doesn’t work. Instead of suppressing the unexpected, shunting it aside with our “Oh shit!” circuit and Delete key, we can take the mistake seriously. A new theory emerges from the ashes of our surprise.


While the scientific process is typically seen as a lonely pursuit — researchers solve problems by themselves — Dunbar found that most new scientific ideas emerged from lab meetings, those weekly sessions in which people publicly present their data. Interestingly, the most important element of the lab meeting wasn’t the presentation — it was the debate that followed. Dunbar observed that the skeptical (and sometimes heated) questions asked during a group session frequently triggered breakthroughs, as the scientists were forced to reconsider data they’d previously ignored. The new theory was a product of spontaneous conversation, not solitude; a single bracing query was enough to turn scientists into temporary outsiders, able to look anew at their own work.
Our weekly lab meeting is in ten minutes. Expect a breakthrough.
This is why other people are so helpful: They shock us out of our cognitive box. “I saw this happen all the time,” Dunbar says. “A scientist would be trying to describe their approach, and they’d be getting a little defensive, and then they’d get this quizzical look on their face. It was like they’d finally understood what was important.”
Yeah! I concur.

Incidentally, the example used in the article is Penzias' and Wilson's experimental discovery of the cosmic microwave background radiation left over from the Big Bang. They got the Nobel prize for that, but I think it should have been given to Gamow for predicting it.

Update 1/25:
I finally remembered (the brain is a curious thing):
"Success comes from experience, and experience comes from failure."
I also had a gigantic déja vu this afternoon. I wonder if these two events are connected?

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