‘Failure’ explores errors’ upsides

Missteps are a must in science, biologist argues in new book

CORRECTION  Galen’s view of the circulatory system (left) held for hundreds of years. It was wrong. William Harvey updated science’s understanding to include oxygenated and deoxygenated blood (right).

From left: Adapted from R.H. Major/A History of Medicine; Adapted from E.H. Starling /Principles of Human Physiology

Stuart Firestein
Oxford Univ, $21.95

Failure is nothing to disparage — at least in research. Indeed, it’s one of the principal “engines that propel science forward,” argues Stuart Firestein in the provocative new book Failure. A biologist at Columbia University, Firestein has experienced his share of failures. And as long as they are not due to sloppiness, ineptitude or taking on tasks beyond one’s capabilities, he says, failures in science are not a reason to apologize. They might even be something to shoot for.

Firestein quickly makes a compelling case that fear of failure constrains imagination. Meanwhile, scientists unafraid of failure can consider a whole universe of testable explanations — even if adequate tools don’t yet exist to undertake those tests.

Many failures initially appeared to be successes. Consider Newton’s claim that time and space were fixed and absolute. This idea held for centuries until Einstein, whose ideas about relativity would conflict with — and win out over — Newton’s approach to explaining gravity (SN: 10/17/15, p. 16).

Some misinterpretations of data survived even longer. It wasn’t until the early 1600s that William Harvey overturned the pneumatic theory of blood proposed by Erasistratus around 250 B.C. and by Galen some 400 years later. The two early physicians thought the body’s arteries circulated a vital energetic force acquired from air. Although Galen, Erasistratus and their followers mapped out human anatomy well, “they were mostly wrong about how it all worked,” Firestein observes. But that’s common in science, he asserts: Measurements and data tend to precede understanding.

Firestein views science as the endless quest for answers. But any success by a good researcher will be short-lived, he says. It just serves as a point of departure for more quests, most of which could fail and probably will. In fact, no theory can hold up unless it could have been wrong and was shown not to be. So, Firestein argues, science “is trustworthy precisely because it can fail.” The problem, he says, is that researchers have done a poor job of educating the public and policy makers that failure is the strength of science, not its Achilles’ heel.

Buy Failure from Amazon.com. Sales generated through the links to Amazon.com contribute to Society for Science & the Public’s programs.

Janet Raloff

Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

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