‘Failure’ explores errors’ upsides
Missteps are a must in science, biologist argues in new book
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.
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