Embracing Failure as an Intrinsic Part of Science

One of the most powerful things I have learned in the last few years is that failure is totally okay. Failure is normal and natural. And I mean this in all walks of life – it is okay to be wrong. It is okay to make mistakes. As long as we use them to better ourselves and grow as humans. We all fail at one point or another in our lives – the difference is how we use those failures.

The same is true for science. Science is not progressed just by standing on the shoulders of giants – it also relies on understanding that those shoulders are propped up by failure as much as they are by success. Failed experiments, failed analyses, failed hypotheses. All of these things characterise authentic science.

Because of the primary focus on results, this creates the incentive for results selectivity. This is often incorrectly communicated as the need for some form of gatekeeping in order to maintain the ‘quality’ of the published record. But in reality, what it creates is a distortion in the published research record.

Negative results appear to have a strange double meaning. The first is around obtaining results that do not ‘positively’ support a tested hypothesis (or reject the null hypothesis). The second is about obtaining results that are deemed subjectively negative, as in cannot be published for one reason or another. For example, not fitting a research narrative.

Both of these framings can be very harmful to advancing knowledge. By framing results as positive or negative, we impose a value judgement on them. This leads to selective communication of those results, as seen above. Results are results, and all should be communicated. Finding no support for a hypothesis still tells us something about the world, and we do the entire scientific enterprise a disservice when we sweep these under the rug.

What these processes help to do is create an inherent cultural shift towards accepting failure. When we select which results to communicate in articles, and which to omit, we are essentially saying failure should not be exposed as part of the research process. Results of research are not under our control, but the way we communicate them is an attempt to impose control.

When we expose all elements, warts and all, for inspection and re-analysis, we are sending the message that yes, the process is messy, but here’s the whole thing. That failure is okay. The methods are something under our control, and thus through embracing failure, we impose accountability on ourselves.

Full article @ Digital Science dot Com