Scientific Ego And The Value Of Failure

12/12/2016 16:09

I fail a lot.

I've become quite good at it, although, it has taken much effort and dedication to gain this level of proficiency.

I have amassed a splendid collection. A panoply of failed funding applications, awry scientific experiments, multiple collapsed careers and countless jobs dismissals, professional and personal projects aborted, qualifications capsized, public speaking engagements stalled, friendships sunk, relationships foundered. I've failed to put a family together (deeply disappointing a mother), and have often failed to succeed in even supposedly simple life tasks such as caring for pets. I even managed to fail at marriage once, although, I don't think I have the stamina or energy to achieve that accolade twice.

Failure is important. Vital. Failure defines and shapes us. We should value it in our life, in our community and in our interweaving collision of societies much more than we do. But our culture urges us with fervent whispers to delete the record of our failures. To purge error and misstep from the CV, no matter how colourful. To steer the conversation away from our individual spectacular inadequacies during drunken conference dinners. We must all be successes here.

Currently I am dabbling at being an academic. It reminds me of pretending to be a super hero with my friend when we were little. We never really believed ourselves to be powerful, but it was fun imagining it to be so, and clumsily acting it out. I am playing with space science theories, messily daubing affluent ivory towers with collapsing half formed ideas, like a child with a paint brush. The ideas never last, of course. Sensible, fearfully rational adults invariably come along and scrub the walls clean. They are sometimes kind enough to give me a pat on the head for my efforts. I may yet fail my doctorate, but that is for future me.

This societal and institutional shame of failure is a tragedy of Grecian proportions. The Greek classics I mean, not the recent economic theatrics. Although, having thought about that I'll let you choose which one I meant. By disguising and repackaging our failures we lose so much wealth, so much knowledge, and discard so much energy. When it comes to science, I guess if some theoretical quantum physicist refuses to discuss their academic failures then our collective lived reality will not noticeably suffer for it, although, those poor gits in the 29th quark dimension could be entirely screwed by the reticence. However, for topics such as climate change, fracking, carbon capture, oceanography, energy, space science and countless other scientific disciplines, this total pathological aversion to the appreciation and sharing of failure is deeply worrying. It should worry you too. Yes, you. No, not a hypothetical 'you' formed from monologue. YOU. Reading this now.

In science, we only publish what has worked out dandy. Those rare gems raked from the laboratory muck that make us look good, cast us as tremendously clever; superior to the plebiscite. That is the unspoken rule. In conferences (and I write this rambling scribble in Mordor airport on the way to the American Geophysical Union conference in the Disunited States of Trump) we present posters, talks and soiree gatherings of all the data that succeeded. We talk to each other about how brilliant we are. Sometimes we even listen to how brilliant the other person is, but usually not. Yet a truly vital wealth of lessons is in the failures, and these precious vaults of wisdom are discarded, falling down the cracks of obscurity, lost in filed dusty lab book notes never to be read again. All the unpublished frustrations buried and suppressed. The experiments that did not work and which we worry would make us look like fools to our peers are hushed, or when pushed, mentioned fleetingly, like disreputable acquaintances. What is needed, perhaps, is a grand unburdening of failure. Conferences could become like AA meetings.

"Hi, my name is Adrienne, and I've created a most spectacular failure I'd like to share with y'all. Last month I completely failed a geochemical experiment on carbon storage, it was such a useless disaster, and I learned this from it...".

These kinds of conversations never happen. Those kinds of publications don't exist. Or, if they do, they make snow leopards seem common. The scientific mistakes learned by one scientist are buried, and scientist after scientist will stumble over the same rocks.

A tired, red eyed, final year PhD student, near the edge of sanity on the best of days, at a science conference, trying desperately to drink their bad data and failed ideas under the cheap bar, might fall into casual conversation with a more experienced scientist who did the same experiments years ago, and knew it all wouldn't work.

"Why the hell didn't you publish the failed data??! Do you know the work you could have saved me? Why not tell students like me that this doesn't work? Don't you know I've wasted years of my life on this?" wails poor PhD.

"Who would publish failed experiments? It's unthinkable. Who would talk at a conference about what they did wrong and what didn't work?" replies the scientist.

Maybe it is time we think the unthinkable. Maybe we need a scientific journal entitled "The International Journal of Erroneous Data and Failed Research". Perhaps it sounds like I'm just being tediously facetious and jocular. But I'm not. Consider that many PhD and post-doctoral research is tax payer funded and costs hundreds of thousands of pounds per project. No small number of bad projects might be avoided if error and failure shed their shame and became valued, published, cherished and deployed formally as useful and searchable reference. No small number of student led conceptualised experiments might be better targeted. Science might advance at a faster and more efficient pace. Let us found such a journal in each academic field. Let us have a poster corner in conferences specifically where failed experiments can be viewed and discussed without stigma, without damaging those towering colossal academic egos.

We would get to Mars quicker by doing so. We would understand the consequences of fracking and geoengineering on our planet better by doing so. It would entirely adjust the way modern academic science operates. So where does this start? Who goes first discussing how they fail in their life tasks? Who damages their career and reputation first?

Will you?