Success ≠ Progress: Why Failure is integral to Science
When you study laboratory research, you experience that experiments fail more often than not. Even within the same lab, the challenge is not just to produce, but also to reproduce certain effects for a sufficient number of times. By focusing on failure in scientific routines, a number of neglected questions come to the fore: What implications do failures on a smaller scale (in lab routines) have for research developments on a larger scale (e.g., for model testing, or funding practices)? To what extent do large-scale research developments influence how scientists interpret and deal with failures in routine practice? And which characteristics do instances of failure need to have in order to count as failure, rather than representing a ‘delayed success’?
In the tradition of HPS (Chang 2011, Smith 2012), I address these questions by actively reconstructing them in their scientific context. To understand how scientists deal with failure in routine research, I work with the Firestein lab at Columbia (see also Firestein’s work on ignorance and failure (Firestein 2012, 2015 (in press))). The lab is dedicated to making sense of the olfactory pathway. A lot of fundamental questions about olfactory processing are still open to dispute. Its current dynamics and susceptibility to the revision of its core premises makes olfactory research an excellent example to study the ambiguity of what counts as—or is implied by—failure in scientific practice: while success seems to enforce a research strategy, failures may open up a plethora of alternatives of why something did not work (a prospect not necessarily met with enthusiasm by the practitioner). To systematically examine the question of when research strategies become subject to re-examination, I will look at contemporary studies of “mapping” smells in the brain.
Chang, Hasok. 2011. "How historical experiments can improve scientific knowledge and science education: The cases of boiling water and electrochemistry." Science & Education 20 (3-4):317-341.
Firestein, Stuart. 2012. Ignorance: How it drives science: Oxford University Press.
Firestein, Stuart. 2015 (in press). Failure. Why Science Is so Successful. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Smith, Pamela H. 2012. "In the workshop of history: making, writing, and meaning." West 86th: A Journal of Decorative Arts, Design History, and Material Culture 19 (1):4-31.
Conference Link: http://www.unr.edu/philosophy/1-wagnerconference.html
Conference Topic: Decision-Making at Research Frontiers