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|Failure||Failure by the Numbers|
Good scientific work is all about making better failures. It's what makes science so successful and the concept has important lessons for the rest of us non-science types. Learn more beginning with this story in just 99 words.
In the middle of my project, this message popped up on my computer screen:
Server Error in Application.
Runtime Error Description: An exception occurred while processing your request. Additionally, another exception occurred while executing the custom error page for the first exception. The request has been terminated.
Well, that was not helpful! What's an "exception" exactly? Sounds like something rare, unique, maybe even non-fatal in a polite way - yet it occurred twice. And I have no explanation, no resolution!
Cut the euphemisms! Let's name this a catastrophic failure, own it, get to the bottom of it, and reboot.
By Stuart Firestein
It's time Success shared the stage with her sister, Failure. Of course we all want to succeed but, as Stuart Firestein points out in his book, Failure: Why science is so successful, it is our failures that make success possible.
Firestein's primary audience is non-scientists who want to make sense of the somewhat confusing actions of scientists and the scientific methods they use. By describing how scientists use failed experiments to validate a hypothesis, Firestein explains that finding truth in science is an iterative practice. It's always in process, always somewhat provisional, and always subject to change. Yet, even with this uncertainty, we are left with theories to explain the workings of the world around us.
This book explains why some people may cling to a theory that has been disproved or why others don't "believe" a theory that is widely accepted. Firestein confesses that this is the fault of the scientific community which has promoted the idea that a proven theory is a final truth. In fact, nothing in science is final because new observations are made, new tools make better measurements, and the field of knowledge expands.
Most interestingly, Firestein describes how even a disproven theory, a failure, can still be useful. The theory of a flat earth became a failure centuries ago. Yet today, we still find it convenient to study a flat map of the earth's curved surface, knowing that the map was created by a satellite in an orbit based on modern theories of physics.
Thankfully, Firestein avoids the common bromides about failing and trying again or failing fast and failing early. Instead, he offers fresh ideas such as "failing better." Failing better means discovering one's ignorance; leaving territory that has become familiar through one's success. He writes, "One must try to fail because it is the only strategy to avoid repeating the obvious." And, "Too often you fail until you succeed, and then you are expected to stop failing." The obvious result: stagnation.
Another of Firestein's observations is that failure in science is as important as success. In fact, sometimes failures are more informative than successes. Failures provoke curiosity. When scientists try to figure out why something didn't work they expand their theoretical explanation. "It is the very intensity of tracking down a failure that forces you to reconsider what you're doing at the very basic levels," he writes.
Yes, there are many types of failures worth avoiding that have high costs in damaged relationships, squandered resources, and missed opportunities. But even though Firestein writes from a scientific perspective, his ideas present a necessary contrast to our non-science, commonplace thinking about success and the value we place on failure.
Failure: Why science is so successful by Stuart Firestein, Oxford University Press, © 2016, ISBN 978-0-19-939010-6.
Even though its focus is science, Stuart Firestein's book, Failure, has plenty of gems relevant for the science-averse. Here are a few:
"Expressing doubt and uncertainty should make a person more trustworthy." (p. 249) If we are absolutely certain of what we know, we have closed our mind to the possibility that situations change, new discoveries are made, and that a different approach may be necessary.
"The key thing is to know at any point how much you can rely on a result and how much it still needs further validation." (p. 153) We need to test and retest our personal theories, our decision-making, and our world view subjecting them to possible failure to make sure they have reasonable validity in this particular situation.
"Creativity arises in discrepancy, in the breakup of things that have been thoughtlessly joined for too long. In that space, of not knowing and not understanding, creativity can occur. That space is the void of failure and ignorance. Where else can new ideas come from? They are not coming from things you already know - except insofar as those things have created new questions." (p.131) Failure drives curiosity by raising questions. Answering those questions we look for creative solutions to discrepant events.
"…how reliable is success if there is not sufficient possibility of failure? Success becomes more successful, and often more interesting, the harder it is to obtain." (p. 64) By experimenting with our successes, pushing them to the limit, we learn the depth of their resilience and the breadth of their applicability.
Failure promotes plurality. It offers more options for understanding complex phenomena. The theory that light travels in a wave is something of a failure because it doesn't fully describe what light does. But the theory that light travels as particles or photons also fails at providing a full description of light. Both theories have their failings; both complement the other. Seemingly incompatible world views can coexist and even provide a more complete understanding when taken together.
Please your reactions to these ironies associated with failure.
Making a mistake or being a failure weighs heavily on our self-esteem. We don't like to admit failure. No one wants to be a loser. Even machines don't like to name failure as seen in our 99-Word Story!
But coming to grips with failure, especially to the point of embracing it, is important for the integrity of our own ideas. After all, we can't know the depth or breadth of our thinking unless we put it through a test that it might fail. To demonstrate the tendency to protect our beliefs and assumptions from scrutiny, try this activity with a group of friends or colleagues.
"By the Numbers" has been adapted from Jolts! Activities to wake up and engage your participants by Sivasailam Thiagarajan and Tracy Tagliati and published by John Wiley and Sons, Inc., © 2011, ISBN 978-0-470-90003-1. You can find many more free activities at www.thiagi.com.
By the Numbers
Purpose: to explore the importance of testing assumptions
Time: 5 to 15 minutes
Participants: Any number
Materials: Flip chart and markers
Brief the participants: Tell everyone that you will present sets of three numbers. Their job will be to find the recurring pattern among the numbers in each set. Write these four number sets on the flipchart:
Set A 3 - 6 - 7
Set B 14 - 28 - 29
Set C 5 - 10 - 11
Set D 2 - 4 - 5
Invite participation: Ask participants to offer another set of three numbers if they think they know the pattern. Do not let them reveal the pattern explicitly. If their numbers fit the pattern, simply answer, "Yes." If not, answer, "No."
People will usually assume that the pattern is to start with a number (12, for example), double it for the second number (24), then add 1 for the third number (25). However, the actual pattern is any three numbers in ascending order. So 2 - 14 - 300 fits the pattern as well as 27 - 56 - 88 and 524 - 1000 - 1,245,000. But do not reveal this pattern yet.
Challenge participants: As you verify and confirm number sets people suggest, notice whether people have made suggestions that confirm what they already know. Are they taking risks to learn whether their theory can be falsified? Ask people how confident they feel about their guesses. Share the following thoughts in your own words:
"Many of you are falling into the trap of confirmation bias. You think you have figured out the pattern that links the number sets. You immediately started proving your hypothesis by offering number sets that fit the pattern you thought was correct. You might feel successful but how do you know you have found the real pattern? What would you have to do to be absolutely sure your hypothesis is correct?"
Give more feedback: Suggest that people try some number sets that they believe will be wrong; that might actually disprove their theory. Listen to their suggestions and respond with "Yes" or "No" depending whether the sets follow your ascending pattern.
After a few participant suggestions, share a few confusing sets of your own indicating which fit the pattern (5 - 243 - 2,331) and which don't (37 - 6 - 42).
Explain the pattern: Invite participants to guess the pattern you were using then reveal the actual pattern - any three whole numbers in ascending sequence.
Debriefing: Relate the experience to the human tendency toward accepting hasty generalizations and preconceived assumptions. Explain that this simple activity illustrates how we often strengthen our unjustified conclusions by applying the same rubric to every new situation and deliberately ignore information that does not fit our preconceived notions.
Follow up: Now that people are more aware of their susceptibility to confirmation bias, will they do anything differently in the future? Challenge them with another puzzle. What is the pattern that links these words:
Gandhi - Stalin - Lincoln
Clinton - Putin - Sanders
Could you add Obama to the list? No, because he does not have exactly two vowels in his name. But is this the true pattern? Here are other words that fit:
Nancy Pelosi - Elizabeth Warren - Debbie Wassermann Schultz
And some that don't:
Donald Trump - Carly Fiorina - Ben Carson
The true pattern is famous leaders.
If you like what you have read in this issue, I would like to bring the same innovation, creativity, and playfulness to your next meeting or learning event.
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