Accept Defeat: The Neuroscience of Screwing Up

Accept Defeat: The Neuroscience of Screwing Up | Magazine

Dunbar came away from his in vivo studies with an unsettling insight: Science is a deeply frustrating pursuit. Although the researchers were mostly using established techniques, more than 50 percent of their data was unexpected. (In some labs, the figure exceeded 75 percent.) “The scientists had these elaborate theories about what was supposed to happen,” Dunbar says. “But the results kept contradicting their theories. It wasn’t uncommon for someone to spend a month on a project and then just discard all their data because the data didn’t make sense.” Perhaps they hoped to see a specific protein but it wasn’t there. Or maybe their DNA sample showed the presence of an aberrant gene. The details always changed, but the story remained the same: The scientists were looking for X, but they found Y.  via

Erik Duval and I have long shared a fascination and frustration with the notion of learning from failure and particularly the lack of learning from failure, even outright refusal to do so.  I was therefore delighted to find this story and IMHO the excellent observations made by Jonah Lehrer about the nature of failure in science.  And how can you not love an article and writer who includes a quote from both Richard Feynman and Bob Dylan?!

I think Lehrer's comments and observations apply to most of us and life in general and I've found myself thinking more and more about this since first reading this article last month.  

I need to get better at following through on posting things soooner than later and so this has sat as one of more than hundred (no I'm not kidding) open tabs in my browsers waiting for me to post.  Thankfully Dan Pink provided the kick I needed to get this one posted when he took note of this same article and was apparently similarly struck by it and his noting of this as one of his 3 Articles Worth Reading.  (thanks Dan!)

I strongly encourage you to read Lehrer's article as I think it truly thought and action provoking.  Read for example such notes as:

  • Belief, in other words, is a kind of blindness.
  • If humans — scientists included — are apt to cling to their beliefs, why is science so successful? How do our theories ever change? How do we learn to reinterpret a failure so we can see the answer?
  •  “These weren’t sloppy people,” Dunbar says. “They were working in some of the finest labs in the world. But experiments rarely tell us what we think they’re going to tell us. That’s the dirty secret of science.”
  • The problem with science, then, isn’t that most experiments fail — it’s that most failures are ignored.

And consider closely his suggestions on 


How to Learn 
From Failure

Too often, we assume that a failed experiment is a wasted effort. But not all anomalies are useless. Here’s how to make the most of them. —J.L.

1Check Your Assumptions

Ask yourself why this result feels like a failure. What theory does it contradict? Maybe the hypothesis failed, not the experiment.

2Seek Out the Ignorant

Talk to people who are unfamiliar with your experiment. Explaining your work in simple terms may help you see it in a new light.

3Encourage Diversity

If everyone working on a problem speaks the same language, then everyone has the same set of assumptions.

4Beware of Failure-Blindness

It’s normal to filter out information that contradicts our preconceptions. The only way to avoid that bias is to be aware of it.


These seem to match extremely well with my experiences and observations and include why the overly hyped attention on so called "social media" has some great promise by adding in this cast to making steps 2 and 3 above very easy and effective.

Hope you enjoy and get as much out of this as I continue to do.

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