Brilliant Blunders

Progress in science is not a direct march to the truth, but a complex, zigzag path, involving many false starts and blind alleys. Can today’s highly competitive, funding-starved scientific atmosphere, in which publications and citations have become a primary criterion for success, accommodate such mistakes?

BALTIMORE – Thomas Edison is reputed to have said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” This statement sums up a fundamental – but often misunderstood – truth about scientific inquiry. Progress in science – as in any creative discipline – is not a direct march to the answer, but a complex, zigzag path, involving many false starts and blind alleys. Blunders are not only inevitable; they are essential to innovative thinking, because they point the way for other explorers.

One may wonder whether today’s highly competitive, funding-starved scientific atmosphere, in which publications and citations have become a primary criterion for success, can accommodate such mistakes. The simple answer is yes. Indeed, they are as important as ever – and not only in academia.

In fact, the entire scientific method is based on the notion that discovering what does not work is vital to learning what does. Any scientific theory must be falsifiable – that is, based on existing observations or experimental results. For a theory to be considered scientific, it must yield specific predictions of future observations or experimental results. If those observations or results contradict the predictions, the theory is discarded, or at least must be modified.

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