How to Fail in Science (or Anything Else)

February 01, 2007

Also, I've come to see that there is one big thing that ruins these fields of amateur research. That thing is SECRECY. Every time amateurs [and plenty of professionals] think they've stumbled across something important, they go silent and treat their discovery as a Big Important Secret which must be preserved at all costs from the many enemies who want to steal it. This is garbage! It is a trap which leads to paranoid megalomania. At the same time, it wrecks their discovery by burying it. ...

William Beaty, Rules for Unconventional Research

What are the most reliable ways to fail in science? Of course, no scientist sets out to fail, but an understanding of that path can lead to a better understanding of the path to success.

By way of Seth Godin's Blog, I came across some interesting rules for failure. Seth's article cites the above quoted essay. Its author is a self-styled "amateur researcher." I don't necessarily subscribe to everything written, but his essay contains more than a few grains of truth.

So, if you're looking for good ways to fail in science, here are some starting points:

  1. Don't tell anyone about your idea - they might steal it.
  2. When you do tell (shame on you!), don't listen to negative feedback - nobody knows your idea like you.
  3. Focus on selling your idea to the government or a big company - this is your ticket to fame and fortune!
  4. Assume other scientists will be blown away by your discovery - the ones that don't get it are incompetent.
  5. Don't bother to build a working prototype - it's a waste of time. If, for some reason, you do build one, keep it under lock and key (see rule 1).
  6. Notebooks and record keeping are busywork - focus on real work instead. Like coming up with more ideas.

Scientists showing these symptoms probably suffer from the mistaken belief that ideas are more important than hard work. Thomas Edison's remark about success being 99% execution and 1% idea couldn't be more true today. Ideas are cheap. People with the determination, ability, and humility to make their ideas work are the precious commodity.