Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Simon Fraser University
Many years ago when I was a lab technician, I reported a mistake at lab meeting. The mistake was due to inexperience, and I wanted to alert the rest of the “team” to the possibility of misinterpreting the instructions in a protocol. Afterwards, one of the graduate students in the lab took me aside and told me that in her opinion I should never admit to making a mistake or I would lose credibility. I disagreed and said so; that my intention was to help the group be more effective, and that I might have prevented the waste of expensive reagents. We left it at that. But years later I see that in my undergraduate courses, it is exceedingly difficult to get students to answer questions. Some of them are nearly paralyzed with the fear of possibly being wrong or making a mistake. I connect this with what the student told me many years ago. It seems that making a mistake is seen as a failure, even a disaster.
My approach is to try to help students see both the practice of science and of learning as processes of exploration. It isn’t about being right all the time, it is about figuring something out, understanding how it works. It is about trying, getting some feedback, making an adjustment, and trying again. This necessarily involves deriving information from our mistakes, failures, and negative results, perhaps even more so than from our successes.
That is why I was interested in the article by Jeffrey Kluger, about why scientists should celebrate their failed experiments (http://time.com/3206754/publication-bias-null-results/ ). The article looks at publication bias – you are much more likely to publish a positive result than a negative one. Kluger reports the results of a study in which it is shown that of published papers in a ten-year time frame, only 20% of them report null results (the effect they were testing for was not observed). One reason that so few null results see the light of day is that they are never submitted for publication in the first place.
Null results are very important –they let other researchers know which avenues have already been explored, and prevent the waste of precious time and resources. Perhaps with the current tendency toward smaller research grants, avoiding blind alleys is especially important. But there is a pressure to be successful and there is a bias in thinking that success means having your hypothesis confirmed.
It is possible that some researchers are plagued by the same attitude shared by my students and former co-worker. An experiment that does not confirm your hypothesis is not wrong; your hypothesis is. This is information, and surely useful. This short, but thought-provoking article has me reflecting more on how to encourage students to stop fearing mistakes and negative results. I will try something out and see if it succeeds or fails. Stay tuned....