How brilliant blunders lead to progress in science..

It is nice to have such articles in Project Syndicate.

Mario Livio an astrophysicist at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore says some blunders turn out to be brilliant as they lead to real progress in science.

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.

The mistakes that are integral to scientific progress are not those that result from haste, sloppiness, or inexperience. Rather, they are the mistakes that arise from thoughtful, meticulous experimentation based on bold ideas – the kind of ideas that can lead to major breakthroughs.

He points to certain examples (blunders) which led to great scientific inquiry and progress.

The funding should allow and make room for blunders:

Tom Watson, Jr., who led IBM through decades of strong growth, is known for having supported brilliant blunders. As he put it, “We should have the courage to take risks when they are thoughtful risks….We must forgive mistakes which have been made because someone was trying to act aggressively in the company’s interest.”

Funding agencies for academic research should adopt a similar philosophy, awarding a certain share of financing to thoughtful, unconventional proposals – those deemed risky, owing to a relatively low probability of success, but that could lead to important discoveries. Such a scheme would create opportunities to take advantage of serendipity – a major component of scientific discovery.

Until about a decade ago, the Space Telescope Science Institute adopted a similar policy for allocating observation time for the Hubble Space Telescope. In addition, each year, the institute’s director was allotted a certain amount of discretionary time to grant to special projects that he or she deemed worthwhile. In 1995, Robert Williams used that time to take a major risk: he aimed the telescope at a seemingly uninteresting area for nearly ten days. The result was an image of more than 3,000 galaxies some 12 billion light-years away – the so-called Hubble Deep Field.

Likewise, closer to home, as many as half of our discoveries of new medicines have originated from accidents. For example, isoniazid was initially tested as a tuberculosis drug; iproniazid, one of its derivatives, later proved to be effective in the treatment of depression.

Space for brilliant blunders is vital to achieving the kind of creative breakthroughs that drive scientific progress. It is time for funding institutions to recognize that.

Similar approach is needed for businesses as well. Failure in business leads to great insights making the probability of success in next venture higher, but it is not valued by the system much. One failure and funding dries for the next venture..

I guess something similar happens in economics too. But the blunders just don’t go away and keep coming back in the wake of famous four words – “this time is different”…

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