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Key Components Of Scientific Success

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In the debate between Howard Sankey and Kristian Camilleri there was a key aspect of the topic that both the affirmative and negative interlocutors failed to address. This key component was that of “success”, and the feature of science that has led to its success.

In the debate, Howard argued that there is a scientific method which is used broadly throughout science. However, his main argument wasn’t regarding whether this scientific method was the reason for the success of science, just the fact that a scientific method exists. Kristian on the other hand, argued that there is no universal scientific method, but rather that there are varying methods that are used in the wide variety of different scientific fields and investigations. Kristian failed to mention in any degree of detail any other reasons, apart from the varying methods of science, that have led to the success of science.

The argument I will present, does not deny the fact a scientific method exists. Instead I will propose that the reason for the ‘success’ of science is due to failure, and not the basis of the scientific method.

Failure is defined as the state when a desired or planned outcome is not met, and it is often described as the opposite of success. In science however, failure plays an extremely important, and instrumental role in new discoveries, and consequently is integral to the success of science. At times, failure that leads to discovery can seem like serendipity, where discoveries are developed by chance in a beneficial way. While there can be instances of good luck which lead to a new discovery, scientists are usually hard at work before eventualities take place. It isn’t bankers, lawyers or artists who make these spontaneous new discoveries. Instead it is hard working scientists. This serendipity argument can further be refuted by the fact scientists very rarely make discoveries in fields outside of their own. This suggests there is considerable effort that is contributed to lead to these outcomes. Serendipity is a naïve explanation for scientific success. Instead I will explain why most discoveries are actually made through failure.

In science, something may not work the way you predicted it would, and this can be considered a failure. This could be an experiment or a phenomenon that you observe. By exploring the reasons for why the investigation failed, you may be led to an initially strange and surprising result. Tracking down a failed experiment forces you to reconsider what you’re doing at the very basic level. The more you fail, the more you have to dig down to the basics of what you are looking at. Sometimes you have to consider removing deeply ingrained concepts that are universally believed by scientists to be ‘true’ explanations or theories. Then you get a eureka moment, where you find the answer hiding behind all your failures (and the failures of many others). Alternatively, and this is probably more likely, you might never find an answer to your failed experiment. This does not mean you are doing bad science; it just means you have to keep trying. You have to keep trying to “fail better”. (Firestein, 2016).

The discovery of cosmic microwave background is one example of the many discoveries that have resulted from failings. In the 1960’s, two American radio astronomers Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson were using a large antenna to record and analyze radio signals from spaces between galaxies. However, when they began using the horn shaped antenna in New Jersey, they noticed a constant background ‘noise’ of microwaves, which they needed to remove to gain useful data. They tried to isolate the noise source through testing interference from nearby, New York City, nuclear bombs, and even pigeons nesting near the antenna. All of these theories failed, with the faint consistent

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noise remaining. After a year of testing they came into contact with Robert Dicke, who predicted that low levels of radiation would remain in the universe if the big bang had occurred. This observation from the antenna provided evidence for Dicke’s theory. Consequently, this failed experiment led to the discovery of cosmic microwave background radiation, and provides strong evidence for the big bang theory.

Another example of failure in science exists in the theories of Newton and Einstein. Newton was part of a scientific revolution where he finally eliminated the theory of a geocentric (Earth centered) universe, and developed the universal law of gravitation and other laws of motion. However, when closely examined many of Newton’s laws are wrong in some aspect. If Newtonian physics was used to calculate locations on earth using GPS satellites, after some time the calculations would be a long way off the actual location. Newtonian physics gives incorrect calculations about Mercury’s orbital changes over time. For objects moving at very high velocities near the speed of light, or near black holes or in very strong gravitational fields, Newtonian physics breaks down and fails.

A few hundred years later, Einstein created his theories of special and general relativity which account for all of the failings of Newton. They provide the correct answer to the changes of Mercury’s orbit, explain how our GPS satellite clocks can be adjusted for time dilation, and relativity superbly explains the motion of objects and how spacetime distorts when close to the speed of light and black holes. However, Einstein’s equations can’t explain what happens at the singularities of black holes (one-dimensional point where a huge mass exists in an infinitely small space so gravity and density become infinite). They also breakdown when you rewind the physics clock to miniscule fractions of a second after the big bang. Both Einstein’s and Newton’s equations fail at a fundamental level. Despite this they remain incredibly useful, providing excellent approximations and predictions for reality, within certain limits.

Many other scientific discoveries including penicillin, theories of embryonic development, and the process of G protein activation, just to name a few, have been uncovered through failure. Virtually all aspects of science have had some form of failure in them that has led to now well excepted knowledge. Scientific investigations have to fail in order for something completely new to be found. Failures are also always present because scientific discoveries and facts are often provisional. Science is constantly being revised. The process is iterative, where scientists jump between failure to failure, and they are content with the intermediate results because they work very well and are often pretty close to the real thing.

Failure is not an essential part of all other great human endeavors. For example, you don’t have to; fail at business to eventually become rich, or fail at writing to become a successful author, and you don’t have to kill a few people to become a good surgeon. While failure can occur in these instances, it certainly isn’t required for success. In science however, failure is essential to success and new discoveries.

The line of argument that failure is the reason for the success of science is important to this debate. It helps make a much stronger case for the negative side because it provides reasoning for the fact that the scientific method is not the main reason for the success of science, but rather that failure is. It is very hard to argue against the fact that a scientific method(s) exists, so when Kristian attempts to make a case against a universal scientific method, his case is relatively weak. This failure perspective provides a different direction for the negative argument which is significantly stronger, and in my opinion is the ultimate base for the success of science.

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Key Components Of Scientific Success. (2022, February 17). Edubirdie. Retrieved January 31, 2023, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/key-components-of-scientific-success/
“Key Components Of Scientific Success.” Edubirdie, 17 Feb. 2022, edubirdie.com/examples/key-components-of-scientific-success/
Key Components Of Scientific Success. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/key-components-of-scientific-success/> [Accessed 31 Jan. 2023].
Key Components Of Scientific Success [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Feb 17 [cited 2023 Jan 31]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/key-components-of-scientific-success/
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