Science and the importance of failure: What TED talks overlook

I was just reading a transcript of Benjamin Bratton’s takedown of TED, the immensely popular series of talks on science and innovation. Perhaps the word “talk” is a bit too specific. TED is more of a “format” for presenting ideas.

To be clear, I think that having smart people who do very smart things explain what they doing in a way that everyone can understand is a good thing. But TED goes way beyond that.

Let me tell you a story. I was at a presentation that a friend, an Astrophysicist, gave to a potential donor. I thought the presentation was lucid and compelling (and I’m a Professor of Visual Arts here at UC San Diego so at the end of the day, I know really nothing about Astrophysics). After the talk the sponsor said to him, “you know what, I’m gonna pass because I just don’t feel inspired… you should be more like Malcolm Gladwell.”

At this point I kind of lost it. Can you imagine?

Think about it: an actual scientist who produces actual knowledge should be more like a journalist who recycles fake insights! This is beyond popularization. This is taking something with value and substance and coring it out so that it can be swallowed without chewing. This is not the solution to our most frightening problems — rather this is one of our most frightening problems.

I couldn’t agree more. As scientists, we are required to be able to explain our research to the outside world. Aside from the important matter of justifying our existence and use of public funds, some of us would hope that our work improves the world. However, the process of explaining shouldn’t involve unnecessarily dumbing down or overstating the potential impact of our work.

TED demands that every presentation be centered around some success. We have to end the talk on some positive note, proudly declaring that our work went the way we wanted it to and had a profound impact on the world. We are there to create, innovate and inspire.

The trouble is that science is often hardly creative, sometimes not innovative and often wholly uninspiring. Mind you, I don’t consider these to be negatives.

Much of science involved the testing of previously held results, views and conclusions. We aren’t seeking to create something new, but rather to evaluate the validity of what has been created before or commonly assumed. We are pursuing knowledge with the hope of refining how the world sees itself using methods to create hypotheses, gather evidence and rigorous test our assumptions.

The outcome, of course, is that the road of science is paved with failure. We embark on our adventures with money in hand, a plan, the proper tools and the best intentions, but, in most cases, we find out that the money didn’t go as far as we would have liked, the plan was ill-conceived given the realities on the ground, the tools were insufficient and our intentions may have been misplaced. At least, that’s my experience of science.

Again, I don’t see this as a negative. In order to improve our ability to understand the world and potentially ameliorate it’s problems, we are required to fail. A child can’t learn to walk without falling down. I can’t learn how to not offend people in Japanese without offending people more than a few times. I can’t learn how not to bake a cake without creating an inedible mess.

TED talks overlook this process of failure, focusing exclusively on the positives and the successes and, more troubling, the inspirational nature of the work. But then, this is a problem that’s not unique to TED talks. I find that TED talks are really just symptomatic of a broader trend which discourages negative results to the point where scientists troll the data hoping to find at least something that can be labelled “successful.”

Most journals won’t publish papers with negative results and most people don’t want to read them. To me, though, there is as much to learn from a paper which found that the previously held view was correct than one which refutes it. There is as much to know from a project which failed miserably as one which was “successful.” At least in my discipline, where field work under pressing circumstances is the norm, it would be nice to hear where people went miserably wrong. We could waste a lot less time, money and experience a little less frustration.

This success driven culture isn’t, of course, limited to science. It permeates our culture, particularly our children. This young generation (and their parents) appears wholly frightened of failure, potentially to the point of paralysis. If we aren’t careful, we might turn into the stagnant Japan of the 00’s.

TED talks probably have to go. While they worked well in the Gates era where small technological fixes in isolated boxes were thought to solve mankind’s most pressing problems, we need to move on to a format which effectively looks to the process of exploration. We need to know and accept that we will fail and those potential sources of failure need to inform our current strategies.

We need to integrate people of many disciplines for mutual benefit. For example, as a quantitative scientist, I learn a lot from people in the humanities, who often hold viewpoints and perspectives completely different from my own but no less important.

In short, we need more discussion and less posturing. Failure is good because we learn from it. Let’s not let the the scientific forum, as Dr. Bratton noted, becomes like cheap, inspirational, yet myopic and wholly useless megachurches.


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About Pete Larson

Assistant Professor of Epidemiology at the Nagasaki University Institute for Tropical Medicine

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