A younger student of mine recently remarked, “No one can be good at everything, because then they would fail at failing.” If she had been in my Logic class, I would have given her extra credit for that little gem, but it was Science. And the reason failure was on her mind was because her experiment didn’t yield the results she wanted. She felt like a failure and was trying to comfort herself with a witty proverb.
Failure has been on a lot of people’s minds lately, in both theory and practice. NPR and the New York Times both recently published tributes to failure. And Scientific American reported how some physicists are beginning to feel like failures.
“[Failure] is worth treasuring, even more so than artistic masterpieces, monuments or other accomplishments. For, in a sense, the capacity to fail is much more important than any individual human achievements: It is that which makes them possible.”
“In the sciences and the arts, if you don’t fail you are not creating…Without failure we can’t move forward… Success is failure’s progeny.”
Both of these statements essentially say the same thing — failure is valuable because it makes success possible; failure is a means to the end of success. I couldn’t agree more. But, as I read these articles and reflected on the nature of failure in science, I realized there is an important and meaningful perspective missing in how science is taught and valued in our culture.
It is certainly true in science (and in life) that failure can often lead to success. It is equally true, however, that we too often value things based on their usefulness toward success. We have a bad habit of thinking too practically, too utilitarian. We are often too success-driven. We do science (as a society) because we want things like iPhones and effective medicine. And we learn science in school because we need it to graduate and get a good paying job… so we can afford the iPhones and medicine.
Just a couple of months ago, President Obama tried to motivate students to study computer science by saying, “Don’t just buy a new video game — make one. Don’t just download the latest app — help design it. Don’t just play on your phone — program it.” These are motivating words for students, to be sure. However, when that’s the only motivation offered to them by their culture, the message seems clear: “Study science so you can have cooler stuff to buy.”
This mentality causes us to view things like work, education, and perhaps even science itself, as merely a means to an end–money, material possessions, control, better health, longer life–rather than worthwhile endeavors in themselves. But our goal in any endeavor, be it education, science, the arts, or what have you, must be something more than success. Our value system cannot have success at the top, for at least two reasons.
First, a success-driven culture is a self-defeating one. G.K. Chesterton reminds us why:
“It may be that there have been many moonstruck and misleading ideals that have from time to time perplexed mankind. But assuredly there has been no ideal in practice so moonstruck and misleading as the ideal of practicality… A man who is perpetually thinking of whether this race or that race is strong, of whether this cause or that cause is promising, is the man who will never believe in anything long enough to make it succeed…There is nothing which is so weak for working purposes as this enormous importance attached to immediate victory. There is nothing that fails like success.”
Second, a success-driven culture is a joyless one. If our satisfaction in some activity is derived only from being successful, then many of us will be unhappy when we don’t succeed…and even when we do. Success brings a temporary elation that doesn’t last. We need something more to drive us than success measured by material goods. We need something transcendent. We need to view science (and all of life, really) as a good in itself, as something worthwhile, whether we are successful in it or not.
Christians should be the first to do this. We believe in a loving God who created the universe and invites us to “search things out,” whose creation “reveals knowledge,” and “declares the glory of God.” Moreover, we believe that God’s very nature is “clearly perceived” in his creation. Thus, for a Christian, there is a transcendent motivator for studying science — namely, it reveals God’s beauty and power; it also humbles us, gives us a sense of wonder, and reminds us of our humanity; all this even in the absence of success.
The aforementioned Scientific American article reports how physicists who study dark matter are “facing the specter of possible failure” because current observations have repeatedly failed to pin down exactly what dark matter is. One scientist admits, “I would be horrifically disappointed if we didn’t discover dark matter.” And other scientists were reported as saying they don’t care “whether their particular conception of dark matter turns out to be right, as long as they eventually get an answer.” No one can blame them for their disappointment. But what if we don’t get an answer? What if we never find out what dark matter is? What if all our scientific models turn out to be inaccurate descriptions of reality? Would science still be a worthwhile endeavor? I say yes.
We need to show our students that there is great joy that comes from studying the universe, because we are studying something beautiful and mystifying. It’s okay if we hit dead ends, or discover our hypotheses are wrong. It just shows we can’t know everything, and we should be okay with that. We should teach our students to always strive for excellence, but at the same time, never to let success be their primary motivation.
Even in the absence of scientific breakthroughs, even when the specter of failure is imminent– success or not–science is worth doing. When we fail, we would do well to comfort ourselves with Chesterton’s witty proverb, “If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.”