Putting the Problem into the Work

Mar 19, 2023 | Idea, Uncategorized

‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.’ Thomas Beckett wrote these seemingly out-of-character words in the opening to Worstward Ho and they’re frequently interpreted as a motivational mantra. You can get them printed on T-shirts and enamel mugs. They’re also inked onto the forearm of Swiss tennis champion Stanislas Wawrinka. If you keep trying, Beckett seems to promise us, you can succeed at anything from a tech start-up to tennis (it worked for Wawrinka, who won the Australian Open in 2014). Entrepreneurs seem to adore the quotation, which helps them to fetishise failure: ‘Hold an idea funeral’, writes entrepreneur Annabel Acton; gather for a ‘F— Up Night’ social event, suggests executive coach Joel Garfinkle. Embrace failure as a stepping stone to success, normalise it, and let others learn from your mistakes.

How to ‘fail better’ is a hot topic in academia, too. The London School of EconomicsNautilus, and Nature have all, in recent years (and with varying degrees of sophistication), translated the famous Beckett quotation for the sciences. Academics have even tried to accommodate discussions of failure into more elaborate professional and methodological conversations. In 2017, Columbia University drew together delegates from the arts, sciences, humanities, education and law to discuss ‘The Success of Failure’. Topics ranged from normalising narratives of failure and how we judge failure, to embracing happy accidents and ‘mistakeful learning’. A couple of years later, University College London mounted the exhibition FLOP, its own celebration of what curators called ‘the subject we’d all rather avoid’. And, in 2020, the Journal of Trial and Error – a journal devoted to failure in science – launched with the tagline ‘Science Fails. Let’s Publish.’ Failure and mistakes are not only excusable missteps, but also rather widely acknowledged as fundamental to the production of knowledge. In a world that not only recognises but also celebrates failure, then, it should be utterly uncontroversial to suggest that failure should be a standard, accepted part of academic practice. But, despite all this positive press, a sense of success being ‘good’ and failure being ‘bad’ persists.

Journals, for instance, are attracted by uncomplicated success stories. One survey from 2011 found that this ‘positive-outcome bias’ had notably worsened between 1990 and 2007, by 6% each year. Daniele Fanelli, the author of the study, suggests that a publishing landscape that favours positive research results might ‘discourage high-risk projects’ and even ‘pressure scientists to falsify their data’. A journal’s appetite for success also complements the aims of scientists working in industry, who have been shown to be more likely to produce ‘positive’ – i.e. profitable – findings. Compared with scientists who are not funded by private interests, scientists paid by soda manufacturers have been shown to be five times more likely to conclude that there’s no connection between drinking soda and obesity.[1] Those funded by the tobacco industry have similarly been seven times more likely to find that second-hand smoke is more-or-less safe.[2] One survey found that scientists funded by drugs companies found results in favour of their funders in every single instance.[3]

A more recent study by Tobias Lehmann, Michael Borggräfe and Jochen Gläser suggests that not much has changed over the past decade, adding that researchers themselves are now ‘intent on designing projects that are unlikely to fail’. But who can blame them? As the authors point out, ‘failed’ research still takes longer to publish, their peers tend not to cite failed work anyway, and tenure – or even research funding – is unlikely to be granted to those with fewer publications or citations.[4] We have somehow found ourselves in the absurd position of celebrating the importance of failure, while perpetuating a system that materially punishes it.

A failed experiment or negative result is one matter, but there are more subtle understandings of failure. You might begin a project with one supposition then change your mind to argue another point of view, but failure in this case becomes something like a narrative device in the presentation of a thesis. You might also identify a ‘problem’ without a solution. Is this a ‘failure’?  Complication, interpretation, and the generation of new perspectives are all part of a research journey. You can ‘fail’ to convince a peer with your argument, but that isn’t quite the same thing as finding that your data do not support your hypothesis. Outside the hard and social sciences, what it means to ‘fail’ is ambiguous.

And that brings us back to Beckett. Continue reading and his ‘fail better’ quote goes on:

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better. / First the body. No. First the place. No. First both. Now either. Now the other. Sick of the either try the other. Sick of it back sick of the either. So on. Somehow on. Till sick of both. Throw up and go. Where neither. Till sick of there. Throw up and back. The body again. Where none. The place again. Where none. Try again. Fail again. Better again. Or better worse. Fail worse again. Still worse again. Till sick for good. Throw up for good. Go for good. Where neither for good. Good and all.

Perhaps it still ranks among Beckett’s more uplifting quotes (cf. ‘Nothing happens. Nobody comes, nobody goes. It’s awful.’), but the full quotation gives the word ‘failure’ a radically different meaning. Beckett seems to be ruminating on constant, enduring failure – a failure with no concept of ‘success’ as a counterpoint or destination. Put into this literary context, the concept of ‘failing better’ is both bleak and ridiculous. How can you succeed or fail when faced with the void? Perversely, this interpretation of failure is arguably more comfortable to the humanities scholar, uneasy at the suggestion that the world is sufficiently black-and-white to merit talk of success and failure. It allows for meaning, for minute variations of light and shade.

Any researcher’s career will be filled with failure, from tiny problems to outright catastrophe. Flawed methods, misinterpretations, missteps and other errors are precisely what make research so rewarding. At some point in their career, most scholars will find that a book or an article appears on their precise research topic, seemingly superseding their work. But problems are almost always opportunities. They aren’t the kind that make you ‘grow as a person’. Nor are they unfortunate incidents to abandon and accept if you’re going to finally succeed – they’re not part of that glib, tech-bro interpretation of ‘fail better’. Problems of all magnitudes can change the direction of your research, transform your perspective, improve your literature review, enrich your methodology section. And in the case of another scholar seemingly having beaten you to it, it’s more likely that you’ll have found that gold dust of a scholarly community, and that their work gives you something to agree or disagree with, and in any case to respond to. Beckett’s lesson about failure in literature and art is applicable to science, too. Failure is a constant and enduring part of the research journey. For scientists, then, the question is not one of how we should fail better, but rather one of how we should better incorporate failure into our research and our writing. As Tara Brabazon, Dean of Graduate Research and the Professor of Cultural Studies at Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia, likes to say, you’ve got to ‘put the problem into the work’.

[1] Maira Bes-Rastrollo, Matthias B. Schulze, Miguel Ruiz-Canela, and Miguel A. Martinez-Gonzalez, ‘Financial Conflicts of Interest and Reporting Bias Regarding the Association between Sugar-Sweetened Beverages and Weight Gain: A Systematic Review of Systematic Reviews’, PLoS Medicine 10(12) (2013): e1001578.

[2] Deborah Barnes and Lisa Bero, ‘Why Review Articles on the Health Effects of Passive Smoking Reach Different Conclusions’, Journal of the American Medical Association 279 (1998): 1566–1570.

[3] Mildred Cho and Lisa Bero, ‘Quality of Drug Studies Published in Symposium Proceedings’, Annals of Internal Medicine 124 (1996): 485–489.

[4] Tobias Lehmann, Michael Borggräfe, and Jochen Gläser, ‘The Challenges of Identifying Significant Epistemic Failure in Science’, in Scheitern in den Wissenschaften, edited by Michael Jungert and Sebastian Schuol. Leiden: Brill, 2022. doi:10.30965/9783969752487_012