Fail Smarter

There’s a huge problem in the attitude towards (governmental) scientific research that I see regularly.  There’s this overt desire to mimic industry, but institution-wide, we’re consistently picking the wrong things to copy.  Our focus should be on problems, questions, and results, but the actual focus is on getting more data, faster, cheaper.

Doesn’t matter how you get the data or if the procedure is flawed.  Doesn’t matter which questions you’re asking.  Doesn’t matter if the course is correct.

Get more data. Ask questions later.

One superficial problem with problem driven research is that it’s a perilous path.  Oh, the failures!  A _real_ scientific process is a tale defined by the numberless problems along the way.  Who has time for all that though when you need more data now?

We would do better to mimic the Googles.

Feel like Google is not only problem driven, but they also give their engineers plenty of leeway to fail. Excerpt from a Slate interview with Google’s Research Director Peter Norvig:

I’m interested in the way that attitudes about error vary across professional cultures—doctors typically think about error very differently than pilots and politicians and so forth—as well as across the cultures of different companies, even within the same field. How would you characterize the overall attitude toward error at Google?

There’s a story going back to the founding of Google: One of the venture capitalists came to [company founders] Larry [Page] and Sergey [Brin] and said “OK, the first thing you have to decide is, is this company going to be run by sales or by marketing? They said, “We think we’ll take engineering.” He laughed and said, “Oh, you naive college kids, that’s not the way the real world works.” And they said, “Well, we want to try it.” Ten years later, that experiment is still running; engineering is still the center of the company. And it seems like it’s worked.

And, like you say, it does create a very different attitude toward error. If you’re a politician, admitting you’re wrong is a weakness, but if you’re an engineer, you essentially want to be wrong half the time. If you do experiments and you’re always right, then you aren’t getting enough information out of those experiments. You want your experiment to be like the flip of a coin: You have no idea if it is going to come up heads or tails. You want to not know what the results are going to be.

[Kathryn Schulz @ Slate via the Browser]

Bonus: Contender for Coolest Guy, Steve Hoefer, has some exceptional thoughts about failure: Here.

[image via pimpin and crimpin]
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September 10, 2010. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Reading.

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