The Importance of Failure in Academia

How comfortable are you with speaking up? Decades of psychology research, from Asch’s conformity test to the “Bystander Apathy Experiment,” illustrate that it’s hard for us as a species to share our thoughts and opinions, especially if they’re unconventional. One of the easiest places to see this is a college classroom: most students find it difficult to ask or answer a question in a large lecture hall. Even when professors beg for participation or ask easy questions, there’s something uncomfortable about speaking up in front of a crowd.

Although minimal in-class participation can seem like a small issue, there are some serious long-term and large scale consequences to unquestioningly accepting what one is taught. If students don’t question their instructors, they propagate a culture of educational obedience rather than genuine understanding. If students are reluctant to participate even minimally, how can we expect them to skeptically question research or pedagogy?

Earlier this year, a Wall Street Journal article detailed the consequences of academic homogeneity. A popular and widely-cited study in Social Science & Medicine was redacted after a failed replication effort, showing that the study itself was flawed. The article details the consequences of an “intellectually inbred” scientific community, resulting from young college students accepting and following academic norms without questioning why and how they ought to be followed.

The Positives of Negative Findings

I first learned about the Wall Street Journal article when I spoke to UC Berkeley public health professor Dr. John Colford about unproductive norms in the scientific community. For example, academic journals are notoriously biased against publishing studies with negative findings, or those that don’t find the conclusions the researchers predicted. Negative studies are less likely to be published, even if they are conducted more thoroughly than studies with positive findings.

While it may seem intuitive to want to publish only the most successful interventions, this sets a dangerous precedent in academia, a norm where researchers want to conduct studies that are “safer,” like replication studies where there is a better chance of confirming a hypothesis, rather than studying something novel and riskier. On top of that, people who fund research are more likely to support what they think will end up being a “successful” study.

Even so, Colford maintains that we need a norm shift in academia to value not only the studies with the best results, but the most well-conducted studies. In a Lancet article, he praised a study with negative findings, that was exceptional nonetheless due to its “adherence to many methodological practices that should be standard … for evaluation of many public-health interventions.”

Colford concludes that the academic community should consider methodological practices, over results when deciding what studies ought to be published, or to confirm the validity of these findings, positive or negative.
“Positive and negative studies can be done in a better way,” he explains, “and it’s important to know about things that don’t work.” We have reliable information on what doesn’t work, and that can be valuable in finding out what does. Although changing deeply rooted academic conventions necessitates considerable effort, this paradigm shift is best for the scientific community — and the general public. Every time a scandal like the one published in the Wall Street Journal becomes public knowledge, distrust in academia increases, especially among people who are suspicious of it in the first place. When the current political administration takes such a vocal stance on the “War on Science,” it is important that academics do our part in upholding genuine, honest science in higher education.

Breaking the Norms

As students, it can seem like there’s very little we can do to challenge such staunch norms in higher education, but Colford disagreed with my initial categorization of students as relatively low-status members of the academic community. “Students have fresh, inquisitive perspectives and are uniquely valuable because they are new to academia,” he said.

It is understandable that students feel overwhelmed and relatively powerless when it comes to challenging norms in academia. However, a pair of fresh eyes and an unconventional attitude can challenge academic homogeneity. Colford explains that asking students to question research methods and replicate study data would help them learn about the topic, sharpen technical skills, and possibly catch some errors in published work. This would also hold academics to a higher standard, as being caught in a mistake by an undergraduate in a classroom would be a pretty embarrassing situation.

“If students start asking this of their professors and lecturers, it would really move the field forward,” Colford concludes. “Few people doubt that this is a good trend, but this needs to be the standard.” The responsibility is thus not only on professors, researchers, and scientists, but on us students as well. If those at the top are unwilling to change, it is our prerogative to demand more from the scientific community.