Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Fear of Failure in Amateur Science

We all get things wrong.  Let's skip the nearly endless list of reasons why, and just accept it at the outset.  Of course, we usually have no problem accepting that another person has made an error.  It is mostly ourselves that we struggle with.  We don't want to fail or have others see us as failures so we shield ourselves from these things by:
  • Never doing anything with a possibility of failure...or
  • Adopting an unwarranted sense of infallibility.
Of course, most amateur scientists love learning new stuff even at the price of being wrong about what they thought they knew.  Isn't that the rush we all look for, that tingle of discovery? Surely, most everyone into science understands that sensation. We all know that science is the endless process of finding out we were wrong or at least more ignorant than we had thought ourselves to be.

Sadly, this high rate of idea turnover, does not play too well in our fragile hominid psyches.  We also like certainty, and we especially like it if it is our own idea that we are certain about. So what's the problem?  If we get it wrong, we just switch on Turbo-Intelligence and leave our simian insecurities behind. Unfortunately, intelligence most often comes with a great deal of rationalizing ability. Turbo-intelligence is just that much worse.  It is much easier to come up with things to support your hypothesis than those that would unequivocally refute it.  (Note the different standards we require of each!)

When defending your position becomes more important to you than your love for truth, you have become not a scientist but rather a politician in a lab coat.  As hard as we try not to, we tend to make this mistake over and over again in our lives, and more to the point, in science.  As amateur scientists, we are more likely to lose our balance in this regard than a professional scientist who has endured years of scrutiny under the eagle eyes of their peers. But, even professional scientists succumb.  They can rationalize VERY well.

We can fight the problems arising from our very human fear of failure by being good citizen scientists, with an emphasis in 'citizen'. We should foster a climate in our science communities that encourages amateurs to share their efforts via the internet in Groups, personal, and community websites. Hiding away in a basement laboratory with no contact with other amateur scientists is one certain way to make sure our efforts will never be criticized.  It is also a way to almost ensure that our work will not be of the quality that it could be had we shared it with others. So come out and smell the formaldehyde.   We can tell each other we are wrong (or right!) in supportive and kind ways.  We must not tolerate harshness or rudeness by others in our groups. Arrogance of any type is the enemy of science.

Humbly Submitted!


  1. Thanks for this prose. The small group of angry anonymous Internet experts make
    FoF even worse.


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