26 failures of natural science

Hats tipping to Mr. Tomato Head, for linking to 13 failures of science, and then 13 more failures of science!


11 thoughts on “26 failures of natural science

  1. These are all cool, but I would never call them failures. open problems, yes, but never failures. That’s the beauty of science that you wouldn’t agree with. If we didn’t have these anomalies, then science would be done with it’s job. But there is still so much to discover.

    You really didn’t explain why you think those are failures rather then interesting/open problems? What is the difference/similarity for you? and why can’t science have these?

  2. Dear Student Nick,

    A failure of natural science depends on the goal in question. If natural science tries to explain phenomenon X, for example, and fails, then this constitutes a failure of natural science.

    There is a different sense of failure that I don’t mention in this post – specifically, the principled/structural/posteriori/intrinsic/ontological failures of science. For example, science fails to give meaning to life. This failure, unlike the failures mentioned in my post, is built into science, at least since the time of Francis Bacon, if not since the time of Richmond Feynman.

    Thank you for your questions.


  3. If natural science tries to explain phenomenon X, for example, and fails, then this constitutes a failure of natural science.

    I think we have two problems here.

    The first is that of the definition of failure. It requires the completion of an act. Your definition doesn’t require an act, let alone completion. Essentially, you are starting with science defined by complete failure, and as it progresses, it acquires knowledge about the world and turns those failures into success.

    Now, you’ll probably say that the act is the explanation of the phenomenon. But, when is it defined that an action as then not met it’s goal? People are working on all these problems actively. These actions aren’t finished, they are neither successes nor failures.

    If these events were “filled” with an ad-hoc solution (which science often employs, and helps progress by allowing progress beyond the current theory[1][2]), then we instantly have success in science. Now, science doesn’t necessarily would adhere to this solution to “our” problem, but lets say they do. Let’s say, at the very least, “God wills it”, is the solution until a non-metaphysical one is found. Then science is a success by your definition. Now wouldn’t that be silly!

    Secondly, do you realize how metaphysical a question the meaning of life is. I realize you do. Science by the virtue of it’s method excludes metaphysics. This is like expecting a baseball player to kick field-goals, come on!

    [1] : Kuhn (The Structure of Scientific Revolutions)
    [2] : Feyerabend (Against Method)

  4. Let me clarify one bit: by completion, I do not imply success, just that the act finishes. success defines the result of that action.

  5. thinking about this more, the word failure, and how one defines failure needs to be further clarified. This is the business of philosophy. Specifically, Philosophy of Action.

    So, what defines a failure? Does it require an act? But what about when we (and bare with me) say, “You failed to take out the trash”. Clearly, we are being general when we say this, since there is a temporal requirement we are neglecting to mention (I can always take the trash out the next week). So we are really saying, “you failed to take out the trash between two subsequent visits of the garbage man”. So, back to science, why cannot I solve the problem next week? Sure, this can go to ad infinitum, putting the tasks off to the end of time. At least in the cases presented here of science, the ‘failures’ you see, are being worked on, and the action of their progress hasn’t completed, but the action has at least started. In the broad sense, the action of science will never end until everyone stops practicing it.

    Those are some of my thoughts here. I haven’t gotten to the point of saying how we observe failure in science. But I don’t think it’s possible to observe its failures directly, but I think the measure of progress would be an indicator.

  6. “”you can’t let your failures define you – you have to let them teach you. You have to let them show you what to do differently next time””

    What do you think science should learn from these “failures”?

  7. “There are two possible outcomes: If the results confirm your hypothesis then you’ve made a discovery. If the results are contrary to your hypothesis then you’ve made a discovery.”
    -Enrico ferme-

    Science doesn’t fail. It can determine that we don’t understand something but that in itself is not a failure.

  8. Nick, I see your point that science is never really “finished,” because it is ongoing, but by your definition of “failure” it is not possible for science to fail in any way, under any circumstances. Surely that’s not true(?)

  9. I hope that you realize the phrase natural science is redundant, as science is restricted to the study of the natural world (by which I mean that which can be explained without resorting to the supernatural).

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