Nothing is always something.  The lack of finding something isn’t an indicator of failure — it is actually a revelation that what we thought was there, was not.  Recently, the New York Times reported on the “failure” of the promise of genetic mapping research to help find more cures:

One sign of the genome’s limited use for medicine so far was a recent test of genetic predictions for heart disease. A medical team led by Nina P. Paynter of Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston collected 101 genetic variants that had been statistically linked to heart disease in various genome-scanning studies. But the variants turned out to have no value in forecasting disease among 19,000 women who had been followed for 12 years.

The old-fashioned method of taking a family history was a better guide, Dr. Paynter reported this February in The Journal of the American Medical Association.

The variants bespeak success and confirm what we were previously doing was working just fine.  That’s something.  Nothing wrong with that.  The value is all in the spin and your persistent point-of-view.  Sometimes a family history, and the educated circular gut reaction, is more important than relying on pernicious test results from a contaminated lab.

We are imprisoned by our bodies, and the key to unlocking what ails us is in our genetic code.  Our DNA chains chain us apart.  Figuring out how we are locked in will be a long and petty process.  We should embrace our nothing failures as successes.

Now we need to ask the larger question about all scientific research and where we want to be led, and sometimes, the necessary publishable answer should be “nowhere — we found nothing” but, too often, published successes are the only things that gets noted on-the-record.

We must require researchers to publish their failures, too.  “We thought this was there, and when we tested it, we were wrong.  We found nothing.  Our result is empty.  Our theory is null.”  There must be no shame in the empty idea and the failed exploration.

Getting it wrong is actually more valuable in the long term than getting it right — because we will fail more often than we find success.

If we fill the fail niches with public notices to “not go there” then we increase our chances of spending time on something that just might work instead of just re-rediscovering the hidden failures of others.


  1. Not only that, but publishing failure can lead to changing the original experiment itself — as in, years later others may see the failed study and why it study and say, “Oh, let’s try doing this instead…”

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