Failure to replicate experiments is just part of the scientific process, writes Stuart Firestein, author and former chair of the biology department at Columbia University, in the Los Angeles Times. The recent worries over a reproducibility crisis in science are overblown, he adds.
"Science would be in a crisis if it weren't failing most of the time," Firestein writes. "Science is full of wrong turns, unconsidered outcomes, omissions and, of course, occasional facts."
Failures to repeat experiments and the struggle to figure out what went wrong has also fed a number of discoveries, he says. For instance, in 1921, biologist Otto Loewi studied beating hearts from frogs in saline baths, one with the vagus nerve removed and one with it still intact. When the solution from the heart with the nerve still there was added to the other bath, that heart also slowed, suggesting that the nerve secreted a chemical that slowed the contractions.
However, Firestein notes Loewi and other researchers had trouble replicating the results for nearly six years. But that led the researchers to find that seasons can affect physiology and that temperature can affect enzyme function: Loewi's first experiment was conducted at night and in the winter, while the follow-up ones were done during the day in heated buildings or on warmer days. This, he adds, also contributed to the understanding of how synapses fire, a finding for which Loewi shared the 1936 Nobel Prize.
"Replication is part of [the scientific] process, as open to failure as any other step," Firestein adds. "The mistake is to think that any published paper or journal article is the end of the story and a statement of incontrovertible truth. It is a progress report."