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Responding to a Disproven or Failed
Research Hypothesis

When meeting with a disproven or failed hypothesis, after having expended so much time and effort, precisely how should researchers respond? Responding well to a disproven or failed hypothesis is an essential component to scientific research. Researchers must learn ‘research resilience’: the ability to carefully analyse, effectively document and broadly disseminate their failed hypotheses, all with an eye towards learning and future progress. This article explores common reasons why a hypothesis fails, as well as specific ways you can respond and lessons you can learn from this. 

Note: This article assumes that researchers are working on a hypothesis (not a null hypothesis): in other words, they are seeking to prove that their hypothesis is true, rather than to disprove it. 

Reasons why a hypothesis is disproven/fails

Hypotheses are disproved or fail for a number of reasons, including:

  • The researcher’s preconception is incorrect, which leads to a flawed and failed hypothesis.
  • The researcher’s findings are correct, but those findings aren’t relevant.
  • Data set/sample size may not be sufficiently large to yield meaningful results. (If interested, learn more about this here: The importance of having Large Sample Sizes for your research)
  • The hypothesis itself lies outside the realm of science: The hypothesis cannot be tested by experiments for which results have the potential to show that the idea is false.

Responding to a disproved hypothesis

After weeks or even months of intense thinking and experimenting, you have come to the conclusion that your hypothesis is disproven. So, what can you do to respond to such a disheartening realisation? Here are some practical steps you can take.

  • Analyse the hypothesis carefully, as well as your research. Performing a rigorous, methodical ‘post-mortem’ evaluation of your hypothesis and experiments will enable you to learn from them and to effectively and efficiently share your reflections with others. Use the following questions to evaluate how the research was conducted: 
    • Did you conduct the experiment(s) correctly? 
    • Was the study sufficiently powered to truly provide a definitive answer?
    • Would a larger, better powered study – possibly conducted collaboratively with other research centres – be necessary, appropriate or helpful? 
    • Would altering the experiment — or conducting different experiments — more appropriately answer your hypothesis? 
  • Share the disproven hypothesis, and your experiments and analysis, with colleagues. Sharing negative data can help to interpret positive results from related studies and can aid you to adjust your experimental design.
  • Consider the possibility that the hypothesis was not an attempt at gaining true scientific understanding, but rather, was a measure of a prevailing bias.

Positive lessons to be gained from a disproved hypothesis

Even the most successful, creative and thoughtful researchers encounter failed hypotheses. What makes them stand out is their ability to learn from failure. The following considerations may assist you to learn and gain from failed hypotheses:

  • Failure can be beneficial if it leads directly toward future exploration.
    • Does the failed hypothesis definitively close the door on further research? If so, such definitive knowledge is progress.
    • Does the failed hypothesis simply point to the need to wait for a future date when more refined experiments or analysis can be conducted? That knowledge, too, is useful. 
  • ‘Atomising’ (breaking down and dissecting) the reasoning behind the conceptual foundation of the failed hypothesis may uncover flawed yet correctable thinking in how the hypothesis was developed. 
  • Failure leads to investigation and creativity in the pursuit of viable alternative hypotheses, experiments and statistical analyses. Better theoretical or experimental models often arise out of the ashes of a failed hypothesis, as do studies with more rigorously attained evidence (such as larger-scale, low-bias meta-analyses). 

Considering a post-hoc analysis

A failed hypothesis can then prompt you to conduct a post-hoc analysis. (If interested, learn more about it here: Significance and use of Post-hoc Analysis studies)

Summary

All is not lost if you conclude you have a failed hypothesis. Remember: A hypothesis can’t be right unless it can be proven wrong. Developing research resilience will reward you with long-term success.

 

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