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Is it proper to use the phrase "failed experiment" at all? And if so, should it refer exclusively to experiments that had some ineluctable flaw in the process of their implementation or can it also refer to experiments that achieved the undesired result?

This could have some bearing on the formality with which we interpret "experiment" as "scientific experiment", touched upon here, but my more basic question is the validity of calling something a "failed experiment": Does that imply that the act of experimenting was itself a failure or that it resulted in a failure. It would sound like the former, but I think the interpretation is often the latter.

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closed as not constructive by FumbleFingers, Matt Эллен, tchrist, WAF, kiamlaluno Jul 11 '12 at 22:03

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This seems like an excellent question for philosophy.SE (it sounds like the discussion would work in whatever language you translate that to). –  Mitch Jul 11 '12 at 19:57
@Mitch Interesting. I guess the things that would make it English-specific would be the idiomatic ambiguity of the word "experiment", as well as the usage of the word "failure" as a subjective or objective descriptor. –  WAF Jul 11 '12 at 20:00
Google "no such thing as a failed experiment". I'm voting to close because I think this question is just a peeve. –  FumbleFingers Jul 11 '12 at 20:28
@FumbleFingers Until your link I had never heard of either of those formulations, and I genuinely thank you for the interesting quotation. It is notoriously difficult to gather information on usage by googling e.g., which is one of the great things about a site like this. Whether the conventional interpretation of a potentially misinterpreted phrase is definitionally strict or not is exactly what I sought to learn by asking this question, although I see that it could appear otherwise when one is already familiar with the conventions. –  WAF Jul 11 '12 at 20:52
@FumbleFingers:..which, in my defense, I think was my point at the beginning. Also, formal or informal, the current answers are sufficient, and have nothing to do with a special idiomatically English interpretation of the words. –  Mitch Jul 11 '12 at 21:05

2 Answers 2

Yes, the phrase is possible; it refers to an experiment which did not fulfill its object. That object is generally interpreted to be performance of what the experimenter wanted. So a failed experiment is a trial of a new idea without the desired result.

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I have normally heard of a "failed experiment" in a non-scientific context where experiment means simply.

a test, trial, or tentative procedure;

It means "someone risked trying something new, and it did not have the desired results."

For example, if I am going to try working from home, but discover that there are too many distractions, I might use that phrase.

In order for an experiment to be a "scientific experiment" it needs to meet certain professional standards. A scientific experiment may fail in many different ways. It may be poorly designed. Equipment may malfunction. A catastrophe may destroy samples. A scientist would be obligated to be more specific as to what exactly failed, and would not dismiss an experiment with such a catch-all phrase.

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