Thursday, January 07, 2010
Science. Knowledge. Ignorance. Failure. Conversations.
One of the best articles I've read in recent times. Fascinating. Hat tip to @Kirti
(Twentieth-century science philosopher Thomas Kuhn, for instance, defined normal science as the kind of research in which “everything but the most esoteric detail of the result is known in advance.”)
The lesson is that not all data is created equal in our mind’s eye: When it comes to interpreting our experiments, we see what we want to see and disregard the rest.
Too often, we assume that a failed experiment is a wasted effort. But not all anomalies are useless. Here’s how to make the most of them. —J.L.
1. Check Your Assumptions: Ask yourself why this result feels like a failure. What theory does it contradict? Maybe the hypothesis failed, not the experiment.
2. Seek Out the Ignorant: Talk to people who are unfamiliar with your experiment. Explaining your work in simple terms may help you see it in a new light.
3. Encourage Diversity: If everyone working on a problem speaks the same language, then everyone has the same set of assumptions.
4. Beware of Failure-Blindness: It’s normal to filter out information that contradicts our preconceptions. The only way to avoid that bias is to be aware of it.
Modern science is populated by expert insiders, schooled in narrow disciplines. Researchers have all studied the same thick textbooks, which make the world of fact seem settled. This led Kuhn, the philosopher of science, to argue that the only scientists capable of acknowledging the anomalies — and thus shifting paradigms and starting revolutions — are “either very young or very new to the field.” In other words, they are classic outsiders, naive and untenured. They aren’t inhibited from noticing the failures that point toward new possibilities.
While the scientific process is typically seen as a lonely pursuit — researchers solve problems by themselves — Dunbar found that most new scientific ideas emerged from lab meetings, those weekly sessions in which people publicly present their data. Interestingly, the most important element of the lab meeting wasn’t the presentation — it was the debate that followed. Dunbar observed that the skeptical (and sometimes heated) questions asked during a group session frequently triggered breakthroughs, as the scientists were forced to reconsider data they’d previously ignored. The new theory was a product of spontaneous conversation, not solitude; a single bracing query was enough to turn scientists into temporary outsiders, able to look anew at their own work
But not every lab meeting was equally effective. Dunbar tells the story of two labs that both ran into the same experimental problem: The proteins they were trying to measure were sticking to a filter, making it impossible to analyze the data. “One of the labs was full of people from different backgrounds,” Dunbar says. “They had biochemists and molecular biologists and geneticists and students in medical school.” The other lab, in contrast, was made up of E. coli experts. “They knew more about E. coli than anyone else, but that was what they knew,” he says. Dunbar watched how each of these labs dealt with their protein problem. The E. coli group took a brute-force approach, spending several weeks methodically testing various fixes. “It was extremely inefficient,” Dunbar says. “They eventually solved it, but they wasted a lot of valuable time.”
The diverse lab, in contrast, mulled the problem at a group meeting. None of the scientists were protein experts, so they began a wide-ranging discussion of possible solutions. At first, the conversation seemed rather useless. But then, as the chemists traded ideas with the biologists and the biologists bounced ideas off the med students, potential answers began to emerge. “After another 10 minutes of talking, the protein problem was solved,” Dunbar says. “They made it look easy.”
When Dunbar reviewed the transcripts of the meeting, he found that the intellectual mix generated a distinct type of interaction in which the scientists were forced to rely on metaphors and analogies to express themselves. (That’s because, unlike the E. coli group, the second lab lacked a specialized language that everyone could understand.) These abstractions proved essential for problem-solving, as they encouraged the scientists to reconsider their assumptions. Having to explain the problem to someone else forced them to think, if only for a moment, like an intellectual on the margins, filled with self-skepticism.