"Accept failure": A New Year's resolution?

Jonah Lehrer reports on what happens when scientists see the unexpected:

According to Dunbar, even after scientists had generated their error multiple times it was a consistent inconsistency they might fail to follow it up. Given the amount of unexpected data in science, its just not feasible to pursue everything, Dunbar says. People have to pick and choose whats interesting and whats not, but they often choose badly. And so the result was tossed aside, filed in a quickly forgotten notebook. The scientists had discovered a new fact, but they called it a failure.

The description of Kevin Dunbar’s work is interesting – he’s a “cognitive scientist” but the work is almost anthropology in the context of scientific labs.

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. (Thats 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.

As described in the story, the process of science is like a big noise filter, where theoretically unexpected results are systematically eliminated. I will note the positive aspect: when we find an unexpected result repeatedly, our confidence that it is signal and not noise is vastly higher. So all these attempts to squelch the unexpected create a mental environment in which we can sometimes recognize it.

Sometimes. But as Lehrer describes, humans are good at conforming their mental world to the expected. Strangest line: “the Aristotelian video with the aberrant balls.”