Tuesday, December 22, 2009

How Science Really Happens

Great article by Jonah Lehrer of Wired on the role of failure in scientific progress. Much of it is based on the work of Kevin Dunbar, who spent years in the 1990s hanging around biochemistry labs observing scientists at work. Dunbar's first finding was that many, many experiments produce unexpected results. Overall the number of "anomalous" results was more than 50 percent. (So much for "normal" science.) Once these anomalies appeared, the scientists tried to figure out what they meant. They usually started by assuming there was a problem with the experimental apparatus, so they would check that and run the experiment again. Often the anomaly disappeared, but often it did not. Then they passed onto the most crucial step, which was discussing the strange result with their colleagues:
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.
This is certainly what works for me. When I encounter something unusual, I call somebody to talk about it. Since it is an inevitable part of cultural resource management that I often work in areas on which I am not an expert, sometimes a real expert can tell me right off what is going on. Sometimes I discover that I have landed in the midst of an old problem or even an ongoing controversy. But more often I have simply strayed into one of archaeology's vast gray areas, and conversation is always the best way to shed light.

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