When Science is Blind

| December 29, 2009 | 2 Replies

Instapundit linked to a fascinating article in Wired Magazine on success, mistakes, and how we pursue the answers to questions that vex us. The author, Jonah Lehrer, did a very good job of telling a couple entertaining stories, beginning with the tale of the two men who won the 1978 Nobel Prize for Physics and leading through a series of lengthy research projects conducted by Kevin Dunbar.

Dunbar started by observing four groups of scientists at Stanford University and, when he was done, he had overturned decades of thought about the scientific process and how we sort out what we see in the world. The gist of his experiment came down two small but essential parts of the brain: the part that says “Oh, wow!” when we see something unusual and the part that erases from our memory an “Oh, wow” moment that does not conform to our own worldview. Normally, that’s a good thing. A filter that screens anomalies from our conscious thought helps us to pay attention. Not all that long ago, in fact, most of humanity needed that filter several times a day just to stay alive. However, when those two parts of the brain activate at the same time, we can, quite literally, not see something that just happened right in front of us.

Scientists are as prone to this as anyone. Perhaps they’re more prone to it because, as Dunbar found, they often cling to a specific answer to a question which then casts other answers as anomalies which get filtered out as a mistakes when they may well not be. They are then cloistered among a group of compatriots who tend to think as they think and have the same base of knowledge they have.

This, says Dunbar, is the heart of the problem. The solution is diversity of thought — having someone capable of looking at the problem “from the outside” who is able to see the anomalies that those on the “inside” have deemed mistakes because they have filtered them out.

And isn’t that odd? Those of us who aren’t scientists figured this out a while ago. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve handed a project to someone and asked to look it over because I needed a pair of “fresh eyes” on it. As it happens, the eyes weren’t important but the fresh brain with the differently-calibrated filter. It turns out that though scientists are trained, and very keen, observers, their judgment is as vulnerable to the echo chamber effect as the rest of us. What they often lack is the humility to subject their work to what they may deem to be lesser minds.

Hmmm…I’m suddenly reminded of the CRU Crew over at East Anglia University. Perhaps someone will send them this article (and cc: Al Gore and the Secretary-General of the United Nations).

Go block out a bit of time and read the whole article. I found it incredibly interesting (and useful) and I think you will, too.


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