Community

I used to contribute time and money to a non-profit whose purpose was to encourage community. We described our first coffeehouse as “Cheers without the beers.” (Hmmm.) We were looking for a way to augment historical forms of community that seemed less relevant in our contemporary culture. That’s why my personal blog is called Enoch’s Thoughts. Hold that thought.

Wired

In a recent issue of Wired magazine, Jonah Lehrer writes about a study by Kevin Dunbar revealing how scientific discovery actually works, rather than how it is most commonly presented. Kevin claims that the Scientific Method is a process that frequently fails. Often the results contradict the theory. Careful measurements produce disappointing surprises. “Experiments rarely tell us what we think they are going to tell us.”

Of course, scientists are trained to believe in the scientific method, so their response to these unexpected results is to persevere with the experiment, right? Wrong, at least according to Dunbar’s research. The most common reaction is to either (a) blame the experimental method, or (b) drop the whole thing.

Why? Because humans, even “trained” scientists, are not objective. We edit reality. We see what we want to see, and disregard the rest. The article cites multiple studies, some of which include neurological scans of scientists and non-scientists. They measured brain activity in individuals who were shown phenomena that appear unnatural, such as the fact that light and heavy objects fall at the same speed. There is a part of the brain, even in scientists, that wants to ignore reality in favor of intuition.

Our scientific world would in a poor state except that there is fortunately a (c) option. A new theory arises from the ashes of the “failed” experiment. This new theory, often a profound paradigm shift or the beginning of a scientific revolution, is usually initiated by a newbie, either a young scientist, or someone unfamiliar with the field.

While most of us, with myself at the front of the line, usually think of scientific discovery as a solo venture, the lone experimenter toiling into the night, jumping from the bathtub of discovery to run naked into the streets of fame and fortune. But that is rarely the case.

According to Dunbar’s studies, most new scientific ideas emerge from lab meetings, usually weekly events at which a researcher will present his work in a group setting. And the best of these include a diverse community of listeners. The questions and comments of people who do not speak the same “insider” vocabulary are most likely to shock us out of our “cognitive box.”

Circling Back

So we have returned to the topic of the opening paragraph: Community. While the scientific process is a dramatic example, it is clear that notions of communal discourse, the exchange of diverse ideas, and listening to other people can apply to plenty of other human endeavors.

The article I reference here is in the January, 2010 issues of Wired magazine, the theme of which is “failure.” It’s the issue with Alec Baldwin on the cover. Titled “The Neuroscience of Screwing Up,” the article is currently posted at http://www.wired.com/magazine/2009/12/fail_accept_defeat/.

Lastly, for the thoughtful reader, there are indeed lots of stubs for potential writings and discussions, rabbit trails on process, politics, etc., throughout the article and even my paltry rendition of it. Maybe later.

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