Mistakes, errors, or epiphanies? Kevin Dunbar gets to the bottom of what happens when science goes wrong
Louis Pasteur said that chance favors the prepared mind. What Kevin Dunbar, professor of psychology at the University of Toronto Scarborough and a member of the University of Toronto program in neuroscience, wants to know is what that actually means. How do scientists calculate chance? How do they prepare? How do they deal with unexpected findings and what do they learn from mistakes?
Over the course of a year, Dunbar and his team studied the working habits of four molecular biology labs. What they found was that scientists, like most people, tend to explain unexpected results through analogy. But those labs with the most success turning mistakes into new theories tended to be more diverse both in terms of background and in the sorts of analogies they drew.
The familiar story is that scientists get an unexpected finding, explain it by discussing a similar finding, and then use that analogy as a way to determine what went wrong. Labs that were not progressing tended to stick to local analogies – using e. coli findings to explain e. coli findings, for example – while more successful labs tended to use long-distance analogies – Dunbar used the example of Nobel Prize winner Francois Jacob getting the idea for genetic sequencing from looking at his child’s toy train.
Dunbar said scientists must also look at the particular history of labs. As a group, research scientists are mostly risk averse, and they tend to hire people that think and work most like themselves. “Risk aversion filters through the whole of what you’re doing,” Dunbar said. “Who you get in your lab shapes the kinds of analogies you use which then shapes the way you deal with unexpected findings.”
What of the difference between men and women in the lab? Dunbar’s team looked at every interaction and every finding and found that as a rule, when men got unexpected findings they assumed they knew what the cause was and went ahead anyway. Women, on the other hand, tried more often to replicate results in order to find out why they got the unexpected findings.
“There’s this view that women are passive or that only women who act like men can compete,” Dunbar said. “But in these labs we studied, the women were just as aggressive as the men but approached the unexpected in a completely different way.”
In addition to documenting the way scientists work, Dunbar also studied the way the brain works when confronted with the unexpected. What he found was that in those cases where subjects were confronted with an expected result, the areas of the brain responsible for putting that information into memory were activated. When confronted with an unexpected result, the information was not committed to memory.
“Data that you don’t like, you don’t even process,” Dunbar said.
The challenge going forward, then, is to change the context of the way mistakes are approached in the lab; to train young scientists to look at mistakes as potential successes and pushing them to search for reasons why things went wrong, rather than teaching them to explain unexpected results away.
(Photo credit: Kris Krüg)
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