Monday, January 4, 2010

Brilliant Mistakes: the Science of Serendipity

"A man's errors are his portals of discovery."
~ James Joyce

The January 2010 issue of Wired includes a fascinating article by neuroscientist Jonah Lehrer titled "Accept Defeat: The Neuroscience of Screwing Up." The subject: learning to distinguish laboratory "errors" from unexpected breakthroughs.

Lehrer leads with the famous story of Bell Labs astronomers Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson. In the mid-1960s the two men searched with a radio telescope for empty regions in space; no matter how hard they tried or how careful they were, they found background noise everywhere. Eventually they contacted Princeton scientist Robert Dicke to see if he could help them figure out what they were doing wrong. But Dicke, a nuclear physicist, was about to launch a space search of his own. His objective: finding traces of the background radiation that would confirm the big bang theory — which he immediately realized was precisely what Penzias and Wilson had mistake.

"Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new."
~ Albert Einstein

Lehrer's point is that scientists often don't recognize that an unexpected result is not always an error — some anomalies lead to important discoveries. He describes the work of Kevin Dunbar, "a researcher who studies how scientists study things — how they fail and succeed." Laboratory scientists follow strict protocols in their experiments and, when the results fail to confirm the initial hypothesis, most assume they made an error and start all over again. Dunbar found this is most likely to happen when scientists work exclusively among like-minded, similarly trained people. Interestingly, when scientists are part of an interdisciplinary team and discuss their failures with people who examine problems through different lenses, they sometimes find that the "mistake" is actually a breakthrough.

Science history offers many examples of mistakes that led to breakthroughs, from vulcanized rubber to the X-ray to penicillin. But the lesson here applies to more than lab experiments. It is difficult to imagine a business situation where considering the ideas of people from different disciplines would not be helpful. One example from my background writing about consumer research: While trained researchers formed and tested hypotheses, I looked for anomalies in survey results, seeing them as potential clues to emerging trends. The moral of the story: when in doubt, ask someone who doesn't think like you.

“Mistakes are, after all, the foundations of truth, and if a man does not know what a thing is, it is at least an increase in knowledge if he knows what it is not.”
~ Carl Gustav Jung

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