The meaning in our mistake

According to Jonah Lehrer in his excellent “Accept Defeat: The Neuroscience of Screwing Up

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. […] a single bracing query was enough to turn scientists into temporary outsiders, able to look anew at their own work.

[Discussion of two labs facing the same experimental problem, but one lab diverse, the other not.]

The diverse lab, in contrast, mulled the problem at a group meeting. […] “After another 10 minutes of talking, the protein problem was solved,” Dunbar says. “They made it look easy.”

When Dunbar reviewed the transcripts of the meeting, he found that the intellectual mix generated a distinct type of interaction in which the scientists were forced to rely on metaphors and analogies to express themselves. (That’s because [the diverse] lab lacked a specialized language that everyone could understand.) These abstractions proved essential for problem-solving, as they encouraged the scientists to reconsider their assumptions. Having to explain the problem to someone else forced them to think, if only for a moment, like an intellectual on the margins, filled with self-skepticism.

This is why other people are so helpful: They shock us out of our cognitive box. “I saw this happen all the time,” Dunbar says. “A scientist would be trying to describe their approach, and they’d be getting a little defensive, and then they’d get this quizzical look on their face. It was like they’d finally understood what was important.”

What turned out to be so important, of course, was the unexpected result, the experimental error that felt like a failure. The answer had been there all along — it was just obscured by the imperfect theory, rendered invisible by our small-minded brain. It’s not until we talk to a colleague or translate our idea into an analogy that we glimpse the meaning in our mistake.


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