Intellectual Diversity and Fruitful Discussion
Jonah Lehrer is a really smart guy (as you can see by checking his website), though I think I've mentioned him in just a single blog entry prior to this one. I bring him up now because I'm using an article of his in my Academic English course. Not that I chose the article. The one responsible for that was a colleague who also has an M.A. in the history of science, which means that we have interests in common, so we both liked Lehrer's article "Accept Defeat: The Neuroscience of Screwing Up" for Wired Magazine (December 21, 2009). I especially appreciated his description of the sort of discussion that goes on in lab meetings, a process studied by Kevin Dunbar, "a researcher who studies how scientists study things -- how they fail and succeed":
While the scientific process is typically seen as a lonely pursuit -- researchers solve problems by themselves -- 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. The new theory was a product of spontaneous conversation, not solitude; a single bracing query was enough to turn scientists into temporary outsiders, able to look anew at their own work.What I glean from this is that not only are problems better solved through discussion, they are best solved through discussion among individuals with different strengths who are free to challenge each other, and are free to do so even at the expense of harmony, indeed especially at the expense of harmony. The importance of this sort of discussion has significant implications for education, especially in Korea, where the educational system still aims at producing identical students intent on getting the top mark on a single exam that determines one's educational future.
But not every lab meeting was equally effective. Dunbar tells the story of two labs that both ran into the same experimental problem: The proteins they were trying to measure were sticking to a filter, making it impossible to analyze the data. "One of the labs was full of people from different backgrounds," Dunbar says. "They had biochemists and molecular biologists and geneticists and students in medical school." The other lab, in contrast, was made up of E. coli experts. "They knew more about E. coli than anyone else, but that was what they knew," he says. Dunbar watched how each of these labs dealt with their protein problem. The E. coli group took a brute-force approach, spending several weeks methodically testing various fixes. "It was extremely inefficient," Dunbar says. "They eventually solved it, but they wasted a lot of valuable time."
The diverse lab, in contrast, mulled the problem at a group meeting. None of the scientists were protein experts, so they began a wide-ranging discussion of possible solutions. At first, the conversation seemed rather useless. But then, as the chemists traded ideas with the biologists and the biologists bounced ideas off the med students, potential answers began to emerge. "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, unlike the E. coli group, the second 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."
Well, not entirely, and Korea is changing, but one doesn't often encounter open discussion, not a diversity of views. I'm interested to see what my students think about this article . . . if I can just get them to discuss it.