Interpreting facts as failure: the neuroscience of science

Paul Raven @ 22-01-2010

There’s a fascinating essay at Wired UK about a guy called Kevin Dunbar, who studies the science of science. The philosophy and theory of science – the seven-step method you had drilled into you at school, for instance – is very elegant, but it doesn’t reflect the way that real science gets done, and it doesn’t take into account our innate propensity to misinterpret anomalous results, so Dunbar went out and researched the way real researchers research. The results are an interesting mix of the obvious and the counterintuitive:

The reason we’re so resistant to anomalous information — the real reason researchers automatically assume that every unexpected result is a stupid mistake — is rooted in the way the human brain works. Over the past few decades, psychologists have dismantled the myth of objectivity. The fact is, we edit our reality, searching for evidence that confirms what we already believe. Although we pretend we’re empiricists — our views dictated by nothing but the facts — we’re actually blinkered when it comes to information that contradicts our theories. The problem with science, then, isn’t that most experiments fail — it’s that most failures are ignored.

Well worth a read, especially in light of the aspersions cast on science by the climate change debate. Individual scientists may make mistakes, but science as a system – as a communal project, as an evolving body of knowledge – turns those failures into new theories. [image by Horia Varlan]

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