January 21, 2012


Accept Defeat: The Neuroscience of Screwing Up

Dunbar brought tape recorders into meeting rooms and loitered in the hallway; he read grant proposals and the rough drafts of papers; he peeked at notebooks, attended lab meetings, and videotaped interview after interview. He spent four years analyzing the data. 

…Dunbar came away from his in vivo studies with an unsettling insight: Science is a deeply frustrating pursuit. …“The scientists had these elaborate theories about what was supposed to happen,” Dunbar says. “But the results kept contradicting their theories. It wasn’t uncommon for someone to spend a month on a project and then just discard all their data because the data didn’t make sense.”  …The details always changed, but the story remained the same: The scientists were looking for X, but they found Y.

Dunbar was fascinated by these statistics. The scientific process, after all, is supposed to be an orderly pursuit of the truth, full of elegant hypotheses and control variables. …However, when experiments were observed up close — and Dunbar interviewed the scientists about even the most trifling details — this idealized version of the lab fell apart, replaced by an endless supply of disappointing surprises. There were models that didn’t work and data that couldn’t be replicated and simple studies riddled with anomalies. “These weren’t sloppy people,” Dunbar says. “They were working in some of the finest labs in the world. But experiments rarely tell us what we think they’re going to tell us. That’s the dirty secret of science.”

http://www.wired.com/magazine/2009/12/fail_accept_defeat/

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