Accept defeat
December 22, 2009 11:28 AM   Subscribe

The Neuroscience of Screwing Up by Jonah Lehrer
The fact is, we carefully 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, especially 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.
From WIRED's FAIL issue. Also from that issue: The Fall and Rise of Alec Baldwin, How Success Killed Duke Nukem, and Oracle's Lost Revolution.
posted by AceRock (16 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
Gary Larson instructs us in this phenomenon.
posted by Slap*Happy at 11:37 AM on December 22, 2009

Doesn't this make two posts from the same Wired issue in one day? The Duke Nukem story is is a post just down the page.
posted by George_Spiggott at 11:48 AM on December 22, 2009

I need a poster-size blowup of that venn diagram on the first page...
posted by ArgentCorvid at 11:57 AM on December 22, 2009

I always found the Penzias and Wilson story secretly hilarious. Two geeks don't understand why their radiotelescope is picking up static so they lurch from explanation to explanation. Electromagnetic interference from car ignitions? No. Atomic bomb tests? No. Pigeon droppings? No. The crackling cosmic background radiation of OUR UNIVERSE BEING BORN!! Why yes.
posted by jonp72 at 11:59 AM on December 22, 2009

The author of this article's misunderstanding of Kuhn is pretty bad. Both times he mentions Kuhn's ideas he cuts the paraphrase short so that he can present Dunbar's experiments as a critique of the idea, when in both cases, Dunbar is merely replicating Kuhn's actual position.
posted by Pseudoephedrine at 12:03 PM on December 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

I think this is a pretty great idea. But in the context of Wired Magazine and Silicon Valley start-ups, isn't the ultimate purpose to explain to VCs why they should still give you a giant sack of money even though no-one wanted to use your shiny tech toy?
posted by AlsoMike at 12:18 PM on December 22, 2009

Failing is also a difficult piece for the solo bass by Tom Johnson, where a successful performance of the piece must end up being a complete failure.
posted by NemesisVex at 12:22 PM on December 22, 2009 [2 favorites]

David Foster Wallace disliked the word fail.
posted by infinite intimation at 12:49 PM on December 22, 2009 [2 favorites]

The reason scientists assume that they have screwed something up when running into anomalous results is because, being human, it is far, far more likely that human error or something unexpected has hosed something up rather than some new novel thing being found.

Sure, sometimes you're stumbling onto cosmic background radiation, but 99%+ of the time, you've just managed to get your fingerprints on the sensor or hooked things up wrong.

If a significant "failed" or "unexpected" experiments could meaningfully tell us more about the universe, it would be really cool. But reality doesn't work that way.
posted by Zalzidrax at 1:22 PM on December 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

It seems like the author's central point is belied by his illustrative story. The scientists did not edit reality and kept trying to understand their result, eventually making a historic discovery. This is what good scientists do. Our human tendency to edit reality and make it conform to our existing beliefs is exactly why we have the scientific method: to get around those tendencies and discover new truths. It is a difficult and demanding task and one we often "fail" at. But when we succeed, boy howdy. Cars, air travel, chemistry, computers, lunar landers, cell phones, large hadron colliders, antibiotics, cancer chemotherapy, heart surgery, in vitro fertilization, DNA, genomics, evolution, plate tectonics, Newtonian mechanics, special and general relativity, etc., etc., etc.
posted by Mental Wimp at 1:34 PM on December 22, 2009

(As Richard Feynman famously quipped, “Philosophy of science is about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds.”)

Heh. I think a lot of people misunderstand that. Look at the recent "climategate" thing. A lot of people are saying "they aren't being dispassionate scientists!" Well duh, who says scientists can't be passionate? Sometimes they're passionately wrong too, and sometimes they're passionately right. But the idea is, you can replicate their experiments and see for yourself.
posted by delmoi at 1:37 PM on December 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

And we had the Thorium article yesterday from Wired. Is Metafilter now a Wired article blog?
posted by CarlRossi at 2:18 PM on December 22, 2009

And we had the Thorium article yesterday from Wired. Is Metafilter now a Wired article blog?

Yes. Yes it is. And next week we get pulled into the Gawker Media umbrella, so here's to the new layout with those little boxes at the top!
posted by davejay at 2:55 PM on December 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

This was excellent. Thanks for posting it.
posted by 517 at 7:42 PM on December 22, 2009

Good article. It raises other questions though, is there a connection between the ACC "Oh, Shit!" moment and the "eureka!" moment? Is the pre-frontal cortex correcting also for visual misrepresentation? Is the ACC connected to a pleasure response? It would seem to me some people cultivate and enjoy being on the margins and living for those "oh, Shit! Eureka!" Moments. Also we see the world upside down and the mind corrects for that as well. Also why do some people not want to get too deep into certain fields, might it have something to do with an intuitive sense that even as we go deeper into something, we're also giving up or losing something? A perspective or a connection to the ACC moment?

I guess the important thing is to go deep and then forget everything you learned and try to make it second nature or learned so that you can keep your perspective, your conscious perspective clear.

Also, the article explains nicely I think, how you don't really understand something as fully as when you need to explain it or teach it to someone else.

Anyhow, I gotta go clean some pigeon poop, now.
posted by Skygazer at 11:17 PM on December 22, 2009

Is Metafilter now a Wired article blog?

It is when Wired posts interesting articles. If you don't find these articles interesting you could always skip this thread. It's allowed.
posted by srboisvert at 6:25 AM on December 23, 2009

« Older Mobile phones, medals, a doll's legs, an entire...   |   The Angel of Marye's Heights (or not) Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments