Under normal conditions, the research scientist is not an innovator but a solver of puzzles, and the puzzles upon which he concentrates are just those which he believes can be both stated and solved within the existing scientific tradition.
– Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions
It’s not as much Copernicus disproving Ptolemy’s model, or Einstein propounding the theory of relativity, but scientific revolutions are made of simpler stuff than just grand theories and impressive ideas.
Like writing, the advancement of science and technology requires humility. Science is sold every day, whether it’s a new invention or a new innovation. Those who do science and technology – and those who sell it – are wise enough to take a step back from the project, and to realize how every part of it fits in with the other. The assembly of facts, whether mental or material, is shifting and moving. Facts can be disputed, and technology is always tested. Even cold, hard scientific facts – or marketing facts, for that matter – are tested in reality.
In science, the equivalent of a writer’s revision in a work is called a paradigm shift. Indeed, that’s a very cool phrase to use. It speaks to something dreamlike and revolutionary. Enamored as we are with “paradigm shifts,” it is all too often not the discovery of something new or innovative that causes it, but that something in the existing paradigm is inadequate or proven wrong. That humility, to me at least, is the hallmark of a true scientist: the willingness to subject a scientific idea or a product of technology to the rigors of criticism.
Scientists should be humble to open themselves up to the possibility of being wrong without destroying their confidence for their science. Scientific facts and products of technology do not always start out right: the errors are fixed, the criticisms are addressed, the problems are resolved. What’s wrong from the beginning becomes right at the end. That’s why science is the journey itself, not a stopover.
Scientists have to be open to criticism. Every now and then, scientists need to revise their science. Science is about constant proof, to affirm that the facts that they are stand as the facts as they are. We constantly hypothesize, test, and conclude whenever we do science, and explore the possibilities brought about by that science.
When the results of the experiment are proven wrong, the experiment is re-evaluated. The experiment is performed again. The scientist bends over backwards not just to be proven right, but also to prove the facts to stand the test of discovery, exploration, and the rigors of scientific inquiry. It’s not just the confidence in the results of science, but the willingness to subject those results to scrutiny and criticism, and learning and applying those lessons.
That, I think, is what makes a scientist stand out. In the end, the qualities that make a scientist stand out will affect the product. Humility and openness will result in a superior product. Before that product hits the shelves, it has to be tested, underwritten, proven, and affirmed in the same way as the science that made it happen.
Like a revision of a story, scientific “revision” requires humility. If you’re humble enough to accept criticisms, to apply lessons from criticisms, and to stand by your work where your confidence demands it, is the hallmark of science and is the key to commercial success. Before wearing your laurels, you must first make sure that your head sees things the way they stand, and not moving in revolutions up high in the clouds.
Only then will the scientist see the illumination that leads to enlightenment.
Written after reading the exchange at Smoke.ph.