An Illumination

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.

8 thoughts on “An Illumination

  1. Nice one.

    “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.”

  2. Scientists in the real world arent like that. Especially now that it turned into a government-and-corporate grantee, with grants running in the millions. The consequences of being wrong are tremendous: loss of grants, income, and reputation (which is what they give a scientist or scientific institution grants for). The scientist will push contrary evidence aside rather than deal with it, and when they can’t be ignored, try include the aberration into their theory as some sort of addendum such that the aberration turns out to prove the theory.

  3. thegreatest: that was sort of made of lol, wink wink.

    jeg: i know. it’s my “idealistic” side playing here. i think that in order to advance a product or discover something, scientists have to deal with contrary evidence; an abberation is something you simply cannot push aside. instead it is something that should be considered part of the theory; either it proves it or disproves it. richard feynman calls it “bending over backwards,” and all scientists should catch on to that either by learning, criticism, or osmosis.

  4. even if smoke has a point and the scientist was out of line, the point is she posted a private correspondence which could have been settled between the two of them.

  5. @momblogger:

    i do not condone or condemn the actions of smoke. this is an entry on the humble, bend-over backwards attitude required of a scientist. i write this as a reminder not only to the commenter or to smoke or to any other reader, but also to myself.

    this began with a criticism of the ilumina and pointing out flaws critical not only to the marketing of the product, but also to the product itself. there is nothing wrong with pointing out a flaw or an aberration to a discovery or a product of a technology; after all, that’s what science is.

    had the respondent, in this case, accepted the criticism as criticism – a very valid point was made against the iTV – and had the commenter not taken such condescending tone to the criticism (no matter how sharp it may be) the point remains that the science and the technology is the one on the chopping block. while i do agree that the concern you’re raising is an issue, that’s beyond the business of this entry.

    thanks!

  6. “Scientists should be humble to open themselves up to the possibility of being wrong without destroying their confidence for their science.”…. there really is no absolute and correct scientific law. nothing. all of us, regardless of profession, I guess, all of us realize in our little way that any new idea or ‘truth’ should be seen in the light of Time and Reference. This is not about relativity. Its very simple. Any idea is correct in its limited time. What we hold as ‘truth’ for today does not mean ‘truth’ in a thousand years or so. Not even physics as we know of. Reference applies to the people or person observing it. What we think as immoral on polygamy is not so in the other part of the globe, to put it in non-scientific analogy. Politics and lawyers share the same. We keep changing our laws to our concept of ‘truth’ in our own time and relative to our limited perception. The point is, it does not take a scientist to observe simple scientific method and the limits of ideas.

    These 2 breaks down the type of people in 2. The logical and the bigot. We will find most of our problems in societies because of the latter. If there is one classic difference betweent the two, it is that the bigot would simply reject outright hearing ideas other than his own. The logical ( for lack of definite word ) argues and argues and argues but in the end learns and admits the much better ‘truth’. Walang personalan, ika nga.

    The ‘criticisms’ on the iTV on blog smoke.ph were valid. all of it. the basic idea of an iTV pointed out by inovento as combining the broadcast tv and internet is not essentially what makes an iTV. the rest of the comments were rather dry but still roots to this failure to define the product identity with the concept technology.

    The private correspondence was not anymore a private correspondence when the ‘brian’ started with a bigot reply on the blog. ‘brian’s’ reply was not for the writer of smoke.ph but for all bloggers out there as a warning and threat. its really a dangerous and unproductive marketing strategy or stupidity. Anyhow, i deem it appropriate to chastise ‘brian’ in the same terms and right there in the blog. At least, ‘brian’ is given the chance to right a wrong.

    If ‘brian’ insists on his unproductive stand, then I think he fails in these:
    1. fails to identify the product with the technology ( to compete, they have to identify themselves with other consumer electronics and then define their market potential in terms of use, cost, versatility, adaption to other existing technologies, survival with other competing technologies ).
    2. fails to gather support from fellow filipino software/electronics/wireless specialists and scientists because of a closed mentality ( irony, is it not ).
    3. fails to gather support from bloggers who are potential users and can arguably advertise the product to a wide range of audience.

  7. rj:

    hmmm…

    when you say “there really is no absolute and correct scientific law,” you run the risk of falling into the trap of making knowledge completely referential, that everything is absolutely arbitrary and there’s no truth at all. that is hardly a “scientific” POV, coz that’s the whole point of science anyway. there will be differing viewpoints, and the lenses by which we see things will always change, but it doesn’t change the thing we’re looking at. the point of things then is to make things as clear as possible so that we can arrive at the best possible understanding of that thing we’re looking at.

    there is no “better truth” as much as there is Truth: the point is that people need to bend over backwards to get to that. think plato’s “allegory of the cave.” for that, we have to learn and to debate. since ideas are tested in the crucible of debate, it is necessary to have the following:

    1. the pride to point out that you’re right.
    2. the humility to admit that you’re wrong.

    now i’m not saying that the criticisms are completely valid; i am not an expert on the iTV. in some ways, the spirit of the iTV must be lauded, but again… well, points 1 and 2.

    from my point of view, at least, smoke would – and should – have done it more tactfully and phrased the criticisms in a more respectful manner. that as much as i can say from an editorial standpoint, but where “i can write about whatever i want when i want the way i want it” applies, editorial chuvachenes like that is free, optional advice.

    as far as privacy goes, i don’t think that this goes to “all bloggers.” i think it’s unfair and hotheaded to say that whatever happens to smoke can happen to anyone, but it is fair and level-headed to say that the strategy of boorish overconfidence can backfire on anyone anyway.

    to reiterate: when testing ideas in the crucible of debate, you need:

    1. the pride to point out that you’re right.
    2. the humility to admit that you’re wrong.

    then again that’s just me. here in the marocharim experiment, at least, the norm is that when you’re confronted with a problem, you screw things up and put things back together, hoping the damn thing works.

    cheers and thanks!

  8. yo, noemi:

    in case you didn’t notice, I put up a post on my blog giving notice to all the world – and brian quebengco – included that I was giving him the benefit of the doubt.

    when I posted my initiatory e-mail to him, that act eliminated all reasonable expectation that the ensuing exchange – if any ever did ensue – would be considered private.

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