Sunday, June 23, 2013

Scientific culture: the hotter the fire, the stronger the steel

A page from my copy of an article I read in 1991. 

Scientific cultures can be difficult to define, but they separate the successful from the rest.

One aspect of successful scientific cultures is the way ideas are treated.

Anyone can get a paper published if they submit it to enough journals. Peer-review generally catches only the grossest of flaws. But crafting high-quality ideas takes intense scrutiny. Ideas have to be worked over again and again. Heated and pounded. Heated and pounded.

Scientifically, what is this cultural aspect like?

I remember back in 1991 reading a Scientific American article about Rene Jules Dubos. It was a brilliantly multi-faceted look a man's career. One part that stuck out was how ideas were treated:

"After a workday dedicated to experiments, colleagues would gather in Dubos's office...There, with feet on his desk and hands folded behind his head or pulling wisps of hair, Dubos would speculate on what the day's results suggested...Dubos's critiques caused much anguish among junior scientists --it was character building to see one's construction tumbled into a pile of bricks and then reassembled by Dubos into an architectonic masterpiece...Dubos's comments sharpened his associates' minds and influenced their careers...his penetrating insights and memorable presentations served to concentrate their attention on basic dilemmas..."

That short vignette characterizes the daily dedication to generating the heat of discussion. Ideas that emerge from those environments are strong. 

Operationally, how does one systematically incorporate this into a culture.

First, always ask others what they think.

Peter King, columnist for Sports Illustrated, once wrote that Bill Belichick, coach of the Patriots, was well-known for asking people their opinion of what he should do. Even reporters. Why would one of the greatest coaches care what average people thought about plays or drafts? The idea was that you never know where good ideas come from. 

Apply the Belichick principle again and again. At Berkeley, students were supposed to present at the lunchtime seminar 3 times in their career: when ideas were being formed, in the middle of the work, and then when it was being written up. Input is critical at all stages. And soliciting input is an active step.

Second, develop mechanisms to constantly review ideas. One person asking others is not enough. People must willingly come together to build discussions. Build weekly seminars where incipient ideas can be tried out. Make the talks short and the discussion long. Not 55 minutes of presentation and 5 minutes of questions. 30-30. If you can't generate a half-hour of discussion from 30 minutes of presentation, something is wrong.

Even weekly is not enough. Find new data, new ideas every day to discuss. 

During these times, balance the anabolic and the catabolic. Dubos and his group would tear down and then build up and then tear down again. Of the day's discussions, it was said that "any exciting lead formed the base of an inverted pyramid of heady speculation, which often as not collapse the next day".

I've seen smart, able researchers fail because of a poor culture. The failure might not be recognizable to the outside, but often when you read the final work, often the conclusions can quickly be dispatched. Data are acquired well, but the fire was never hot enough to form strong hypotheses or make the best conclusions. 

And it's hard for any one person to generate enough heat by themselves. People have to come together to do this.

Proverbs: As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another. 

Hot fires creating strong steel is not a new idea. 

The problem is heat can blister. Blades are found initially to be dull, weak.

But those institutions that can develop this aspect of scientific culture--those that can lean back, put their feet on the desk, and practice building up ideas and then tearing them down--produce the strongest, sharpest steely ideas.

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