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Role of chance in scientific discoveries

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Title: Role of chance in scientific discoveries  
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Subject: 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, Discovery (observation), Serendipity, History of science, Philosophy of science
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Role of chance in scientific discoveries

Scientists are not passive recipients of the unexpected; rather, they actively create the conditions for discovering the unexpected and have a robust mental toolkit that makes discovery possible.

– Kevin Dunbar and Jonathan Fugelsang[1]

The role of chance, or 'luck', in science comprises all ways in which unexpected discoveries are made. This is a topic studied in many domains, especially psychology. Kevin Dunbar and colleagues estimate that between 30% and 50% of all scientific discoveries are, in some sense, accidental (see examples below).[1]

Dunbar quotes Louis Pasteur's saying that "Chance favors only the prepared mind".[2] He suggests that observational rigor can be harnessed to make more discoveries, and also that various investigations into the scientific method itself (e.g. philosophical, historical, psychological, Thomas Kuhn's famous The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, and so on)[1][3][4][5] have all supported the idea that serendipity ("happy accidents") plays an important part.[1]

Research suggests that scientists are taught various heuristics and practices that allow their investigations to benefit from serendipity.[1][6] Researchers use the scientific method because the careful control conditions allow them to properly identify something as "unexpected", potentially leading them to new knowledge. Researchers also work across various disciplines to explain their curious findings: They use creative analogies, but also seek help from colleagues with different specialities.[1] Psychologist Alan A. Baumeister emphasizes that a scientist must also be "sagacious" (attentive and clever) to turn luck into serendipity.[7]

Preparing to make discoveries

A model based on the work of Kevin Dunbar and Jonathan Fugelsang who describe how scientific methods help identify when a finding is unexpected. This potentially leads to new knowledge.

Accidental discoveries have been a topic of discussion especially from the 20th century onwards. Kevin Dunbar and Jonathan Fugelsang say that somewhere between 33% and 50% of all scientific discoveries are unexpected. This helps explain why scientists often call their discoveries "lucky", and yet scientists themselves may not be able to detail exactly what role luck played (see also introspection illusion). Dunbar and Fugelsang believe it is because the scientists have prepared good experiments, but also have "prepared minds".[1]

Professor of economics Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls science "anti-fragile". That is, science can actually use — and benefit from — the chaos of the real world. While some methods of investigation are fragile in the face of human error and randomness, the scientific method benefits from such randomness in many ways. Taleb believes that the more anti-fragile the system, the more it will flourish in the real world.[8][8][9] According to M. K. Stoskopf, it is in this way that serendipity is often the "foundation for important intellectual leaps of understanding" in science.[10]

The word "Serendipity" is frequently understood as simply "a happy accident", but Horace Walpole used the word 'serendipity' to refer to a certain kind of happy accident: the kind that can only be exploited by a "sagacious" or clever person.[10][11]

Dunbar and Fugelsang suggest that the process of discovery often starts when a researcher finds bugs in their experiment. These unexpected results lead a researcher to try and fix what they think is an error in their methodology; they explain the error using local hypotheses (e.g. analogies typical of the discipline). This process is also local in the sense that the scientist is relatively independent or else working with one partner. Eventually, the researcher decides that the error is too persistent and systematic to be a coincidence. The methods then become more broad: The researcher will begin to think of theoretical explanations for the error, sometimes seeking the help of colleagues across different domains of expertise. The highly controlled, cautious, curious and even social aspects of the scientific method are thus what make it well suited for identifying persistent systematic errors (anomalies).[1][6]

Albert Hofmann, the Swiss chemist who discovered LSD's psychedelic properties when he tried ingesting it at his lab, wrote

Dunbar and colleagues cite the discoveries of Hofmann and others as having involved serendipity. In contrast, the mind can be "prepared" in ways that obstruct serendipity, such as if the thinker is adhering too strongly to expectations or to dogma. Psychologist Alan A. Baumeister describes at least one such instance: researcher Roy Heath failed to recognized evidence of "pleasure brain circuits" (in the septal nuclei). When Heath stimulated the brains of his schizophrenic patients, some of them reported feeling pleasure and Heath could have inquired further. Heath, however, was "prepared" (based on prior beliefs) for patients to report alertness – and when other patients did, it was on alertness that Heath focussed all his investigations.[7]

The brain

Fugelsang and Dunbar observe scientists while they work together in labs or analyze data, but they also use experimental settings, and even neuroimaging.[1] fMRI investigation found that unexpected findings were associated with particular brain activity. Unexpected findings were found to activate the prefrontal cortex as well as the left hemisphere in general. This suggests that unexpected findings provoke more attention, and the brain applies more linguistic, conscious systems to help explain those findings. This supports the idea that scientists are using particular abilities that exist to some extent in all humans.[1][13]

Absent sagacity, a chance observation of an important phenomenon will have no impact, and the observer may be denied historical attribution for the discovery.

Alfred A Baumeister [7]

On the other hand, Dunbar and Fugelsang say that an ingenious experimental design (and control conditions) may not be enough for the researcher to properly appreciate when a finding is "unexpected": serendipitous discoveries often requires certain mental conditions in the investigator. For example, a scientist must know all about what is expected before they can be surprised, and this takes experience in the field.[1] Besides experience, researchers can also benefit from a habit of "sagacity", which lends relevance to curious findings.[7]

Serendipitous discoveries

Royston Roberts says that various discoveries required a degree of genius, but also some lucky element for that genius to act on.[14] Richard Gaughan writes that accidental discoveries result from the convergence of preparation, opportunity, and desire.[15]

One example of luck in science is when drugs under investigation become known for different, unexpected uses. This was the case for minoxidil and sildenafil. The hallucinogenic effects of lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) were discovered by Albert Hofmann, who was originally working with the substance to try and treat migraines and bleeding after childbirth. Hofmann experienced mental distortions and suspected it may have been the effects of LSD. He decided to test this hypothesis on himself by taking what he thought was "an extremely small quantity": 250 micrograms. Today, users typically take about 20–30 micrograms,[16] and Hofmann's description of what he experienced as a result of taking so much LSD is regarded by Royston Roberts as "one of the most frightening accounts in recorded medical history".[14]

See also


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Dunbar, K., & Fugelsang, J. (2005). Causal thinking in science: How scientists and students interpret the unexpected. In M. E. Gorman, R. D. Tweney, D. Gooding & A. Kincannon (Eds.), Scientific and Technical Thinking (pp. 57–79). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
  2. ^ Oersted vit tout à coup (par hasard, direz-vous peut-être, mais souvenez-vous que, dans les champs de l'observation, le hasard ne favorise que les esprits préparés), il vit tout à coup l'aiguille se mouvoir et prendre une position très différente de celle que lui assigne le magnétisme terrestre.
  3. ^ Darden, L. (1997). Strategies for discovering mechanisms: Schema instantiation, modular subassembly, forward chaining/backtracking. Proceedings of the 1997 Biennial Meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association.
  4. ^ Thagard, P. (1999). How Scientists Explain Disease. Princeton, NJ; Princeton University Press.
  5. ^ Kulkarni, D., & Simon, H. (1988). The processes of scientific discovery: The strategy of experimentation. Cognitive Science, 12, 139–175.
  6. ^ a b Oliver, J.E. (1991) Ch2. of The incomplete guide to the art of discovery. New York:NY, Columbia University Press.
  7. ^ a b c d Baumeister, A.A. "Serendipity and the cerebral localization of pleasure". Department of Psychology, Louisiana State University. Retrieved 1 November 2010. 
  8. ^ a b Taleb contributes a brief description of anti-fragility,
  9. ^ Taleb, N. N. (2010). The Black Swan: Second Edition: The Impact of the Highly Improbable: With a new section: "On Robustness and Fragility". NY: Random House.
  10. ^ a b Stosskopf, M. K. "Observation and cogitation: how serendipity provides the building blocks of scientific discovery". American College of Zoological Medicine, Wildlife and Aquatic Medicine and Environmental and Molecular Toxicology. Retrieved 1 November 2010. 
  11. ^ Merton, Robert K.; Barber, Elinor (2004). The Travels and Adventures of Serendipity: A Study in Sociological Semantics and the Sociology of Science.   (Manuscript written 1958).
  12. ^ Maps Organization. (2001). "Stanislav Grof interviews Dr. Albert Hofmann, 1984". Esalen Institute. Big Sur. Volume 11. Number 2.
  13. ^ Gazzaniga, M. (2000). Cerebral specialization and interhemispheric communication: does the corpus callosum enable the human condition? Brain, 123, 1293–326.
  14. ^ a b Roberts, Royston M. (1989). Serendipity: Accidental Discoveries in Science. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. New York.
  15. ^ Gaughan, Richard (2010). Accidental Genius: The World's Greatest By-Chance Discoveries. Metro Books.  
  16. ^ Greiner T, Burch NR, Edelberg R (1958). "Psychopathology and psychophysiology of minimal LSD-25 dosage; a preliminary dosage-response spectrum". AMA Arch Neurol Psychiatry 79 (2): 208–10.  
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