5 <strong>Topic V. Scientific Optimism: The Gas Pedal of…
Topic V. Scientific Optimism: The Gas Pedal of Scientific Progress
- Without scientific optimism, the idea that science is necessarily iterative and if we as scientists keep looking we will eventually gain insights, scientists would have discovered far less than they have.
- “Scientific optimism” is a rarely-discussed feature of the culture of science, a kind of psychological trick/technique to keep focused on a problem much longer than the usual attention span. Scientists adopt a can-do attitude, and convince themselves that the problem is solvable. This is an antidote and a contrast to almost all of the other skeptical, self-doubting aspects of scientific culture. With this “scientific optimism,” scientists can successfully take on problems that take years or even decades to solve, with hundreds of steps and iterations involved in developing techniques, inventing technologies, collecting and analyzing data.
- There is a history of problems becoming solvable once the news goes round that another group somewhere in the world has solved it. Belief that a problem is solvable makes it worth sticking to it long enough to solve it. Scientific optimism can be seen as an intentional self-delusion that a problem is solvable. (In the end, of course, this scientific optimism must be weighed against the cost of working on a problem that turns out not to be solvable given our current capabilities/knowledge, but nevertheless it has proven useful in overcoming the human tendency to give up too soon.)
- One consequence of scientific optimism is that one approaches group problem-solving with an eye to enlarging the pie of resources, rather than fighting over scraps in a game assumed to be zero-sum.
- Addressing the Question: Why is Science Effective?
- Scientific Optimism & Creativity
- Exemplary Quotes
- “I think we’re getting frustrated too quickly, and giving up too easily on each possible approach. Imagine that we had just heard that the other team had gotten this to work—we would be wracking our brains for weeks trying to figure out how they did it, not just the hour-and-a-half we just tried. This is a really hard problem, and we have to expect that it’s going to take a while to get some approaches to solving it.”
- “I know she seems a little overly optimistic, but when I talked to her over lunch I realized that she is just trying to develop a “can-do” spirit so that we will all have the chance to try to solve the problem.”
- “We’re capable, we know all the people we need to figure this out, and we’ve solved comparably difficult problems before... so one way or the other we’re going to find out how to make this work.”
- Cautionary Quotes: Mistakes, Misconceptions, & Misunderstandings
- “Many people have tried to solve this problem of increasing illiteracy and failed, so we shouldn’t throw more good money after bad — some problems are just intractable.”
- "Scientists have been trying to figure out what dark matter is for decades, and we still basically have no idea. We'll probably never know, so it's not worth working on."
- A. ATTITUDES
- Appreciate how the “can-do” spirit of inquiry (and inventive experimental techniques) counter-balances the difficulties of discovery/innovation.
- Appreciate that iterative work on a problem is the norm in science and the most productive approach (and in some cases the only way of being productive), even when it looks like it’s not getting anywhere.
- Persist on difficult problems (scientific and non-scientific) due to optimism that iterative work will eventually pay off with interesting insights into the problem.
- Recognise that an optimistic view of the tractability of a problem and/or one’s ability to solve it eventually can in itself affect one’s capacity to solve the problem.
- B. CONCEPT ACQUISITION
- Scientific Optimism: An attitude of optimism that persistence and iteration on a difficult scientific problem will eventually pay off with interesting insights into your problem.
- Skeptical/Gatekeeping Function: Science is in the business of rigorously testing claims against experience, rather than merely accepting them.
- Discovery/Innovation Function: Science is in the business of generating new theories for how to explain the world. This is both difficult (requires resources, uncertain success) and important (need to make decisions, wouldn’t have anything to “gatekeep” if new scientific ideas weren’t being generated).
- Omnivorous Science: Constantly learning new techniques, exposure to a variety of hypotheses & theories, interdisciplinary discussion, etc. Important to progress because there are payoffs for learning novel experimental/technological/theoretical techniques and questions/problems from many domains of science, even beyond the one that one starts from.
- Zero Sum Games vs. Enlarging the Pie: A can-do spirit goes along with optimism that problems can be solved by enlarging the pie, not just redistributing zero-sum goods.
- C. CONCEPT APPLICATION
- Explain the interplay and importance of the skeptical/gatekeeping aspect of science versus discovery/innovation. .C
- Explain how “Omnivorous science” can be important to progress.
- Critique impatience with the gradual nature of scientific progress by appealing to science’s iterative nature.
- Critique cases of policy failures due to lack of an appropriately iterative/persistent approach to the problem.
- Generate examples of iterative processes for solving non-scientific problems.
- Suggested Readings & Reading Questions
- Clicker Questions
- What is the second-longest that you have ever spent trying to solve a problem/puzzle?
- Discussion Questions
- What are the potential costs of insufficient scientific optimism?
- What are the potential costs of excessive scientific optimism?
- Consider how science works to gradually advance our understanding of the world. Describe how one feature of the scientific process could be usefully applied to policy-making (e.g. scientific optimism, peer review, etc.). Make sure to explain how your suggestions could improve policy-making processes. or
- Class Exercises
- Spinning cylinders: A challenging puzzle (involving spinning a piece of plastic tubing, with markings on it) is presented to the students. The experimental conditions end up giving experiential demonstration of the usefulness of scientific optimism.