Tuesday, October 16, 2007

The Accident of Discovery

From the pages of Forbes, another reminder that discoveries can't be reliably planned. If they could, they wouldn't be discoveries, they would be proofs.

The act of discovery is more like an accident than a plan. It is that moment when someone stumbles across a remarkable truth other than the one he was looking for.

An excerpt:

"Things, it turns out, are all too often discovered by accident--but we don't see that when we look at history in our rear-view mirrors. The technologies that run the world today (like the Internet, the computer and the laser) are not used in the way intended by those who invented them. Even academics are starting to realize that a considerable component of medical discovery comes from the fringes, where people find what they are not exactly looking for.

It is not just that hypertension drugs led to Viagra or that angiogenesis drugs led to the treatment of macular degeneration, but that even discoveries we claim come from research are themselves highly accidental. They are the result of undirected tinkering narrated after the fact, when it is dressed up as controlled research. The high rate of failure in scientific research should be sufficient to convince us of the lack of effectiveness in its design."

Conclusion: if you want a steady stream of innovation and discovery, encourage a lot of random tinkering. This is true not only for scientific research, it's true in all areas of human endeavor. A strictly enforced orthodoxy is the enemy of anything new.

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