December 2009 Archives

http://www.wired.com/magazine/2009/12/fail_accept_defeat/all/1

(Yes, the first post in a while: sorry, but the mid-semester gets too busy to post much stuff...)

This WIRED article should appeal not just to scientists but to anyone interested in problem-solving. It outlines the method that real people use to challenge hypotheses and interpret data, which depends in large part on being able to pay attention to the right things. Since we are hard-wired cognitively to ignore information that does not correspond with our view of the world (since not to ignore it would be to live in a perpetual state of bewilderment), we have to find mechanisms of overcoming our own prejudices about what we observe. Meditation practices are obviously one way to get in touch with our own narratives we impose on the world, but there are other ways that tap into our discourse communities a bit more quickly. The article here shows that having conversations with differently-informed people can show us what parts of the data we are ignoring and how we might interpret it differently. This is the basic method modern scientists use to come to new understandings and insights.

This is not coincidentally the same rough argument forwarded by William Paulson in his terrific book The Noise of Culture: Literary Texts in a World Transformed (1988), which discusses literature as always pressing at the margins of cultural activity if it is truly to be considered "literature," and such pressing is what shakes up and moves culture in new directions. It is also the same argument that the late great sociologist Niklas Luhmann put forth in his many works on social systems: all social systems survive solely as the result of difference, not similarity. Without difference, a system will surely die. The WIRED piece shows that differences are essential not just in scientific observations per se but in their interpretation, and that social systems make that process of interpretation more effective, not less (as is usually believed, vide the common perception of meetings as essentially wasted time).

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