Choosing to be productively stupid

Finally had a chance to read a very interesting essay in the Journal of Cell Science titled "The Importance of Stupidity in Scientific Research." In the wondrous ways of the web, this little gem from 2008 found its way into my life by way of a blog post by Matthew Cornell in January of this year. Here’s the key notion, but the whole thing is worth the time to read and to consider:

Productive stupidity means being ignorant by choice. Focusing on important questions puts us in the awkward position of being ignorant. One of the beautiful things about science is that it allows us to bumble along, getting it wrong time after time, and feel perfectly fine as long as we learn something each time. No doubt, this can be difficult for students who are accustomed to getting the answers right. No doubt, reasonable levels of confidence and emotional resilience help, but I think scientific education might do more to ease what is a very big transition: from learning what other people once discovered to making your own discoveries. The more comfortable we become with being stupid, the deeper we will wade into the unknown and the more likely we are to make big discoveries.

From The importance of stupidity in scientific research

This willingness to move forward without knowing has made for much of the progress we’ve seen and benefitted from in the science and technology real. I wish I saw more of that same willingness manifest in business, education, and elsewhere. Maybe we’d learn to be more comfortable listening to people with provocative and productive questions and less willing to pay attention to people peddling the illusion of right answers.

How will the Internet change how we think?

By way of my friend and colleague Espen Andersen. I’ve found that I’ve already used this story in several conversations and that I find myself mulling it over regularly in recent days. 

image The Edge question this year is "How has the Internet changed the way you think?". The result is eminently readable – my favorite so far is George Dyson’s answer, which is quoted here in its entirety:

GEORGE DYSON
Science Historian; Author, Darwin Among the Machines

KAYAKS vs CANOES

In the North Pacific ocean, there were two approaches to boatbuilding. The Aleuts (and their kayak-building relatives) lived on barren, treeless islands and built their vessels by piecing together skeletal frameworks from fragments of beach-combed wood. The Tlingit (and their dugout canoe-building relatives) built their vessels by selecting entire trees out of the rainforest and removing wood until there was nothing left but a canoe.

The Aleut and the Tlingit achieved similar results maximum boat / minimum material by opposite means. The flood of information unleashed by the Internet has produced a similar cultural split. We used to be kayak builders, collecting all available fragments of information to assemble the framework that kept us afloat. Now, we have to learn to become dugout-canoe builders, discarding unnecessary information to reveal the shape of knowledge hidden within.

I was a hardened kayak builder, trained to collect every available stick. I resent having to learn the new skills. But those who don’t will be left paddling logs, not canoes.

Short and sweet, in other words. Now, where did I leave that informational adze, what P. J. O’Rourke referred to as the "brief-but-insightful-summary" button?

How will the Internet change how we think?
Espen
Fri, 06 Aug 2010 13:47:02 GMT

Alan Kay on innovation and risk

Here’s a pointer to an excellent interview with Alan Kay. As always, Alan shares some deep insights about technology innovation and the willingness to take on risk (he’s not confident in the ability of most organizations to tolerate risk no matter how small the level of funding involved).

Anyone with an interest in the continuing role and development of Smalltalk has had lots to chew on over the past few days.

As part of a series of investigations into the most widely-used programming languages, Computerworld Australia has published a conversation with Alan Kay about his role in the development of the foundation of much of modern programming today: Smalltalk-80 , Object-Oriented Programming, and modern software development.

The Weekly Squeak: Smalltalk: the past, the present, and the future?
Michael Davies
Thu, 15 Jul 2010 10:00:45 GMT

Here’s a sample of Alan’s thinking :

What are the hurdles to those leaps in personal computing technology and concepts? Are companies attempting to redefine existing concepts or are they simply innovating too slowly?

It s largely about the enormous difference between News and New to human minds. Marketing people really want News (= a little difference to perk up attention, but on something completely understandable and incremental). This allows News to be told in a minute or two, yet is interesting to humans. New means invisible not immediately comprehensible , etc.

So New is often rejected outright, or is accepted only by denaturing it into News . For example, the big deal about computers is their programmability, and the big deal about that is meta .

For the public, the News made out of the first is to simply simulate old media they are already familiar with and make it a little more convenient on some dimensions and often making it less convenient in ones they don t care about (such as the poorer readability of text on a screen, especially for good readers).

For most computer people, the News that has been made out of New eliminates most meta from the way they go about designing and programming.

One way to look at this is that we are genetically much better set up to cope than to learn. So familiar-plus-pain is acceptable to most people.

[ComputerWorld Australia]

Alan can occasionally be a bit cryptic, but that’s because he assumes that you will do your share of the thinking when you listen to what he has to say.

Enhanced by Zemanta

Tech Support Cheat Sheet

 'Hey Megan, it's your father. How do I print out a flowchart?'

Tech Support Cheat Sheet
Mon, 24 Aug 2009 04:00:00 GMT

 

There’s a striking amount of wisdom and good advice packed into this flowchart. It’s not about the body of knowledge stored away in your head. It’s about a robust strategy for generating and testing ideas that are likely to be productive.

What puzzles me is why individuals choose not to employ such a simple strategy.

Curiosity and knowing

It’s no secret that I’m a fan of curiosity. Wanting to know how things work or what’s around the next corner is fundamental to being human. I’ve come across two video clips that illustrate the power of this far better than I can.

The first is a clip by the late Nobel prize winning physicist Richard Feynman. In it he talks about his drive to figure out how nature works and the need to comfortable with not knowing. He believes in the process that has been given the fancy name of "the scientific method" despite its underlying simplicity. Make a guess, work out the consequences of your guess, run an experiment to compare your guess to reality, accept what reality tells you, and revise your guess for the next iteration. It’s very powerful, once you learn how to say "I don’t know, let’s find out."

 

 

The second clip comes from TED and shows Princeton molecular biologist, Bonnie Bassler describing her quest to understand how bacteria communicate. It’s a riveting look at how one person’s simple curiosity works in practice. Who knows, maybe she’ll get to go to Sweden some day.

 

Asimov on evidence

I found this wonderful piece from the late Isaac Asimov in Dan Ariely’s excellent Predictably Irrational blog.

Here is what Asimov had to say about believing in data…

"Don’t you believe in flying saucers, they ask me? Don’t you believe in telepathy? – in ancient astronauts? – in the Bermuda triangle? – in life after death?

No, I reply. No, no, no, no, and again no.

One person recently, goaded into desperation by the litany of unrelieved negation, burst out "Don’t you believe in anything?"

"Yes," I said. "I believe in evidence. I believe in observation, measurement, and reasoning, confirmed by independent observers. I’ll believe anything, no matter how wild and ridiculous, if there is evidence for it. The wilder and more ridiculous something is, however, the firmer and more solid the evidence will have to be."

Isaac Asimov, The Roving Mind (1997), 43

Asimov on evidence

The trouble is how easily our desire to believe can overwhelm the evidence.

Competent thinking about big numbers

 

And 0.002 dollars will NEVER equal 0.002 cents.

1000 Times
Fri, 20 Mar 2009 04:00:00 GMT

We live in complicated times. We’re all trying to make sense of what is going on. That sense making isn’t made any easier by lazy writing and thinking. Actually, I don’t think this is a matter of deliberate efforts to mislead so much as it represents a continuing laziness when it comes to dealing with numbers, particularly big ones.

Two good places to start if you want to improve your own ability to make sense out of the numbers getting thrown around are Guesstimation: Solving the World’s Problems on the Back of a Cocktail Napkin and Filters Against Folly : How to Survive Despite Economists, Ecologists, and the Merely Eloquent.

Work and creativity – Elizabeth Gilbert on nurturing creativity at TED conference

Eat, Pray, Love is not the sort of book that I’m likely to pick up despite its tremendous success. Nevertheless, this TED talk by Elizabeth Gilbert, its author, is an excellent rumination and reflection on choosing the most effective emotional relationship between creativity and work. In a nutshell, the Greeks had it right in their notion of the Muses.

Elizabeth Gilbert on nurturing creativity | Video on TED.com

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

Grounded advice on making better use of your brain

Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School, Medina, John

John Medina is a molecular biologist bent on sharing how what we know about the brain can help us be more effective in the world at large. His central argument is that there are simple, but very important, lessons to be drawn from what science has learned in recent years about how the brain operates. Many of these lessons run counter to the practices and conventions that hold sway in our schools and organizations.

You can be pretty sure that I

Another great TED talk to watch – Jill Bolte Taylor’s Stroke of Insight

What a great way to start off a St. Patrick’s Day. This is certainly worth 20 minutes of your life. As someone inclined to spend entirely too much of my time inside the left-hemisphere of my brain, I found this especially affecting.  

Stroke of insight: Jill Bolte Taylor on TED.com

Neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor had an opportunity few brain scientists would wish for: One morning, she realized she was having a massive stroke. As it happened — as she felt her brain functions slip away one by one, speech, movement, understanding — she studied and remembered every moment. This is a powerful story of recovery and awareness — of how our brains define us and connect us to the world and to one another. (Recorded February 2008 in Monterey, California. Duration: 18:44.)

Watch Jill Bolte Taylor’s talk on TED.com, where you can download it, rate it, comment on it and find other talks and performances.

Read more about Jill Bolte Taylor on TED.com.

NEW: Read the transcript >>