FIELD NOTES :: EVOLUTIONARY NEUROBIOLOGIST MARK CHANGIZI :: The Colossal Pile of Jibberish Behind Discovery
Mark Changizi is an evolutionary neurobiologist and director of human cognition at 2AI Labs. He is the author of The Brain from 25000 Feet, The Vision Revolution, and his newest book, Harnessed: How Language and Music Mimicked Nature and Transformed Ape to Man. He gave Exit Strata permission to post this piece on the sometimes arduous, often messy, process of discovery which originally appeared on, appropriately, the Discover Magazine Blog in late 2012- giving us a rare view inside not only this process but its physical, hand-wrought origins, in a year and a half of notebook scans.
There are few things more romantic than being a discoverer, whether it be Captain James Cook’s Sandwich Isles or Alvin Roth’s and Lloyd Shapley’s recent-Nobel-winning work on stable allocations. And the excitement exists even among us regular-folk scientists—our discoveries may not be of the magnitude of Sir Alexander Fleming’s penicillin or Einstein’s special relativity, but we bask away unheeded. “Dear world, here is my beautiful solution to the puzzle.” Not only is the solution typically beautiful—that’s often what makes a good discovery “good”—but it is packaged into elegantly-written journal articles or glossy books. On the basis of the splendor of our discoveries, laymen might wonder whether our minds are beautiful as well.
Far be it from me to debunk the mythical, magician-like qualities sometimes attributed to us scientists, but the dirtiest little secret in science is that our science minds are just as dirty and unbeautiful as everyone else’s… and this has important implications, both for aspiring students and for how science is funded. I’ll get to these later.
Now, it’s not that the entire scientific process behind discovery is ugly. Much of it is elegant. Good experimental design, valid statistics, analyses of hypotheses—there are sound principles guiding us, the same ones we teach our students.
But where we see the everyday-ness of our science minds is in the discovery process itself, that is, in the efforts to find the new idea (hypothesis, theory, whatever) in the first place. Discoveries can be dressed up well, but the way we go about finding our ideas is almost always an embarrassing display of buffoonery.
You see, there is no uniformly sound advice on where to get good ideas. There’s no recipe for discovery. In fact, this informal claim can be made rigorous in several mathematico-computational senses and proven, something I studied earlier in my career. Furthermore, the discovery process doesn’t always give you an indication of how close you might be to the end, nor if there will be an end at all. In fact, in my work I’ve been able to prove that for some discoveries it is intrinsically impossible to know how close one is to reaching the end. For these puzzles, sudden breakthroughs—aha moments—are in fact logically required rather than due to some quirk of human psychology.
The result is that how we scientists find our ideas is ugly, and frankly embarrassing to show folks. That’s why we don’t put this part of the process into our journal articles or books.
But the fact that we never show the dirty mental work underlying our discoveries has bothered me, for at least two reasons.
First, students of science would be best prepared for making their own discoveries if they could see more examples of what their older mentors actually did to make theirs. If students mistakenly conclude that their mentors are magical shaman geniuses who can inscrutably channel discoveries at will, they’ll mistakenly conclude that discovery is out of their league. And with the discovery process not only demystified but also laid before them, students will be able to absorb brainstorming and idea-finding techniques that others have found successful. (Here are some techniques of mine.)
Second, if this crucial step in the discovery process is not well appreciated, then the funding mechanisms for science won’t work well. In constructing a rigorous theory with loads of empirical and theoretical constraints, one cannot be sure one has succeeded until, well, one actually succeeds in finding it. The process is inherently non-incremental—provably non-incremental, as I mentioned earlier—and thus by its nature not the sort of thing one can currently get a grant for. As I’ve discussed elsewhere in the context of my leaving academia to start a research institute, 2AI, funded by intellectual property, you can’t propose to make a discovery: “Dear National Science Foundation: I plan on scrawling hundreds of pages of notes, mostly hitting dead ends, until, in year 4, I hit pay dirt.” Yet that’s exactly what’s needed for the big breakthroughs that big scientific advances require—especially in research into the brain and cognitive sciences.
In light of this fact, for some time I have wondered whether there may be ways to communicate just how million-monkeys-typewriting the discovery process can be.
In one attempt, I began a new research notebook with the idea of writing my notes in such a way that it would be followable by laymen. I could even turn it into a book, I thought—a book that begins without knowing what discovery I might make, if any, and without knowing how long it might take.
Alas, this was—as most of my hundreds of ideas—a bad idea. I found it too onerous to record my research thoughts and keep it comprehensible to even those in the field, much less to the uninitiated layman. I also found it an embarrassing enterprise. Most of what I wrote, if actually understood by anyone, was, I realized, ridiculously daft and silly. I’m not actually embarrassed that my notebook is like that—it’s like that by design, for keeping a low threshold for writing down ideas is key to eventually stumbling onto a good one. But, the thought of anyone actually seeing the process was too much to bear. And, to my horror, I left that very notebook in a coffee shop, and had it eventually returned a month later. God knows what sort of fool the finder thought—or realized—I was. Pages and pages of nonsense, as I stumbled toward finding an idea worth pursuing, or struggled to make a vague idea with promise rigorous and to fit it to known data.
Designing my research notes to be friendlier didn’t work out, and would have only undermined the role my notes play in my own discovery process.
But it occurred to me recently that there is a simple way to begin illustrating just how much junk lies in the science trunk. Of the thirty to forty research notebooks I’ve filled with tiny handwriting over the last dozen years, I can show a sample. So, I photographed about a year-and-a-half’s worth of notes. It amounts to a single notebook’s worth plus about thirty pages of my newest notebook.