These scientists kept getting noise on their radio telescope. They thought it was pigeon shit, or nuclear fallout, but nothing checked out. Then they discovered that it was background radiation from THE UNIVERSE BEING BORN. And then they won the Nobel Prize. True story. I read this is in a Wired article on failure. Its general point seems to be that scientists should try to learn from failure by seeking out diversity, even ignorance and avoid a human neurological instinct to filter out bad information. This may also make some sense in life.
Our first reaction to failure, however, is revulsion. If at all possible we deny and ignore. In fact, the article posits that there’s a brain structure for this task.
There’s another region of the brain that can be activated as we go about editing reality. It’s called the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, or DLPFC. It’s located just behind the forehead and is one of the last brain areas to develop in young adults. It plays a crucial role in suppressing so-called unwanted representations, getting rid of those thoughts that don’t square with our preconceptions.
In most cases failures can be attributed to machine or messenger type errors. Sometimes they’re not failures in reality but in perception and can be safely ignored. This type of processing is there for a reason, and it is adaptive for a fuzzy logic processor like our brain. However, in some cases – when we’re actively looking for knowledge for example – it may be wise to push through that instinct and explore more.
For example, whenever people report website errors to me it pisses me off. My first reaction is to tell them they’re dumb or that it’s an anomaly. However, over time I realized that the errors are real most of the time, so I check all of them now. This is not my first instinct, however, failure is an unpleasant sensation and I try to push it away. Over time I’ve recognized this tendency and I have to consciously suppress it.
Learning From Failure
As a method, the article says that one way to learn from failure is getting diverse opinions, even from people who aren’t skilled in the subject. In modern web design this is called user testing, but in many cases it’s called just asking the customer. It’s surprising how many people and businesses don’t do it, mainly cause it’s annoying and a pain in the ass.
Dunbar tells the story of two labs that both ran into the same experimental problem: The proteins they were trying to measure were sticking to a filter, making it impossible to analyze the data. “One of the labs was full of people from different backgrounds,” Dunbar says. “They had biochemists and molecular biologists and geneticists and students in medical school.” The other lab, in contrast, was made up of E. coli experts. “They knew more about E. coli than anyone else, but that was what they knew,” he says. Dunbar watched how each of these labs dealt with their protein problem. The E. coli group took a brute-force approach, spending several weeks methodically testing various fixes. “It was extremely inefficient,” Dunbar says. “They eventually solved it, but they wasted a lot of valuable time.”
The diverse lab, in contrast, mulled the problem at a group meeting. None of the scientists were protein experts, so they began a wide-ranging discussion of possible solutions. At first, the conversation seemed rather useless. But then, as the chemists traded ideas with the biologists and the biologists bounced ideas off the med students, potential answers began to emerge. “After another 10 minutes of talking, the protein problem was solved,” Dunbar says. “They made it look easy.”
So basically get second and third opinions, some from idiots. Of course, the failure response is there for a reason and sometimes information from outsiders is just nonsense. Sometimes there really is pigeon shit on the satellite. But reality is surprising and we are basically monkeys and I suppose we should approach the problem with some humility. To some degree that means the old truism of learning from failure, methodically. Interesting article in full.