Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for July 15th, 2017

The scientist and the surgeon

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The idea that there can be a normative theory of discovery is no more surprising than the idea that there can be a normative theory of surgery. Some surgeons do better work than others, presumably because they have better heuristics and techniques (some in the form of conscious principles and problem-solving methods, some in the form of abilities to recognize the critical features of situations, some in the form of tools and instruments, and some in the form of practiced motor skills). The combination of all these heuristics and techniques makes skill in surgery more than a matter of chance, but not a matter of certainty in any particular operation. Patients who might have been saved do die, even in the hands of the most skillful surgeons.

Some scientists, too, do better work than others and make more important discoveries. It seems reasonable to presume that the superior scientists have more effective methodological principles and problem-solving methods, are better able to recognize critical features in data and theoretical formulations, have better laboratory and computing instruments, and are more skillful in the laboratory than their less successful colleagues…Skill in surgery may be specialized to particular classes of operations. The superiority of a brain surgeon may rest on heuristics specialized to the anatomy of the human head, and may provide him with no special ability with organ transplants. Similarly, the heuristics provided by a particular scientist may provide him with a comparative advantage only in some relatively limited domain of science. It is even possible that there is no “scientific method” of all, but only special methods for doing research involving gene transplants, or experiments on nuclear magnetic resonance, or theoretical work in particle physics.

Pat Langley, Herbert A. Simon, Gary L. Bradshaw, and Jan M. Zytkow, Scientific Discovery

Written by nevalalee

July 15, 2017 at 7:30 am

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