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Stumbling toward Insight
By Jamie McKenzie, ©2011, all rights reserved.
This article is Chapter Eleven of Jamie's new book Lost and Found which begins shipping in September. You can order now here.
It is by going down into the abyss that we recover the treasures of life. Where you stumble, there lies your treasure.
Sadly, patterned thinking may operate to block discovery and innovation. We are sometimes prisoners of such structures—straight- jacketed by preconceptions and beliefs that blind us to different possibilities. Conventional wisdom sometimes fails and actualy hinders us.
There are dozens of quotations from wise and successful people who think highly of stumbling as a way to find truth, move mountains and get out of a rut.
It turns out that stumbling is both a disposition and a skill that may be cultivated. The first step in this process is to recognize that this form of learning is valid and often productive. Since stumbling is rarely advocated by formal educational institutions, this recognition requires a fairly big step out of familiar and comfortable territory.
One way to discover the benefits of stumbling is by measured happenstance—the surprise grasp of some new idea or possibility that came about somewhat by chance.
Surprises in science and medicine
The fields of science and medicine are filled with stories of chance discoveries that had a monumental impact on civilization. High on the list would be the discovery of radium by Marie Curie and her husband. As outlined in her article, “The Dream Becomes a Reality: The Dis- covery of Radium” at lateralscience.co.uk/radium/RaDisc.html, Marie found surprisingly high levels of radioactivity in certain minerals that suggested the existence of a chemical element previously unknown.
I then made the hypothesis that the ores uranium and thorium contain in small quantity a substance much more strongly radioactive than either uranium or thorium. This substance could not be one of the known elements, because these had already been examined; it must, therefore, be a new chemical element.
In this case, Marie Curie found and noticed an anomaly during the course of her routine investigation and was savvy enough to recognize the potential meaning of that anomaly, passing from surprise through curiosity to hypothesis generation and testing. It is fair to state that
she stumbled upon higher-than-expected readings but was prescient enough to understand the monumental importance of those readings.
The research leading to the development of a successful vaccine against polio is another example of learning by wandering from the straight and narrow, as the path-breaking experiment ran counter to the prevailing, conventional wisdom about growing the polio virus.
John Franklin Enders and two partners won the Nobel Prize in 1954 for their “discovery of the ability of the poliomyelitis virus to grow in cultures of different tissues”—a discovery that led in turn to Jonas Salk’s development of the vaccine. In Polio: An American Story, David M. Oshinsky describes the central role that intuition played when Enders decided to introduce poliovirus to four cultures alongside the prime focus of their study (chickenpox).
“Dr. Enders suggested that since we had some polio virus stored in the freezer, we might inoculate some of the cultures with this material, which we did.” The cultures contained both nerve and non-nerve embryonic tissue. Four were injected with chickenpox virus, four with Lansing Type II polio-virus, and four were left as controls.
Weller and Robbins were skeptical. Why should they succeed when the likes of Sabin and Olitsky had al- ready failed? But Enders had a hunch. “It was in the back of my mind,” he recalled, “that, if so much polio virus could be found in the gastrointestinal tract, then it must grow somewhere besides nervous tissue.” And, he added, “I’m a very stubborn man.”
Much of the popular information about this event exaggerates the accidental nature of the discovery. The Encyclopedia of World Scientists, Volume 1, by Elizabeth H. Oakes, employs the word “accident” to describe the discovery, and her version has been repeated throughout many of the informal biographies that are now popular on the Web.
Enders happened upon his discovery about the polio virus by accident. His assistant, Thomas Huckle Weller, prepared an excess of cultures of human embryonic tissue for an experiment on chicken pox; instead of letting them go to waste, Enders honored his affiliation with the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis by introducing the polio virus into the extra cultures, which yielded growth.
Enders’ memory of the event shows that he was testing a hunch, not bouncing around like a pinball. It may be doing him and his team a disservice to use the term “stumble” to capture the thought process employed. The importance of attitude is clear from Enders’ mention of his stubbornness—his willingness to challenge what was conventional thought at the time.
It should be noted that Enders was not only a powerful thinker but also a man with great character, as an article in the New England Journal of Medicine notes that he at first refused the Nobel Prize until his two colleagues were included. “Isolation of Poliovirus—John Enders and the Nobel Prize.” Fred S. Rosen, M.D. N Engl J Med 2004; 351:1481-1483 October 7, 2004
Stumbling toward competence
Many teachers report that they have learned many of their most effective teaching effects through a trial-and-error approach that is akin to stumbling, as they try first one approach and then another and another until they achieve the results they are hoping to win. Each effort might be just slightly different from the preceding attempt as the teacher makes adjustments until the desired effects are achieved.
In professions where there is a major human aspect to the performance, it may be especially true that success depends upon a somewhat playful and experimental approach, since people rarely conform to scientific predictions, and yet many would-be reformers would like to reduce this complex exchange to the lowest common denominator and find formulaic strategies that eliminate the mystery, the magic and the alchemy of great teaching to a recipe book that turns classrooms and learning into a fast-food assembly line.
This dogmatic approach to performance dates at least as far back as the efforts of 19th-century efficiency expert Frederick Taylor to identify and implement the most productive factory routines. While some of these efforts make sense for certain kinds of factories, they rarely match the realities of human learning and interaction. People are neither widgets nor hamburger patties moving along an assembly line and efforts to standardize the process are likely to damage and demean rather than educate and enlighten.
Trial and error as stumbling
Give me the fruitful error any time, full of seeds, bursting with its own corrections. You can keep your sterile truth for yourself. Vilfredo Pareto
There are quite a few different models for trial-and-error exploration. In some cases, the researcher methodically repeats an experiment thousands of times until something intriguing pops up, breaks the pattern, and leads to a valuable insight. In other cases, the researcher is less methodical and allows intuition to help guide the process, hoping to “get lucky” and find something a bit more quickly.
In this chapter, it is the second type that merits attention— something a bit more free form and playful. Instead of structuring thousands of trials in a formal manner, the thinker engages in lots of tries, darting about whimsically from possibility to possibility.
If you visualize an extensive menu at a restaurant—a New Jersey diner menu with 500 items from which to select—many patrons will tend to stick to the familiar, ordering an omelette or a pastrami sand- wich rather than the ragout or the ceviche they’ve never tasted before.
This chapter argues for a more adventurous approach, sampling menu items (metaphorically) that are anomalous, exotic or surprising. There is always some danger that our sampling of experience, information and ideas is narrow and parochial rather than broad and spicy. The most productive thinking is informed by a search that is extensive, wide-ranging and unbridled by preconceptions, cultural blinders or conventional wisdom.
Sampling is a form of stumbling, as the thinker consciously seeks to taste experiences and input that would not usually be “front and center.” Another term for this kind of thinking might be Edward de Bono’s “lateral thinking.”
With logic you start out with certain ingredients, just as in playing chess you start out with given pieces. But what are those pieces? In most real life situations the pieces are not given, we just assume they are there. We assume certain perceptions, certain concepts and certain boundaries. Lateral thinking is concerned not with playing with the existing pieces but with seeking to change those very pieces. Lateral thinking is concerned with the perception part of thinking. This is where we organize the external world into the pieces we can then “process.”
Quoted from deBono’s Web site at edwdebono.com/lateral.htm
The kind of mental stumbling suggested by this chapter is not a matter of lurching about, free of purpose. The goal of the stumbling is liberation from restraints, an open-mindedness that takes into consideration many influences that might ordinarily be out of reach and out of mind. The process is conscious, skillful and guided by intention—not simply random or haphazard.
In earlier chapters, this book examined the constraints imposed by what Christine Rosen calls egocasting—the tendency of many people to limit their information to that which reinforces and complements their preconceptions.
Stumbling consciously and skillfully is intended as an antidote to set thinkers free from egocasting.
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