writes: As the evocative title from Wired magazine implies, Kevin Dunbar of the University of Toronto has taken an in-depth and fascinating look at scientific error and the scientists who cope with it and sometimes transcend it to find new lines of inquiry. Three key passages follow:
"Dunbar came away from his in vivo studies with an unsettling insight: Science is a deeply frustrating pursuit. Although the researchers were mostly using established techniques, more than 50 percent of their data was unexpected. (In some labs, the figure exceeded 75 percent.) 'The scientists had these elaborate theories about what was supposed to happen,' Dunbar says. 'But the results kept contradicting their theories. It wasn't uncommon for someone to spend a month on a project and then just discard all their data because the data didn't make sense.'" [...]
[...] "The scientific process, after all, is supposed to be an orderly pursuit of the truth, full of elegant hypotheses and control variables. (Twentieth-century science philosopher Thomas Kuhn, for instance, defined normal science as the kind of research in which 'everything but the most esoteric detail of the result is known in advance.') However, when experiments were observed up close — and Dunbar interviewed the scientists about even the most trifling details — this idealized version of the lab fell apart, replaced by an endless supply of disappointing surprises. There were models that didn't work and data that couldn't be replicated and simple studies riddled with anomalies. 'These weren't sloppy people,' Dunbar says. 'They were working in some of the finest labs in the world. But experiments rarely tell us what we think they're going to tell us. That's the dirty secret of science.'"
"While the scientific process is typically seen as a lonely pursuit — researchers solve problems by themselves — Dunbar found that most new scientific ideas emerged from lab meetings, those weekly sessions in which people publicly present their data. Interestingly, the most important element of the lab meeting wasn't the presentation — it was the debate that followed. Dunbar observed that the skeptical (and sometimes heated) questions asked during a group session frequently triggered breakthroughs, as the scientists were forced to reconsider data they'd previously ignored. The new theory was a product of spontaneous conversation, not solitude; a single bracing query was enough to turn scientists into temporary outsiders, able to look anew at their own work."
Mentioned in the article itself is mysterious radio interference from the heavens, a huge error by Aristotle that is commonly repeated even today, and a quote from the late physicist Richard Feynman.