Eureka myth destroyed

February 20, 1998

SCIENTIFIC breakthroughs are rarely the result of flashes of insight or strokes of good luck despite what scientists may think.

"Eureka-style" genius is the exception, collaboration and painstaking logic the rule, the association heard.

Cognitive scientist Kevin Dunbar of McGill University in Montreal, Canada, told delegates that he spent two years audio-taping day-to-day laboratory meetings in two top North American universities. Over six years he analysed conversations to see how scientists think and make discoveries.

"One of the most common things you hear in science is that this discovery was totally accidental and really due to chance," said Professor Dunbar. "We found there is some truth to this, but there is a large myth surrounding it too. The grain of truth has got lost in the mythology."

Professor Dunbar dispels the notion that a single revolutionary result or experiment can cause scientists to revise their thinking. He found more than half the experiments discussed in his recordings produced unexpected results.

"Science labs have evolved fairly sophisticated structures for dealing with the unexpected or chance findings," said Professor Dunbar. "They call it unexpected, but it's a direct product of the way they have conducted the experiment."

Scientists initially seek methodological explanations for unexpected results, proposing new experiments to get around these. It is only when a pattern of unexpected results develops that they look more theoretically and come up with new hypotheses.

"All the scientists then get involved. One person might contribute one component to a new model, another person might contribute another. It is a myth of science that you have the lone scientist. We have not seen that at all. The one thing we never saw were scientists getting one unexpected finding and on the basis of this suddenly proposing a theory. What we saw were patterns they can generalise from."

So why, if discovery and model-making is such a rigorous process, do myths about luck and chance linger? Professor Dunbar suggests scientists like the idea of discovery being egalitarian, that someone in a small lab is as likely to make a discovery as someone in a better funded operation.

"They tend to leave out all the hard work," said Professor Dunbar. "They also like the idea of being inspired."

Professor Dunbar's research also looks at differences between the ways in which men and women do science. It is commonly held that men are more competitive, but his research does not support this.

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