On riding the mistake wave

I’ve just read a funny and insightful interview with neuroscientist Vincent Walsh from last November’s Current Biology that’s full of over-caffeinated anecdotes and understated wisdom.

It’s really worth reading in full but, unfortunately, the whole thing is locked behind a paywall (a bargain at only $31.50), but I’ve reproduced part of the piece below:

What’s the best advice you have ever given to others? I interviewed a truly exceptional person for a PhD last year. I told her ‚Äúfor God’s sake don’t waste your talent on me as a supervisor‚Äù. I haven’t seen her since. It is rewarding to be listened to.

What has been your biggest mistake in science? Oh, I haven’t even begun to peak on mistakes. I have so many more to give. I make mistakes all the time. In fact, I can’t think of any of my most rewarding papers for which I wouldn’t either interpret the data differently now or start/end with a different theoretical perspective. If you’re still being right about the same shit you were right about 20 years ago, then something tells me you’re either not thinking or you’re just moving papers as product. The whole point of intellectual activity is to come to new conclusions. I don’t see how one can think and keep coming up with the same conclusion, unless it’s really dull stuff. It’s almost our job to be wrong. How can you not make mistakes if you’re reaching for something? I don’t understand people who are proud of never having made one.

One of my scientific heroes is Semir Zeki. I think he’s been substantially wrong on almost everything, but his contribution to science has been far bigger than those who haven’t had the intellectual smarts or courage to put new ideas into the literature. This is no side swipe, I actually think Zeki should have shared the 1982 Nobel prize: he had completely rewritten the architecture of the visual cortex by 1978. The best most of us can hope for is to be fruitfully wrong ‚Äî and you need to be damned clever and courageous to be so. I can only dream of getting things as intelligently wrong, but there’s time.

Do you really mean that? Yes, I mean it with knobs on actually. The view comes from my love of the history of science. I get really angry when people say nonsense like ‚ÄúGall was discredited‚Äù or ‚ÄúLet’s not make the phrenological error‚Äù. I even heard someone say that ‚ÄúNewton has been discredited‚Äù. Such things display a deep ignorance of what Gall contributed and of how history proceeds (the point being that it isn’t a procession of course). Some people think that knowledge of the history of the subject is some kind of optional indulgence but it’s not, it’s essential and it’s also the gateway to humility.

We really haven’t kept up with the general pace as a science. If you reincarnated Gall and explained to him where we are up to, you could bring him up to speed over a pint. If you did the same with a physicist or cell biologist from the same period, the poor buggers’ brains would be throwing sparks by 1905, spewing smoke by 1930 and be in total meltdown by 1953 ‚Äî and that’s when the pace really picked up! Being interestingly wrong is so underrated. Galileo’s ridiculously premature attempt to measure the speed of light is one of my favourite experiments in the whole of science ‚Äî it was based on great thought, not on tweaking a variable.

How do you run your research group? Er ‚Äúrun‚Äù? I think I run after it most of the time…

Link to locked Current Biology interview.

One thought on “On riding the mistake wave”

  1. We learn. Then, we unlearn, and learn again. You don’t discredit, you build that a prior infrastructure that enabled you to get where you are today.
    We are still taught Newtonian physics, because it teaches us how to be physicists. It gives us the mathematical sophistication to enable us to make metaphors across our ontologies. It makes the though experiments possible. It demonstrates how to walk a path to its conclusions long before the experimentation confirm those conclusions.
    I went through this when I learned tango. It’s not just science. The pedagogy is taught and learned. That pedagogy granted confidence to a student just going through the conscious-unknowing stage of learning where fear lives. But, the pedagogy also constrains, so there comes a moment when, once they are confident, that they are asked to unlearn the pedagogy and learn the process in a different way, so the learning that was blocked can be achieved.
    The Rubic’s Cube demonstrated the same. The need to achieve disorder on the way to a solution. The need to solve towards, away, and towards again.

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