Thought Experiments: Intuitions and inspirations

“Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution. It is, strictly speaking, a real factor in scientific research.”

Albert Einstein, 1931.1-20160609_200213-1

Science is often portrayed as the pursuit of knowledge. Many text-books describe the scientific method as a path of stepping-stones one must follow until a hypothesis can be accepted as scientific theory.

Mystery solved! Eureka! Case Closed!

The depiction that research is trying to arrive somewhere, is also reflected in how modern media reports science, often  stating “a new study shows”: drinking red wine is the same as going to the gym or that chocolate might not be so great after all without discussing the nuances or specifics of the research.

There are often too many ideas of where to go, and what to study next...and not enough funding or time to follow them all!In reality, the path of scientific discovery is overgrown with weeds, will crisscross back and forth over a river, and might involve a trek or two up a mountain…only to discover that you have been walking in a giant circle for the past two years because you missed a trail marker behind some bramble (aka the life of a typical PhD student). Furthermore, as scientists, the destination isn’t always our goal. We map the path to the best of our abilities, constantly erasing and re-sketching according to the observations we make, and the new paths we imagine while travelling along.

We started this series of blogs by noting that it is the natural progression of science for one “answer” to give birth to new questions, and we have discussed a few of these new questions using the cannibalism case as an example. However, this example also reminds us that it is vital that we do not fall into the well-worn path of previous studies and stop looking for new solutions or ideas. If we take away those first critical steps of 1) making observations and 2) spending time hypothesizing, we dull our imaginations to consider if there are any other explanations. We can’t take up skepticism and cynicism at the cost of the awe and curiosity that led us to science in the first place.

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Yes, scientists need to be critical, objective and present our observations without personal filters. But, when new observations come to light, we can gain enormously by undertaking the next step, hypothesizing, as a group effort. It happens in the pub on Friday over a few pints, in the back of the lecture hall after a seminar, on a long boat trip to a field site, in conversations at conferences. In these moments, we excitedly exchange observations and imagine ways to test them. Like children planning how amazing a tree-fort is going to be with turrets, and secret ladders–every once in a while we need to get swept away in our imagining: Did I tell you what I saw yesterday? I wonder if X or Y is what caused Z! Oh man, if we had 100 satellite tags, a fleet of drones, next-gen sequencing and 2 months of research vessel time?

Think of the science we can do!

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