Blinded by Science « The BroadBrush Update

More than 15 years ago, a colleague at the time, Greg Grosh, gave me a book entitled The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, by Thomas Kuhn. I’ve thought a lot about that book lately and have pulled it from my shelf to re-read key passages.

Here’s an excerpt from a review by Nicholas Wade in Science magazine that may give you a hint as to why the book has been on my mind:

The Structure of Scientific Revolutions is a landmark in intellectual history which has attracted attention far beyond its own immediate field…It is written with a combination of depth and clarity that make it an almost unbroken series of aphorisms. Its author wastes little time on demolishing the logical empiricist view of science as an objective progression toward the truth.”

“Instead he erects from ground up a structure in which science is seen to be heavily influenced by non-rational procedures, and in which new theories are viewed as being more complex than those they usurp but not as standing any closer to the truth…Science is not the steady, cumulative acquisition of knowledge that is portrayed in the textbooks. Rather, it is a series of peaceful interludes punctuated by intellectually violent revolutions…in each of which one conceptual world view is replaced by another…”

Wow – pretty amazing stuff, huh? Wade’s phrase – “peaceful interludes, punctuated by intellectually violent revolutions” – especially resonates with me. Who among hasn’t been “blinded by the science” of those smooth charts and line graphs in hundreds of PowerPoint presentations documenting the waves of technology in an unerring progress towards whatever the presenter wants you to believe is the next wave?

Kuhn’s essay refutes any notion of this premise in his powerful, book-length essay. Along the way, he writes about how the aggregation of methods, theories, and processes take the shape of what he dubs “a paradigm” and then describes how paradigms resist change.

At this particular moment in history, Kuhn’s essay gives me pause with two concerns: The first concern is that there is an even greater risk for paradigms to increasingly resist change, because the scientific community, its supporting ecosystem (i.e., funders, project sponsors, material supply chain, etc.), and their public observers are magnified by the global reach of social media and instant communications.

You could argue that social media also magnify and amplify the opposing views in a debate. And that’s a fair argument, if you assume that it involves participants from many disciplines. This leads to my second concern, the decline in creativity – for “other” thinking.

Another colleague pointed me to the current story in Newsweek, “The Creativity Crisis,” in which it cites a recent IBM poll of 1,500 CEOs that identified creativity as the No. 1 “leadership competency” of the future. The potential consequences of a decline in American creativity are sweeping, because the necessity of human ingenuity is undisputed.

A combination of right-brain/left-brain thinking proves time and again to yield the best results on big problems. Take a fun, but telling example, like my daughter Lauren’s alma mater, St. Olaf, where its first-year team won the national “Rube Goldberg” competition.  The “secret of their success?”…it was an interdisciplinary team of artists and engineers, social and hard science majors, young men and women.

With the decades’-long reduction in public school arts education and gifted programs, we have brewed a bitter gruel for ourselves, producing kids who are, overall, better performers according to standards in the core subjects of math, science, and language skills, but at the expense of critical thinking and the necessity of ingenuity that are fueled by creative arts.

Companies, large and small, can help to stem and begin reversing this creative decline, not only in their existing workforce, but in the future one as well. Support the creative arts in your community:

  • Offer “scholarships” by buying a block of discounted tickets to give to kids, especially those who can’t afford them, for performances at the opera, the ballet, or the museum.
  • Take a company outing to a high school or college musical…it’s kitschy, it’s cheap fun, and the theater programs need the support.
  • There’s a hundred other ways to support the creative industries beyond this…many of them low, and often no, cost.

We can’t afford to do otherwise, for our economic well-being, competitiveness, and national future. As always, I hope to hear your thoughts on the topic, as well.