Excerpt of Happy Accidents by Morton Meyers M.D.
(Page 5 of 11)
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Illustrative of this phenomenon are poet John Godfrey Saxes six
blind men (from his poem The Blind Men and the Elephant)
observing different parts of an elephant and coming to very different
but equally erroneous conclusions about it. The first fell against the
elephants side and concluded that it was a wall. The second felt the
smooth, sharp tusk and mistook it for a spear. The third held the
squirming trunk and knew it was a snake. The fourth took the knee to
be a tree. The fifth touched the ear and declared it a fan. And the sixth
seized the tail and thought he had a rope. One of the poems lessons:
Each was partly in the right, And all were in the wrong!12
Robert Park, a professor of physics at the University of Maryland
and author of Voodoo Science, recounts an incident that showed how
expectations can color perceptions. It happened in 1954 when he was
a young air force lieutenant driving from Texas into New Mexico.
Sightings of UFOs in the area of Roswell, New Mexico, were being reported
frequently at the time.
I was driving on a totally deserted stretch of highway. . . .
It was a moonless night but very clear, and I could make
out a range of ragged hills off to my left, silhouetted
against the background of stars. . . . It was then that I
saw the flying saucer. It was again off to my left between
the highway and the distant hills, racing along just above
the range land. It appeared to be a shiny metallic disk
viewed on edge thicker in the center and it was
traveling at almost the same speed I was. Was it following
me? I stepped hard on the gas pedal of the Oldsmobile
and the saucer accelerated. I slammed on the
brakes and it stopped. Then I could see that it was
only my headlights, reflecting off a single phone line
strung parallel to the highway. Suddenly, it no longer
looked like a flying saucer at all.
People, even scientists, too often make assumptions about what
they are seeing, and seeing is often a matter of interpretation or perception.
As Goethe said, We see only what we know. As they seek
causes in biology, researchers can become stuck in an established
mode of inquiry when the answer might lie in a totally different direction
that can be seen only when perception is altered. Discovery
consists of seeing what everybody has seen and thinking what nobody
has thought, according to Nobelist Albert Szent-Györgyi.14
Another trap for scientists lurks in the common logical fallacy
post hoc, ergo propter hoc the faulty logic of attributing causation
based solely on a chronological arrangement of events. We tend to attribute
an occurrence to whatever event preceded it: After it, therefore
because of it.
Consider Frank Herberts story from Heretics of Dune:
"There was a man who sat each day looking out through
a narrow vertical opening where a single board had been
removed from a tall wooden fence. Each day a wild ass of
the desert passed outside the fence and across the narrow
opening first the nose, then the head, the forelegs, the
long brown back, the hindleg and lastly the tail. One day,
the man leaped to his feet with the light of discovery in
his eyes and he shouted for all who could hear him: It is
obvious! The nose causes the tail!
A real-life example of this type of fallacy, famous in medical
circles, occurred in the case of the Danish pathologist Johannes Fibiger,
who won the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1926 for making a connection
that didnt exist. Fibiger discovered roundworm parasites in the
stomach cancers of rats and was convinced that he had found a causal
link. He believed that the larvae of the parasite in cockroaches eaten
by the rats brought about the cancer, and presented experimental
work in support of this theory. Cancer research at this time was inhibited
by the lack of an animal model. The Nobel committee considered
his work the greatest contribution to experimental medicine in our
generation. His results were subsequently never confirmed and are
no longer accepted.
Excerpted from Happy Accidents
by Morton Meyers, M.D. Copyright © 2007 by Morton Meyers, M.D. Excerpted by
permission of Arcade Publishing. All rights
reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted
without permission in writing from the publisher.