Excerpt from Happy Accidents by Morton Meyers M.D., plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Happy Accidents

Serendipity in Modern Medical Breakthroughs

by Morton Meyers M.D.

Happy Accidents
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  • First Published:
    Mar 2007, 408 pages
    Dec 2008, 408 pages

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Illustrative of this phenomenon are poet John Godfrey Saxe’s 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 elephant’s 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 poem’s 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 Herbert’s 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 didn’t 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.

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