Neuroblogger Jonah Lehrer has a new article about the value of failure in science and how it can lead to discovery. A nice, if somewhat light, read: Accept Defeat: The Neuroscience of Screwing Up. The basic point is that our brains have two somewhat competing processes, one for perceiving errors (the “Oh shit!” circuit) and one for deleting irrelevant stuff (the Delete key). If the delete key wins, important discoveries are ignored (something like that).
While the scientific process is typically seen as a lonely pursuit — researchers solve problems by themselves — Dunbar found that most new scientific ideas emerged from lab meetings, those weekly sessions in which people publicly present their data. Interestingly, the most important element of the lab meeting wasn’t the presentation — it was the debate that followed. Dunbar observed that the skeptical (and sometimes heated) questions asked during a group session frequently triggered breakthroughs, as the scientists were forced to reconsider data they’d previously ignored. The new theory was a product of spontaneous conversation, not solitude; a single bracing query was enough to turn scientists into temporary outsiders, able to look anew at their own work.