Someone who “thinks like a poet and only later works like a bookkeeper”1. This is how American biologist Edward O. Wilson defines the ideal scientist.
But what does one thing have to do with the other?
According to Wilson, who is also a novelist and Pulitzer Prize winner, the main point is that innovators in science and literature are “basically dreamers and storytellers”. Both types of innovators begin their creation processes with a story. For the scientist, such a story may initially represent a vague explanation of a particular phenomenon, a set of assumptions to extract meaning out of something.
At an early stage of their work, scientists conceive a beginning and a potential end to their story: its possible paths, twists and complications. As in literature, the early drafts of a scientific story may only reside in the scientist’s mind: an act of imagination that is informed by previous research and fueled by yet-to-be shown possibilities.
Works of literature and science incrementally evolve as different parts of their stories are adapted, enhanced and excluded. And such changes can lead to new competing “plots” or “scenarios” in the form of alternative insights or unexpected findings.
At some point there is an end to the story: a discovery, possibly a breakthrough, or the falsification of a previous idea. And yet, it is not always possible to know for certain that this is truly the end of the story. New opportunities for problem-thinking and exploration, as well as fresh questions, will continue emerging.
Wilson’s view of the ideal scientist, which may also apply to engineers and entrepreneurs, however, becomes problematic when the “bookkeeping” part is not sufficiently emphasized. It is not only problematic for the purpose of communicating the outcomes of science to the general public, but also for that of training new generations of scientists and innovators. This is actually a core issue in the implementation and exploitation of scientific research.
From the get-go, scientific research and technological development demand rigorous analysis and verification. Regardless of their stage, scientific advances not only depend on demonstrations of their novelty or utility, but also of their methodological soundness. The latter also includes established notions of testability and reproducibility. This is particularly critical in an age when science and entrepreneurial activity are increasingly becoming intertwined, and when the “marketability” of ideas appears to occupy the limelight. A time when hearing a “great story” seems as important as judging originality and relevance grounded in factual evidence.
Beyond Wilson’s analogy, and notwithstanding its potential interpretations, there is at play here a more fundamental commonality. In principle, works of literature and science aim to make sense of our worlds. In their own ways, they represent approximations to how we see within and outside ourselves. With their own limitations, they help us find meaning, and even purpose, in our lives.
And of course let’s not forget, scientific progress will always require sufficient doses of individual creativity and imagination. A capacity to dream and envision what has not yet been seen or explained. All of it joining together with an unremitting focus on testing, contrasting and disproving ourselves. A relentless fight against fallacies, including those sold to us as well-crafted products of our imaginations.
1. O. Wilson. Letters to a Young Scientist, 2014, Liveright.
This post is also available at Medium.