At the recommendation of Tim Hannigan, winner of Canada’s Most Well Read Men Under 40 award, I am currently reading How We Think by John Dewey. It’s old–written in 1910–but as Philosophy Ph.D-to-be and my older brother Robert would say, most of the best stuff is.
The book argues that the primary role of education, and perhaps by extension the highest and best use of our minds, is to think well, by which Dewey means reflectively. Dewey’s writing presages work done in the last fifty years on human decision-making a guide for how we be better reflective thinkers: By building the conditions necessary for curiosity and intellectual exploration to flow, then building the mental structures necessary to channel that flow in a productive way. Those structures, I believe, are no more complicated than the scientific method: Look at the world, wonder about things, develop your own thoughts about how stuff works, try to prove yourself wrong, watch what happened, try to explain it, repeat.
Here’s the catch: Academia isn’t as good at that process as we used to be. Traditionally, the process goes like this: If you want to progress inside of the university system, you publish things. Books are fine, but articles published in academic journals are the gold standard. Other experts review your work before it is published; and other researchers can come along and replicate and/or question your work. There are many problems with that system; here’s a big one:
Conversely, failures to prove a hypothesis are rarely even offered for publication [in journals], let alone accepted. “Negative results” now account for only 14% of published papers, down from 30% in 1990. Yet knowing what is false is as important to science as knowing what is true. The failure to report failures means that researchers waste money and effort exploring blind alleys already investigated by other scientists. (Economist 2013)
Showing someone else’s work is wrong–or even submitting an article about an experiment that didn’t work–isn’t rewarded. So academics do it less. That means pressure to be right.
My friend and former boss Zoe Schlag once said to me, “Mark, I don’t care if you’re not right, as long as you’re working on getting it right.” Part of that, I believe, is being willing to make some observations about the world that are probably wrong, put together hypotheses and theories about the world that are probably wrong, run some tests to see what happens, and then publish some academic papers that someone someday will say is wrong.
What am I missing? What am I wrong about? What should I read next?
For more on How We Think, see Brain Pickings’ summary. I love those people.