11/17/2009 12:02 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Good Scientists are Like Wandering Ants

Science is basically a bunch of little steps. Many little experiments that explore cause-effect space. If you find a new example of cause and effect, the payoff is unpredictably large. Scientists don’t like thinking of themselves as wandering ants. But that’s how they are most effective. This goes against human psychology because wandering (Nassim Taleb calls it “tinkering”) is low status and lonely. The payoff is too rare and too unclear. It isn’t supported by powerful institutions, such as research universities and medical schools. Imagine an ant who says “I know where food is!” This is a way to get many ants to follow him, to feel important, to have high status, to get support from his employer. That’s why he does it. But he doesn’t know. The effect on the rest of us, the potential beneficiaries of progress, is that instead of having a thousand ants wandering everywhere, we have a thousand ants following one ant who doesn’t know what he’s doing.

That is from the iconclastic Seth Roberts, formerly a professor of psychology at Berkeley who now teaches at in Beijing at Tsinghua University. His overarching theme is that for science to advance it requires people to come up with and test novel hypotheses rather than tinkering at the margins of the currently accepted wisdom. In short, orthodoxy is often unproductive for scientists, and sometimes dangerous. His blog is full of unexpected hypotheses about how the world works, and he often tests these hypotheses on himself, enlisting his own readers as co-experimenters.