Thursday, October 6, 2011

Stay foolish.

Hologram of a quasicrystal
Israeli scientist Dan Schechtman lived his life just the way Steve Jobs said we should.

In his now-ubiquitous 2005 Stanford commencement address, Jobs said, "Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice."

In 1982, Schechtman claimed to have found a crystalline chemical structure that could not possibly exist in nature. For daring to buck the "shared reality" of the scientific community, he was mocked by his peers, exiled from his research group, and derided by two-time Nobel Prize winner Linus Pauling who said, “Danny Shechtman is talking nonsense. There is no such thing as quasicrystals, only quasi-scientists."
Yesterday, on the day that Steve Jobs died, Dan Schechtman won the Nobel Prize in chemistry for his foolish discovery.

After winning the prize, Schechtman said he was thrown out of his research group because "They said I brought shame on them with what I was saying. I never took it personally. I knew I was right and they were wrong."

Galileo probably should have
expected the Roman Inquisition.
But most people don't.
Schechtman is just one of a long line of scientists who have been attacked by those in power for unsettling settled science. Galileo, who got sent to his room for the rest of his life for being a geocentric denier, is the poster boy for this free-thinking fraternity.

As we celebrate the lives of two great thinkers who weren't trapped by dogma, we can also learn a couple of very important lessons about effective communications strategy. 

First, controversial thought should not be squelched, it should be advocated. Loudly. Persistently. This is particularly true in scientific debates. If you, or your client, have a strong conviction about an issue and your data support your conclusions, seek out your most capable opponent and call her out. Great debates create great buzz. And they demonstrate your willingness to test the power of your research against a worthy adversary.

Second, never hector your opponent into silence. Ridiculing those who disagree with you is not just bad form, it's bullying. Stop it. ("You can call me Al ... Gore." Full disclosure: I used to employ that tactic. And while you can score some quick points on TV, the strategy ultimately backfires.)

Third, the science is never settled. Ever. The scientific method doesn't allow it, and neither should you.

Finally, as we enter this new age of communication, recognize that the more successful among us are going to make spectacularly foolish mistakes. Embrace it. Or as Steve Jobs said, "Stay hungry. Stay foolish." 

For the best science blog in the world, check this out (Yeah, he's my brother. But he's the smart one in the family.)

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the warm words. Scientists have been bashing each other ever since humans had clubs.

    Here's how science really works.