Kevin Dunbar: Unexpected Science

Kevin Dunbar - PopTech 2010 - Camden, Maine

Kevin Dunbar - PopTech 2010 - Camden, Maine

“What happens when science goes wrong?” asks psychology professor Kevin Dunbar. He studies how scientists approach the unexpected and learn from mistakes. Over the course of a year, Dunbar’s team examined the habits of four molecular biology labs. Watch his talk to discover their findings, including the surprising characteristics of successful labs.

The familiar story is that scientists get an unexpected finding, explain it by discussing a similar finding, and then use that analogy as a way to determine what went wrong.  Labs that were not progressing tended to stick to local analogies – using e. coli findings to explain e. coli findings, for example – while more successful labs tended to use long-distance analogies – Dunbar used the example of Nobel Prize winner Francois Jacob getting the idea for genetic sequencing from looking at his child’s toy train.

Dunbar said scientists must also look at the particular history of labs.  As a group, research scientists are mostly risk averse, and they tend to hire people that think and work most like themselves.  “Risk aversion filters through the whole of what you’re doing,” Dunbar said. “Who you get in your lab shapes the kinds of analogies you use which then shapes the way you deal with unexpected findings.”