A Murky Path to Understanding

A Murky Path to Understanding
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In an episode of The Big Bang Theory, Sheldon Cooper believes he has made a scientific discovery, and he wants to tell everyone about it. When it appears that his scientific discovery is actually the result of an accident, and his logic and fine intellect didn’t play a role in the discovery, he is displeased, to say the least. Finding it hard to accept that his discovery was an unexpected blunder, he feels unworthy of all of the attention he is receiving and claims to want none of it. When his friend Leonard proves that he didn’t find a new element, accidentally or otherwise, Sheldon is dismayed again because now Leonard took away his big moment.

Funny partly because of the disconnect between Sheldon’s high academic intellect and low emotional intelligence, the show looks at issues we see in the business world.

In a post I wrote a few months ago, I asked, “Can culture be just as important in fields known solely for their rational, scientific processes[…]?

I thought so, and this question has stuck with me. Most of us are uncomfortable with uncertainty. We want answers – preferably now. But often that’s not possible.  So, what do we do? We make decisions based on incomplete information, and that sometimes satisfies our need for finality. Later, some of us will refer to those decisions as facts. Others will say they were emotional actions taken in the heat of the moment. Still others will refer to them as something in between. Who’s right?

It depends on the situation, of course, and a culture that values recognition of the other parts of the decision process just as much as the logical will make it more possible to find a more sincere answer.

Look at Sheldon. He’s not funny because he’s sincere. He’s funny because he frequently says truthful things that aren’t sensible or reasonable in any sense of the word because he misses important parts of the situation. As we see in this episode of The Big Bang Theory, apparently that goes for his understanding of his own scientific process as well as for his missteps in social interactions.

As Uri Alon discussed in a TED talk I referenced in a post on another blog, scientists don’t follow a clear path in the real world. They are taught that that is how science is different from other disciplines, but the reality is that it is often a path somewhere between murky and confusing. Some scientists spend years traveling a seemingly roundabout path only to bumble their way to answers like Sheldon briefly thought he did. Others may never find definitive answers.

Sometimes acknowledging our own limitations and the messiness of life is the most reasonable choice we can make. It can lessen our inhibitions and open us to trying and exploring more, which may increase our chances of finding something valuable. A culture – whether it’s a company culture or a society as a whole – that acknowledges and supports that is just as important as the scientific parts of our jobs. Without it, we can’t be real, sincere, sensible, or credible. With it, we can have a better chance of being all those things and chart our own paths to greater understanding.


*Photo by Maria de Leon

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