Aspirational science

By Joern Fischer

Throughout our scientific training, we learn that we need to find better answers to the complex questions facing the world. Here, I argue that this is only half of the story: the more important part is that we need to find better questions.

Both Dave Abson and I have rambled on (and on, and on …) about the importance of framing in the research we do (e.g. here and here). Today, a slightly different angle on this familiar theme occurred to me.

If reality is a poorly lit space that is out there, but perhaps can’t ever be fully lit up (i.e. understood), then science that aspires to genuinely expand our understanding is not just about getting it “right”. In this metaphor of dark and light, the question amounts to that part of reality that we choose to shine a light onto. The quality of the answer, in this metaphor, is the degree to which we succeed in lighting up this area – is it brightly lit, or barely visible?

Most approaches we work within – and I would argue, for many scientists, entire careers – focus on the same general area, over and over again. And so there are spots that are super-brightly lit by now, and many individuals who are brilliant at seeing their little bits extremely clearly. But if reality is a vast, poorly lit space, then anyone who wants to understand the world, and not just a tiny fraction of it, needs to challenge oneself to look beyond the patch already somewhat lit up, again, and again, and again.

Such a process, to my mind, amounts to “aspirational science” in that it actually aims to generate insight about “everything”. From an individual perspective, this process amounts to lifelong learning, but more importantly, to a lifelong expansion of how to see the world. This is not so much about “connecting dots”, but about recognizing that our ways of even seeing where the dots are deeply depend on whether we’re willing and able to change and re-change our perspective on how to look at reality.

In short: make a habit of challenging yourself to try to see things differently, taking on different perspectives. Not so much that it paralyses you, but enough so that you can keep expanding your understanding of the universe (instead of only focusing it). Aspirational science implies broadening the questions we ask, and not just refining the answers.

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