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Impatient discovery vs. mature understanding — revisiting Ragnar Granit’s view of the goal of scientific work

Posted Jun 18 2011 4:22pm

Prompted by a recent  guest blog post on the Scientific American site, I’ve just revisited an almost 40 year old essay titled “Discovery and understanding” by the  Finland-Swedish  neurophysiologist and Nobel Prize Winner Ragnar Granit .

Growing out of  a talk (see video here)  that Granit gave at the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting in 1972, the essay was  published in the Annual Review of Physiology  later the same year. I remember dimly having read it when I was a PhD student a few years after it was published, but apparently I didn’t really appreciate it then — and didn’t understand the deeper significance of the message either.

But now I think I’ve got it. And it’s quite interesting for discussions about the culture of science, especially the contemporary political emphasis on scientific competition and race for publication.

The thrust of Granit’s argument is the distinction between discovery and understanding (and later insight) as two separate modes of scientific work that are differentially distributed throughout a scientist’s life-course. Discovery is all-important in the younger, passionate, phase of a scientist’s life, he suggests, whereas understanding and insight is the mark of more mature and detached scientists (which is probably why I didn’t understand the deeper significance of his essay when I was 30).

Young scientist are, he writes, characterised by an “impatient passion” to make discoveries. They want to ”see something that others have not seen”. They are on the outlook for what’s new, unexpected, and exciting, they are ”ruled by ambition”, they crave for “immediate satisfaction” and “instantaneous excitement”.

It’s easy to believe, he continues, that this passionate quest for discovery is the goal of science, partly because discoveries perpetually initiate new lines of experimental work, but partly also because they are more visible through popular media: “It catches the eye and, in the present age [1972] is pushed in the limelight by various journals devoted to the popularization of science”.

But even if the history of science is full of important discoveries that have “led to major advances”, they are nevertheless not what science is fundamentally about; they are just the means for the “real goal” of scientific work, which is “to try to realize some fundamental ideas about biological structures and their functions, that is to promote understanding”. And “gradually understanding will ripen into insight”.

If Granit had lived today he would probably have been horrified by the fetishisation of long publication lists, impact factors, and bibliometrics:

This attitude [understanding and insight] toward scientific work has the advantage of permitting the experimenters to devote themselves quietly to their labors without filling various journals with preliminary notes to obtain minor priorities

Was the distinction between discovery and understanding valid back in 1972? If so, is it still valid? Is there still a divide between the young postdoc’s passionate quest for rapid discovery and fast publication, on the one hand, and the older professor’s slower and more detached search for insight, on the other? And if so, is it only a question of psychology and individual ageing, or are there other, structural, factors at play?

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