Forget the insight of a lone genius - innovation is an evolving process of trial and error

Friday, June 23, 2017 - 4:00pm

Scientific discovery is popularly believed to result from the sheer genius of intellectual stars such as Darwin and Einstein. Their work is often thought to reflect their unique contributions with little or no regard to their own prior experience or to the efforts of their lesser-known predecessors. Conventional wisdom also places great weight on insight, preconception and design in promoting breakthrough scientific achievements, as if ideas spontaneously pop into one's head – fully formed and functional.

There may be some limited truth to this view. However, as an experimental psychologist and a philosopher of science, we believe that it largely misrepresents the real nature of scientific discovery, as well as creativity and innovation in many other realms of human endeavor.

Setting aside the Darwins and Einsteins – whose monumental contributions are duly celebrated – we suggest that innovation is more a process of trial and error, where two steps forward may sometimes come with one step back, as well as one or more steps to the right or left. Instead of revolution, think evolution. This evolutionary view of human innovation undermines the notion of creative genius and recognizes the cumulative nature of scientific progress.

In a recent book, one of us (ERS) discusses seven little-known scientists whose partly "wrong ideas" yielded major advances in the hands of others.

Read the full article on The Conversation.

Edward A. Wasserman
Stuit Professor of Experimental Psychology
Department of Psychological & Brain Sciences
E222 Seashore Hall
The University of Iowa
Iowa City, IA 52242

Phone:  (319) 335-2445
Fax:  (319) 335-0191
Email: ed-wasserman@uiowa.edu