Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Does science favor the biased mind?

Most of us in academia (if not more broadly) have heard Louis Pasteur's famous quotation, "In the fields of observation, chance favors only the prepared mind," from his 1854 lecture at the University of Lille. But how is prepared any different from biased in the context of this adage? Indeed, are you not more ready to accept an association (whether it be about science or people) when it includes something that is either explicitly or implicitly familiar? That preparation or bias enables new findings, but it can also hinder you when it leads you to hold on to false hypotheses.

The cover of the April 24th issue of the Princeton Alumni Weekly features the winner of the most recent American Crossword Puzzle Tournament. I haven't done a crossword in years, and word puzzles are far from my expertise. Under normal circumstances, it is a story that I would have ignored in favor of, for example, the side story documenting Anne-Marie Slaughter's decision to become the next President of the New American Foundation. But I read this one first. Why? Because among the many words included on the winning crossword shown on the cover was "OXIDE." Both as a chemist and as the director of OXIDE, I have a strong association with this word. It gives me happy feelings. This bias led me to read the crossword article first before the others. To the extent that each article in a magazine is vying to be read, this means that the crossword puzzle article won the race for my eyeballs. And that only because of an accidental bias that had little to do with the article. The question is how does bias play into my scientific endeavors for good or for bad?


  1. You make an interesting point Rigoberto. Because the scientific literature is so vast, we all make choices about what we will read, either through browsing journals or programming a lit search. Are we missing possible "connecting" bits of data or new concepts because we typically look at what we know already?

  2. David: The issue is exacerbated at meetings and conferences. As our time is limited, we tend to go to the seminars of the people that we already know are doing the "important" work in our field(s) of interest. How often to we force ourselves to attend a full session of contributed talks just to see what's emerging?