Anything That Interests Me! :)

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Anything that interests me: Short Reflections on Acts of Insight

I'm supposed to be gearing up to present my thoughts on the New Institutional Economics and reputation mechanisms (in historical institutional analysis) tomorrow to my thesis supervisor, but here I am with a quick reflection on Usher's acts of insight.

As such, I am going to coast along with my smarts ... nah, this part won't fool my friends. I read the relevant materials already and have presented that stuff twice. Please, Lord, let the results turn out in my favour.

By the way, as an additional apropos comment, when I was surverying the literature (that's the academic term for "surfing the net"), I came across blogs devoted to analysis of the cumulative model and other economics fields as well! Lovely! That is a "true contribution to knowledge" :)

In any case, let me get back to Usher's model.

The cumulative synthesis approach to invention states that inventions come about like this:

1. There is a perception of a problem.
2. The stage is set, where data related to the problem is assembled.
3. An act of insight occurs that goes beyond the act of skills committed by professionals (like myself, although as to what kind of professional I am, being trained in economics, history and economic history, is a completely different matter).
4. There is critical revision of the invention, and the process continues.

Now, it doesn't take a genius (like me) to figure out that the really hard bit is the act of insight. The way the problem is perceived or seen is also quite problematic, but it isn't that hard relative to the insight bit. (As the saying goes, fools may often ask more than the wisest can answer. I see quite a lot of that in some of my students, though! Asking questions is generally easier than finding the solutions, although asking the right questions can be hard sometimes.) Collecting the data and setting the stage seems to require a fair bit of work, but it is not that difficult given modern research settings. Critical revision? Long, gruelling work, true enough, but it can be done.

And so it came to pass that I was thinking quite hard about this act of insight. What is it?

Individual insights of a peculiar nature, perhaps? Or maybe merely just a small revision to the received wisdom. I couldn't get a handle around it.

I wonder what it is. What causes it? What helps it along?

As I attended the lecture on science and technology last week, Patrick O'Brien was really funny (making all sorts of derogatory remarks about himself, even). He claimed that some people were destined for heaven, unlike him! He also made a lot of jokes about the Irish, as he's Irish. OK, we had a lot of good laughs and it was after all an introduction to this difficult field with four LSE experts.

But the thing is that he didn't mention what the acts of insight were about, and rarely touched on them. Now that is puzzling because until we know what constitutes an insight, where it comes from, I think the cumulative synthesis model is as much a mysterious model as any other attempts to understanding innovation in science and technology.

I shall sleep on it.

Anything that interests me!

PS My friend Roastbird had an interesting article on his facebook site as well, called "The Truth Wears Off", which is basically "The Decline Effect and Scientific Method". It was about how it becomes hard over time to replicate certain findings and the more you do experiments, the less marked the effects become. Cool stuff; I'd recommend looking up the newyorker to search for Jonah Lehrer's "The Truth Wears Off".

PPS Even a moment's reflection should remind all of us engaged in research work that Lehrer's article is very, very important as a reminder for us. That's because if we are to earn the MSc (Masters of SCIENCE), be it social science or physical science or historical/evolutionary science, those publication implications do indeed impinge on us.