Friday, April 09, 2010

The Chimera of Serendipity

Originally uploaded by martin_kalfatovic
Just the other day I was thinking about serendipity and how its allure leads us to so many false conclusions and belief in the notion that simple wandering in the right area will lead someone to an amazing find.

Right now, I'm specifically thinking of the tired notion of "scholarly serendipity." You know, the researcher  who has been blissfully wandering the stacks of the library, stoops to pick up a loose piece of paper that has fluttererd from his or her notebook and seen the lovely gold-stamped spine of JUST the book they really needed as opposed to those the evil computer has said they must find!

That's an exaggeration of course. The serendipitous scholar will be sure to tell you it was "random roamings" that led them to area of the library where the eureka moment occured, but rather there  own knowledge and skills that took them in the correct general area (be it book stacks or a specific volume) when, voila, that wonderful beast, Serendipity took over and the scholarly problem was solved, enlightened, revealed.

But I don't buy it. humans are blind to the real effects of causality. As Daniel Dennet has shown, the human mind prefers comforting leaps of faith to the cold truth that correlation does not imply causation.

For my first two books I spent hundreds of hours searching computers, going page by page through the National Union Catalog, and blissfully examining every book in the appropriate shelving ranges of the Library of Congress (this was the good old days when regular researchers could have stack access). I found many fascinating nuggets of information that made it into the books. There was a lot of hard, dusty, red-rot work going on, and something that many would call serendipity. But I would disagree. I found the things I found because where I was looking was all very carefully arranged (whether on the shelf, in a book catalog, or viia computer-accessed cataloging). Nothing "lucky", nothing "serendipitous."

So, while I'm thinking about this, I received an email bewailing my scorn for "real libraries" and "serendipity"! How, well, serendipitous!

A point too often made - for many reasons - is that electronic access to the knowledge of humankind will never allow for the type of serendipitous eureka moments that occur by (supposed) random access to things. I would argue that this is a chimera, an impossible and non-existent beast. Those who call on the chimera of serendipity to defend a passing model of library and information science service are victims of their own illusions.

Which, I ask, makes for a better anecdote, the better story to tell at cocktail parties, to tell your students:
  • Yes, I came about the results of my investigations, I achieved my breakthough, because I spent weeks, months, years, plowing through reams of data, turning over every stone, following every false lead, and then, created this!
  • I toiled alone with my research; and then, late one night, while nearly nodding, suddently I wandered to the dictionary stand to look up how to spell "chimera". Slightly tripping over an untied shoelace, I stumbled and the loose lace was snagged in the weathered crack of the bookshelf. As I bent down to free the offending aiglet, my eye caught the cover of an known volume by Poincaré. Ah hah! The genie of genius lit a spark. Archimedes-like I flew back to my desk and wrote.
Science, literature, research, adding to the wealth of human knowledge, is all about hard work. Don't count on serendipity. That de-values the work being done. So much easier to claim the spark of serendipity, the glow of genius and ignore the hard work and sweat. What did Henry Ford say, "Genius is 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration"?

It is, as French mathematician and scientist Henri Poincaré said about the ease in which illusion is accepted, people "know how cruel the truth often is, and we wonder whether illusion is not more consoling.” (The value of science by Henri Poincaré; Bruce Halsted translation, 1907).

And that, in my opinion, explains the ongoing belief in scholarly circles of the chimera of serendipty.

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