Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Conceptual and experimental innovators in science and Galenson's creative types

I just read the Wired article "What Kind of Genius are You?" by Daniel H. Pink from 2006 about University of Chicago economist David Galenson's then recently published book "Old Masters and Young Geniuses: The Two Life Cycles of Artistic Creativity". It's a tad old, and I have lost the source of the link, but it's definitely worth reading, and I just had to write a blog post about it.

Reading the article, I felt intellectually buffeted by the force of Galenson's hypothesis and its apparent explanatory power, similar to the way I felt the first time I read Kuhn's "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions." Galenson's idea arises from studies of artists' lifetime production (well, he is a economist) and is this: there are two essential types of creative artists, the "conceptual" innovators" and the "experimental innovators". The conceptual innovators make dramatic leaps in their fields, often doing so at early ages after which their production declines. The second type, "experimental innovators" instead often take much longer to develop their most significant output, spending a long time developing and experimenting with techniques. Conceptual innovators seem to 'know' where they're going and where they want to take the field, whereas experimental innovators don't, and evolve bit by bit, letting the work develop and seeing where it takes them:

Picasso and Cézanne represent radically different approaches to creation. Picasso thought through his works carefully before he put brush to paper. Like most conceptualists, he figured out in advance what he was trying to create. The underlying idea was what mattered; the rest was mere execution. The hallmark of conceptualists is certainty. They know what they want. And they know when they’ve created it. Cézanne was different. He rarely preconceived a work. He figured out what he was painting by actually painting it. “Picasso signed virtually everything he ever did immediately,” Galenson says. “Cézanne signed less than 10 percent.”

Experimentalists never know when their work is finished. As one critic wrote of Cézanne, the realization of his goal “was an asymptote toward which he was forever approaching without ever quite reaching.” (p.2).
Now, I immediately starting thinking about how this might apply to different scientists. I am convinced that there are many parallels between how artists work and how scientists work. That's not suprising, as both are intensely creative human endeavors, and probably many scientists would agree. Could this be another region where there are significant parallels between artists and scientists?

I say yes, but exactly how meaningful these categories are remain to be examined (and is rife with all the difficulties of measuring the output of scientists). But I definitely think there are conceptual and experimental innovator types among scientists, at times manifested in their approach to questions. There are those who are good at coming up with new hypotheses and models when the hard data to make any of those connections is weak or even non-existant. This might lead to a lot of negative experiments, but if you can do it right and you hit on something new, then significant progress can be made. In fact this led me back to Kuhn, regarding those scientists who develop the new paradigm must buy into it before there is significant data to show it's better than the current (think Copernicus pushing the heliocentric model of the solar system before it performed better than the Ptolemaic model-it took ~80 years and Kepler to make the heliocentric model perform better).

But the other approach is to take a subject of interest, and just start doing experiments, and try and let the results 'talk' to you, leading you to the next experiment. At some point, if you're lucky and perceptive, you have a decent shot of seeing something that isn't expected, and is the first step in the path towards a significant advance forward.

I'll be the first to admit that I am firmly in the second camp, and am an avowed experimentalist (hard to call myself an innovator). For just about all the projects I've worked on, I've decided on a particular subject or subfield, and then started to do experiments.

In my view, both of the approaches are valid and useful, and in principle I don't think either has an inherent greater probability of leading to something "new." I sometimes wonder though whether the slow approach, might produce something in the end which is perceived as being less shocking simply by virtue of the fact that all of the preceding experiments made the final result likely, or even inevitable. With the conceptual innovator, it's more obvious when "before" and "after" occurred. In that case, is the conceptual approach more likely to garner the attention needed for publication in a high profile journal? This might be taking things too far, but I suspect there is something to it.

Of course, the dichotomy between the two types isn't anywhere near complete. Conceptualists aren't making up things willy-nilly, totally disregarding all that has come before. And experimentalists must have some sort of model, however implicit, or else how would they choose among the infinite number of possible experiments. Galenson himself has said there are certainly people who straddle the extremes. Yet there are strong tendencies, and I wonder how far the concept can be extended to scientists.

So, my small and somewhat reticent readers: Are you a conceptual or an experimental innovator?


PhysioProf said...

I am definitely an experimental innovator. My laboratory always has dozens and dozens of "ideas" in the pipeline, only a few of which at any time end up leading somewhere valuable.

River Tam said...

I'm definitely conceptual...though I find the possibly of burning out early a little unnerving. Perhaps I should agitate to go up for early tenure!

Arlenna said...

Whoa, I don't know which I am--there are aspects of the way I work in both those types. I guess I probably lean more towards the experimental, but I certainly have no problem deciding something is "done" and complete to some point. I have a bazillion things going on at once, but I comfortably and happily make various chunks as 'mini-projects' with varying degrees of individual innovation...

I'm gonna have to go with experimental conceptualist.

Nat Blair said...

I am wondering more and more about this. Though there is something that clicks in my head when reading Galenson's theory vis-a-vis scientists, it seems very muddied. I'm gonna have to read Galenson's book and then think more about it.

One significant difference between the work of scientists and artists is that ultimately, the data rule. So regardless of how conceptual you might be, the experiment must be done, and the result must govern the resulting knowledge.

Still, I can think of those scientists who are somewhat looser with the gray areas and the slight inconsistencies which exist in any story (but especially at early phase of the problem). Those people I'd put into conceptual types. People who are more apt to obsess over those details are more in line with my understanding of the experimental type.

Dr. Jekyll & Mrs. Hyde said...

The other difference b/n science and art is that you can conceive of doing something scientifically but not be able to carry it out experimentally, but that's a less common problem in art (ok, maybe with the exception of installation art).

Perhaps architects are closer to scientists in this regard?

That said, I think I tilt conceptual, but the realities of bench science make me more of an experimentalist by default--when I can't do the experiment I want to do, I'd better find something interesting in the experiment I can do!

juniorprof said...

I am a conceptualist (not sure if I'd classify it as an innovator). One problem I find with my orientation toward science is staying focused. It is very easy to gain some evidence for your "concept" and very rapidly become quite bored with it. It can also make grant writing a bit of a chore. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy writing grants but my reviewers (the ones at the uni that look at them before they go off to the agency) often get after me for being overly broad and not zeroing in on looking at a mechanism from multiple angles. I can grasp the importance of this but find writing sections of grants such as these utterly boring. I would rather write the aims and significance of 50 "concepts" than write about the details of experiment of one (and I think its likely you could find examples of this on my hard-drive).

Anyway, I think one needs to find a balance between these aspects in todays climate of ultracompetitive funding and the (I think absurd) demands of hitting a problem from every angle to get a paper in a top flight journal.