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.”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?
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).
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?