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Things that sound good but aren’t quite right: Art and research edition

There are a lot of things you can say that sound very sensible but, upon reflection, are missing something.

For example consider this blog comment from Chris G:

Years ago I heard someone suggest these three questions for assessing a work of art:

1. What was the artist attempting to do?
2. Were they successful?
3. Was it worth doing?

I think those apply equally well to assessing research.

The idea of applying these same standards to research as to art, that was interesting. And the above 3 questions sounded good too—at first. But then I got to thinking about all sorts of art and science that didn’t fit the above rules. As I wrote:

There are many cases of successful art, and for that matter successful research, that were created by accident, where the artist or researcher was just mucking around, or maybe just trying to do something to pay the bills, and something great came out of it.

I’m not saying you’ll get much from completely random mucking around of the monkeys-at-a-typewriter variety. And in general I do believe in setting goals and working toward them. But artistic and research success often does seem to come in part by accident, or as a byproduct of some other goals.


  1. Tom says:

    Chris’s 3 questions sound like the opening scene of Dead Poets’.Society.

  2. There are also possibilities between mucking around and working toward a goal (and involving a combination of the two). An artist may have several goals in tension with each other–and may play around quite a bit when negotiating them. Some of the goals might not be fully conscious, or might come up when the work is in progress.

  3. Rahul says:

    Isn’t the idea generic and applies to spheres beyond art & research: Many successful industries today started out wanting to sell a very different product.

    People get success in fields very distant from their college major. Et cetra.

  4. Kay says:

    I’d like to note that assessing works of art purely by the artist’s intent is (more-or-less) dead within contemporary art criticism. Works of art can affect people far beyond what an artist could have conceived of sort of like how great scientific papers can create new fields of research beyond what the authors could have foreseen.

  5. I think normal science (in Kuhnian sense) is a result of setting goals and working toward them. However an accident is often what triggers scientific revolutions. Consider for example the discovery of penicillin. Had Sir Alexander Fleming not left dirty lab dishes in the sink while he was away on holiday he would not have discovered it.

  6. Ethan Bolker says:

    This discussion reminds me of Poincare’a discussion of (mathematical) creativity. Here’s the well known example. Read the rest at

    For fifteen days I strove to prove that there could not be any functions like those I have
    since called Fuchsian functions. I was then very ignorant; every day I seated myself at my
    work table, stayed an hour or two, tried a great number of combinations and reached no
    results. One evening, contrary to my custom, I drank black coffee and could not sleep.
    Ideas rose in crowds; I felt them collide until pairs interlocked, so to speak, making a stable
    combination. But the next morning I had established the existence of a class of Fuchsian functions, those which come from the hypergeometric series; I had only to write out the
    results, which took but a few hours.

    Then I wanted to represent these functions by a quotient of two series; this idea was
    perfectly conscious and deliberate, the analogy with elliptic functions guided me. I asked
    myself what properties these series must have if they existed, and I succeeded without
    difficulty in forming the series I have called theta-Fuchsian.

    Just at this time I left Caen, where I was then living, to go on a geological excursion under
    the auspices of the school of mines. The changes of travel made me forget my mathematical work. Having reached Coutances, we entered an omnibus to go some place or other. At
    the moment when I put my foot on the step the idea came to me, without anything in my
    former thoughts seeming to have paved the way for it, that the transformations I had used
    to define the Fuchsian functions were identical with those of non-Euclidean geometry. I
    did not verify the idea; I should not have had time, as, upon taking my seat in the omnibus,
    I went on with a conversation already commenced, but I felt a perfect certainty. On my
    return to Caen, for conscience’ sake I verified the result at my leisure.

  7. John says:

    I wonder if any of the “big” breakthroughs (xrays is a good example) were products of a directed attempt or of the “stumbled across” variety?

    Or, at least what % of the top 100 “Greatest Pieces of Research” came about while stumbling about?


  8. Clyde Schechter says:

    I think that individual research projects need goals, and plans for reaching those goals. That’s not to say that something may pop up along the way that calls for a change in those goals or plans, but without them as a starting point, you’re likely to end up spinning your wheels.

    Art or mathematics is a different kettle of fish, and goals and plans may or may not be helpful in different circumstances.

    For life writ large, however, I think goals and plans are way overrated. Most of the goals I set for myself in life have not been achieved, and I regret most of those that have. But my life has been quite happy and fruitful, responding to opportunities whose existence I never even imagined until they appeared.

  9. Alex Gamma says:

    All the major psychiatric drugs were discovered by happy accidents or while their discoverers were looking for sth else.

  10. Rahul says:

    Its like just because NASA technology spill over might have serendipitously led to (say) better trauma bandages it doesn’t mean that when one needs better bandages one starts a space program.

  11. Peter Erwin says:

    Years ago I heard someone suggest these three questions …

    These were, as it happens, originally articulated by Johan Wolfgang von Goethe.

    There are many cases of successful art, and for that matter successful research, that were created by accident …

    Do have some specific examples in mind for the “cases of successful art”?

    • maxim says:

      There is a Popperian distinction between the “context of discovery” and “context of justification” (or may be, in some cases, “context of rejection”). May be “creating” is a matter of luck followed by the process quality assurance – a selection process, where the more you kill the better is what’s left. It is true though that the “lucky guesses” of a genius are often more “lucky” than the lucky guesses of a less talented person.

      If it is the “context of discovery” we are talking about, are there many cases of “successful art” that was _not_ created by accident? If it is the context of “justification” or “rejection”, is there anything that was “purely accidental”?

    • Chris G says:

      > These were, as it happens, originally articulated by Johan Wolfgang von Goethe.

      Wow, something from Freshman philosophy stuck! (IIRC, we got a good dose of Goethe.)

      > Do have some specific examples in mind for the “cases of successful art”?

      That came to my mind also. Once upon a time I was serious about black and white photography. I spent a lot of time looking at Weston’s prints. (And others too. I note Weston because I’m particularly fond of his work.) Serendipity probably played a role in some of his prints but there’s nothing accidental about his body of work. And as far as serendipity goes I think of Michael Jordan’s reply when someone noted how he made so many ‘lucky’ shots: “It’s amazing how lucky you get when you practice all the time.”

  12. Peter Dorman says:

    It seems obvious to me that having a well-structured intentionality and also being open to surprise are both aspects of a good research process. The interesting question is about teaching. I’ve just come off two years of teaching research methods to masters students about to begin their thesis work. Of course, a big part of my message was about clarifying your project—identifying your variables, the logical structure of your work, etc.—as early in the game as possible. Too many students want to wade into a research topic and just slosh around. On the other hand, it would be crazy to foreclose the possibility of stumbling onto unexpected and powerful observations or insights. So how does one teach this? My approach was to stress that the research process is iterative even as you’re in the middle of it; you constantly reassess it in light of what you’re finding. I don’t feel that quite captures it, however, and I’ve been ruminating on the topic ever since.

    In one form or another, the tension between having a well-defined program and being open to unexpected leads keeps reappearing in the classroom. Maybe there’s not much more to be said about it: it’s a tension.

  13. Chris G says:

    I’ll restate my clarification of those three questions:

    “[What] was the artist attempting to do?” is a challenge to the viewer to bring something to the table. It’s not meant to provoke a judgmental response. The idea is for the observer to think about what the creator (artist, scientist, other) had in mind when they created their work. One can look for “Big Picture” intent and/or specific intent behind a particular piece. (There may be no Big Picture intent behind a work created when just mucking around but I think that there’s specific intent behind most work even if it’s just “I discovered something aesthetically appealing to me and I took it as far as it would go.” )

    “Were they successful?” is an opportunity for some semblance of objectivity – at least an attempt at it. Sometimes you think you see what the artist had in mind but they didn’t quite pull it off. Other times you see a composition that nails it.

    “Was it worth doing?” has no pretense of objectivity. You like what you like and don’t what you don’t. For example, you could acknowledge an artist’s or scientist’s technical skill in creating something but not be taken with the result. Conversely, you might encounter a work which is technically flawed but which opens your eyes to something you’d never considered before thereby making it something which was worth doing.

    Ref –

  14. Chris G says:

    Off-topic: Has anyone read Hasok Chang’s “Is Water H2O? Evidence, Realism, and Pluralism”? I started it last night.

    • Rob says:

      I had a very quick skim. I found this towards the end:
      “Yes, water is H2O. It is also an electrostatic combination of electropositive hydrogen and electronegative oxygen, which can be broken up with a battery. It is also a one-to-one combination of hydrogen and oxygen “atoms” (in the weight-only system). It is also an element from which one can produce hydrogen and oxygen gases by the addition or subtraction of phlogiston.”
      It makes me sad when philosophers delve into science and get the science wrong. The historical parts may be of interest to a chemist. I wouldn’t recommend it to the audience of this blog. (My long ago undergrad degree included a lot of chemistry.)

    • Keith O'Rourke says:

      I found it quite interesting (though unlike Rob, I have no background in chemistry but also I think he skimmed things far to thinly as Chang was just trying to show how phlogiston could have explained things).

      And the chapter on Active Realism is required reading for this nice paper

      (And, and its an introduction the CS Peirce’s philosophy.)

    • Wow, a whole book on this topic? I guess that’s how philosophers roll. Back when I taught philosophy of language at Carnegie Mellon (with Teddy Seidenfeld, a “real” philosopher—I was the linguist half of the team), I always spent at least one whole day on Hilary Putnam’s classic paper “Meaning and Reference”, which used this question as an example; Wikipedia has a summary of Putnam’s twin earth thought experiment and Stanford’s encyclopedia of philosophy has a long entry on natural kinds.

      Putnam’s paper cemented my break from logical positivism and empiricism much more than Quine’s “Two dogmas” did. I can pretty much trace that paper to the reason I embraced pragmatism (look that one up yourself) and a more human-cognitive-agent approach to meaning and language as a communicative device.

      More recently, I was quite taken with Peter Ludlow’s approach to the “dynamic lexicon”, where meaning is more of a negotiated social construct than a platonic natural kind. He’s since finished his book, but semantics and philosophy are much more of a hobby these days than a profession!

      • Keith O'Rourke says:

        > “Wow, a whole book on this topic? I guess that’s how philosophers roll.”

        No, much if not most of the book is on history – “this book offers a rare combination of philosophy, history and science in a bid to improve scientific knowledge through history and philosophy of science.”

        • I love the philosophy of science. But my feeling is pretty much that if you have to justify your science with philosophy, the science isn’t ready for prime time. The focus on philosophy of science over substantive predictive theories is why I got out of the field of linguistics (if not the study of language), which Chomsky ruined by introducing the competence vs. performance distinction in Aspects of the Theory of Syntax back in the 1960s.

          • Keith O'Rourke says:

            > “if you have to justify your science with philosophy”
            How else would you justify science without implicitly having a philosophy of it?

            > “which Chomsky ruined”
            That may be true, but not permanently?

            We all have to choose how to spend our time and I can certainly accept that many do not find it helpful in what they do – to read much if any philosophy.

            • If you can predict when the tides come in, build machines that can see into the body, can cure infections, and can build transistors and then computers, who needs philosophical justifications—the practical justifications are overwhelming. On the other hand, if your science isn’t good for anything, all the philosophy in the world isn’t going to help make it better science.

              I’ve spent a lot of time doing philosophy. I love the stuff, particularly the philosophy of science and semantics/epistemology. Philosophy of science takes science as its field of study, but it’s not necessary for doing science. Sociology is the same—people don’t need sociologists to be social any more than scientists need philosophers of science to do science.

              I sure hope there’s a future for lingusitics—it’s a fascinating object of study. But academia can become very self-referential and inbred when the same people have controlled it for 50 years and all of their students and students’ students control all the journals and grant agencies (not that there’s much money in linguistics, per se).

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