On Scientific Taste
By Maria Popova
Cambridge University animal pathology professor W. I. B. Beveridge’s 1957 gem The Art of Scientific Investigation (public library | public domain) is the gift that keeps on giving. After Beveridge’s florilegium of insights on the role of serendipity and chance-opportunism and intuition and the imagination in creativity and scientific discovery, here comes a brilliant meditation on the notion of “scientific taste,” extending, as the rest of the book does, beyond science and into creative culture in general:
Taste can perhaps best be described as a sense of beauty or aesthetic sensibility, and it may be reliable or not, depending on the individual. Anyone who has it simply feels in his mind that a particular line of work is of interest for its own sake and worth following, perhaps without knowing why. How reliable one’s feelings are can be determined only by the results. The concept of scientific taste may be explained in another way by saying that the person who possesses the flair for choosing profitable lines of investigation is able to see further whither the work is leading than are other people, because he has the habit of using his imagination to look far ahead instead of restricting his thinking to established knowledge and the immediate problem. He may not be able to state explicitly his reasons or envisage any particular hypothesis, for he may see only vague hints that it leads towards one or another of several crucial questions.
Taste, Beveridge argues, is a kind of intuition both hard-wired and honed through the practice of one’s craft:
An illustration of taste in non-scientific matters is the choice of words and composition of sentences when writing. Only occasionally is it necessary to check the correctness of the language used by submitting it to grammatical analysis; usually we just ‘feel’ that the sentence is correct or not. The elegance and aptness of the English which is produced largely automatically is a function of the taste we have acquired by training in choice and arrangement of words. In research, taste plays an important part in choosing profitable subjects for investigation, in recognising promising clues, in intuition, in deciding on a course of action where there are few facts with which to reason, in discarding hypotheses that require too many modifications and in forming an opinion on new discoveries before the evidence is decisive.
Although, as with other tastes, people may be endowed with the capacity for scientific taste to varying degrees, it may also be cultivated by training oneself in the appreciation of science, as, for example, in reading about how discoveries have been made. As with other tastes, taste in science will only be found in people with a genuine love of science. Our taste derives from the summation of all that we have learnt from others, experienced and thought.
This last bit, speaking to the combinatorial nature of creativity, is something we’ve heard many times before — from artists, designers, and writers, or the loosely defined “creative world.” So it is especially thrilling to also hear it from a scientist, revealing the same fundamental framework of ideation and thus blurring the unnecessary cultural line between the “rational” or “practical” disciplines, like science, technology, and engineering, and the “creative” ones, like art, design, and literature. To create, after all, is to contribute to the world with “taste,” integrity, and passion for what you do, no matter what your field of mastery.
Published June 19, 2012