Scientific Anomalies and How the Mind Manages Them
Date: Saturday, October 04, 2008 @ 23:37:51 EDT
Topic: Science

Excerpts from the Keynote Address For Festschrift in Honor of the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research (PEAR) Lab’s Twentieth Anniversary -- By Elizabeth Lloyd Mayer, Ph.D.

... PEAR’s work hasn’t had an altogether easy reception in some of the quarters which house mainstream science. That’s no surprise to anybody who makes a business of scientific anomalies. Anomalies don’t invite widespread acceptance until they’ve stopped being anomalous. That’s normal science and it’s old news.

But I want today to suggest that just because it’s old news doesn’t mean it’s not worth a fresh look as interesting news. A fresh look that turns it into interesting news may do us the particular favor of enabling us to move beyond all those tired arguments over whether or not work like that being done at PEAR belongs in the register of what mainstream science likes to call science. Those are by now very tired arguments. As arguments they’re boring. They rarely convince anyone of anything and worse, they have a peculiarly draining quality which usually leads me to feel with Melville’s Bartelby the Scrivener that, invited to engage, I Prefer Not.

So I’m suggesting we abandon the argument strategy and go a different route. Not argument. Nor its frequent alternative: pessimistic retreat. I’m suggesting we mobilize our respective capacities for finding things interesting and maximally engage the problem of how the scientific mind manages anomalies as a frankly fascinating phenomenon. I think the pay-off may be considerable. We may learn some useful things about the human mind. We may learn some useful things about how to communicate with colleagues. We may even learn a thing or two about the nature of the anomalies which lie at the heart of what occupies some of us.

Now at this point it’s only fair to back up and tell you I’m a psychoanalyst. Worse – a few other respectable credentials notwithstanding – I’m an old-fashioned, Freudian-trained psychoanalyst who hasn’t seen fit to recant. I haven’t recanted because, once the mountains of chaff have been lifted from what’s accumulated as the body of psychoanalytic knowledge, there remain a few key truths which function – I find – as remarkably powerful tools for understanding a number of things about people. Especially relevant for the question of why, in considering work like PEAR’s, normally open-minded scientists sometimes display astonishing defiance of the open-mindedness to which they’re in principle devoted: psychoanalytic thinking nourishes an ineluctable fascination with why people resist certain ideas and experiences in ways that are not only tenacious but in ways that at times run directly counter to their own interests. People resist all kinds of things as if their lives depended on it. But there’s an intriguing irony. It’s often precisely the things people most vigorously resist which stand a chance at turning them into happier people. It’s the patent self-destructiveness of the ways they resist which is so impressive. When people recognize the self-destructiveness of their resistances, it's remarkable how often and how quickly they find ways to give them up. Helping them get to the point where they choose to do that is the challenge which psychoanalysis has made a fine art of exploring.

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