In her new book, Genius Unmasked, Roberta B. Ness picks apart our greatest scientific minds — from Darwin’s to Einstein’s — to assemble a cognitive tool box that anyone can use.
Tool #11: Frame Shifting
Normal thinking is constrained by habitual patterns that linguists call “frames.” Frames are a structure of expectations that we use to interpret new information. They allow us to think and speak in a common and highly efficient shorthand consisting of assumed norms. Without frames, scientists would constantly have to check their suppositions before every thought or action. Working within a frame-free scientific world would mean having to start every experiment from first principles. For all practical purposes, it would be paralyzing.
At the same time, frames are intrinsically constraining. In a recent experiment, subjects were asked to devise solutions to rising crime in a community after reading a brief description. When the narrative characterized crime as a contagion, respondents proposed social solutions such as reducing poverty and increasing education. When crime was described metaphorically as a beast, subjects selected punitive legal interventions. This and other experiments show us that our beliefs, attitudes, and actions are guided by the way in which situations are framed.
Consider what it would have been like to be a scientist working before Robert Koch, Louis Pasteur, and others formalized germ theory in the 1860s and 1870s.
Microscopy had been available since 1670 when Anton Van Leeuwenhoek visualized cells within plants and animals and discovered bacteria. But what did the presence of such bacteria mean? Today, of course, we would immediately know that the microorganisms within diseased tissues were pathogenic agents. Yet scientists working prior to the development of germ theory had no frame for such an interpretation. Instead, they were steeped in the idea of bacterial spontaneous generation. If bacteria mysteriously arose in fetid meat, wouldn’t the same agents simply arise without a source in human organs? Only after Pasteur and Koch established that specific diseases are caused by specific bacteria did scientists and clinicians have a frame for understanding the genesis and spread of infectious diseases. Before that revolutionary innovation, disease seemed to appear out of nowhere and thus could never be prevented. Afterward, Joseph Lister spearheaded antisepsis.
Darwin overturned the frame (in science also called a “paradigm”) of creationism and replaced it with evolution. Rutherford shattered the paradigm that atoms are immutable and replaced it with evidence of a world of subatomic particles. Montessori upended the assumption that elders must dispense knowledge to children and instead demonstrated that children can be their own best teachers.
In his classic discussion of the process of science, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn distinguished between “normal science” and “scientific revolutions.” What the great majority of scientists engage in, he argued, is a process of refining and elaborating agreed-upon theories. Said another way, Kuhn argued that in normal science, the frame is sacrosanct. Kuhn called revolutionary innovations “paradigm shifts.” He imagined them as infrequent, periodic disruptions, representing insights that fundamentally altered the scientific worldview. We would call these frame breaks, but either terminology suggests upending fundamental assumptions about nature, a prospect with unknown, even alarming consequences.
Not everyone agrees with Kuhn’s monolithic view of frame shifts. Other scholars, including Stephen Toulmin in his book Human Understanding, have argued that normal science, too, is textured with innovation. Advances, according to Toulmin, may occur through the slow erosion of beliefs rather than by the sudden obliteration of convictions.
Roberta Ness is an internationally renowned physician-scientist and author of over 300 scientific papers and books. She is a member of the Institute of Medicine National Academies of Science, a Fellow of the American College of Physicians, a Fellow of the American College of Epidemiology, and a frequent advisor to the National Institutes of Health, Department of Defense, and Centers for Disease Control. She is a past President of the American College of Epidemiology and President of the American Epidemiology Society.
Featured image credit: Sunset, Croatia, by beba. Public domain via Pixabay.