Curiosities and coincidences are two more strategies for achieving insight discussed by Gary Klein in his book Seeing What Others Don’t: The Remarkable Ways We Gain Insight. Curiosities provoke people to investigate what is going on here, which often lead to impressive discoveries. A famous example of this is the way in which Alexander Fleming stumbled upon the disease-fighting properties of penicillin. He had been growing colonies of Staphylococcus in petri dishes. When he returned from vacation a month later he found that one of the petri dishes had gotten contaminated with a mold. The Staphylococcus bacteria in the vicinity of the mold had gotten destroyed, whereas the bacteria in the other dishes had not. So Fleming cultured the mold and found that it contained an infection-fighting substance. He first called it mold juice and found that it killed many other bacteria. Further research lead to the discovery of penicillin, which was the world’s first antibiotic.
The discovery of X-rays by Wilhelm Roentgen is another example of an insight developed through a curiosity. He had been investigating cathode rays and was using a cardboard covering to prevent light from escaping his apparatus. He noticed a barium platinocyanide screen across the room was glowing when his apparatus discharge cathode rays despite the cardboard covering. After several weeks of further investigation he convinced himself that he had found some new form of light, which was termed the X-ray. Initially his discovery was met with skepticism by the scientific community. So two points can be drawn from this story. One is that considerable knowledge, in this case scientific, might be required for a curiosity to be noticed. Secondly, insights might not be appreciated, at least, initially.
Klein’s sample of 120 cases of insight contained only 9 cases of curiosities. Coincidences occurred slightly more frequently, occurring in 12 of the cases. Now we frequently notice coincidences. The problem is that by statistical chance alone many coincidences naturally occur. We tend to be too sensitive and see connections that are not real. The key here is to identify coincidences that might have important implications even if they didn’t know yet what those implications might be. However, sometimes the implications are quite clear.
In preparing for their 1998 Super Bowl appearance against the Green Bay Packers, the Denver Bronco coaching staff noticed that one of the Green Bay defensive backs, Leroy Butler, was getting in on the action even when he should have been elsewhere on the field. Although the coaches never figured how Butler was able to do this, they did create defensive schemes so that he would always be blocked and that different players would block him. The end result was that the Denver Broncos won the Super Bowl.
For a very long time ulcers were thought to be the result of stress. Barry Marshall, an Australian physician, discovered that Helicobacter pylori causes not only ulcers but also stomach cancer. For this he was awarded the Nobel Prize ub 2005. In his acceptance speech he quoted the historian Daniel Boorstein: “The greatest obstacle to knowledge is not ignorance; it is the illusion of knowledge.”
Actually there was not that much empirical evidence that stress caused ulcers, but it was an intuitively appealing theory. Marshall made his discovery working with a pathologist, Robert Warren. Warren had noticed earlier that the gut could be overrun by a corkscrew-shaped bacterium that had to be hardy to survive in the acid-filled stomach environment. Warren found them in twenty patients who’d been biopsied because their physicians thought they might have cancer. Although they didn’t have cancer, they all had the bacterium. Marshall and Warren noticed this coincidence. Marshall went on to probe this coincidence by investigating these twenty patients to see if they had anything wrong with them. He found one of his former patients who had complained to him of nausea and chronic stomach pain. Nothing had shown up from the previous tests, so she had been sent to a psychiatrist, who put her on an antidepressant. And here she was a patient with chronic stomach pain and the corkscrew bacterium Further research led to additional evidence that the corkscrew bacterium was what caused stomach ulcers and stomach cancer. Although this theory was initially met with skepticism, it was eventually accepted and led to a Nobel Prize.
Walter Reed and the discovery that yellow fever was spread by bites from a certain type of mosquito is another example of a thoroughly studied coincidence that was validated. A French-Scottish physician, Juan Carlos Finlay, who had worked in Cuba for decades, had formed the mosquito hypothesis on coincidence. Where there was certain type of mosquito, the Culex now called the Aedes, there was yellow fever. If that type of mosquito was not present, there was no yellow fever. When Reed let for Cuba he was told by his supervisor to ignore the mosquito hypothesis because it had been disproven. The medical community was convinced that yellow fever was caused by unsanitary conditions and miasma (bad air). It should be noted that prior to Reed’s arrival in Cuba, there was data that contradicted the sanitation/miasma hypothesis. But this contradiction was ignored (more about contradictions in the next post).
Reed found additional evidence, discrediting the sanitation/miasma hypothesis and supporting the moquito hypothesis. Still, people found it difficult believing that a mosquito could kill a full-grown man. Two of the researchers, Jesse Lazear and James Carroll agreed to experiment on themselves with Reed’s permission. They let a mosquito bit someone with yellow fever, waited twelve days, an incubation period, and then let the mosquito bite them. The experiment worked in dramatic fashion. Both came down with yellow fever. Unfortunately, Lazear got it so severely that he died. James Carroll became delirious but recovered. More controlled experiments were done to convincingly demonstrate that Culex mosquitoes transmitted yellow fever.