Serendipity, Zemblanity, and Dr. Sheldon Cooper

A wise gentleman of my acquaintance told me the other day that I am a “serendipite, as opposed to someone devoted to ‘zemblanity’ who, as William Boyd put it in his novel Armadillo, spends their time making ‘unhappy, unlucky and expected discoveries occurring by design’.”

The word serendipity comes to us from Voltaire, who called Sri Lanka “Serendip” in his novel Zadig. In science, it means how the factor of luck or happenstance can affect discoveries (like the famous story of the bread mold spores that accidentally contaminated a petrie dish containing a culture of staphyloccocus bacteria and killed the bacteria, leading to the discovery of penicillin).

Pasteur said that “luck favors the prepared mind,” meaning that serendipity can only occur when one is able and willing to notice it. The social sciences, according to Robert Merton, rely heavily on serendipity, which he defines as “the fairly common experience of observing an unanticipated, anomalous and strategic datum which becomes the occasion for developing a new theory or for extending an existing theory.”

I am a fan of The Big Bang Theory, a TV sitcom about four nerdy, brilliant scientists. The most brilliant is a theoretical physicist called Dr. Sheldon Cooper (he never introduces himself without emphasizing the “Doctor,” even though almost all his friends have doctorates too) who also has Asperger’s Syndrome. I think of Sheldon as the ultimate product of the logical positivist outlook in Western science and philosophy, which teaches that only things that can be physically measured, plus the “logical and mathematical treatments of such data, are together the exclusive source of all authentic knowledge.” We know it is “authentic knowledge” when the data can be verified by repeated experiments that always yield the same results.

I have no problem with this theory when it comes to the physical world, to those things that can be measured and described by science. But it falls apart pretty quickly when we come to people. I came to this conclusion when I spent two years reading hundreds of papers on experiments on people done by psychologists and sociologists trying oh so hard to be “scientific” and “rigorous” about their work –I suspect so that they would be taken seriously by people like Dr. Sheldon Cooper. The problem was, almost all their data still turned out to be “anomalous” and “unexpected,” and so they were forced to conclude that they couldn’t conclude anything.

I concluded something else from reading these studies: that the positivist approach is useless for studying people. Oh, you can study the physical bits of people just fine. But when it comes to the mind and human behavior, there are more “outlying” data than data that can be confirmed through experiment. Worse, there are experiences. Ever since people realized that experience can lie — for example, that the sun may look like it goes around the earth, but it’s really the other way around — scientists have been suspicious of it. Experience is “anecdotal evidence” that cannot be verified. Even if a whole lot of other people also had the same experience at the same time, all of them could have been suffering some kind of delusion. A real scientist or positivist will only believe them if a machine was also present and measured it somehow.

But neuroscientists are now having to admit that people base their beliefs and actions on experience. And we don’t remember experiences as they really happened, but by how we felt about them. It’s experience plus our feelings about our experiences that make us who we are. And for most of us, all the logical arguing in the world will not shift us one millimeter from those feelings. But a single experience that contradicts them will change us. Even Dr. Sheldon Cooper got over his illogical phobia of birds, caused by a series of negative experiences as a child, after one positive experience.

And that is why I left the sciences and went to the humanities — a word that Dr. Sheldon Cooper can only pronounce with loathing. The humanities are the opposite of positivism. The humanities embrace and celebrate the anomalous and unexpected. The humanities are the science of being human.

Dr. Sheldon Cooper and I agree that this is not “science” at all. He stops there, as for him there is nothing beyond science. Yet he plays music and loves movies and comic books. Whenever he’s not “doing science” he is, in fact, seeking experiences. He just doesn’t think those experiences are worth studying, because they can’t be studied scientifically. Instead, he is spending his life trying to prove a theory that he’s already convinced is true. The greatest goal he can imagine is “an expected discovery occurring by design.” He is a zemblanite.

But I wonder: the writers of the show are, after all, writers; products of the humanities, artists of the human soul. Will they give Sheldon an experience of serendipity so powerful that even he can’t ignore it?

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