ISSUE-034

Many important discoveries or creations are accidental: it is usually while seeking the answer to one question that we come across the answer to another.


Write a response in which you discuss the extent to which you agree or disagree with the statement and explain your reasoning for the position you take. In developing and supporting your position, you should consider ways in which the statement might or might not hold true and explain how these considerations shape your position.


Many scientific discoveries are seemingly accidental. That is, they accidentally arise from the efforts to seek answers to other questions. Is this prevalent in every aspect of life? From my point of view, the answer is largely positive to everyday-life discoveries, although I hold some reservations to certain scientific disciplines that are hypothesis driven.


To begin with, not all discoveries are accidental. In many fields of science, discoveries are the products of painstaking efforts involving well-articulated hypotheses and carefully designed experiments. In such scenarios, the answer is designed to be straightforward and only relevant to the hypothesis in question. For example, in order to evaluate the effect of a newly developed medicine, a random experiment and subsequent statistical analysis are needed to test the hypothesis that the medicine of interest works. To do so, everything other than the use of medicine itself must be the same to reduce uncertainty. The scope of the experimenting efforts in this case has been so much reduced that there is little room for accidental discoveries to emerge.


However, there are many cases in which significant discoveries are accidentally made. In many science fields there may not be a clear and well-defined hypothesis. Instead, we are looking for patterns hidden in the sea of data. In the process of data gathering, many unexpected results can be discovered. Under another circumstance, the question of interest could be a pure theoretical problem, the answer to which can accidentally have a far-reaching consequence in other fields. John Nash’s game theory is a convincing example. First treated as a mathematical endeavor, game theory has provided answers to many problems in economics and behavior science. Another case in point is the discovery of placebo effect, which is the un-anticipated product of a well-controlled experiment. Therefore, even in science where meticulous methodology and rigorous experimental control are the norm, important discoveries can be, and in many cases are indeed, accidental.


Outside of science, as a consequence, it is even more common for discoveries to emerge unexpectedly because of the lack of aforementioned constraints in the design of experiments. Columbus for example accidentally found North America while seeking an alternate path to the Far East. The advent of mobile internet is solving the problem of traffic congestion, largely by accident, as the software monitors the real-time traffic and finds an optimal route. These two examples demonstrate that in our society, an effort or an invention could lead to a new discovery or an answer to a different question. Fundamentally speaking, this is because the aspects of our life have become so deeply intertwined and widely interconnected, it is almost natural that certain things share a common solution. Such a connection most of the time only emerges in hindsight, giving the impression that we come across the answer to one question while seeking to solve a different.


To summarize, while it is true that in many fields of science an answer to the question is what we initially look for due to the nature of scientific endeavors, in the larger domain of life, this is no longer the case. Instead, because of the interconnected nature of our life and society, answers to one question will almost inevitably touch on other issues. Therefore, it becomes increasingly natural that important discoveries are seemingly accidental.

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