Saturday, March 17, 2012

22 October 2010 – Innovation, organization, and monsters


As we all know, science is about innovation.  We heard many times this week that our role as scientists on the public payroll is to “challenge assumptions”, to come up with novel solutions to “hard problems”, and to determine the “boundaries of the possible”.  Given the proximity of Samhain, I couldn’t help being reminded of a scientist who excelled in all of these things:

Victor Frankenstein.

The well-known tale takes place around the turn of the 18th Century.  Stricken by the death of his mother, Frankenstein, a young Swiss-born scientist, identifies death as a “hard problem” (no argument there).  During the course of his university studies, he focuses on the decay of life, and eventually hits upon galvanism - which, having been pioneered by Luigi Galvani in the 1780s and 1790s, certainly qualified at the time as an “emerging technology” - as a means of reanimating dead flesh.  Frankenstein is the epitome of scientific inquiry, unafraid of challenging conventional wisdom, impassioned by the big questions, a polymath, and a skilled and knowledgeable generalist with profound knowledge and expertise in his areas of specialization.

He demonstrates a wide array of multidisciplinary scientific skills, delving into the realms of the mechanical physicist, the electrical engineer, the cranial surgeon, the professional ‘resurrectionist’ (i.e., grave-robber), the butcher, and the seamstress.  Eventually - despite significant difficulties in obtaining both recognition and funding for his ground-breaking (no pun intended) research - he manages to assemble the materials necessary to conduct an empirical test of his hypotheses.  Things go rather badly wrong after that, of course, but I’m sure you’ll agree that, up until the whole “murderous rampaging undead horror” thing, Frankenstein exemplified the passion for science and the drive to excel to which we all aspire.  We owe him, at the very least, an “E” for effort.  And let’s not forget that he was a generous boss, happy to provide employment opportunities for the differently-abled.  Igor was not exactly on the management fast-track.

Now, as we all know, Frankenstein was a bit of a loner.  As is often the case with mavericks, he was laughed out of the scientific communities of Europe and accused of all manner of transgressions of scientific ethics.  Some of the accusations, of course, were true; but at the end of the day, he validated his hypotheses through experiment and observation.  He was right, and being right is what science is supposed to be all about.  

So the question that arises is, if he followed the scientific method and proved beyond any doubt that he was right, why was he shunned?  Was it his propensity for haunting graveyards?  His penchant for “disturbing, with profane fingers, the tremendous secrets of the human frame”? The lingering soupçon of putrefaction and formaldehyde?  Or did his rejection by the august halls of scientific inquiry have less to do with him, than with those members of the established scientific community who denigrated his theories...or the establishments that they inhabited?

When pondering questions involving the perpetration of hideous crimes against mankind and nature, one turns automatically to organization theory - which, although it rarely provides us with useful answers, at least has the virtue of helping us figure out how to ask the right questions.  It turns out that there is, in fact, a social scientific construct for investigating how organizations deal with novel axes of scientific inquiry.  David Bloor, in a 1982 piece entitled “Polyhedra and the abominations of Leviticus: cognitive styles in mathematics”, examined the varying approaches that different scientific organizations take when addressing scientific avenues of inquiry that, like Victor Frankenstein’s, challenge conventional wisdom.  In examining how organizational structure and culture determine the manner in which problems are presented and addressed, Bloor looked at how, in the mid-19th Century, the community of German university mathematicians dealt with challenges to established scientific wisdom arising from evolutionary adaptations of Euler’s Theorem (Note 1).  Using historical data and analysis published by Imre Lakatos in Proofs and Refutations: The Logic of Mathematical Discovery (1976), Bloor examined the differing responses of various corners of the German mathematical community when, in the latter half of the 19th Century, new research extended the applicability of Euler’s Theorem from standard polyhedra to cut, flattened and re-formed three-dimensional shapes which, although they still met the theorem’s requirements, had never been considered to be subject to its boundaries and strictures.

Bloor created a quadratic grid to map the reaction of German mathematicians to the “abominations” (Bloor’s word) of Euler, grouping organizational responses into four categories based on whether the entity in question (usually a university mathematics department) approached the new applications of the theorem (a) in the accepted scientific way, e.g. via the “dialectical method of proofs and refutations” - to wit, by empirical determination of whether hypotheses were, or were not, validated by observed data; (b) by accepting the concurrent existence of both the original theorem and the new counter-examples, i.e., cognitive dissonance (or, as Orwell put it, ‘doublethink’ - simultaneously accepting as correct two mutually contradictory beliefs); (c) by creating a separate theoretical compartment to contain the new approaches without disturbing the original theorem, i.e. the creation of theoretical boundaries between areas of research, aka ‘stovepipes’; and (d) by simply refusing to acknowledge the emergence of new data modifying or overturning old theories, perhaps best dubbed the “ostrich approach”.

Douglas characterizes the organizations displaying the sort of behaviour described at (d) and (c) above as, respectively, “cliquish, self-absorbed and faction-ridden”, and “large, smugly entrenched hierarchical citadels of privilege”.  The gradual transformation of such intellectually insular organizations into “competitive fields working for international acclaim” (the a-type scientific establishments) gave rise to the vast differences in how the emerging “abominations” of Euler’s Theorem were received.  In Douglas’ words,

By opening up the university system to foreign appraisal and making personal scholarly achievement a prime reason for advancement, they installed the kind of science which only individual invention gives individual honour.  The more the organization approaches (A), the more it treats the apparent anomaly as a challenge and opportunity. (Douglas, 113)

This is obviously preferable to treating any anomaly - or “abomination”, to use Bloor’s word - as if it were automatically a threat, and either ignoring it, attempting to compartmentalize it, or fleeing from it.

Bloor took the argument a step further.  In his view, the manner in which an organization treats anomalies - such as the “abominations” of Euler’s Theorem, or, to get back to the example that engendered this discussion, Victor Frankenstein’s unique insights on how to use the emerging technology of electricity to raise a crudely-sewn, soulless monstrosity from the dead - is a critical test of “institutional style”.  In the case of (d)-type scientific organizations in which accepted theories are firmly cemented in place, new approaches are considered to be “threatening abominations”, to be resisted at all costs; while larger, long-established, risk-averse and highly bureaucratized (c)-type organizations tend to enjoy the institutional autonomy necessary to enable them to “sweep the anomaly quietly under the carpet.”  In organizations comfortable with the cognitive dissonance that derives from trying to have their theoretical cake and eat it too (the (b)-type), meanwhile, individual scientists bounded by rigidly compartmentalized areas of expertise and endeavour may not even know that an “abomination” has arisen and is stomping about the landscape, terrorizing villagers and stealing laundry.  It is only in (a)-type organizations - competitive establishments working for international acclaim - where, as Douglas puts it, “an anomaly is an opportunity for an individual to make his name by refuting an accepted theorem.”

One has to feel a little bad for Victor Frankenstein.  According to Lakatos, the wide divergence in responses by the German mathematical community in the mid-1800s to the abominations of Euler was a consequence of the reorganization of the German university system following Napoleon’s defeat of Prussia at Jena in 1806, which kick-started the process of transforming what had been insular, stultified and fractured bureaucracies into smaller, more intellectually agile research entities.  This was precisely the time at which Mary Shelley set her novel (it was first published in 1818).  Presumably, therefore, Frankenstein faced the unreformed, long-established, cognitively-rigid scientific bodies of pre-Napoleonic Germany.  Had Shelley lived later in the century – say, around about the time Bram Stoker was launching the legacy that would, in the fullness of time, lead to another soulless, life-draining abomination, the “Twilight” movies – her tragic anti-hero might have faced a more intellectually liberal array of colleagues, and a scientific establishment more open to, and tolerant of, new approaches to dealing with old problems.

Bloor’s quadripartite categorizations, interestingly, were what fuelled this whole chain of speculation, and gave rise to the title of this message.  Given the perception of innovations in scientific inquiry by some scientific organizations as “abominations”, he labelled the bureaucratic sweeping-under-the-carpet of anomalies “Monster-Adjustment and Exception-Barring”; while those organizations that reject the existence of anomalies altogether were deemed to be engaged in “Monster-Barring” behaviour.  How scientific organizations deal with “monsters”, therefore, is a function of their organizational structure and culture.  Breaking the exclusionary paradigms of such organizations can be challenging, especially when attempting to advance a new scientific argument using nothing more than words on a page, or equations on a chalk-board.

It should have been easier for Frankenstein.  It is, after all, a lot simpler to deny the existence of a mathematical relationship or a logical chain of argument than it is to ignore a lumbering eight-foot-tall, neck-bolted atrocity of nature, much less sweep it under the carpet.  The sort of “monster-barring” and “monster-adjusting” behaviour described by Bloor presumably demands a little more intestinal fortitude when one is faced with an actual monster.  Perhaps, instead of trying to escape from or destroy his unholy creation, Frankenstein should’ve introduced him to the tenure committee.

Happy Hallowe’en!



(1) Euler’s Theorem is not itself germane to this discussion.  For those interested, it’s described well in Wikipedia.  Given the vast number of principles, conjectures, theorems, formulas, functions, identities and laws named after Leonhard Euler, make sure you find the right one.


David Bloor, “Polyhedra and the abominations of Leviticus: cognitive styles in mathematics”, in Essays in the Sociology of Perception, ed. Mary Douglas (London: Routledge, Keegan and Paul, 1982), 191-218.

Mary Douglas, “Converging on Autonomy: Anthropology and Institutional Economics”, in Oliver E. Williamson, ed., Organization Theory: From Chester Barnard to the Present and Beyond, Expanded Edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 98-115.

Mary Shelley, Frankenstein: or, the Modern Prometheus (1818), Project Gutenberg [].  Downloaded 22 October 2010.