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Audition (Fools Who Explore)

This story inspired me to very slightly alter the Hurwitz, Pasek, and Paul classic:

My aunt used to work in a lab
I remember, she used to come home and tell us these stories about being abroad
And I remember she told us that she jumped into the data once, barefoot

She frowned

Leapt, without looking
And tumbled into the data
The numbers were tangled
She used methods newfangled
But said she’d come back a bit later

Here’s to the ones who explore
Much as we’d like to ignore
Here’s to the models that ache
Here’s to the mess we make

She captured a feeling
Sky with no ceiling
The sunset inside a frame

She lived in her theories
And died oh so weary
I’ll always remember the flame

Here’s to the ones who explore
Much as we’d like to ignore
Here’s to the models that ache
Here’s to the mess we make

She told me
“A bit of madness is key
To give us new colors to see
Who knows where it will lead us?
And that’s why they need us”

So bring on the rebels
The ripples from pebbles
The painters, and poets, and plays
And here’s to the fools

who dream

Crazy as they may seem
Here’s to the hearts that break
Here’s to the mess we make

I trace it all back to then
Her, and the lab, and the data
Smiling through it
She said she’d come back a bit later

Let me explain. In adapting the above song, I’m not mocking scientists who explore their data. I’m being completely sincere, in celebrating those times when we “Leapt, without looking / And tumbled into the data.” Data exploration has received some bad press (and deservedly so), but when done in an open spirit, with good data and strong models as a starting point, it’s an unparalleled way to learn.

Two important attributes of a good scientist are:
– an openness to being surprised
– a willingness to do the hard work to collect data of high enough quality to be able to surprise you.

Remember, we learn from stories, and data, that are anomalous and immutable.

I celebrate the researchers who, like Mia’s aunt, jump right in: “Who knows where it will lead us?” And I see much of my work as a statistician as a series of attempts to build tools to help these people.

Here’s to the fools who dream. Here’s to the mess we make.


  1. I’m inclined toward that view myself. We rely on stories and data that are anomalous and immutable. Oddly I can see how we can get bogged down tedious methods and attempts to redefine theories. Must be the influence of Feyerabend.

  2. Keith O'Rourke says:

    Another, perhaps more important attribute of a good scientist is learning how to profitably doubt, a skill which Peirce argued took much effort to acquire.

    I think it is often seen when an experience applied statistician reviews a reported analysis and can ask a large number of critical questions where as an inexperienced one seems unable to think of much to ask.

    • Andrew says:


      I think of doubting and exploring as being closely connected. If you have no doubt, you’ll have no reason to explore.

      One way I’ve put it is that an important trait of the scientist is the capability of being upset, of recognizing the ways in which our understanding of the world is incoherent, or does not line up to reality.

      • Keith O'Rourke says:

        > If you have no doubt, you’ll have no reason to explore.
        Exactly, “There must be a real and living doubt, and without this all discussion idle (CP 5.376).” Without doubt, exploring is a waste of effort and not a genuine inquiry. Or rather, the inquiry is facile and likely not to be profitable.

        The point I was raising was that discerning real doubt in an area [as you put it recognizing the ways in which our understanding of the world is incoherent] is a skill that requires much effort to develop.

  3. Keith I’m unclear by what you mean ‘profitably doubt’ b/c Pierce so struggled in his academic career. He was considered to be ‘difficult’ personality which is a characterization that is circulated when a particularly original thinker is in academia. Without William James generous attention to Pierce’s career, he would have been marginalized further.

    • You can’t discover how things work unless you can doubt the first, easy, “obvious” and wrong models that immediately pop into your head.

      You know how facebook feeds are full of people offering simple, pithy, and ultimately stupid views of politics? The whole world is like that. Everyone believes X because it’s “so obviously true”. Unless you can get past that part and start actually thinking about the problem, you haven’t a hope of making any real progress.

      • Daniel, I’m not sure to whom your post is directed. I am just seeking clarification on what Keith meant by ‘profitably doubt’.

        • Martha (Smith) says:

          Sameera, I’m guessing that it is indeed directed at you. My thinking: You seem to have interpreted “profitably” in Keith’s comment in a “social” sense (material success, praise, etc.), whereas I interpreted it as “gaining scientific understanding”.

          • Yep, that’s how I interpreted it to, profitable in the sense of actually achieving the goal of understanding.

          • Martha, no I did not interpret it in the social sense. I have am familiar with Pierce’s biographical details & a few germaine articles about his work. He’s a bit hard to read though.

            If anything, others have had to make sense of his work b/c he left many of his writings incomplete & unpublished. The wikipedia has a nice summation of his life & work. Others were able to make more use of his work than he was. Primarily because he suffered from depression as I recall. I have to research that further.

  4. Bill Harris says:

    I like the metaphor that Guenter Grass used for Doubt in /Aus dem Tagebuch einer Schnecke/: the snail ( /Zweifel/ (Doubt) was the nickname of one of the protagonists, so named because he kept snails as pets. If you read the book (in English, /From the Diary of a Snail/), note Grass’ use of a snail as a metaphor for progress: slow, persistent, and leaving behind a trail.

    • Bill Harris says:

      Er, I guess Zweifel wasn’t given that nickname because of his snail pets but because of his skepticism. The snail was a motif that tied Zweifel (his pets) and Grass (the VW bus in which he lived as he followed Willy Brandt’s election campaign was akin to the snail’s shell that he carried with him wherever he went) and perhaps other pieces of the story together.

    • RE: Doubt

      People draw unhelpful comparisons. For example, faith vs reason, or religion vs. secularism, etc. As for faith vs. reason, the more sense making dichotomies, at least for me would be faith vs. doubt. Even there most of us do have faith and doubt concurrently over and within many realms.

      • Keith O'Rourke says:


        Others here are more attuned to what I was trying to get at.

        It was doubt in sense of what animates efforts to “gain scientific understanding” about things which have practical consequences in the world.

        Religion and faith are outside of that (or I think Peirce would have argued though perhaps his wavered on that in his A Neglected Argument for the Reality of God).

        One needs to be cautious in accepting various views given by writers and biographers on Peirce. For instance, Charles Sanders Peirce: A Life by Joseph Brent suggested to me that Peirce was loosing his mind around 1900 but I later found his arguments after 1900 were more insightful. So have some other scholars (who of course one needs to be cautious of accepting).

        As Ian Hacking once said – Peirce understood philosophy widely and deeply, started every thing and finished nothing! One reads Peirce to be challenged and hopefully gain some insight, answers if they are there are very hard to discern.

        • Keith, Thanks for the response. I’ve never heard ‘profitably’ & ‘doubt’ combined. So I was only seeking clarification. Not too complicated

          In reading Pierce earlier or accounts of his work, I would not have singled out Pierce’s conception of doubt to be exceptional or unusual as a means ‘to gain scientific understanding’. That was the milieu of the times. Pierce tho did present insight about ‘belief’& ‘doubt in a chapter of his book Chance, Love, & Logic. The only book I read by Pierce.

          • Keith O'Rourke says:

            > ‘profitably’ & ‘doubt’ combined
            The phrase profitable science came out of Peirce’s work on economy of research where research was construed as ways to get less wrong – sooner rather than later.

            That is, the scientific community should expend its efforts in directions that are most likely to lead to being less wrong – to accelerate getting less wrong as much as possible.

            But that requires the skill of doubting things that one most likely will find through feasible inquiries are wrong.

            So being able to profitably doubt is a key attribute for those in the scientific community.

          • Keith O'Rourke says:

            Found some bits from the neglected argument that might be helpful (or not).

            “My [Peirce’s] original essay, having been written for a popular monthly, assumes, for no better reason
            than that real inquiry cannot begin until a state of real doubt arises and ends as soon as Belief is attained, that
            “a settlement of Belief,” or, in other words, a state of satisfaction, is all that Truth, or the aim of inquiry,
            consists in.The reason I gave for this was so flimsy, while the inference was so nearly the gist of
            Pragmaticism, that I must confess the argument of that essay might with some justice be said to beg the
            question. The first part of the essay, however, is occupied with showing that, if Truth consists in satisfaction, it
            cannot be any actual satisfaction, but must be the satisfaction which would ultimately be found if the inquiry
            were pushed to its ultimate and indefeasible issue.”

            “… confusions of thought as that of active willing (willing to control thought, to doubt, and to weigh reasons) with willing not to exert the will (willing to believe).”

  5. Ethan Bolker says:

    From H. G. Wells The Time Machine at the end of Chapter 3

    Very simple was my explanation, and plausible enough – as most wrong theories are!

  6. Think again says:

    Hmm i wonder what would a chemist or astrophysicists would think about this (actually Id argue that all branches of science need exploration … I wonder how many discoveries would have been missed if people really took your advice and not explore… wow. I say explore and then explore some more – but then confirm and then confirm some more! To think that we have all the insights a-priori is rather naive in my view.. Yes I get the point we should be conservative, and that top down theories are perhaps the most important. And yes i get that you are pushing things in the right direction… but the best thing is to be moderate not extreme. To be modest.

    • Think again says:

      But you actually were modest so i take it back! You did say that its an unparalleled way to learn! I apologize. The harshness of the poem (and title) threw me off i guess..

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