By WeiHsi Hu
There has been much media debate in recent days about Dean Keith Simonton’s comment piece in the current edition of Nature journal – “Scientific genius is extinct (£).” It reminded me of Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers, and his talk about the modern genius a few years ago at the New Yorker Conference.
Dean Keith Simonton researches the phenomena of scientific genius, and in his comment piece, he talks about how scientific geniuses like Einstein, Newton, or Marie Curie, who created or revolutionised scientific fields will cease to exist and neither discipline-creation nor revolution will be available to contemporary scientists. In fact, “For more than a century, any new discipline has been a hybrid of [several disciplines], such as astrophysics, biochemistry or astrobiology. Future advances are likely to build on what is already known rather than alter the foundations of knowledge.”
This echoes what Malcolm Gladwell outlined, at the New Yorker Conference in 2008, as the kind of problem-solvers or modern geniuses we need now and for the future. He argues that our romantic notion of a pre-modern genius – a gifted and talented lone person that somehow consolidates acquired knowledge to divine the solutions, through obsession, isolation, and then insight – doesn’t exist anymore, and really, isn’t going to help us with our modern-day problems which are much more complex than before.
Gladwell gave the example of a modern genius, Andrew Wiles, who finally proved Fermat’s Last Theorem in 1995, – just 358 years after it was published. Wiles solved the problem by taking on board previous knowledge and building upon the efforts of many mathematicians before him. Malcolm Gladwell argues that instead of relying on a small number of lone geniuses to create the ultimate solution for problems as complex and difficult as we face today, we are better off with a larger number of smart people who can build upon previous efforts. In other words, we need to stop obsessing about people who are at top of the curve or a BEST solution. What’s more: we need to solve our complex modern-day problems in a more interactive, collaborative, and social way. Simonton also agrees and stating that “much of the cutting-edge work these days tends to emerge from large, well-funded collaborative teams involving many contributors.”
This made me think about all the emerging evidence-based work in London and across UK – Inspiring Impact, Realising Ambition, Project Oracle, Early Intervention Foundation, and most recently the new Ministry of Justice Commission on Supporting Better Evidence. Community Links is involved in delivering Project Oracle for the Greater London Authority, and at our mid-term event, we were asked a difficult question – what is your vision for Project Oracle? Or to elaborate more succinctly: why are we asking the already stretched community organisations to do better evaluations of their projects?
The quick PR one-liner we typically give is that better evidence work is to find out what works in tackling youth crime and violence. There are some flaws in this one-liner, however. It falsely implies that there is an ultimate genius with one best solution to tackle issues like youth crime and violence. Of course, those who deliver projects on the ground know that it doesn’t work like that. An obsession with a best solution is too simplistic and you can’t use a simple solution to tackle a complex problem; it is a mismatch. If we persist in perpetuating this false impression, at best we will waste our efforts and the resources, or at worst we are at risk of creating a social sector monopolised by a “single best solution,” but not actually solving the problem.
But if we take what’s happening in the scientific field as an example, solving a complex and ever evolving problem such as youth crime and violence will need a bunch of smart people to interact, share, and collaborate. We know that we already have the bunch of smart people who do amazing work in the communities across UK, but we don’t have a culture or mechanism to help everyone to interact, share, and collaborate, or better yet, to systematically build upon each others’ efforts. This is why we do evidence-based or evaluation work. The evidence-based approach isn’t necessary about finding that ultimate solution. It is more about enabling people to share HOW they achieved what they set out to achieve, so that we can unpick the success factors and build on them. We know that because community organisations are already stretched to the limits of their capacity, interactive collaboration and building upon each others successes won’t just happen on its’ own. Intentional coordination is needed. At Project Oracle, we want to build that mechanism and culture to actively enable those who are great at what they do to use the modern-genius way to get better at tackling complex social issues.
WeiHsi Hu is Community Links’ Research & Consultancy Manager. Community Links offer a range of evaluation training and consultancy services. Find out how the Community Links Consultancy Team draw on our learning from everyday experience to support clients.