The hive mind

Few working scientists can give a ground-up explanation of the phenomenon they study; they rely on information and techniques borrowed from other scientists. Knowledge and the virtues of the scientific orientation live far more in the community than the individual. When we talk of a “scientific community,” we are pointing to something critical: that advanced science is a social enterprise, characterized by an intricate division of cognitive labor. Individual scientists, no less than the quacks, can be famously bull-headed, overly enamored of pet theories, dismissive of new evidence, and heedless of their fallibility. (Hence Max Planck’s observation that science advances one funeral at a time.) But as a community endeavor, it is beautifully self-correcting.

Beautifully organized, however, it is not. Seen up close, the scientific community—with its muddled peer-review process, badly written journal articles, subtly contemptuous letters to the editor, overtly contemptuous subreddit threads, and pompous pronouncements of the academy— looks like a rickety vehicle for getting to truth. Yet the hive mind swarms ever forward. It now advances knowledge in almost every realm of existence—even the humanities, where neuroscience and computerization are shaping understanding of everything from free will to how art and literature have evolved over time.

~ Atul Gawande from,

I can’t add to that. I only wanted to be sure that others see it too.

Meanwhile, I never bothered to read Gawande’s hit book, The Checklist Manifesto. (To be candid, bordering on obnoxious: Time is limited, and I don’t need to seek more information about processes. I’ve got that sorted.) But it has hovered in my awareness none the less. Recently, two unrelated sources gave over-the-top praise for Gawande’s newer book, Being Mortal. On those recommendations alone it’s now in my reading queue. I’ve cracked it open, and done the preliminary reading… Have you read it? Do you have any thoughts on it?