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Opposites Attract: Critics Make the Best Research Partners

By: , Posted on: January 7, 2014

#StartYourResearch building teamWe often hear the term “opposites attract” as a signal of the start of a great romantic partnership. In terms of pairing research partners however, the term “great minds think alike” is more favored. Researchers want research partners who think similarly to them because they are able to “work together” without disagreements, speeding up the research process. They share the same ideals and therefore would want nothing more than to have their project succeed. Anyone who does not agree are just haters, right?

Maybe not…

At a TED Conference in 2012, speaker Margaret Heffernan, an international entrepreneur, spoke about ways to find the perfect research partner(s). She based her talk around a pair of researchers named  Alice Stewart and George Kneale, who went on to find the correlation between childhood cancers and x-rays conducted on pregnant mothers. So, what was the secret behind the success of these two research partners? George Kneale’s job was to be Alice Stewart’s biggest critic.

“My job is to prove Dr.Stewart wrong…” – George Kneale

George found every possible way he could to dislodge Alice’s hypothesis. He found different ways to look at her models and interpreting her data in innovative and abstract ways. His job within the partnership was to create conflict around her theory in order to make sure Alice did not have a pervasive view on her data and to give her the confidence of being right when he could not prove her wrong.

A partnership with individuals whom constantly challenge one another is more beneficial than a partnership in which research partners think alike. Research partners should not be “echo chambers” but think tanks whom do no not shy away from conflict but embrace it instead. Your biggest critic could be your sound board to bounce ideas off of. People who come from different backgrounds and disciplines might have a different way of thinking and that could be the spark you need to take your research in a new and exciting direction.


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