Intuitive Reasoning, Effective Analytics & Success: Lessons from Dr. Jonas Salk

April 11, 2015
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Dr. Jonas Salk chose not to patent his polio vaccine, nor did he earn any money from his discovery, preferring to see it distributed as widely as possible.Just days away, April 14, 2015 will mark the 60th anniversary of the Salk Polio Vaccine. On that day in 1955, it was publicly announced that human trials confirmed Dr. Jonas Salk’s vaccine provided effective protection from the polio virus.

Dr. Jonas Salk chose not to patent his polio vaccine, nor did he earn any money from his discovery, preferring to see it distributed as widely as possible.Just days away, April 14, 2015 will mark the 60th anniversary of the Salk Polio Vaccine. On that day in 1955, it was publicly announced that human trials confirmed Dr. Jonas Salk’s vaccine provided effective protection from the polio virus. By 1957, new polio cases fell by 90% from epidemic levels just five years earlier.

A fascinating interview with Dr. Salk on the Academy of Achievement website sheds light on his key personal attributes and values, which are vitally important for success in any line of work. And the best analytic tools will play a leading role in fostering that success.

1. The most successful people practice intuitive reasoning.

Dr. Salk explained how he could identify and solve problems more easily and effectively than others by following his intuition (perceptions, spontaneous creative thought), guided by reason (hard data).

Reason alone will not serve. Intuition alone can be improved by reason, but reason alone without intuition can easily lead the wrong way… both are necessary. For myself, that’s how my mind works, and that’s how I work… It’s this combination that must be recognized and acknowledged and valued.

In fact, it was Salk’s intuitive reasoning that ultimately led him to his polio vaccine research. Several years prior, as a second year medical student, Salk realized statements from two lectures on immunization techniques contradicted each other. He never got a straight answer as to why, which he (thankfully) could not accept:

It didn’t make sense and that question persisted in my mind… I just questioned the logic of it… I just didn’t accept what appeared to me to be a dogmatic assertion in view of the fact that there was a [medical] reason to think otherwise.

Intuitive reasoning requires not taking “because it is!” as an answer, and “actively pursuing a question and seeing where it leads.”

2. Emotional Intelligence is more important for intuitive reasoning than traditional skills or knowledge.

To view any problem or challenge from a different perspective can be a lonely task. It takes a high EQ to be willing to be a contrarian. Check out this clip from Brain Games (National Geographic TV) on peer pressure. It’s amazing how people are so willing to go along to get along:

To perceive something differently or even to know something as being true is of little or no value if you’re not willing to stand apart from the crowd.

It’s very clear from his interview this was never an issue for Dr. Salk. He was extraordinarily thick-skinned, and had an exceptionally healthy attitude regarding criticism and rejection. And yet, he was fully willing to follow the hard road necessary for a new truth to be recognized and accepted. People lacking these high-EQ attributes are unfortunately likely to keep intuitive reasoning to themselves or just give up.

3. The best analytic tools will directly empower those with high intuitive reasoning, who probably will not have formal data science skills.

Dr. Jonas Salk was not a scientist. Wait, what? He explains (emphasis added):

I entered medicine with the idea of bringing science into medicine… I was not trained as a scientist. I was trained in medicine. And, so my functioning… as a medical scientist came through being self-taught through the experience of investigating the questions that were of interest to me.

Combined with his strong sense of intuitive reasoning, Salk’s unique background as a self-styled medical researcher contributed greatly to his ability to dramatically advance viral research beyond what other scientists could see:

Instantly I saw that there were more efficient ways of typing viruses than were proposed by those who set forth the protocol that I was supposed to follow… I saw the world differently, [and so] I could make things work more efficiently and effectively… It became obvious to me that we had the ways and means for moving ahead toward [polio] vaccine development.

One conclusion I draw from Dr. Salk’s experience is that the greatest insights, advances and innovations using big data will come from people with unique subject matter expertise and high intuitive reasoning skills – enabling them to “see” challenges very differently. And they will probably not be formally trained in data science or programming.

There’s evidence of this trend already: The New York Times recently reported how genetic scientists have turned to Daniel Kohn, a Brooklyn-based painter and conceptual artist, to help them rethink how to render their data to discover patterns that would otherwise remain hidden.

And a recent MIT Sloan Management Review article noted that while analytical techniques are becoming commoditized, the ability to identify new ways to put analytics to actionable use will become increasingly valuable. As an example, the article mentioned a research analyst with a library science degree who went back to school, not for data science, but rather to learn sufficient analytical skills to empower her to leverage her SME.

The best technology tools, therefore, will be those that empower subject matter experts to quickly apply intuitive reasoning:

  • Data visualization and advanced analytics that do not require programming or advanced technical skills
  • Data integration and workflow tools to rapidly infuse existing data sets with new, untapped data sources that enable a more complete analytic picture – again with no programming required
  • Agile application development tools that shield the user from coding, data connectivity and other programming challenges
  • Tools for predictive analytics that support intuitive reasoning as to what data attributes and other conditions will impact future performance

I’d like to end here by giving Dr. Salk the last word. His comments on the need for discovering wisdom from huge volumes of knowledge is truer now than when he said them in 1991:

At one time we had wisdom, but little knowledge. Now we have a great deal of knowledge, but do we have enough wisdom to deal with that knowledge? I define wisdom as the capacity to make retrospective judgments prospectively. I think these are human qualities, human attributes that need to be brought out, need to be drawn upon, need to be valued.