Knowing Nothin' can be good

By E. Kirsten Peters, Special to the Huntington Beach News


I wasn't expecting a brochure with a definition of science in the waiting room of my doctor's office. But there it was.

"The aim of science is not to open the door to infinite wisdom, but to set a limit to infinite error," the leaflet stated in a bold quotation.

The rest of the pamphlet concerned an explanation of the basic effects of cocaine on the brain. But I cogitated only on the quote while waiting for the doctor. When I finally got in to see the M.D., I showed it to him and asked his opinion. (It's probably not so easy to be my doctor.)

One way I have thought in recent weeks about that rather difficult and dense quotation is seen in my answer to a question a friend asked me recently via email.

"What's your correct mailing address?" he wrote.

I tapped in my reply.

"It's surely easier to type out the one correct address than the infinite incorrect ones," I replied. (It's probably not so easy to be one of my friends, I suppose.)

In the realm of research science and engineering, people work like dogs each day to expand our knowledge of the natural world. At least, that's one way of looking at it.

But with each thing we learn, we learn many things that are not the case - the false addresses, if you will. And, in truth, what we often unearth in research science is a false address, followed by another, followed by another, followed by another. It can be a very long road of false addresses, walking up and down streets that are even entirely in the wrong city, until we get to something like a good, useful and true piece of knowledge about the natural world.

Understandably, that's a frustration. It frustrates people who are ill and are waiting for a cure for their disease from medical research - and instead get promises of research in progress that will take years or decades to come to fruition.

It frustrates people with environmental concerns who wait for one clear scientific theory about a particular problem - but who learn of a series of changing hypotheses, instead.

And it frustrates scientists and engineers, too, at least much of the time. (We're people, too. Even if we don't always sound like it.)

But my strong belief is that American research in science and engineering has been a major ingredient in transforming the nation - and the world - for the better in recent generations. Diseases that killed and crippled children in my parent's day are all but insignificant in the U.S. today.

We have knowledge and technologies for addressing environmental contamination. We cannot predict undersea earthquakes, but we have technologies in place to detect the tsunamis they sometimes produce and warn as many people as we can.

Compared to the "good ol' days" we have engineering marvels in everything from communications to reliable and energy-efficient cars. (Yes, energy-efficient. Despite all the complaints about the American car fleet, it’s wonderful in all respects compared to the cars I grew up with in the 1970s.) We are linked by global communications in the Internet that are virtually instantaneous. We are beginning to have alternative energy generators that hold real promise for larger scale applications down the road.

A large measure of all that progress has been made by limiting our errors, step by step.

We all know the story of the zillion of attempts Thomas Edison and his assistants made to find the filament of a light bulb that would both burn brightly and not burn out. Edison walked along a lot of streets, discovering false addresses that would not work. But each step he took was still good work - it just wasn't work with a positive result.

Patience is a virtue, in science just as in life. And it's probably useful to keep in mind that "infinite wisdom" will always be outside our grasp in both realms. Pruning back ignorance and falsehood, the wrong addresses in useless sidestreets, is a valuable function of science, just as it is in ordinary life.

That’s good news - it's the reason why Edison and colleagues were successful in the end.


Dr. E. Kirsten Peters, a native of the rural Northwest, was trained as a geologist at Princeton and Harvard. This column is a service of the College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University.


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