SCIENCE AS "GETTING IT LESS WRONG"



John Bemis, an early supporter of the Serendip project, was continually frustrated by the difficulty of getting people to understand, as he did, that life was a continual process of discovery. John's concerns triggered the following letter to him, in which Paul Grobstein suggested that science both contributed to the problem and was in a position to help with the solution, if it could be made clearer that science was actually a process not of "getting it right" but rather one of perpetually "getting it less wrong". Go to Science Education: What's it all about? for some thoughts about getting it less wrong in a broader educational and social context.



Department of Biology
Bryn Mawr College
101 North Merion Avenue
Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania 19010-2899

                                          

B R Y N M A W R

1 March 1993 John Bemis Concord, Massachusetts
Dear John:

I too have been frustrated, in a variety of contexts, with how difficult it is to get people to see the importance of the "discovery business." Your thought that it would help if everyone came to understand that creativity is a deep, common, essential, and shared attribute is very much along the lines of my own thinking, but I had not previously been thinking so concretely in those terms. So let me take a crack here at saying what we both think we know, and if the letter turns into something you can use in your Discovery Scrapbook, so much the better.

People in our culture, by and large, tend to presume that someone, somewhere knows what is "right," and that each individual's task is either to be that particular someone or to work as hard as they can to learn from that someone what "right" is. Why this is so is an interesting question, one we may need and want to understand better, but let's just settle for some relevant pieces here. I knoe the mindset long predates science as a social activity, but that science certainly encourages it, and so it is appropriate that science should contribute to correcting it. In fact, looking across the sciences during the last ten or fifteen years and into the near future, I think such a correction is exactly the message that is emerging (significantly, not only in the sciences, but in the humanities and social sciences as well). In an enormous variety of distinct fields of inquiry the same general pattern is becoming clear: there is no such thing as "right," the very concept needs to be replaced with "progressively less wrong." The difference is far from semantic. "Right" is measured by proximity to some fixed idea, "progressively less wrong" by how far people have gotten from where they started. It is the aspiration to be "right" that leads to rigid hierarchical social organizations of all kinds, including educational systems. Wanting to be "progressively less wrong" takes one (and societies) in quite different directions entirely: it encourages life-long inquiry by every individual, a respect for past wisdwom and enthusiasm for contributing to future understanding, and an appreciation of the enormous value of interactions between unique individuals each of whom has unique perspectives to contribute.

Wanting to be "progressively less wrong" rather than "right" is, however, by itself a tough pill for many people to swallow. This is not only because of the words (we could, perhaps should, come up with something that sounds less negative), but because the underlying ideas themselves are alien and disturbing to many people, who have the feeling they know how to be "right" but have no idea at all how to be "less wrong," and for whom the whole thing sounds defeatist, to be settling for second best. This is the place where I think science has a very special role to play, one to which the work in my own laboratory can contribute. Not only science, but life itself, stands as testimonial to the reality that there is nothing at all either defeatist or second best about becoming "progressively less wrong." That is precisely what science is about, and is the very core of all social and technological "progress." More importantly, being "progressively less wrong" is the very essence of the biological concept of evolution, whose capacity to generate enormously complex and effective organizations has yet to show a limit, and still far exceeds anything of which humans are capable alone.

The trick, of course, is to translate this reality into terms which not only scientists but businessmen, politicians, indeed all individuals, can feel and understand, and to do so in a way which makes it clear that everyone is an active and responsible participant in the overall process, that every individual becoming "progressively less wrong" is an invaluable part of the global doing so. "Becoming progressively less wrong" is, as we both know, not an arcane or difficult skill: it requires only a capability and willingness to try out new things, coupled with an ability to critically evaluate and learn from one's experiments. The importance of critical evaluation is something our culture is aware of; the key importance of creativity, however, we seem somehow to have lost confidence in, become suspicious of, or forgotten entirely. Clearly, if leeches and frogs have the capability and willingness to try new things out (as our experiments indicate they do), then all individual humans certainly have it (as is evident, as you point out, from watching babies). More importantly, creativity and play are not, as sometimes thought, a luxury, to be indulged in only when real work is done, or a vaguely disreputable hazard, to be avoided when things get serious, or something that babies can be indulged to do but one should give up as one gets older. They are instead capabilities which are at the very center of the successes of all living systems, from individual organisms to complex societies.

I share your feeling that there are two ideas that need to be better understood, and that they are indeed closely related. One is the essential importance of the creativity of individuals, and the other is the nature of interactions among individuals, the social structure within which individuals function. As your intuitions have always suggested, the key to the latter is a better understanding of the dynamics of complex systems, which is indeed emerging as part of a broader scientific and intellectual revolution. The key here is the increasing realization that highly sophisticated and effective organizations can, and do in fact, emerge from the interactions of large numbers of independent but closely communicating creative elements. They don't depend on people knowing in advance what is "right," but rather on people having confidence in the creative potential inherent in groups of people sharing different perspectives and ideas, in exactly the same sense that they have (or should have) confidence in the creative potential inherent in all individuals, themselves included. Your tidepool, and our piece of it, is, it seems to me, very much a particular realization of this idea. It is designed not to cause particular things to happen in particular ways, but rather to provide the kind of permissive and supportive environment in which unknown desirable things will happen, simply because of the creativity and interconnectedness of individuals. Needless to say, from my perspective, the tidepool is not only an experiment in how things might work better, but a demonstration that in fact they do.

                                Best.

                          Paul Grobstein




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