sciencethat's what he said, by Frank Wilson

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing

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Some weeks back I mentioned Robinson Jeffers’s poem “Science,” which is a meditation on the development of the atomic bomb. It ends thus:

A little knowledge, a pebble from the shingle,
A drop from the oceans: who would have dreamed this infinitely little too much?

This, of course, is merely a 20th-century gloss on something Alexander Pope said a long time ago: “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.” It is a sentiment that has done yeoman’s service as the premise of story after story, from Frankenstein to Jurassic Park, and I have no intention of challenging its fundamental wisdom. But I would suggest that there is a corollary question connected to it that has been largely ignored: Just how much knowledge is enough?

Take, for instance, the ongoing debate about climate change (neé global warming), regarding which many insist that the “science is settled.” Of course, since a cache of emails from the Climatic Research Unit of the UK’s University of East Anglia were posted on the Internet late last year, the science has seemed to many to be noticeably unsettled. According to a memorandum submitted to the British Parliament by the Institute of Physics, “the CRU e-mails as published on the Internet provide prima facie evidence of determined and co-ordinated refusals to comply with honourable scientific traditions and freedom of information law.”

The real question, of course, has to do with this business of the science being settled. When is the science about anything ever settled? Are there areas that we no longer need to investigate? One encounters a similar sense of dogmatism with regard to evolutionary theory, which is rather odd considering that Darwin’s original formulation has long since been revised to account for genetics.

And, speaking of genetics, it has always seemed to me that the really great 19th-century natural scientist wasn’t Darwin, but Gregor Mendel, whose years of patient and meticulous experiment and observation gave us the knowledge of genetics that in turn gave us that new and improved evolutionary theory. And if Mendel’s discoveries made it necessary to revise Darwin’s original formulation, isn’t it at least possible that some new discovery might necessitate further revision?

On another front, think for a moment about all the things regarding health and diet that have been bandied about in the media over the years. Stay out of the sun, we were told, or else slather on the sun block — except now we are being told to get at least 15 minutes of exposure to the sun every day. Remember the oat bran craze? I always thought that particularly amusing, since all you really needed to do was eat whole oats, which includes the bran — that’s why they call it “whole.” Of course, the craze proved much less amusing to the people who got a grievous bout of constipation eating the bran minus everything else.

There are plenty of other examples besides these. How about all that we’ve heard, back and forth, about fats, supplements, sweeteners, alcohol? It all has one thing in common: the belief that we knew enough to do something, followed by the discovery that, well, maybe we didn’t.

The underlying problem may be that we have come to think of knowledge solely in terms of data and information and of the intellect as simply a passive receptor of same: We take in the facts and figures, process them, and act accordingly. I suspect it is a good deal more complicated than that. To study something in depth is to see the subject of one’s study opening out and getting deeper — like the ocean. Genuine learning is a process of initiation into the mystery that lies at the heart of everything. True knowledge invariably confers a measure of humility, which in turn tends to be prophylactic against undue or hasty action.

Frank Wilson was the book editor for the Philadelphia Inquirer until his retirement in 2008. He blogs at Books, Inq.

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