How getting it wrong helps get it right

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By Kirsten Peters

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.

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