Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The beauty of science is that people are so happy to find knowledge to be false.

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

William Butler Yeats, The Second Coming
It is surprising how often things about which we are absolutely sure to be true turn out to be false. One supposes that the ancient Romans were as sure of their religious beliefs as were the ancient Norse or indeed today's Mormons, Christian Scientists or followers of Scientology. Yet no one now sacrifices to the Roman nor the Norse gods.

As I read history, I am impressed how sure many people were of their beliefs that turned out to be tragically wrong. Chaimberlain was convinced that war could be avoided by appeasing Hitler, and Hitler was convinced his policies would build a Third Reich that would last a thousand years.

In reading about President Roosevelt's approach to governing I am impressed by his willingness to be wrong, to try things that might work, to admit error when they didn't, and to try again and again. Many of his policies did not work, but many did and many are still with us today.

I suppose the lesson is that we must act on what we believe to be true, but humbly. Those with whom we disagree may indeed be right. We should, of course seek to reconcile the differences in beliefs where possible, but where that is not feasible we should be willing to explore compromise. Sometimes courses of action can be agreed upon between people with very different beliefs. This would seem especially likely if a course of action can be found that allows for change and revision with experience.

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