Saturday, January 9, 2016

A little humility and caution

The story of the development of antibiotics as told by Thomas Hager serves as a good example of not thinking carefully and clearly.  Before the antibiotics, there was vaccination and there was antiseptics to keep tools and surfaces clean.  The story as told by Hager emphasizes the long, long series of experiments and studies that German scientists from the late 1800's up to near 1940 but they kept their research along a line of development that seemed right but wasn't. Maybe, had someone looked at the narrow development stream, they might have launched a few inquiries in other directions.

We hear about "thinking out of the box" but in the US, I think that call is too often taken to mean destroying or abandoning good ideas.  An outside observer can often spot similarities and unities in thinking that have been too closely followed in a search for solutions.  Dramatic changes of direction can lose good logic and good directions that have been built up over time.

No doubt that training and development of people, education, can use new directions and can certainly use good evidence.  However, it is notoriously difficult to gather good evidence on lives and their trajectories over time.  People are basically free to change directions, to drop out, quit, get new lives and new jobs and new locations.  This is becoming more the case all the time.

If we are not too arrogant, too bound to past patterns nor too determined to do everything anew, we may well be better prepared for whatever comes.  Our predecessors were not all stupid nor blind.  In this age of science and careful charting, it is easy to think we have proved this or discovered that when the truth is more complex, subtler and more varied that we can allow for in our thinking.  I say if you are always hearing the same words, consider using different ones.  If everyone says that X is a basic need, check to see if that is always true.  Try to look at what would happen with the opposite of X or with X plus Y or with X earlier or later in life.

A human life goes on for a long time and social conditions can change sharply from a person's first pair of decades to the last pair.  Flexibility, tolerance and deep understanding are usually handy tools all along the way.

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