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No. 1320:
Intellectual Misdirection

Today, we wonder where to look for our new widget. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

An essential, yet almost invisible, difference divides people in pernicious ways. It's a difference in the way we look for knowledge. Suppose you were asked what time it was. Would you look for a clock, or would you estimate forward from some earlier time? Should we look for answers inside our heads or in the world outside? You've bought new software. Do you read the manual before you use it, or do you expect to be able to figure it out?

This issue dogs engineering design: We need a widget to do a certain job. Do we go to a widget catalog? Or do we reach inside our heads and try to create our own widget? We'd seem to be better off buying an off-the-shelf part. But we'll never get a better widget from a catalog. The trouble is, two things prevent common sense from telling us where to look for our widget.

First, there's no possible way to gauge the widget we might create against the widget in the catalog. Invention is, ipso facto, unpredictable. Only you can say which way is best for you, and you might be wrong! The second factor is psychic need. Some of us have to know about existing widgets before we begin. Some of us have no patience with worldly widgets and must create our own.

Each person drives the other to distraction, yet we need both. Science is bedeviled by this question. Do we deduce physical realities or do we observe them? A great shift took place during the 1500s. For centuries, medieval philosophers tried to deduce the way the world worked. Alchemists used logic to predict things like the outcome of medical treatment or of chemical reactions.

Then the new medium of print let us share observations. Now we could make hundreds of copies of a literal illustration. Books became the new scientific widget catalogs. Once we could share observations, the enterprise of science changed utterly.

The best scientific minds have always dwelt in both worlds. But they've usually declared allegiance to only one. Galileo didn't admit that he'd gone out and dropped light and heavy balls off the Tower of Pisa. He didn't say he'd seen both balls falling at the same speed. Instead, he wrote that we should imagine a tower and imagine the experiment. He presented his experimental result as a truth emerging from the mists of imagination.

Einstein was a keen observer who pretended to derive truth from within his mind. Thomas Jefferson, who lived in a world where science was done by observation, compulsively listed observations of everything. Yet he invented every widget imaginable. It was also he who wrote that we hold essential truths to be self-evident.

But most of us are split by this difference. We get into all kinds of trouble because the split comes in on little cat feet, leading each of us to think the other is misguided. Yet our very survival depends on both kinds of thinking. And it depends upon it in everything we do.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

The difference I've described has been observed by many people, and it has gone under many names. For some it goes under the shorthand of Aristotelian and Platonist thinking. The Myers-Briggs test of temperament discriminates between S (Sensing) and N (iNtuitive) types. See:


And here is what much of science looked like in the early 1800s
-- pure observation with little or no deduction or analysis.
(From the Edinburgh Encyclopaedia, 1832)