The Limits of Knowledge
THE SOURCE: “Trials and Errors” by Jonah Lehrer, in Wired, Jan.–Feb. 2012.
The 18th-century Scottish philosopher David Hume was famously skeptical of human perceptions of the relationship between cause and effect. Causes, in Hume’s estimation, were tales “we tell ourselves to make sense of events and observations,” not necessarily a complete picture of what really triggered an event, writes Jonah Lehrer, a science journalist and the author of the new book Imagine: How Creativity Works. The disconnect Hume intuited is becoming more apparent in modern science, especially in medicine, Lehrer writes.
Plenty of cause-and-effect discoveries, such as smoking’s impact on mortality, are perfectly valid. But most clear-cut relationships have been uncovered. As medical researchers move into ever knottier territory, parsing the threads that make up biological systems is becoming more difficult. Scientists are prone to perceptual shortcuts, misapprehensions, or oversimplifications. Because we rely so heavily on our vision to construct and interact with reality, for example, we’re particularly susceptible to believing that what we see is the whole picture, even when it’s not.
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