Tuesday, May 23, 2017

The Accumulative Power of Useless Information

I am about half way through the Spring edition of Lapham's Quarterly, called Discovery.  I have left myself a number of bookmarks so I can review and comment on some of the works that have made an impression on me.  This morning however, I read an excerpt from "The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge" by Abraham Flexner.  As is true of the Lapham's magazines in general, I am amazed that I have not encountered Flexner before; how I can have lived upwards of 75% of my life, have read so many hundreds of books, and not been familiar with Flexner's brilliant perspective.

Flexner was a prominent education reformer who, after conducting a study of American medical schools for the Carnegie Foundation in 1910, crafted a report which proposed new regulations which helped to revamp all American (and Canadian) medical colleges, addressing problems in curriculum, structure, admission standards, and overall quality of the education being received, and the doctor's being graduated.

In 1929, when asked by a group of philanthropists to help them decide which medical schools to fund, Flexner convinced them instead to support an Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, which opened the following year under his leadership.

For those of you who might research Flexner, be advised that held a number of opinions that are not admirable.  He believed that blacks and women were inferior, and advocated that black doctors only treat black patients.  His prejudiced opinions, while certainly a reflection of the time, are still inexcusable to me, considering the philosophy which he so eloquently describes and should, by its universal nature, apply to the work and efforts of all people, with no differentiation for gender or race.

Anyway, the point of the essay was that great discoveries are often the result, not of an eureka moment, but through the incremental work by many unknown researchers and those more curious than most.  That, at times, the accumulation of what might be useless knowledge at the time, useless being defined as not producing information that leads directly to solving a current problem, or producing a useful tool or product, often leads to a future use that effectively provides a solution, or leads to a new tool to fix an enduring problem.  In other words, he believed in research for its own sake, and in the value of being curious, and allowing the curious the time and resources to discover answers.

It is summed up best by this quote.

"..over a period of one of two hundred years, the contribution of professional schools to respective activities will probably be found to lie not so much in the training of men who may tomorrow become practical engineers, or practical lawyers, or practical doctors, but rather in the fact that even in the pursuit of strictly practical aims, an enormous amount of apparently useless activity goes on. Out of this useless activity there comes discoveries that may well prove of infinitely more importance to the human mind and to the human spirit than the accomplishments of the useful ends for which the schools were founded."

When applied to other areas of education, especially how we educate our young people, his viewpoint makes me stop and think if we are encouraging curiosity or stifling it.  Encouraging the freedom to pursue an idea as far as possible, or encouraging the pursuit only of ideas that lead to conformity.  Or, even more simply, elevating the idea that knowledge should not be judged by how it agrees with our religious beliefs or economic fortunes, but should be encouraged, and that the pursuit of knowledge should be nurtured at every level, useful and useless.

And, when applied to other areas of life, especially when we debate how to allocate the resources of America, we might want to rethink our decisions to invest in war and walls rather than compassion and inclusion.  And ultimately, find that the conclusion that those with less deserve their fate, and those with more deserve even more, might lead to the suppression of the accumulation of useless information, and therefore the reduction of innovation and positive discovery.  



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