Edge: DANIEL C. DENNETT - DENNETT'S DEAL [page 3]
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Some scientists aspire to reach large readerships, and to delight the readers they catch, and the best write works of surpassing literary value. Darwin's books come to mind. But the goal of getting it right, of persuading the readers of a discovered truth, still comes first, as we can tell at a glance by comparing Darwin's The Voyage Of The Beagle with Melville's Moby Dick. One can learn a great deal about whales and whaling from Moby Dick, but Melville didn't write it to be an artful and persuasive — user-friendly — compendium of whaling facts.

Bearing in mind the difference between the goals of science and the goals of art, then, here is a question that appropriately parallels the teaser I ask my philosophical colleagues. If Mephistopheles offered you the following two options, which would you choose?

(1) to win the race (and the accompanying Nobel Prize!) for pinning down a discovery that became the basis for a huge expansion of scientific knowledge but that, in retrospect, epitomized Humphrey's epithet, belonging to no one in particular. (Crick and Watson come to mind, of course; there is scant doubt that if they hadn't won the race when they did, Linus Pauling or somebody else would soon have done so.)

(2) to propose a theory so original, so utterly unimagined before your work, that your surname enters the language–but your theory turns out to be dead wrong, though it continues to generate centuries of arguably valuable controversy (I think of Lamarckian theories of evolution, and Cartesian theories of the mind. The jury is still out on Chomskian linguistics. It certainly passes the originality test. Like the victory of the America in the race that gave the America's Cup its name, there was no second anywhere in sight when Chomsky burst on the scene.)

We honor scientists who are wrong in useful ways — recall Wolfgang Pauli's insult about the theorist who "isn't even wrong" — but forced to choose, would you trade being first and right for being original and provocative?

 


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