People often think of science as a search for information. However, information by itself is of little value. Information needs first to be organized to be useful. Imagine a library with a million books, which is not uncommon for a major university library. Now imagine that the books are put on the shelf in a random order and that there is no index system to tell you where each book is. In that library, you would be awash in information but with little or no chance of ever finding the specific information that you seek. Information must be organized.
Organized information is more useful than information without any organization, but even organized information is not enough. Not all information is equally important or useful. Imagine yourself a detective investigating a murder. Since you never know what information will turn out to be the key to solving the crime, you systematically record everything about the scene. You note where the body is laying, the type of wound, the condition of the body, and so on. You also note the layout of the room, whether things seem out of place, and of course you dust the room for fingerprints. You note what was on the victim's desk as well as what was in the drawers. You count the number of pictures on the wall and carefully measure the exact dimensions of each picture. You note the location of each outlet in the room and whether the outlet is in use. You note the color of the walls and look for nail holes that may have been a where a picture once hung on the wall. . . . . WAIT A MINUTE! Aren't you getting a little carried away in your search for information? As an investigator of a murder, the information that you want is the information that will provide clues to who committed the murder. The number of outlets is not likely to provide the critical clue in a murder case. Even though you never know ahead of time what will be the critical evidence linking the murderer to the crime, some information is much more likely to be useful than other information. You focus on the information that is most likely to be useful for your purpose. If instead of investigating a murder, you were estimating the cost of moving the contents of the house to a new house, the number and size of each picture would be relevant information. In other words, the relevance of information is dependent on the purpose of the person gathering the information.
Below is a short fable, written as a letter to the editor of the prestigious journal, Science, over 30 years ago. It is a tongue-in-cheek comment on the writer's concern that science was growing so fast that scientists were losing sight of the real purpose of science--to understand, and not just catalog, the phenomena around us. Facts may be facts, but some facts are more likely to lead to an understanding of nature than others.
Once upon a time, among the activities and occupations of man there was an activity called scientific research and the performers of this activity were called scientists. In reality, however, these men [and women] were builders who constructed edifices, called explanations or laws, by assembling bricks, called facts. When the bricks were sound and were assembled properly, the edifice was useful and durable and brought pleasure, and sometimes reward, to the builder. If the bricks were faulty or if they were assembled badly, the edifice would crumble, and this kind of disaster could be very dangerous to innocent users of the edifice as well as to the builder who sometimes was destroyed by the collapse. Because of the quality of the bricks was so important to the success of the edifice, and because bricks were so scarce, in those days the builders made their own bricks. The making of bricks was a difficult and expensive undertaking and the wise builder avoided waste by making only bricks of the shape and size necessary for the enterprise at hand. The builder was guided in this manufacture by a blueprint called a theory or hypothesis.
It came to pass that builders realized that they were sorely hampered in their efforts by delays in obtaining bricks. Thus there arose a new skilled trade known as brickmaking, called junior scientists to give the artisan proper pride in his work. This new arrangement was very efficient and the construction of edifices proceeded with great vigor. Sometimes brickmakers became inspired and progressed to the status of builders. In spite of the separation of duties, bricks still were made with care and usually were produced only on order. Now and then an enterprising brickmaker was able to foresee a demand and would prepare a stock of bricks ahead of time, but, in general, brickmaking was done on a custom basis because it still was a difficult and expensive process.
And then it came to pass that a misunderstanding spread among the brickmakers (there are some who say that this misunderstanding developed as a result of careless training of a new generation of brickmakers). The brickmakers became obsessed with the making of bricks. When reminded that the ultimate goal was edifices, not bricks, they replied that, if enough bricks were available, the builders would be able to select what was necessary and still continue to construct edifices. The flaws in this argument were not readily apparent and so, with the help of the citizens who were waiting to use the edifices yet to be built, amazing things happened. The expense of brickmaking became a minor factor because large sums of money were made available; the time and effort involved in brickmaking was reduced by ingenious automatic machinery; the ranks of the brickmakers were swelled by augmented training programs and intensive recruitment. It even was suggested that the production of a suitable number of bricks was equivalent to building an edifice and therefore should entitle the industrious brickmaker to assume the title of builder and, with the title, the authority.
And so it happened that the land became flooded with bricks. It became necessary to organize more and more storage places, called journals, and more and more elaborate systems of bookkeeping to record the inventory. In all of this the brickmakers retained their pride and skill and the bricks were of the very best quality. But production was ahead of demand and bricks no longer were made to order. The size and shape was now dictated by changing trends in fashion. In order to compete successfully with brickmakers, production emphasized those types of brick that were easy to make and only rarely did an adventuresome brickmaker attempt a difficult or unusual design. The influence of tradition in production methods and in types of product became a dominating factor.
Unfortunately, the builders were almost destroyed. It became difficult to find the proper bricks for a task because one had to hunt among so many. It became difficult to find a suitable plot for construction of an edifice because the ground was covered with loose bricks. It became difficult to complete a useful edifice because, as soon as the foundations were discernible, they were buried under an avalanche of random bricks. And, saddest of all, sometimes no effort was made to maintain the distinction between a pile of bricks and a true edifice.
This article originally appeared in Science (1963, V. 142, p. 3590). Reprinted with permission of the author and the publisher.
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