Science: Know “Why”

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I am currently taking a break to read James D. Watson’s new book, Avoid Boring People.

Here’s a quote dear to my heart and core to effectively using the Six Hats, Six Coats metaphor:

Knowing “why” (an idea) is more important than learning “what” (a fact)

World Almanac facts, such as the relative heights of mountains or the names of British kings, go you nowhere at Hutchin’s college. The essence of its educational mission was the propagation and dissection of ideas, not the teaching of facts often best left to trade schools. Why the Roman Empire had risen and fallen was much more important than the birth date of Julius Caesar. And why the European cathedrals were built mattered much more than their relative sizes. Equally unimportant were the details about the French Revolution when contrasted to the philosophical ideas of its eighteenth-century Enlightenment, whose emphasis on reason as opposed to theological revelation greatly accelerated the development of modern science. Likewise, details of Linnean taxonomy paled in significance to the idea of biological evolution, whereby all life-forms have a common ancestor. Better simply to know which books hold the details you will need than to overload your neurons with facts that later will never need to be retrieved.”

I’d like to add the following corollaries:

  1. Knowing “why” is more imortant than learning “who”
  2. Knowing “how” is more important than learning “what”
  3. Knowing “when” is more important than learning “where”

All this considered, James recognizes the importance of new facts leading to new ideas. He gives as an example Darwin’s journey on the HMS Beagle that led him to discover the geographical patterns of the distribution of species and the fossil record that led to his theory of the evolution of the species. “Sometimes a new idea can flow from old facts rearranged, but more typically it comes when new things previously unknown and unaccountable for under the old theory are introduced.” Induction has its place.

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