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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Dealing With Partial Information

Preparing Students to Face Impossible Choices

A person we know went off for a test the other day, yet it is not one that is likely to tell her what to do. She has discovered that she has the genetic mutation that makes her more likely to get breast cancer, but she has no sign of it. What is she to do? She has partial information that can point in very dire directions, but no clear path. Another friend of our faced a similar situation — whether to get a genetic test that would show his likelihood nymag.com/health/bestdoctors/2008/47566/ of having Huntington’s Disease. There is no cure for the disease, so the test would either clear my friend, or damn him in some future over which he has no control. Please read Kevin’s essay to see the choice he faced.

Both of these cases are the state of science and medicine today — we can delve into our genes and learn about ourselves. But, often as not, we cannot do anything with that knowledge. We have partial information, imperfect knowledge, and thus terrible choices. 

I grew up in the age of scientific confidence: Our Friend the Atom; the race to the moon; the War On Cancer. In each case it seemed we had solved some mysteries and others were soon to follow. Learning science in school was getting the key tools that were making us masters of the universe. Now we live in the age of scientific hesitation. We know much more, including the limits of what we know. Did you see this article www.nytimes.com/2009/04/24/health/policy/24cancer.html on how little we have achieved in understanding how to prevent and treat cancers? 

So how does this state of imperfect knowledge change what we teach young people. We need to prepare them not just for the comfortable certainty of answers, but for the uncomfortable uncertainty of open-ended questions. Our obligation as adults who know that some of our students, our readers, will get back a genetic test that could be damning, but offers no answer, is to offer some model of weighing, thinking, evaluating emotiona, and morality, reason. In other words, we must be ethical humanists, modeling how adults weigh questions that have no clear answers. That is the one hand hold, the one gift we can give to those who will face impossible choices.