What Happens When We Know Something, But Not Enough?
One of the great challenges of our time — for adults and younger people — is partial knowledge. That is, the tools available to science and medicine are allowing us to understand how our bodies and minds function in amazing new ways. We can isolate genes, recombine them, capture the results of endless experiments and crunch the numbers to yield trends only computers could possibly detect — we can look at the smallest bits of living matter and the behavior of vast populations of people. All of this study often produces gems — we get to the root of some disease, or isolate some key step in evolution — and an entire new era of health seems to spread before us. But.
Very often what we know is partial — is just enough to point to what we will ultimately be able to do, without telling us how to treat a disease now. I mention all of this because I’ve just read Susan Cohen and Christine Cosgrove, Normal at Any Cost www.susancohen-writer.com/ which details how scientists learned enough to hold out the promise of holding down the height of girls (when parents worried about such things) or increase the height of boys (still a concern today) — but with all kinds of terrible unimagined side effects. In other words, when we found out enough to think we could address what enough people saw as a problem (and could pay to try to fix) we did so — when we should not have. This is one case, but it is typical of the situations that come up all the time today — basic research gives us some information, but not enough.
In Craig Mullaney’s book he keep roiling over the mission he led in which one of his men was killed — at first he frames that to himself as — what did I do wrong, what should I have done differently? But ultimately he realizes that even given all the information, and all his training there may not have been a perfect right choice. In life there are decisions that require us to go ahead when we know only what we know — when we don’t know everything we wish we could know, or someday will know. We only have what we have now.
I believe we need to prepare young people to function in a world where we learn a lot, know a lot, gain great insights — but do not know enough. How do we function in a time of vastly increasing but always incomplete knowledge? I believe that our books, by helping young people to think, can prepare them for that challenge.