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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Up Against the Moving Edge of Knowledge

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 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.


  1. Vicky Alvear Shecter says:

    Normal at Any Cost sounds fascination (yet another book to add to the reading list). Your post made me think of the “Law of Unintended Consequences”–an ongoing reminder that we humans do not fully control the world around us, despite our desperate efforts to do so. Good books can certainly help young thinkers prepare themselves for the challenge of this fast-paced world but even so–dealing with “always incomplete knowledge” is pretty much the human condition, isn’t it?

  2. Yes but for much of human history we believed that it was possible to know everything. In fact education was about passing along settled wisdom to the young. Now we see our own understandings shifting all the time — and need to prepare the young to swim in those choppy seas.

  3. Susan Cohen says:

    I’m very happy to see you suggest Normal at Any Cost for young people, and not just because it is a book meant to provoke thought about the limits of knowledge. It is true that we never know as much as we think they do, and some doctors learned this only after tragic results in the history of treating height. But, also, a major question in this history is when do parents have the right to make decisions for their children. At what age do children understand enough to make such medical decisions for themselves? As my co-author, Chris Cosgrove, is fond of saying: We wouldn’t trust our parents’ taste in jeans, so why would we want them to choose our genes? Seriously, young people are going to face some deep issues as they become parents themselves in the era of genetic medicine.
    Susan Cohen (co-author “Normal at Any Cost”)

  4. Susan:
    Thank you for posting here, I think your book is very important for parents and for young people. Email me via my website marcaronson dot com I’d like to interview you for another project.