In this short essay, physician Lewis Thomas explains how we can profit from our mistakes – especially if we trust human nature. Perhaps someday, he says, we can apply this same principle to the computer and magnify the advantages of these errors.
Thomas begins by contrasting the supposed infallibility of computers with the human propensity for error. Computers, while modeled on the human brain, do not ‘think’ or ‘dream’ in a human fashion. They are designed to be perfect – to compute. However, as we know from personal experience, computers do make mistakes. Thomas speculates that computer errors provide the same rich opportunites for learning that human errors do.
The expression “trial and error” is used to describe one way, the most important way according to Thomas, in which people learn. The essay draws an apt analogy between a laboratory and a computer – both are designed to run flawlessly and under strict controls, but often real discovery comes when a small error occurs. Unforeseen lines of thought open, and the human ‘faculty of wrongness’ pays off. Thomas goes so far as to label this “the highest of human endowments…if we were not provided with the knack of being wrong, we could never get anything useful done.” When faced with a problem, our mind’s freedom to explore any myriad of possibilities, from the slighly wrong to the ridiculous, lifts us to new ground.
Animals (Thomas writes “the lower animals”) lack this freedom. Most animals are “limited to absolute infallibility.” Fish, cats, and dogs rarely make mistakes – they act according to their nature. Thomas’ implicit suggestion is that this ‘infallibility’ accounts for the substantial gap between the problem-solving skills of humans and animals. I feel he is leaving too much unsaid. A more interesting and complete argument might explicitly hypothesize that a propensity for error increases in relation to a creature’s level of reasoning, with man’s obviously being the highest. However, Thomas’s essay does clearly demonstrate the value of errors.
How could we use computers to magnify this value? Perhaps we need to program computers to make an infinite variation of mistakes on any given number of problems, and then comb the results for interesting and fruitful conclusions. We need to endow computers with an exploration process, which could only be modeled after human fallibility. Thomas writes that “if we had only a single center in our brains, capable of responding only when a correct decision was to be made (i.e. where computers are now), instead of the jumble of different, credulous, easily conned clusters of neurones that provide for being flung off into blind alleys, up trees, down dead ends, out into blue sky, along wrong turnings, around bends, we could only stay the way we are today, stuck fast.”
“To Err is Human”: Rhetorical Strategies
Thomas begins his essay with a list of experiences most of us have had at one time or another, with regard to computer errors. I found this to be an effective beginning because it inspires a sense of agreement with the writer right off the bat. Also, whenever a writer touches upon a pressing issue that affects us every day but about which we rarely talk (e.g. computer errors, traffic, etc.) we begin to feel a relationship with that writer, and to anticipate other thoughts or ideas we may have in common. This is a great way to control a reader’s feelings.
The points Thomas develops in the most detail are:
- Learning comes from being wrong.
- Being wrong comes from what we might call ‘exploration.’
- Through computers, we may be able to magnify the benefits of being wrong.
Central to his main idea, he develops these points most thoroughly.