A Later Argument Prompt on Whether Error is Necessary for Innovation

Most people have heard that Post-It® Notes came about, essentially, because Dr. Spencer Silver's attempt to make extra-strong adhesive was a complete failure. They might be surprised, however, that synthetic dye, x-rays, penicillin, corn flakes, NutraSweet®, cellophane, and safety glass all came about through the error or lack of foresight of their so-called inventors. The phenomenon is so common in history that a word, serendipity, has been assigned to describe it. Serendipity may, in fact, be very important to Progress and therefore if one that believes society should continue to progress, one must accept also that errors must continue to be made. It is important to consider, however, that while serendipity, or discovery by error, has brought about much of human discovery, it does not account for all of it.

Unquestionably the process of error has contributed significantly to human knowledge. Beyond the “simple” case of pure discovery by accident, there is the process of trial and error. Additionally, there is the related core of the scientific method: hypothesis and empirical testing. At least since the Age of Enlightenment, practically all discovery has derived from the scientific method or serendipity. It would seem, therefore, that all such discovery comes about from error, but this is not so because though error in empirical testing often leads to new hypotheses, it is not a requirement. A hypothesis could, in practice, be correct the first time it is issued.

In the world today there are many people engaged in research specifically to some end, and do so incrementally, moving on to the next part once the first is proven conclusively. Good examples are computer programming and pure math. In both, these fields the test cases are set before the work is performed and thus, all work is toward that end. Usually, to the extent any errors are made they are made very quickly in the mind of the programmer or mathematician as he analyzes for what is the next step in the procedure or proof.

Really, it comes down to the difference between declarative fields, where the end is a truth or object, and imperative fields where the truth is known and the goal is to develop a method off achieving it. In declarative fields, an error can lead to a different, but useful end. In imperative fields, however, an error undermines the correctness of the solution and is most likely only a detriment.