by John H. Lienhard
Click here for audio of Episode 1432.
Today, let's not decide. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
We all agree that it's good
to be decisive. To decide is to be strong.
Indecision is weakness. Without decisions, the
world will grind to a halt, won't it? Besides, we
all need closure. I know I crave resolution the way
I crave water when I'm thirsty.
Thomas Kuhn's book, The Structure of Scientific
Revolutions, casts light on all this. To
explain how scientific change takes place, he
describes an experiment where subjects were allowed
to see playing cards for a split second. Some
people identified a card in a blink; some took a
little longer. And here the fun begins:
Among the cards were a few anomalies - like a red
four of spades. The subjects identified those cards
just as quickly as the familiar ones. They'd see a
red four of spades and call it a four of hearts.
They made a decision and moved on to the next card.
When the exposure time was extended, some people
saw what was going on and changed their minds.
Others stayed committed to their decision and clung
to it even after forty times the original exposure
- even after they'd begun feeling acute distress.
The change of a scientific viewpoint works that
way. Some people adjusted to the fact of evolution.
Others clung to their decision that we'd been
created without reference to the other animals.
They couldn't believe they'd actually seen a red
four of spades. It was the same story during the
quantum revolution, the death of the caloric
theory, and the new atomic theory. People who
couldn't be indecisive never made the shift.
The problem grows even larger when we try to
invent. Invention is destroyed by decisiveness. The
moment I draw a line under a concept -- the moment
I close off possibility -- I lose the option of
seeing a better way to build my mousetrap. Years
ago, a wise design engineer took me under his wing
and mentored me. "Do a first design, then attack it,"
he said. "At first it'll be complex. It'll always work better as you change your mind and keep peeling away complication - as you keep relinquishing ideas."
Eventually, of course, we must give our drawings to
the machine shop. But that closure had better be
made grudgingly, because there's always a better
way than we've thought of.
The fact is, we never need to make
decisions. What we need to do is to take action.
But that's not the same thing at all. A house is
burning, and a child is trapped. We inform
ourselves as best we can. Then we choose either to
break in a window or to enter by the door. We don't
decide; we act, because time grants no
further choices. We leave decisions to
There's always a better way, a better solution. We
act, we make choices. But leave decisions to people
who need the psychological comfort they provide.
The only real closure we'll ever get is death. The
glorious indecision is life itself -- the
sure knowledge that if we can live with ambiguity,
we'll live better, have a lot more fun, and
ultimately will make that better mousetrap.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Kuhn T., The Structures of Scientific
Revolutions. 2nd ed. Chicago: University of
Chicago Press, 1970. The entire book treats the
character of scientific change. He discusses the
Bruner and Postman experiment with anomalous playing
cards in Chapter VII.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2001 by John H.