§14. The Evaluation of Exactitude


85. For every line of scientific research there is in any given stage of its development, an appropriate standard of certitude and exactitude, such that it is useless to require more, and unsatisfactory to have less. This is a part of the doctrine of the Economy of Research. When Phoenix 2) made his celebrated survey of the route from San Francisco to the Mission of Dolores, the distance required was the sum of two parts, one of them resting on the guess of a driver, while the other was determined at great expense to a transcendental precision. As long as one part of the distance was extremely uncertain, there was no use in spending much money in ascertaining the other part precisely. For there is a relation between the value of an increased certainty of an item of knowledge and the cost of such increase of certainty, which enables us to determine whether it is better to expend our genius, energy, time, and money upon one investigation or upon another.

86. If a result is to be used merely to confirm the result of an independent investigation, it may have a high value even though its probability is not very high. But if it is only to be used in combination with other results, very little will be gained by increasing its probability far beyond the probabilities of those others. Of course, knowledge that is to be put to special purposes may need to be more precise than other knowledge. Thus, it pays to determine the places of a thousand stars with the utmost accuracy, leaving hundreds of thousands only roughly located, and others only recorded upon photographs. But where a high degree of exactitude and probability is unattainable, that is no reason for refusing to accept such knowledge as we can attain. Because we cannot reach great certainty about the life and teachings of Pythagoras is no reason for sulkily dismissing the subject as one we know nothing about, as Dr. Ed. Zeller 1) would have us do.


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