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Home > Category Index for Science Quotations > Category Index M > Category: Mistake

Mistake Quotes (107 quotes)

... the besetting danger is not so much of embracing falsehood for truth, as of mistaking a part of the truth for the whole.
'Coleridge', essay in Dissertations and Discussions: Political, Philosophical, and Historical (1864), Vol. 2, 11.
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Ein Fachmann ist ein Mann, der einige der gröbsten Fehler kennt, die man in dem betreffenden Fach machen kann, und der sie deshalb zu vermeiden versteht.
An expert is someone who knows some of the worst mistakes that can be made in his subject, and how to avoid them.
Original German in Der Teil und das Ganze: Gespräche im Umkreis der Atomphysik (The Part and the Whole: Conversations in the Atomic Physics) (1969, 2001), 247. Excerpt in magazine article, 'Kein Chaos, aus dem nicht wieder Ordnung würde,' Die Zeit (22 August 1969), 34. English version in Werner Heisenberg and Arnold J. Pomerans (trans.), Physics and Beyond: Encounters and Conversations (1971), 210.
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Non enim omnis error stultitia est dicenda
We must not say every mistake is a foolish one.
De Divinatione II., 22, 79. In Thomas Benfield Harbottle, Dictionary of Quotations (classical) (3rd Ed., 1906), 169.
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That was excellently observ'd, say I, when I read a Passage in an Author, where his Opinion agrees with mine. When we differ, there I pronounce him to be mistaken.
In 'Thoughts On Various Subjects' (1727), collected in The Works of Jonathan Swift (1746), Vol. 1, 318.
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A common mistake that people make when trying to design something completely foolproof is to underestimate the ingenuity of complete fools.
In Mostly Harmless (1992), 135.
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A computer lets you make more mistakes faster than any invention in human history—with the possible exceptions of handguns and tequila.
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A doctor can bury his mistakes but an architect can only advise his client to plant vines.
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A just society must strive with all its might to right wrongs even if righting wrongs is a highly perilous undertaking. But if it is to survive, a just society must be strong and resolute enough to deal swiftly and relentlessly with those who would mistake its good will for weakness.
In 'Thoughts on the Present', First Things, Last Things (1971), 101.
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A life spent in making mistakes is not only more honorable but more useful than a life spent doing nothing.
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A theory is a supposition which we hope to be true, a hypothesis is a supposition which we expect to be useful; fictions belong to the realm of art; if made to intrude elsewhere, they become either make-believes or mistakes.
As quoted by William Ramsay, in 'Radium and Its Products', Harper’s Magazine (Dec 1904), 52. The first part, about suppositions, appears in a paper read by G. Johnson Stoney to the American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia (3 Apr 1903), printed in 'On the Dependence of What Apparently Takes Place in Nature Upon What Actually Occurs in the Universe of Real Existences', Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society Held at Philadelphia for Promoting Useful Knowledge (Apr-May 1903) 42, No. 173, 107. If you know a primary source for the part on fictions and mistakes, please contact Webmaster.
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All the inventions that the world contains,
Were not by reason first found out, nor brains;
But pass for theirs who had the luck to light
Upon them by mistake or oversight.
Under 'Butler's Poems: Miscellaneous Thoughts', in Samuel Johnson (ed.), The Works of the English Poets from Chaucer to Cowper(1810), Vol. 8, 227.
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Almost everyone... seems to be quite sure that the differences between the methodologies of history and of the natural sciences are vast. For, we are assured, it is well known that in the natural sciences we start from observation and proceed by induction to theory. And is it not obvious that in history we proceed very differently? Yes, I agree that we proceed very differently. But we do so in the natural sciences as well.
In both we start from myths—from traditional prejudices, beset with error—and from these we proceed by criticism: by the critical elimination of errors. In both the role of evidence is, in the main, to correct our mistakes, our prejudices, our tentative theories—that is, to play a part in the critical discussion, in the elimination of error. By correcting our mistakes, we raise new problems. And in order to solve these problems, we invent conjectures, that is, tentative theories, which we submit to critical discussion, directed towards the elimination of error.
The Myth of the Framework: In Defence of Science and Rationality (1993), 140.
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An expert is a person who has made all the mistakes that can be made in a very narrow field.
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Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.
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Do not mistake a crowd of big wage-earners for the leisure class.
As quoted, without citation, in William Safire and Leonard Safir, Words of Wisdom (1990), 251.
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Does the evolutionary doctrine clash with religious faith? It does not. It is a blunder to mistake the Holy Scriptures for elementary textbooks of astronomy, geology, biology, and anthropology. Only if symbols are construed to mean what they are not intended to mean can there arise imaginary, insoluble conflicts. ... the blunder leads to blasphemy: the Creator is accused of systematic deceitfulness.
In 'Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution', The American Biology Teacher (Mar 1973), 125-129.
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Even mistaken hypotheses and theories are of use in leading to discoveries. This remark is true in all the sciences. The alchemists founded chemistry by pursuing chimerical problems and theories which are false. In physical science, which is more advanced than biology, we might still cite men of science who make great discoveries by relying on false theories. It seems, indeed, a necessary weakness of our mind to be able to reach truth only across a multitude of errors and obstacles.
An Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine (1865, translation 1927, 1957), 170.
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Even when the experts all agree, they may well be mistaken.
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For it is too bad that there are so few who seek the truth and so few who do not follow a mistaken method in philosophy. This is not, however, the place to lament the misery of our century, but to rejoice with you over such beautiful ideas for proving the truth. So I add only, and I promise, that I shall read your book at leisure; for I am certain that I shall find the noblest things in it. And this I shall do the more gladly, because I accepted the view of Copernicus many years ago, and from this standpoint I have discovered from their origins many natural phenomena, which doubtless cannot be explained on the basis of the more commonly accepted hypothesis.
Letter (4 Aug 1597) to Kepler, expressing thanks and interest in the book Kepler sent him. As quoted in translation in Jackson J. Spielvogel, Western Civilization: Alternate Volume: Since 1300 (2010), Vol. 2, 494.
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FORTRAN —’the infantile disorder’—, by now nearly 20 years old, is hopelessly inadequate for whatever computer application you have in mind today: it is now too clumsy, too risky, and too expensive to use. PL/I —’the fatal disease’— belongs more to the problem set than to the solution set. It is practically impossible to teach good programming to students that have had a prior exposure to BASIC: as potential programmers they are mentally mutilated beyond hope of regeneration. The use of COBOL cripples the mind; its teaching should, therefore, be regarded as a criminal offence. APL is a mistake, carried through to perfection. It is the language of the future for the programming techniques of the past: it creates a new generation of coding bums.
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He that believes, without having any Reason for believing, may be in love with his own Fancies; but neither seeks Truth as he ought, nor pays the Obedience due to his Maker, who would have him use those discerning Faculties he has given him, to keep him out of Mistake and Errour.
In 'Of Reason', Essay Concerning Humane Understanding (1690), Book 4, Ch. 17, Sec. 24, 347.
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He who joyfully marches to music in rank and file has already earned my contempt. He has been given a large brain by mistake, since for him the spinal cord would fully suffice. This disgrace to civilisation should be done away with at once. Heroism at command, senseless brutality, deplorable love-of-country stance, how violently I hate all this, how despicable and ignoble war is; I would rather be torn to shreds than be part of so base an action! It is my conviction that killing under the cloak of war is nothing but an act of murder.
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I am particularly fond of (Emmanuel Mendes da Costa’s) Natural History of Fossils because treatise, more than any other work written in English, records a short episode expressing one of the grand false starts in the history of natural science–and nothing can be quite so informative and instructive as a juicy mistake.
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I am willing to believe that my unobtainable sixty seconds within a sponge or a flatworm might not reveal any mental acuity that I would care to ca ll consciousness. But I am also confident ... that vultures and sloths, as close evolutionary relatives with the same basic set of organs, lie on our side of any meaningful (and necessarily fuzzy) border–and that we are therefore not mistaken when we look them in the eye and see a glimmer of emotional and conceptual affinity.
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I beseech you in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken.
Letter, to General Assembly of the Church of Scotland (1650). In The Parliamentary or Constitutional History of England (1763), Vol. 19, 322.
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I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skilful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order. It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones.
In 'The Science Of Deduction', A Study In Scarlet (1887, 1904), 15-16.
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I do not know if I am mistaken, but it seems that one can obtain more truths, important to Humanity, from Chemistry than from any other Science.
In Chemische Annalen (Crell;s) I:291-305, 1788. As cited in Israel S. Kleiner, 'Hahnemann as a Chemist', The Scientific Monthly (May 1938), 46, 450. The quote is the opening words of an article describing his test for lead and iron in wine.
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I have been a sore-headed occupant of a file drawer labeled ‘‘Science Fiction’’; and I would like out, particularly since so many serious critics regularly mistake the drawer for a urinal
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I think it’s a mistake to ever look for hope outside of one’s self.
After the Fall. Quoted in Kim Lim (ed.), 1,001 Pearls of Spiritual Wisdom: Words to Enrich, Inspire, and Guide Your Life (2014), 250
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I think I’ve had more failures than successes, but I don’t see the failures as mistakes because I always learned something from those experiences. I see them as having not achieved the initial goal, nothing more than that.
Quoted in Timothy L. O’Brien, 'Not Invented here: Are U.S. Innovators Losing Their Competitive Edge?', New York Times (13 Nov 2005), B6.
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If the matter is one that can be settled by observation, make the observation yourself. Aristotle could have avoided the mistake of thinking that women have fewer teeth than men, by the simple device of asking Mrs. Aristotle to keep her mouth open while he counted.
In An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish (1943), 22.
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If there ever was a misnomer, it is “exact science.” Science has always been full of mistakes. The present day is no exception. And our mistakes are good mistakes; they require a genius to correct. Of course, we do not see our own mistakes.
In Edward Teller, Wendy Teller and Wilson Talley, Conversations on the Dark Secrets of Physics (1991, 2013), 37.
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If we had had more time for discussing we probably would’ve made a great many more mistakes.
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If we look at the problems raised by Aristotle, we are astonished at his gift of observation. What wonderful eyes the Greeks had for many things! Only they committed the mistake of being overhasty, of passing straightway from the phenomenon to the explanation of it, and thereby produced certain theories that are quite inadequate. But this is the mistake of all times, and still made in our own day.
In The Maxims and Reflections of Goethe (1906), 195.
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If, in the course of a thousand or two thousand years, science arrives at the necessity of renewing its points of view, that will not mean that science is a liar. Science cannot lie, for it’s always striving, according to the momentary state of knowledge, to deduce what is true. When it makes a mistake, it does so in good faith. It's Christianity that's the liar. It’s in perpetual conflict with itself.
In Adolf Hitler, Hugh Redwald Trevor-Roper, translated by Norman Cameron and R. H. Stevens, '14 October 1941', Secret Conversations (1941 - 1944) (1953), 51
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In a few minutes a computer can make a mistake so great that it would have taken many men many months to equal.
Anonymous
In Civilization's Quotations: Life's Ideal (2002), 315.
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In a sense Shapley’s telling me that space was transparent, which I shouldn’t have believed, illustrates a fundamental problem in science, believing what people tell you. Go and find it out for yourself. That same error has persisted in my life and in many other people’s. Authorities are not always authorities on everything; they often cling to their own mistakes.
Oral History Transcript of interview with Dr. Jesse Greenstein by Paul Wright (31 Jul 1974), on website of American Institute of Physics.
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In experimental science it’s always a mistake not to doubt when facts do not compel you to affirm.
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In reality, I have sometimes thought that we do not go on sufficiently slowly in the removal of diseases, and that it would he better if we proceeded with less haste, and if more were often left, to Nature than is the practice now-a-days. It is a great mistake to suppose that Nature always stands in need of the assistance of Art. If that were the case, site would have made less provision for the safety of mankind than the preservation of the species demands; seeing that there is not the least proportion between the host of existing diseases and the powers possessed by man for their removal, even in those ages wherein the healing art was at the highest pitch, and most extensively cultivated.
As quoted by Gavin Milroy in 'On the Writings of Sydenham', The Lancet (14 Nov 1846), 524.
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In the higher walks of politics the same sort of thing occurs. The statesman who has gradually concentrated all power within himself … may have had anything but a public motive… The phrases which are customary on the platform and in the Party Press have gradually come to him to seem to express truths, and he mistakes the rhetoric of partisanship for a genuine analysis of motives… He retires from the world after the world has retired from him.
In The Conquest of Happiness (1930, 2006), 79.
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It has been said that computing machines can only carry out the processes that they are instructed to do. This is certainly true in the sense that if they do something other than what they were instructed then they have just made some mistake. It is also true that the intention in constructing these machines in the first instance is to treat them as slaves, giving them only jobs which have been thought out in detail, jobs such that the user of the machine fully understands what in principle is going on all the time. Up till the present machines have only been used in this way. But is it necessary that they should always be used in such a manner? Let us suppose we have set up a machine with certain initial instruction tables, so constructed that these tables might on occasion, if good reason arose, modify those tables. One can imagine that after the machine had been operating for some time, the instructions would have altered out of all recognition, but nevertheless still be such that one would have to admit that the machine was still doing very worthwhile calculations. Possibly it might still be getting results of the type desired when the machine was first set up, but in a much more efficient manner. In such a case one would have to admit that the progress of the machine had not been foreseen when its original instructions were put in. It would be like a pupil who had learnt much from his master, but had added much more by his own work. When this happens I feel that one is obliged to regard the machine as showing intelligence.
Lecture to the London Mathematical Society, 20 February 1947. Quoted in B. E. Carpenter and R. W. Doran (eds.), A. M. Turing's Ace Report of 1946 and Other Papers (1986), 122-3.
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It has often been said that, to make discoveries, one must be ignorant. This opinion, mistaken in itself, nevertheless conceals a truth. It means that it is better to know nothing than to keep in mind fixed ideas based on theories whose confirmation we constantly seek, neglecting meanwhile everything that fails to agree with them.
From An Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine (1865), as translated by Henry Copley Greene (1957), 37.
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It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.
A Scandal in Bohemia (1891) in Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1892), 5.
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It is a capital mistake to theorize before you have all the evidence. It biases the judgment.
A Study in Scarlet (1887), in Works of Arthur Conan Doyle (1902), Vol. 11, 39.
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It is impossible for the strength of an elderly person to be great. Some physicians think that children also do not have great strength, but they are mistaken in their opinion.
As quoted in Robert Taylor, White Coat Tales: Medicine's Heroes, Heritage, and Misadventures (2010), 125.
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It might be thought … that evolutionary arguments would play a large part in guiding biological research, but this is far from the case. It is difficult enough to study what is happening now. To figure out exactly what happened in evolution is even more difficult. Thus evolutionary achievements can be used as hints to suggest possible lines of research, but it is highly dangerous to trust them too much. It is all too easy to make mistaken inferences unless the process involved is already very well understood.
In What Mad Pursuit: A Personal View of Scientific Discovery (1988), 138-139.
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It wasn’t the finches that put the idea [of natural selection] in Darwin’s head, it was the tortoises. The reason he didn’t use the tortoises [in writing On the Origin of Species] was that, when he got back, he found he didn’t have localities on the tortoise specimens. Here the great god, the greatest naturalist we have records of, made a mistake. His fieldwork wasn’t absolutely perfect.
From interview with Brian Cox and Robert Ince, in 'A Life Measured in Heartbeats', New Statesman (21 Dec 2012), 141, No. 5138, 33.
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Let no one mistake it for comedy, farcical though it may be in all its details. It serves notice on the country that Neanderthal man is organizing in these forlorn backwaters of the land, led by a fanatic, rid of sense and devoid of conscience.
{Commenting on the Scopes Monkey Trial, while reporting for the Baltimore Sun.]
In Michael Shermer, Why Darwin Matters (2006), 26.
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Living is like working out a long addition sum, and if you make a mistake in the first two totals you will never find the right answer. It means involving oneself in a complicated chain of circumstances.
In The Burning Brand: Diaries 1935-1950 (1961), 56.
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Looking back over the geological record it would seem that Nature made nearly every possible mistake before she reached her greatest achievement Man—or perhaps some would say her worst mistake of all. ... At last she tried a being of no great size, almost defenseless, defective in at least one of the more important sense organs; one gift she bestowed to save him from threatened extinction—a certain stirring, a restlessness, in the organ called the brain.
…...
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Looking back … over the long and labyrinthine path which finally led to the discovery [of the quantum theory], I am vividly reminded of Goethe’s saying that men will always be making mistakes as long as they are striving after something.
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Lucy, dear child, mind your arithmetic. You know in the first sum of yours I ever saw there was a mistake. You had carried two (as a cab is licensed to do), and you ought, dear Lucy, to have carried but one. Is this a trifle? What would life be without arithmetic, but a scene of horrors.
Letter to a child (22 Jul 1835). In Sydney Smith, Saba Holland, with Sarah Austin (ed.), A Memoir of the Reverend Sydney Smith by his Daughter, Lady Holland (4th ed. 1855), Vol. 2, 364.
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Many orthodox people speak as though it were the business of sceptics to disprove received dogmas rather than of dogmatists to prove them. This is, of course, a mistake.
In unpublished manuscript, 'Is There a God', (5 Mar 1952) written for the magazine, Illustrated. Collected in Bertrand Russell, John G. Slater (ed.) and Peter Köllner (ed.) The Collected Papers of Bertrand Russell: Volume II: Last Philosophical Testament: 1943-68 (1997), 547.
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Men are more apt to be mistaken in their generalizations than in their particular observations.
Attributed (?). Widely seen, without citation. Webmaster has not yet found a satisfactory primary source, but finds the quote used as an epigraph as early as C. E. Rhoad, The Problem Method of Teaching: Operator’s Manual (1950), 43. A University of Nebraska Publication. Notably, this quote does not seem to appear in any 19th century quote collection volumes. If you know a primary source, contact Webmaster.
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Most American citizens think that life without the telephone is scarcely worth living. The American public telephone system is therefore enormous. Moreover the system belongs to an organization, the Bell companies, which can both control it and make the equipment needed. There is no surer way of getting efficient functional design than having equipment designed by an organization which is going to have to use it. Humans who would have to live with their own mistakes tend to think twice and to make fewer mistakes.
In 'Musical Acoustics Today', New Scientist (1 Nov 1962), 16 No. 311, 256.
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My Lord said that he who knew men only in this way [from history] was like one who had got the theory of anatomy perfectly, but who in practice would find himself very awkward and liable to mistakes. That he again who knew men by observation was like one who picked up anatomy by practice, but who like all empirics would for a long time be liable to gross errors.
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Never promote a man who hasn’t made some bad mistakes, because you would be promoting someone who hasn’t done much.
As quoted, without citation, in Ken Fisher and Aaron Anderson (ed.), 'The Other Dow Theory: January 4, 1993', The Making of a Market Guru: Forbes Presents 25 Years of Ken Fisher (2010), 187. The author, Ken Fisher, writes that when young and caught doing something wrong, his father “would quote Dow to me and then insist on analyzing what I had done wrong in the interest of learning from it.”
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On my tests, I [had] … what I called a “two and fifty question.” Two points if they got it right; 50 points off if they missed it.
Now this isn’t as unfair as it seems because much of life is that way. You can do right all your life and nobody says anything. But you go out and make one little mistake and everybody censures you.
In address, to the Economic Club of Detroit (14 Jan 1990), 'Where Do We Go From Here?' on the massiechairs.com website.
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Once a mathematical result is proven to the satisfaction of the discipline, it doesn’t need to be re-evaluated in the light of new evidence or refuted, unless it contains a mistake. If it was true for Archimedes, then it is true today.
In 'The Unplanned Impact of Mathematics', Nature (14 Jul 2011), 475, No. 7355, 166.
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One Form of Failure. From a worldly point of view there is no mistake so great as that of being always right.
Samuel Butler, Henry Festing Jones (ed.), The Note-Books of Samuel Butler (1917), 224.
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One of the main purposes of scientific inference is to justify beliefs which we entertain already; but as a rule they are justified with a difference. Our pre-scientific general beliefs are hardly ever without exceptions; in science, a law with exceptions can only be tolerated as a makeshift. Scientific laws, when we have reason to think them accurate, are different in form from the common-sense rules which have exceptions: they are always, at least in physics, either differential equations, or statistical averages. It might be thought that a statistical average is not very different from a rule with exceptions, but this would be a mistake. Statistics, ideally, are accurate laws about large groups; they differ from other laws only in being about groups, not about individuals. Statistical laws are inferred by induction from particular statistics, just as other laws are inferred from particular single occurrences.
The Analysis of Matter (1927), 191.
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One's instinct is at first to try and get rid of a discrepancy, but I believe that experience shows such an endeavour to be a mistake. What one ought to do is to magnify a small discrepancy with a view to finding out the explanation.
General Monthly Meeting, on Argon, (1 Apr 1895), Proceedings of the Royal Institution (1895), 14, 525.
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Our mistake is that we doubt what is certain and want to establish what is uncertain. My maxim in the study of Nature is this: hold fast what is certain and keep a watch on what is uncertain.
In The Maxims and Reflections of Goethe (1906), 196.
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People make the mistake of talking about ‘natural laws’. There are no natural laws. There are only temporary habits of nature.
In Dialogues of Alfred North Whitehead, as recorded by Lucien Price (1954), 367. As cited in G. Debrock (ed.), Process Pragmatism: Essays on a Quiet Philosophical Revolution (2003), 94.
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Philosophers, if they have much imagination, are apt to let it loose as well as other people, and in such cases are sometimes led to mistake a fancy for a fact. Geologists, in particular, have very frequently amused themselves in this way, and it is not a little amusing to follow them in their fancies and their waking dreams. Geology, indeed, in this view, may be called a romantic science.
Conversations on Geology (1840), 5.
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Probably the most important skill that children learn is how to learn. … Too often we give children answers to remember rather than problems to solve. This is a mistake.
In 'Observing the Brain Through a Cat's Eyes', Saturday Review World (1974), 2, 132.
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Psychologism is, I believe, correct only in so far as it insists upon what may be called 'methodological individualism' as opposed to 'methodological collectivism'; it rightly insists that the 'behaviour' and the 'actions' of collectives, such as states or social groups, must be reduced to the behaviour and to the actions of human individuals. But the belief that the choice of such an individualist method implies the choice of a psychological method is mistaken.
The Open Society and Its Enemies (1945), Vol. 22, 87.
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Realistic thinking accrues only after mistake making, which is the cosmic wisdom's most cogent way of teaching each of us how to carry on.
In Buckminster Fuller and Answar Dil, Humans in Universe (1983), 218.
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REST IN PEACE. THE MISTAKE SHALL NOT BE REPEATED.
Anonymous
Inscription on the cenotaph at Hiroshima, Japan. Quoted in Alan L. Mackay, The Harvest of a Quiet Eye (1977. In Robert Andrews Famous Lines: a Columbia Dictionary of Familiar Quotations (1997), 340.
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Science is properly more scrupulous than dogma. Dogma gives a charter to mistake, but the very breath of science is a contest with mistake, and must keep the conscience alive.
In Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life (1873), 255.
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Science, by itself, cannot supply us with an ethic. It can show us how to achieve a given end, and it may show us that some ends cannot be achieved. But among ends that can be achieved our choice must be decided by other than purely scientific considerations. If a man were to say, “I hate the human race, and I think it would be a good thing if it were exterminated,” we could say, “Well, my dear sir, let us begin the process with you.” But this is hardly argument, and no amount of science could prove such a man mistaken.
'The Science to Save us from Science', New York Times Magazine (19 Mar 1950). Collected in M. Gardner (ed.), Great Essays in Science (1950), 396-397.
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Scientists are supposed to make predictions, probably to prove they are human and can be as mistaken as anyone else. Long-range predictions are better to make because the audience to whom the prediction was made is no longer around to ask questions. The alternative... is to make conflicting predictions, so that one prediction may prove right.
'Fossils—The How and Why of Collecting and Storing', Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington (1969), 82, 597.
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Suppose it were perfectly certain that the life and fortune of every one of us would, one day or other, depend upon his winning or losing a game of chess. Don't you think that we should all consider it to be a primary duty to learn at least the names and the moves of the pieces; to have a notion of a gambit, and a keen eye for all the means of giving and getting out of check? Do you not think that we should look with a disapprobation amounting to scorn upon the father who allowed his son, or the state which allowed its members, to grow up without knowing a pawn from a knight?
Yet, it is a very plain and elementary truth that the life, the fortune, and the happiness of every one of us, and, more or less, of those who are connected with us, do depend upon our knowing something of the rules of a game infinitely more difficult and complicated than chess. It is a game which has been played for untold ages, every man and woman of us being one of the two players in a game of his or her own. The chess-board is the world, the pieces are the phenomena of the universe, the rules of the game are what we call the laws of nature. The player on the other side is hidden from us. We know that his play is always fair, just, and patient. But also we know, to our cost, that he never overlooks a mistake, or makes the smallest allowance for ignorance. To the man who plays well the highest stakes are paid with that sort of overflowing generosity with which the strong shows delight in strength. And one who plays ill is checkmated—without haste, but without remorse.
Address to the South London Working Men’s College. 'A Liberal Education; and Where to Find It', in David Masson, (ed.), Macmillan’s Magazine (Mar 1868), 17, 369. Also in 'A Liberal Education and Where to Find it' (1868). In Collected Essays (1893), Vol. 3, 82.
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Suppose [an] imaginary physicist, the student of Niels Bohr, is shown an experiment in which a virus particle enters a bacterial cell and 20 minutes later the bacterial cell is lysed and 100 virus particles are liberated. He will say: “How come, one particle has become 100 particles of the same kind in 20 minutes? That is very interesting. Let us find out how it happens! How does the particle get in to the bacterium? How does it multiply? Does it multiply like a bacterium, growing and dividing, or does it multiply by an entirely different mechanism ? Does it have to be inside the bacterium to do this multiplying, or can we squash the bacterium and have the multiplication go on as before? Is this multiplying a trick of organic chemistry which the organic chemists have not yet discovered ? Let us find out. This is so simple a phenomenon that the answers cannot be hard to find. In a few months we will know. All we have to do is to study how conditions will influence the multiplication. We will do a few experiments at different temperatures, in different media, with different viruses, and we will know. Perhaps we may have to break into the bacteria at intermediate stages between infection and lysis. Anyhow, the experiments only take a few hours each, so the whole problem can not take long to solve.”
[Eight years later] he has not got anywhere in solving the problem he set out to solve. But [he may say to you] “Well, I made a slight mistake. I could not do it in a few months. Perhaps it will take a few decades, and perhaps it will take the help of a few dozen other people. But listen to what I have found, perhaps you will be interested to join me.”
From 'Experiments with Bacterial Viruses (Bacteriophages)', Harvey Lecture (1946), 41, 161-162. As cited in Robert Olby, The Path of the Double Helix: The Discovery of DNA (1974, 1994), 237.
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Take risks. Ask big questions. Don't be afraid to make mistakes; if you don't make mistakes, you're not reaching far enough.
In Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, MBARI's First Decade: A Retrospective (1997), 3, withoug citation. If you know the primary source, please contact Webmaster.
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The argument of the ‘long view’ may be correct in some meaninglessly abstract sense, but it represents a fundamental mistake in categories and time scales. Our only legitimate long view extends to our children and our children’s children’s children–hundreds or a few thousands of years down the road. If we let the slaughter continue, they will share a bleak world with rats, dogs, cockroaches, pigeons, and mosquitoes. A potential recovery millions of years later has no meaning at our appropriate scale.
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The best class of scientific mind is the same as the best class of business mind. The great desideratum in either case is to know how much evidence is enough to warrant action. It is as unbusiness-like to want too much evidence before buying or selling as to be content with too little. The same kind of qualities are wanted in either case. The difference is that if the business man makes a mistake, he commonly has to suffer for it, whereas it is rarely that scientific blundering, so long as it is confined to theory, entails loss on the blunderer. On the contrary it very often brings him fame, money and a pension. Hence the business man, if he is a good one, will take greater care not to overdo or underdo things than the scientific man can reasonably be expected to take.
Samuel Butler, Henry Festing Jones (ed.), The Note-Books of Samuel Butler (1917), 217.
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The computer is a great invention. There are as many mistakes as ever, but now they're nobody's fault.
Anonymous
In E.C. McKenzie, 14,000 Quips and Quotes for Speakers, Writers, Editors, Preachers, and Teachers (1990), 338.
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The enemy is not fundamentalism; it is intolerance. In this case, the intolerance is perverse since it masquerades under the ‘liberal’ rhetoric of ‘equal time.’ But mistake it not.
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The history of science, like the history of all human ideas, is a history of irresponsible dreams, of obstinacy, and of error. But science is one of the very few human activities—perhaps the only one—in which errors are systematically criticized and fairly often, in time, corrected. This is why we can say that, in science, we often learn from our mistakes, and why we can speak clearly and sensibly about making progress there. In most other fields of human endeavour there is change, but rarely progress ... And in most fields we do not even know how to evaluate change.
From Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge (1963), 216. Reproduced in Karl Popper, Truth, Rationality and the Growth of Scientific Knowledge (1979), 9.
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The human mind delights in finding pattern–so much so that we often mistake coincidence or forced analogy for profound meaning. No other habit of thought lies so deeply within the soul of a small creature trying to make sense of a complex world not constructed for it.
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The knowledge of Natural-History, being Observation of Matters of Fact, is more certain than most others, and in my slender Opinion, less subject to Mistakes than Reasonings, Hypotheses, and Deductions are; ... These are things we are sure of, so far as our Senses are not fallible; and which, in probability, have been ever since the Creation, and will remain to the End of the World, in the same Condition we now find them.
A Voyage to the Islands Madera, Barbados, Nieves, S. Christophers and Jamaica: With the Natural History of the Herbs and Trees, Four-footed Beasts, Fishes, Birds, Insects, Reptiles, &c. of the Last of those Islands (1707), Vol. 1, 1.
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The operative definition of an expert … someone who doesn’t make small mistakes.
In Seeing Red: Redshifts, Cosmology and Academic Science (1998), 274.
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The reformer [of the body of law] who would seek to improve such a system in any material degree, mistakes his vocation. That task had better be left to time and experience. He will often find it impossible to know what to eradicate and what to spare, and in plucking up the tares, the wheat may sometimes be destroyed. “The pound of flesh” may be removed, indeed, but with it will come, gushing forth, the blood of life.
From biographical preface by T. Bigelow to Austin Abbott (ed.), Official Report of the Trial of Henry Ward Beecher (1875), Vol. 1, xii.
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The Scientific Revolution turns us away from the older sayings to discover the lost authorization in Nature. What we have been through in these last four millennia is the slow inexorable profaning of our species. And in the last part of the second millennium A.D., that process is apparently becoming complete. It is the Great Human Irony of our noblest and greatest endeavor on this planet that in the quest for authorization, in our reading of the language of God in Nature, we should read there so clearly that we have been so mistaken.
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The search for historical laws is, I maintain, mistaken in principle.
'Historical Science', C. C. Albritton (ed.), The Fabric of Geology (1963), 29.
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The thinker makes a great mistake when he asks after cause and effect. They both together make up the invisible phenomenon.
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The thought that we’re in competition with Russians or with Chinese is all a mistake, and trivial. We are one species, with a world to win. There’s life all over this universe, but the only life in the solar system is on earth, and in the whole universe we are the only men.
From speech given at an anti-war teach-in at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, (4 Mar 1969) 'A Generation in Search of a Future', as edited by Ron Dorfman for Chicago Journalism Review, (May 1969).
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The world is full of signals that we don’t perceive. Tiny creatures live in a different world of unfamiliar forces. Many animals of our scale greatly exceed our range of perception for sensations familiar to us ... What an imperceptive lot we are. Surrounded by so much, so fascinating and so real, that we do not see (hear, smell, touch, taste) in nature, yet so gullible and so seduced by claims for novel power that we mistake the tricks of mediocre magicians for glimpses of a psychic world beyond our ken. The paranormal may be a fantasy; it is certainly a haven for charlatans. But ‘parahuman’ powers of perception lie all about us in birds, bees, and bacteria.
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There cannot be a greater mistake than that of looking superciliously upon practical applications of science. The life and soul of science is its practical application .
In Lecture 'Electrical Units of Measurement' delivered at the Institution of Civil Engineers (3 May 1883). Collected in Popular Lectures and Addresses (1889), Vol. 1, 79.
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There is a moral or metaphysical part of nature as well as a physical. A man who denies this is deep in the mire of folly. ’Tis the crown and glory of organic science that it does through final cause, link material and moral; and yet does not allow us to mingle them in our first conception of laws, and our classification of such laws, whether we consider one side of nature or the other. You have ignored this link; and, if I do not mistake your meaning, you have done your best in one or two pregnant cases to break it. Were it possible (which, thank God, it is not) to break it, humanity, in my mind, would suffer a damage that might brutalize it, and sink the human race into a lower grade of degradation than any into which it has fallen since its written records tell us of its history.
Letter to Charles Darwin (Nov 1859). In Charles Darwin and Francis Darwin (ed.), Charles Darwin: His Life Told in an Autobiographical Chapter, and in a Selected Series of His Published Letters (1892), 217.
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There is an insistent tendency among serious social scientists to think of any institution which features rhymed and singing commercials, intense and lachrymose voices urging highly improbable enjoyment, caricatures of the human esophagus in normal and impaired operation, and which hints implausibly at opportunities for antiseptic seduction as inherently trivial. This is a great mistake. The industrial system is profoundly dependent on commercial television and could not exist in its present form without it.
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This is often the way it is in physics—our mistake is not that we take our theories too seriously, but that we do not take them seriously enough. It is always hard to realize that these numbers and equations we play with at our desks have something to do with the real world.
In The First Three Minutes: A Modern View of the Origin of the Universe (1977, Rev. ed. 1993), 131-132.
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This topic brings me to that worst outcrop of the herd nature, the military system, which I abhor. That a man can take pleasure in marching in formation to the strains of a band is enough to make me despise him. He has only been given his big brain by mistake; a backbone was all he needed. This plague-spot of civilisation ought to be abolished with all possible speed. Heroism by order, senseless violence, and all the pestilent nonsense that goes by the name of patriotism–how I hate them! War seems to me a mean, contemptible thing: I would rather be hacked in pieces than take part in such an abominable business.
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We can found no scientific discipline, nor a hearty profession, on the technical mistakes of the Department of Defense and, mainly, one computer manufacturer.
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We learn wisdom from failure much more than from success. We often discover what will do, by finding out what will not do; and probably he who never made a mistake never made a discovery.
In Self-help: With Illustrations of Character and Conduct (1859, 1861), 349.
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We make a lot of mistakes in the environmental space. … We don't do a good-enough job of asking, “What are the fundamentals of telling a good story?” And that is not statistics, it's usually not science, or at least complex science. It's people stories. … It’s got to have adventure, it’s got to be funny, it’s got to pull my heart strings, it’s got to have conflict, setting, character. It’s a story. And if it doesn’t have those things, it can be the best-meaning story in the world, and nobody's going to buy it.
From interview with Dan Conover, 'A Conversation with Philippe Cousteau Jr.', Charleston City Paper (27 Jul 2012).
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We more readily confess to errors, mistakes, and shortcomings in our conduct than in our thought.
In The Maxims and Reflections of Goethe (1906), 187.
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We must not put mistakes into programs because of sloppiness, we have to do it systematically and with care.
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We need to engage and inspire today’s youth to do a much better job of protecting the planet and our future than we have. My grandfather raised me believing in the power of youth to change the world. … Education and young people are key to making sure we don’t keep repeating our mistakes.
In 'Gulf Dispatch: Time to Tap Power of Teens', CNN Blog (23 Jul 2010).
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We think we understand the regular reflection of light and X rays - and we should understand the reflections of electrons as well if electrons were only waves instead of particles ... It is rather as if one were to see a rabbit climbing a tree, and were to say ‘Well, that is rather a strange thing for a rabbit to be doing, but after all there is really nothing to get excited about. Cats climb trees - so that if the rabbit were only a cat, we would understand its behavior perfectly.’ Of course, the explanation might be that what we took to be a rabbit was not a rabbit at all but was actually a cat. Is it possible that we are mistaken all this time in supposing they are particles, and that actually they are waves?
Franklin Institute Journal Vol. 205, 597. Cited in New Scientist (14 Apr 1977), 66.
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When entering on new ground we must not be afraid to express even risky ideas so as to stimulate research in all directions. As Priestley put it, we must not remain inactive through false modesty based on fear of being mistaken.
From An Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine (1865), as translated by Henry Copley Greene (1957), 164-165.
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When I find myself in the company of scientists, I feel like a shabby curate who has strayed by mistake into a drawing room full of dukes.
In 'The Poet and the City' (1962), collected in The Dyer's Hand and Other Essays (1965), 81.
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While the method of the natural sciences is... analytic, the method of the social sciences is better described as compositive or synthetic. It is the so-called wholes, the groups of elements which are structurally connected, which we learn to single out from the totality of observed phenomena... Insofar as we analyze individual thought in the social sciences the purpose is not to explain that thought, but merely to distinguish the possible types of elements with which we shall have to reckon in the construction of different patterns of social relationships. It is a mistake... to believe that their aim is to explain conscious action ... The problems which they try to answer arise only insofar as the conscious action of many men produce undesigned results... If social phenomena showed no order except insofar as they were consciously designed, there would indeed be no room for theoretical sciences of society and there would be, as is often argued, only problems of psychology. It is only insofar as some sort of order arises as a result of individual action but without being designed by any individual that a problem is raised which demands a theoretical explanation... people dominated by the scientistic prejudice are often inclined to deny the existence of any such order... it can be shown briefly and without any technical apparatus how the independent actions of individuals will produce an order which is no part of their intentions... The way in which footpaths are formed in a wild broken country is such an instance. At first everyone will seek for himself what seems to him the best path. But the fact that such a path has been used once is likely to make it easier to traverse and therefore more likely to be used again; and thus gradually more and more clearly defined tracks arise and come to be used to the exclusion of other possible ways. Human movements through the region come to conform to a definite pattern which, although the result of deliberate decision of many people, has yet not be consciously designed by anyone.
…...
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[Benjamin Peirce's] lectures were not easy to follow. They were never carefully prepared. The work with which he rapidly covered the blackboard was very illegible, marred with frequent erasures, and not infrequent mistakes (he worked too fast for accuracy). He was always ready to digress from the straight path and explore some sidetrack that had suddenly attracted his attention, but which was likely to have led nowhere when the college bell announced the close of the hour and we filed out, leaving him abstractedly staring at his work, still with chalk and eraser in his hands, entirely oblivious of his departing class.
Writing as a Professor Emeritus at Harvard University, a former student of Peirce, in 'Benjamin Peirce: II. Reminiscences', The American Mathematical Monthly (Jan 1925), 32, No. 1, 6.
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[In mathematics] There are two kinds of mistakes. There are fatal mistakes that destroy a theory, but there are also contingent ones, which are useful in testing the stability of a theory.
In 'Ten Lessons I Wish I Had Been Taught', Indiscrete Thoughts (2008), 202.
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[The object of education is] to train the mind to ascertain the sequence of a particular conclusion from certain premises, to detect a fallacy, to correct undue generalisation, to prevent the growth of mistakes in reasoning. Everything in these must depend on the spirit and the manner in which the instruction itself is conveyed and honoured. If you teach scientific knowledge without honouring scientific knowledge as it is applied, you do more harm than good. I do think that the study of natural science is so glorious a school for the mind, that with the laws impressed on all these things by the Creator, and the wonderful unity and stability of matter, and the forces of matter, there cannot be a better school for the education of the mind.
Giving Evidence (18 Nov 1862) to the Public Schools Commission. As quoted in John L. Lewis, 125 Years: The Physical Society & The Institute of Physics (1999), 168-169.
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Carl Sagan Thumbnail In science it often happens that scientists say, 'You know that's a really good argument; my position is mistaken,' and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn't happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion. (1987) -- Carl Sagan
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- 90 -
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