"Knowledge may have its purposes,” wrote the poet W. H. Auden, “but guessing is always more fun than knowing.
He has a point: People with an abundance of knowledge are not always the greatest visionaries. Thomas Edison’s contemporary Henry Morton, a distinguished physicist, chemist and educator, called the inventor’s claims for the incandescent lamp “a fraud upon the public.” (Edison’s retort: He’d build a statue of Morton and illuminate it with light bulbs.)
In an editorial in 1920, The New York Times rejected the science on which rocket scientist Robert Goddard based his claim that travel to the moon could be possible, saying, “He only seems to lack the knowledge ladled out daily in high school.” (On July 17, 1969, as Apollo 11 was in flight, the newspaper printed a correction, noting, “The Times regrets the error.”)
In 1946, movie mogul Daryl F. Zanuck derided television’s potential: “People will soon get tired of staring at a plywood box every night.” And in 1977 Ken Olsen, founder of the computer-making Digital Equipment Company, said, “There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.”
We definitely do not want to be so mired in detail, analysis or accepted thinking that we censor our imagination. But knowledge can help us doubt wisely, making it easier to avoid pitfalls and expand the possibilities.
Relying on a solid base of facts, President George W. Bush in June established the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Marine National Monument. That this fragile environment needed extraordinary conservation action was not guesswork but the result of studies in biology, oceanography, history, cultural heritage and policy.
“Successful ocean stewardship,” the president said when he made his declaration, “depends on informed policy makers and an informed public.” The Trusts could not agree more, and we are proud to support good science as well as the wise stewardship of this spectacular resource for future generations.
Hawaiians have an incisive name for this territory—the Kupuna, or Ancestor, Islands, because, like wisdombearing elders, this natural marine environment is a laboratory of ocean life and diversity that expands our knowledge and teaches respect for marine ecosystems, which are nothing less than the foundation of our planet’s life-support system.
Knowing also beats guessing in understanding the role of religion in American foreign policy. Religious feeling and expression have always strongly influenced the nation’s political processes, and polls by the Pew Research Center and others show that Americans want their elected officials to hold religious beliefs. Yet polls also show that many Americans prefer religious commitments to be kept personal rather than overtly directed to influence policy.
Up to recently, that view constituted a majority and reflected how the people’s business was conducted—including foreign relations. As Luis Lugo, the director of the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, puts it, “Much of the American diplomatic establishment for quite some time has believed that religion is best left to the private realm and should not intrude on the practice of statecraft.”
The Pew Research Center has documented Americans’ increasing acceptance of religion in politics. But the politics of many other nations have always merged the two, and Americans must recognize that fact, particularly in foreign affairs and in an era of many faith-based conflicts.
To shed light on religion’s effect on U.S. foreign relations, the forum, a project of the Pew Research Center, is raising the pertinent question: What role, if any, should religion play in the making of U.S. foreign policy? Through convenings and publications, the forum offers reasoned ways to reduce the guessing and provide diplomats a navigational tool for their important negotiations.
Knowledge, and not guesswork, is also the basis for the Trusts’ initiative in pandemic preparedness. There are fundamental unknowns about the next public health crisis. No one can predict with certainty even what it might be—avian flu, a toxic spill, a bioterrorist chemical release or a natural disaster like a hurricane—or when or where it will occur. But we all know that planning trumps chaos.
And it must be based on good information, including reliable diseasetracking and early detection, effective vaccines and medicines, clearly articulated duties and well-coordinated, functioning communication.
Trust for America’s Health is ensuring that key decision-makers at the federal, state and local levels are developing plans to manage the effects of a major public health crisis such as pandemic flu. The project is also engaging in preparedness exercises to help participants navigate a very uncertain future.
We must be ready to confront any potential hazard with good data that inform smart strategy. To turn Auden’s idea on its head: Guessing may be fun, but we are more likely to address difficult problems effectively when we bring the power of knowledge to bear for the public good.