A little over a week ago I was reading Stephen J. Gould’s essay, “Bathybius and Eozoon,” which appears along with others of his essays in The Panda’s Thumb, and came across an interesting passage. The quick background is that bathybius and eozoon were both scientific discoveries that initially appeared to help solve the problem of the origin of life, but were ultimately found to be mistaken and cast into the trash bin of scientific history. As in several of his other essays, Gould shows sympathy for wrong discoveries and their discoverers:
Modern historians have more respect for such inspired errors. They made sense in their own time; that they don’t in ours is irrelevant. Our century is no standard for all ages; science is always an interaction of prevailing culture, individual eccentricity, and empirical constraint. …Errors usually have their good reasons once we penetrate their context properly and avoid judgment according to our current perceptions of “truth.” They are usually more enlightening than embarrassing, for they are signs of changing contexts. The best thinkers have the imagination to create organizing visions, and they are sufficiently adventurous (or egotistical) to float them in a complex world that can never answer “yes” in all detail. The study of inspired error should not engender a homily about the sin of pride; it should lead us to a recognition that the capacity for great insight and great error are opposite sides of the same coin–and that the currency of both is brilliance.
Is there a place for the concept of inspired error in the Church? I doubt anyone would deny such a thing for local leadership, but it gets a little more sticky when we look at prophets and scripture. When we look back at the undertakings in our history that didn’t pan out, or at doctrines that were taught and then reversed, or doctrines taught that are contradicted by solid science, I wonder if the concept of inspired error–with its respect for context–can be useful.