San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

The fudge factor

The late teens are our idealistic years, when we seek the Greater Truth and are eager to believe any utterly ridiculous thing they tell us. However, barely out of my own teens, I found most of the Great Truths to be like a movie set: a convincing facade and nothing behind.

Jack O’Brien

Jack O’Brien

So I turned to the natural sciences for support. They told me that the great discoveries of the preceding centuries – the Gas Laws, the Thermodynamics Laws, the Law of Gravity, etc. – were true for all times and places, even the remote galaxies, which is pretty far out.

At last I had reached firm ground and could stand tall.

But then I got into industry, where you have to use the natural laws to make or build things, and I made the disconcerting discovery that the Great Laws are just approximations. They are very close to the truth, but using them to design a refinery or calculate the stresses in an airplane wing, you have to use a Fudge Factor, if you want to stay out of court.

Real gases follow the Gas Laws only when you tack on a Compressibility Coefficient, which is itself a variable depending on the conditions you’re in. And gravity, the one thing I thought I could be sure of, varies all over the world, depending on the amount of iron below you. Even Einstein, who could see as far through a brick wall as most people, had to stick in a Cosmological Constant in order to make his revolutionary theory fit the facts.

And Relativity Theory was itself built on Quantum Theory, which sacrificed truth in favor of probability. I think that’s when our modern world was born, where we have all given up looking anywhere for truth and settle instead for maybe. In fact, we’ve gotten so good at it that only a comparatively few airplanes crash or buildings collapse due to faulty design, and even those can generally be blamed on cutting safety factors to the quick to reduce costs.

So where does all this blather get us? Well, it leaves us with an abiding suspicion of experts, who are supposed to be the guardians of truth. And that makes it uncomfortable to enter a library, consult

Wikipedia or submit to invasive surgery. Now I am the last person to question sturdy independence, but doing a lens replacement on your own eye is tricky if not impractical. Which means moderation in all things is the only answer we’ve got. So do not trust the expert who offers you a discount, do not listen to anyone who talks at more than a hundred words a minute, and read only fiction writers, who don’t even pretend to tell the truth.

Oh, and by the way, reject anything you hear from a politician in election year, and as for lens replacement, practice being blind for a year or two before submitting to the laser; that shouldn’t be too difficult, or you wouldn’t even be thinking about it.

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