Seminar Marcus: Mistakes and creativity

 Mistakes and Failures as a Source of Creativity:

MISTAKES CAN BE FRUITFUL, CORRECTNESS CAN BE FRUITLESS

 

Solomon Marcus

 Romanian Academy

 

 Mistakes and failures are generally seen as something bad, negative. The whole system of assessment, from the elementary school until the level of scientific research, is based on this mentality. There is however a positive face of mistakes and of failures, because they are the unavoidable price we have to pay in order to give a chance to personal and critical thinking, to invention and to discovery. In contrast to chess and to tennis, the game of  science and of art, of good learning and of good teaching, is not based on pre-existent rules; it is a game based mainly on the freedom to explore in all possible directions (see the Latin etymology of 'error'), with the right to be wrong and to fail repeatedly: the number of trials can be much larger than the number of successes and even when we don't reach a success, we learn a lot from our mistakes and failures. The right proof of the Four Color Conjecture used some parts of previous unsuccessful attempts of proof.

   In this order of ideas, we show that:   

a) Many mistakes and failures by famous authors were the origin of new scientific fields or of important new results;   

b) Many, if not most pioneering scientific articles included mistakes (sometimes malign, other times only benign) having an important stimulating function.  

Correctness, understood as conformity to some pre-established, explicit rules, is a binary predicate, but it should be correlated to meaning, which is not a binary predicate, but a matter of typology and of degree. In this respect, the relation correctness-meaning can be interpreted as a relation between syntax and semantics. If sometimes they help each other, other times they are in conflict. When meaning is excluded or marginalized, correctness is fruitless.