“Numerical precision is the very soul of science” (Sir D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson).
IS PRECISION A GOOD THING OR A BAD THING? Would you say the word has a positive or a negative connotation? For most of us, it depends on the context. We want our neurosurgeon to be an extremely precise person, but we may not feel the need to be so precise when we’re throwing ingredients into the bowl to make cornbread.
Obviously, we shouldn’t demand more precision than is needed in the activity we’re engaged in. Even Aristotle, a philosopher capable of making very precise distinctions, said, “It is the mark of an educated mind to rest satisfied with the degree of precision which the nature of the subject admits and not to seek exactness where only an approximation is possible.” So while I am recommending precision as an “enthusiastic idea,” I am not advocating pickiness or pedantry. “Numerical precision is the very soul of science,” as Sir D’Arcy Thompson said, but not every activity needs the precision of science.
A big part of wisdom is knowing when precision is important and when it is not. Because of our different backgrounds and personal characteristics, arguments about this will probably never be settled. But since we are trying in these readings to look at the positive side of ideas like this, let’s view precision as a quality that we could profit from taking more seriously. If there are people who are too precise (and there certainly are), there are just as many people (if not more) who are too careless. It probably wouldn’t be too much to say that most of us would do better work if we were more precise.
Precision comes down to carefulness, and carefulness is a good thing, almost without exception. We tend to be careful when what we’re doing is important and when we’ve made a commitment to excellence in that endeavor. Above all, it is in our personal relationships that we should want to be careful. And if by “precise” we mean that we want to “get it right,” our relationships would certainly be helped if we had that as our goal. As long as we live in this error-prone world, we won’t ever get our relationships exactly right. But aiming for relationships that are precisely what they should be will give us better results than if we settle for those that are “approximately” good.
“Plenty of care never does any mischief” (Latin Proverb).