The Benefits of Imprecision

“If a man will begin with certainties, he shall end in doubts. But if he will be content to start with doubts, he shall end in certainties.” The Advancement of Learning Francis Bacon 1605

Ah well, Imprecision.

I still hesitate. Do I really mean Controlled Uncertainty or is it more just The Random?

For the last fifteen years I have been dealing with this concept as part of my thought leadership work, as it seems so eminently pedagogical, but its definition continues to escape me. At the moment I don’t have a clue what it really means although I feel a kind of subliminal agreement with it. Of course one might expect that the definition of Imprecision should remain deliciously, irritatingly, Imprecise?

Yet I know that I am not going to get anywhere if I cannot find a way to encompass the concept. If one is to detect the coming obstacles in one’s path we are going to have to stay alert to the definition of terms.


So start with its opposite perhaps? Let me try.

By Precision is meant an imposed order which is false and produces the opposite effect to the one intended.

Bear with me while I tease this one out.

Our motivation for indulging in this particular solution to our daily pain is the feeling we get from this activity that something has been solved. This buys us a bit of respite, a pause in life where we can recharge our batteries and get Comfortable again, settled. However, the Imprecise view of this behaviour would be that, while seeking Precision may be an undeniable Comfort, it remains far from the most interesting activity available to us.

I say this because, as our lives evolve, if we continually barter the creative option for absolute definition we end up diminished.

Henry Cavendish, the 18th century scion of that great family so famous for its financial and research contributions to science, is probably the most famous martyr to Precision. Some unspoken early shock made him colossally shy, particularly in front of women. His biographers have sought a medical reason, suggesting that he may have had Aspergers but it just may be that some other person’s unthinking response to him one day, perhaps a parent at a formative time in his young life, destroyed his ability to communicate ordinarily.

It is but a short step from shyness to reclusion. He developed one safe haven outside of his home that he regularly visited and where he commanded the respect of his peers, even though he said very little. Totally shielded from normal social discourse with other people, to the extent of using the back staircase at home and writing notes rather than speak to people, shyness turned into obsessive behaviour. Henry was an avid collector, eccentrically as one might expect and so of furniture; and his exclusive focus on the exact answer turned him into a brilliant investigative scientist.

We owe to him the discovery of hydrogen and oxygen and several aspects of the behaviour of electricity. Most famously he was the man who weighed the earth. Paradoxically, being so cut off from critical discourse, his discoveries at the time suffered from wrong conclusions, preventing him from understanding the truth of the situation. Perhaps worse, irredeemably asocial and secretive, he rarely bothered to tell anyone about his discoveries nor publish his findings, leaving the way open for others to reach the right conclusion and reap the rewards of his creativity.

Im-Precision (for the latinate)

Now let me try a definition of the term under study:

Imprecision describes that continuous state of uncertainty brought on by our daily collisions with natural experience.

The comfort of our current worldview is being endlessly challenged by external effects. We develop this Comfort because we think we have explained our situation satisfactorily to ourselves and got it into some sort of shape, with a bit more in focus; more Precise one might say.

Now there are few who deliberately would seek Discomfort, and we all do our best to wriggle our way back into our Comfort zone. The desire to get Comfortable again motivates us to deal with the latest disturbance by reordering and reframing our picture of the world sufficiently to allow us to settle back into it anew.

Sometimes it is true that the shift has been too massive and we have to hollow out a new place for ourselves. This can be painful and take some time, perhaps more time than we are willing to give; but everyone gets back to a position of Comfort somewhere in the end. For some this means that something has been lost on the way, but all are changed by these experiences, as is the quality of our response to it, because making the necessary adjustment has taught us something new.

The Comforts of Precision

I want to concentrate on the quality of we humans’ response to disturbance, and show you how deliberately choosing to let things stay less Precise than we might currently feel is Comfortable provides a more creative opportunity for living. I do this because we only have one life and, not always having achieved it myself, I want everyone to get the maximum out of it that they can. I don’t want you to miss a trick.

I have observed that, as time goes on, seeking endless returns to the Comforts of Precision closes down options, restricts the powers of action and diminishes understanding. Perhaps worst of all it eats away at our options for enjoyment.

For those of you who are already feeling that this is all pretty wishy-washy, let me say that living with Imprecision is a most scientific thing to do. I say this because many could think at a cursory glance that this blog is turning into yet another crackpot self-help volume for inadequates. However scientific activities such as statistics, medecine and research all depend on the capacity of scientists to accept the Imprecise as a norm, and most importantly, to guard against any attempt to impose a false order where none may be demonstrated. Just because they seek to explain the world does not mean that they manage to eliminate its inherent unpredictability.

I want us to learn to behave like them because getting to the truth of a situtation can provide us with great release into new ways of seeing and doing and therefore fully living our lives. So there, I have nailed my colours to the mast: leave the Comforts of Precision and seek the Benefits of Imprecision.

The Benefits of Imprecision

The term is borrowed from statistical analysis for, counter-intuitively to the way normal mortals think they behave, statisticians not only admit to imprecision but even see it as beneficial. If we are to live through a time of increased chaos then the Benefits of Imprecision should be actively pursued and enjoyed by all people. That means ditching the false Comforts of Precision – though I understand this need to impose order since I suffer from it myself. When we humans witness a seeming lack of Precision in the natural world, our instinct is to tidy it up in some way.

It is so much more Comfortable if everything can be explained or, especially, predicted. We do not accept that what we are seeking to order is intrinsically Imprecise, and people expend precious energy and time more to impose order on experience than to gain understanding. Lest you should take me for a Luddite, I say that engineers may be the most shining examples of the success of these attempts, and in their way are to be revered for their skill at ordering the natural world. For where would we be without boats or bridges, if not still on the opposite shore looking into unattainable horizons?

Read on: 1. The Comforts of Precision 

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