On The Shoulders of Giant Idiots

Dunce

At Bellevue, the “internes” ran about in corridors with “pus-pails,” the bodily drippings of patients spilling out of them. Surgical sutures were made of catgut, sharpened with spit, and left to hang from incisions into the open air. Surgeons walked around with their scalpels dangling from their pockets. If a tool fell on the blood-soiled floor, it was dusted off and inserted back into the pocket—or into the body of the patient on the operating table.
–from The Emperor of All Maladies, pg 153, by Siddhartha Mukherjee, describing the operation of hospitals in the 1850s

Take a moment and think about your reaction to the above quote. I’m sure you’ve run into something like it before. In this case it’s about medicine, but you can find similar descriptions regarding every field of human endeavor. The world’s top astronomers used to believe the Earth was the center of the universe and the planets whirled around us in dozens of layers of increasingly complex epicycles. The world’s top biologists used to believe flies arose spontaneously from rotten meat through a process called abiogenesis.

Even the genuine geniuses of the past aren’t immune. Aristotle–who aside from being an important philosopher was the great granddaddy of science–believed that earthquakes were caused by underground wind, analogous to the rumblings in the human gut that produce internal wind of their own. Isaac Newton spent almost all of his working life trying to predict the apocalypse and divine the location of the Temple of Solomon using cryptographic puzzles hidden in the text of the Hebrew bible, and only with the remaining bit left managed to squeeze in the invention of optics, orbital mechanics, and pretty much the rest of physics.

If you made of list of important scientists and thinkers of history and scratched off everyone who believed in phrenology, seances, and that thing that blew tobacco smoke up someone’s ass in order to resuscitate drowning victims, you’d pretty much be left with just Galileo. Stephen Hawking said in 2016 that, “We spend a great deal of time studying history, which, let’s face it, is mostly the history of stupidity.” It’s hard to look at the history of human thought and not think that he’s right.

Most books and documentaries about the history of science and medicine weave this narrative thoroughly into their accounts. Most important developments in science, they tell us, were achieved by mavericks who defied conventional wisdom and proposed fringe theories that were scorned by the supposed experts until experimentation and history proved our heroes right. Joseph Lister’s carbolic acid to disinfect wounds. Albert Einstein’s dismissal of luminiferous aether, and also the prevailing notion that time actually existed and made any damn sense at all. Hell, the guy who invented the 3 point seat belt had a hell of a time getting it widely adapted.

So why is that? Why were the people in the past–leaders in their respective field–such idiots? Why have the experts never listened to the pioneering geniuses who were clearly right and much more intelligent than them? It’s hard to answer those questions, but one thing is clear: We can all be incredibly thankful that we’re all much smarter than that now, and we no longer make those kinds of mistakes.

Right. Definitely.

The fact is, people in the past weren’t stupid. At least, they weren’t any stupider than we are. They weren’t really any more ignorant, either. Or rather, society as a whole was more ignorant by virtue of the fact that knowledge builds on itself and our modern sciences are built on the discoveries, lessons, and (most of all) mistakes of the past. But the individuals who thought that the stars were stuck to the far end of the sky or that hand-washing did absolutely nothing to prevent the transmission of disease weren’t ignorant. In fact, the very people we make fun of for being wrong were generally the most education and functionally intelligent members of their society.

What’s more than that, those maverick heroes that pushed science forward only to be mocked by their peers deserved to be mocked. Or at least, the people in charge weren’t wrong to be skeptical. The mavericks had fringe theories, and conventional wisdom is becomes conventional for a reason. Sometimes–much of the time–prevailing thought is wrong, even dangerously so. But the fact is that the overwhelming majority of scientific development isn’t done through breakthroughs. It’s done through tiny, minute iterations on the prevailing theories, and it can only be done if there is a strong prevailing theory in place.

Chances are, if we ran into the theories of Pasteur or Lister or Einstein today, most of us would initially dismiss them as cranks. Or at least irrelevant. That’s what we do with fringe theories. They’re fringe because most of our evidence for any given scientific theory exists in support of the currently dominant theory. Even when those theories have flaws–which, let’s face it, they basically all always do–they’re still important to the day-to-day work of science. It takes a long time for a new paradigm to take hold not just because the people in charge are stubborn, but because the overwhelming majority of newly proposed paradigms are wrong.

It is easy (and fun!) to smugly laugh at the dumbness of the past, but that attitude is not only ahistorical, it’s also dangerous. Smugness comes from a sense of superiority, and superiority comes from the hard and fast belief that you are right, and whoever you are feeling superior to is wrong. All of those doctors killing patients–particularly the ones who kept doing it even when better evidence try to–did it not out of idiocy. They did it out of smugness.

Yes, the stupid things that doctors and scientists of the past believed are hilarious and bewildering. It’s often hard to imagine how they could possibly have not known things that seem so obvious to us. I mean, they put fecal matter into their drinking water sources, for crying out loud. But the lesson that we should learn from it isn’t that they were stupid.

The lesson is that they were thoroughly trained, highly education, and in many cases legitimately brilliant, and they still got nearly everything wrong anyway.

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One thought on “On The Shoulders of Giant Idiots

  1. Glenn B. says:

    “Chances are, if we ran into the theories of Pasteur or Lister or Einstein today, most of us would initially dismiss them as cranks. Or at least irrelevant. That’s what we do with fringe theories. They’re fringe because most of our evidence for any given scientific theory exists in support of the currently dominant theory. Even when those theories have flaws–which, let’s face it, they basically all always do–they’re still important to the day-to-day work of science. It takes a long time for a new paradigm to take hold not just because the people in charge are stubborn, but because the overwhelming majority of newly proposed paradigms are wrong.”

    I agree with most of what you’re saying here, but I think this particular section has two potential issues, depending on exactly which implications you’re suggesting should be taken from it.

    The first is that Pasteur and Lister and Einstein – while pioneering geniuses in their time – weren’t alone in their fields, or even in the belief in the efficacy of their hypotheses and proposed theories. Often, the most famous names that persist into the present day weren’t actually lone geniuses, but rather a product of a simplistic, “Great Man” view of history. They often built (or stepped back and forth) upon the work of others. They should still be recognized for their contributions – but in the proper context. We stand on the shoulders of giants, to be sure – a better framework is perhaps that we crowdsurf on a crowd of *mostly* ordinary-sized people. This is an important consideration because it’s even more true today than it was then, because it’s harder for scientists to take sole credit for their work than it used to be. We no longer just hear about Crick & Watson. We hear about Rosalind Franklin too. And the thousand other people working in her field. And for every prominent scientist or science communicator – there are thousands who work in their respective fields, chipping away at the barrier that separates what we know from what we will eventually know. I can’t think of a better recent example than the papers which discussed all of the different discoveries and implications of the neutron star merger that was detected last year, one of which had over 3,000 authors worldwide.

    The second potential pitfall is survivorship bias. When considering the likes of Galileo, it is certainly true to say that he was regarded as a crank in his time. But it is equally true that most cranks…are simply cranks. Therefore, being regarded as a crank cannot be considered an indication of potential greatness. And frankly, every crank *thinks* they’re Galileo. They may even make this exact comparison in an effort to bolster their vague and ill-supported claims. Demanding extraordinary evidence for extraordinary claims is the appropriate level of skepticism that should be applied to any novel concept or theory, particularly if it flies in the face of all other research on that subject.

    That said, based on the totality of your post here, I’m inclined to think this was the point you were getting at. In either case, I welcome your thoughts on the subject, and enjoyed this post. Cheers.

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