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“It is unwise to be too sure of one’s own wisdom. It is healthy to be reminded that the strongest might weaken and the wisest might err.”*…



An 1874 engraving showing a probably apocryphal account of Newton’s lab fire. In the story, Newton’s dog started the fire, burning 20 years of research. Newton is thought to have said: “O Diamond, Diamond, thou little knowest the mischief thou hast done.”


Imagine a black box which, when you pressed a button, would generate a scientific hypothesis. 50% of its hypotheses are false; 50% are true hypotheses as game-changing and elegant as relativity. Even despite the error rate, it’s easy to see this box would quickly surpass space capsules, da Vinci paintings, and printer ink cartridges to become the most valuable object in the world. Scientific progress on demand, and all you have to do is test some stuff to see if it’s true? I don’t want to devalue experimentalists. They do great work. But it’s appropriate that Einstein is more famous than Eddington. If you took away Eddington, someone else would have tested relativity; the bottleneck is in Einsteins. Einstein-in-a-box at the cost of requiring two Eddingtons per insight is a heck of a deal.

What if the box had only a 10% success rate? A 1% success rate? My guess is: still most valuable object in the world. Even an 0.1% success rate seems pretty good, considering (what if we ask the box for cancer cures, then test them all on lab rats and volunteers?) You have to go pretty low before the box stops being great.

I thought about this after reading this list of geniuses with terrible ideas. Linus Pauling thought Vitamin C cured everything. Isaac Newton spent half his time working on weird Bible codes. Nikola Tesla pursued mad energy beams that couldn’t work. Lynn Margulis revolutionized cell biology by discovering mitochondrial endosymbiosis, but was also a 9-11 truther and doubted HIV caused AIDS. Et cetera. Obviously this should happen. Genius often involves coming up with an outrageous idea contrary to conventional wisdom and pursuing it obsessively despite naysayers. But nobody can have a 100% success rate. People who do this successfully sometimes should also fail at it sometimes, just because they’re the kind of person who attempts it at all. Not everyone fails. Einstein seems to have batted a perfect 1000 (unless you count his support for socialism). But failure shouldn’t surprise us…

Some of the people who have most contributed to our understanding of the world have been inexcusably wrong on basic issues.  But, as Scott Alexander argues, you only need one world-changing revelation to be worth reading: “Rule Thinkers In, Not Out.”

* Mahatma Gandhi


As we honor insight where we find it, we might send carefully-addressed birthday greetings to Infante Henrique of Portugal, Duke of Viseu, better known as Prince Henry the Navigator; he was born on this date in 1394.  A central figure in 15th-century Portuguese politics and in the earliest days of the Portuguese Empire, Henry encouraged Portugal’s expeditions (and colonial conquests) in Africa– and thus is regarded as the main initiator (as a product both of Portugal’s expeditions and of those that they encouraged by example) of what became known as the Age of Discoveries.




“What the mind doesn’t understand, it worships or fears”*…


Vaccination rates are plummeting at top Hollywood schools, from Malibu to Beverly Hills, from John Thomas Dye to Turning Point, where affluent, educated parents are opting out in shocking numbers (leaving some schools’ immunization rates on par with South Sudan) as an outbreak of potentially fatal whooping cough threatens L.A. like “wildfire”…

Read @GarymBaum’s fascinating– and chilling– story (and find the interactive version of the map above) at “Hollywood’s Vaccine Wars: L.A.’s “Entitled” Westsiders Behind City’s Epidemic.”  See also: “The Calculus of Contagion.”

[TotH to Quartz for the pointer]

* Alice Walker


As we steel ourselves for the prick, we might spare a thought for Abraham Flexner; he died on this date in 1959.  The founding director of Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Studies, Flexner is best remembered for his pioneering work as a reformer of American higher education, especially medical education.  On the heels of his 1908 study, The American College, in which he effectively critiqued the university lecture as a method of instruction, he published the Flexner Report, which examined the state of American medical education and led to far-reaching reform in the training of doctors.  The report called on American medical schools to enact higher admission and graduation standards, and to adhere strictly to the protocols of mainstream science in their teaching and research.  While one unintended consequence of Flexner’s impactful advocacy was the reversion of American universities to male-only admittance programs to accommodate a smaller admission pool (female admissions picked up again only later the century), most historians agree with his biographer, Thomas Bonner, that Flexner was “the severest critic and the best friend American medicine ever had.”



Written by LW

September 21, 2014 at 1:01 am

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