The virtue of being ‘right’

Jack wrote this in July, 2005:

35 years or so ago I was spending some time hanging around the Geology Department of the University of Texas at a time when science was demonstrating to itself how turbulent and destructive any new and better ways of explaining reality can be.  Old-time, high ranking profs and department heads knew geology, knew it as it had been known, been developing for the past 50 years.  Had published papers on it, hung their hats on it.

Suddenly, along came plate tectonics theory, continental drift, turning all the hardened theories upside down.  The young lions of geology (untenured) broke their careers, many of them, betting on plate tectonics, but failing to realize how absurd any theory of continental drift was in relation to surviving that career moment.  The old timers weren’t about to put up with having the tablecloth yanked out from under the dinnerware they’d spent their careers building.

A few years later plate tectonics was a given… the underlying theory for all planetary geology.

Similar things have happened in physics regarding chaos theory and the still-emerging quantum theories.

But scientists aren’t the only ones guilty of nailing things down on the corners, once they’ve established a truth, based on what someone told them, or their own limited experience (however broad).  We all tend to do that.

And if we aren’t careful, we find ourselves wishing failure on others based on the nature of our own entrenched positions.  If someone manages to come up with something different, something that defies what we know, we tend to believe it somehow takes something away from us.  We WANT them to fail, to reaffirm what smart fellas we are.

There are lots of smart geologists in this world, smart physicists, smart mathmaticians, most traveling down a road that’s already paved…. a few are going off-road…. most of those off-roaders will find their ways back to the beaten path because most new ideas tend not to work out in the long haul.  But a few will be the forerunners of what everyone will believe and entrench themselves into a generation from now.

The problem is, there’s no way of judging which is which until the returns are in.  No matter how absurd an idea is, it’s not too absurd to be ‘right’.  And no matter how ‘right’ the current party line conventional wisdom is, it’s not too ‘right’ to have people laughing to think some idiot believed it a generation ago.

Strange folks, us.  Our preference for already being right will always trump our curiosity… almost always.


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