My father left school before he was fourteen years old, as did many boys of his generation. He spent the rest of his brief life in a love affair with books. He was severely practical in his reading, being of the opinion that whatever you want to know is in some book, somewhere.
He died on Christmas Day in my ninth year, and one of his only legacies to me was the axiom in the title. His extensive reading and life’s experience had made this plain, and he made sure that I understood it well.
History is full of examples of this short summary of human nature. The experts in the times of Columbus knew that the earth was flat. The experts knew that a heavier than air machine could never fly. The experts knew that a V8 cylinder block could never be cast in one piece. Ford believed otherwise and made it happen. They knew that space travel was impossible, the Astronomer Royal said “ Space travel is bilge.” six months before the Russian Sputnik put Yuri Gagarin into orbit. The experts knew that mosquitoes had nothing to do with malaria. They knew that no more than eight planets could exist and that only planet Earth could have a moon.
Radio, TV, alternating current, steam power, vaccination, hypnotisim…The list of topics mocked and derided by experts goes on interminably, and every year sees further additions. Ultimately the experts are nearly always wrong—and they must be. They can only be experts on the past, not the future. And the discoveries they mock are usually part of the future.
Of course the process is never ending. The same people, who by energy, perseverance, and faith finally prove the experts wrong are just as likely to say “It can’t be done!” when after a few years their own expertise is questioned by a new theory or discovery.
Because of the nature of the human mind, the vast majority of goofs by experts have been in the areas in which they said something could not be done, or could never happen. The words “ in the light of my limited knowledge” could have been added with perfect truth. But accepted expertise and humility go ill together.
Another kind of error most commonly made by experts is due to the tunnel vision that is prevalent among specialists in all fields. Facts that shake a current theory are just not seen, even when they are presented to the expert. Remember that the natives with 20/20 vision, who could track a big cat through the jungle, could not physically see Magellan’s flagship a couple of hundred yards away on open water. The same thing happened to Captain Cook in a much bigger vessel as he surveyed islands in the Pacific.
How many times have you heard or read the words “There is no evidence that…” ? I always take these words as an indication of professional blinders. For decades the AMA provided a prime example by insisting that there was no evidence that disease and poor nutrition are connected. Only experts could manifest that degree of blindness as a protection against the awful possibility that a lay person could know something about health matters that a certified physician did not.
Science and religion are both filled with wonderful examples of self-imposed blindness, the most famous of which have occurred when the two sets of belief systems collided.
In the seventeenth century Archbishop Ussher used the genealogies in the Bible to calculate the age of the Earth. His figures, based on the lists of names and ages in the Bible, indicated that the Earth was created in 4004 B.C., over a period of a week or so. The Archbishop even managed to find that the month in which it happened was October, and the time of day too.
Those of you fortunate enough to have a King James version of the Bible printed at the Oxford University Press on that wonderful Indian paper, will probably find this date printed in the marginal notes of the first chapter of Genesis. It was in all my Bibles when I was young.
Now Ussher was undoubtedly an expert. Unfortunately his calculations and solutions got mixed up in people’s heads with the accepted authority of the data he processed, and the date of creation of humans and animals as 4004 B.C. took on the authority of God rather than that of Ussher. They mistook the archaic for the eternal.
This expert’s date and the influence of religion on thought processes made it pretty unlikely that any evidence that Earth was older than the Ussher assertion would be noticed. When Esper discovered human bones at the same level as the bones of extinct animals in 1771 he said, “I dare not presume without sufficient reason these members to be the same age as the other animal petrifications. They must have got there by chance.” His experience and the evidence was not sufficient reason to query his religious dogma..
When John Frere found some flint axes and said that they must be from a very remote period indeed, nobody took any notice. William Buckland was the reader in geology at Oxford. He himself found evidence that mankind had been on Earth for longer than 6,000 years. He ignored it. He found a human skeleton near Paviland in South Wales, and said that it could not be as old as the bones of the extinct animals among which it was found.
He found other skeletons in the Mendip Hills, but refused to believe what he saw. He did what all experts do when confronted with something that doesn’t fit. They either ignore it, which he did several times, or invent a scenario to explain it. He said, “ The caves must have been used as sepulchers.”
When a sealed cave in Devon was opened up and flint axes were found UNDER the bones of rhinoceroses and other extinct animals, Buckland once again made up an explanation.. The flints were there, he said, because the people who camped in the cave scooped out ovens with their axes, and in that way the axes got below the animal remains.
There were no ovens in the caves, but because Buckland the famous expert was insistent on the oven theory, the evidence was not even published at the time. Remember that when the next expert says, “There is no evidence that…”
For years anyone who ventured to say that the Earth and mankind were millions of years old was automatically considered a crank.
In a famous dig in Britain at Brixham Harbour, it was found that on the floor of a cave lay a sheet of stalagmite from three to four inches thick. Within it and below it were the relics of lion, bear, rhinoceros, mammoth and reindeer. Below this floor were found flint tools.
Even this kind of evidence was ignored by the ‘experts’ the ones who were asked for their ‘scientist’s opinion’ about the theories of cranks. That happens every week in the media now. It took the finding of human skeletons in dozens of digs, the growth of dissension, and the dying of the experts to change the 4000 B.C. idea.
Some people who come to your door carrying little green covered, very prejudiced and poor translations of Holy Writ, still do think the date is valid. And they have PhD’s who are in their group who write explanations of current theories to show they don’t really contradict the Ussher schematic. In commerce and politics they are spin doctors.
The ideas of an established expert often act as a censor preventing the mind of the investigator from conceiving of the forbidden fact. Like Magellan’s natives, their minds refuse to allow them to see anything that contradicts the tribal norm. All new ideas have to break down the invisible barrier of unspoken assumptions.
Here are a few short, factoid examples that illustrate, or maybe even prove the point.
Anglican Archbishop James Ussher (1581-1656) researched the dates of Biblical events and painstakingly subtracted all the Old Testament generations. When he finished his calculations, he proclaimed that the earth was created on October 23, 4004 B.C. at nine o'clock in the morning. (We now know he missed his mark by 4.6 billion years or so.)
In 1899, Charles H. Duell, commissioner of the United States Patent and Trademark Office, proposed closing the office. "Everything that can be invented," he said, "has been invented." Some decades later another patent office clerk named Einstein created a flurry of interest in new ideas.
In 1927, The New York Times heralded Philo T. Farnsworth's new creation, the television, with a front-page article and this subhead: "Few Commercial Possibilities Seen."
Walter Lippman, one of the 20th century's most respected journalists and thinkers, wrote in a column dated April 27, 1948, "Among the really difficult problems of the world, the Arab-Israeli conflict is one of the simplest and most manageable."
In 1962, a little-known Liverpool group called The Beatles auditioned for Tony Meehan of Decca Records. They performed 15 songs in just under an hour. Decca sent them packing, saying "Guitar groups are on the way out" and "The Beatles have no future in show business."
A Boeing engineer, after the first flight of the 247, a twin engine plane that carried ten people. “There will never be a bigger plane built.”
Lt. Joseph Ives after visiting the Grand Canyon in 1861.
“Ours has been the first, and doubtless to be the last, to visit this profitless locality.”
Albert Einstein, 1932
“There is not the slightest indication that nuclear energy will ever be obtainable. It would mean that the atom would have to be shattered at will.”
In the end it was his theory of the connection between energy and matter that brought it about after new data had been gathered. I am posting this on the 65th anniversary of the day his prediction was proved wrong when the atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and was responsible for the death of 140,000 people.
Business Week, August 2, 1968
“With over 50 foreign cars already on sale here, the Japanese auto industry isn't likely to carve out a big slice of the US market.”
Popular Mechanics, 1949
“Computers may one day weigh no more than 1.5 tons.”
Ken Olson, president of Digital Equipment Corp. 1977
“There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.”
Western Union memo, 1876
This 'telephone' has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication.
David Sarnoff's associates in response to his urging investment in the radio in the 1920's.
“No imaginable commercial value. Who would pay for a message sent to nobody in particular?”
Hewlett Packard excuse to Steve Jobs, who founded Apple Computers instead.
“We don't need you. You haven't got through college yet.”
Thomas J. Watson, chairman of the board of IBM.
“I think there's a world market for about five computers.”
H.M. Warner, Warner Brothers, 1927 about talking pictures.
Who wants to hear actors talk?
Gary Cooper, after turning down the lead role in Gone With The Wind.
“I'm just glad it'll be Clark Gable who's falling on his face and not Gary Cooper.”
Admiral William Leahy, U.S. Atomic Bomb Project.
“The bomb will never go off. I speak as an expert in explosives.”
Margaret Thatcher, 1974
“It will be years--not in my time--before a woman will become Prime Minister.” She served as Prime Minister from 1979 to 1990.
Marechal Ferdinand Fock, Professor of Strategy, Ecole Superieure de Guerre
“Airplanes are interesting toys, but they are of no military value whatsoever.”
U.S. Secretary of Navy, December 4, 1941
“No matter what happens, the U.S. Navy is not going to be caught napping.”
Lee DeForest, inventor
“While theoretically and technically television may be feasible, commercially and financially it is an impossibility.”
William Thomson, Lord Kelvin English scientist, 1899
“Radio has no future. Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible. X-rays will prove to be a hoax.”
Irving Fisher, Professor of Economics, Yale University, 1929
“Stocks have reached a permanently high plateau.”
Response to Debbi Fields' idea of Mrs. Fields' Cookies
“Market research reports say America likes crispy cookies, not soft and chewy cookies like you make.”
And about the time I was considering this article the author David Freedman published the book, Wrong: Why Experts Keep Failing Us — and How to Know When Not to Trust Them. He starts off with the enormous percentage of known medical facts that won’t be facts in a decade. Then he deals with economics, in which just about every article written turns out wrong over a period of time. When professionals prepare your tax returns they are more likely to make mistakes than you are and so on. And he deals with the paradox of trusting an expert like himself about experts being wrong.
The most important thing from my viewpoint is the fact that brain scans show that the critical thinking areas of the brain switch off when the opinion of someone believed to be an expert is quoted or read or heard. It’s an extended version of the white coat syndrome.