Deceptive Smugness

History has always fascinated me.  While that makes me marginally useful in trivia battles, it also (hopefully) provides me with valuable perspectives on life today and how we see ourselves.  The habit of looking at people in the past ought to condition how we look at ourselves.

As such,  I found this essay from Scientific American interesting initially because of the historical trivia.  But what I found ultimately more interesting is his philosophical application of the trivia.  He mocks doctors from 140 years ago for rejecting a new scientific idea circulating at the time which attributed infections to bacteria in the air and elsewhere which could only be seen under a microscope.  Of course today, when this has been well-proven it is easy to laugh at someone 140 years ago who doubted the novel assertion.

Germ theory is generally claimed to have emerged in the 1860’s or later. One of the doctors being mocked in the essay, Frank Hastings, graduated from medical school in 1835. The other, Alfred Loomis, graduated in 1852.  They can reasonably be excused for being suspicious of a new theory of infections.  But the author of the essay uses their initial disregard of germ theory as an example of how we shouldn’t miss opportunities to become smarter.  He then applies this to current politics and observes that “we insist on staying stupid when becoming smarter is an option.”

I don’t know many people who willfully remain stupid.  I know a lot of people who, like Loomis and Hastings, are skeptical about wholeheartedly endorsing whatever the latest scientific fashion or hypothesis is, particularly when we live in an age of information overload and so much of what we are told one day is seemingly reversed and contradicted the next.  Depending on who funds the study and what their perceived bias’ might be. Historically speaking, becoming smarter is a decidedly difficult thing to do properly.

Our country continues in the throes of violent (physically as well as verbally) disagreement over the trajectory of our nation’s policies.  The status quo – tacitly agreed to by both political parties – has been thrown off course somewhat by an unexpected President who  holds little regard for either political party and is attempting to implement some rather massive changes to the political system.  He doesn’t appear to have any major reason not to push for changes he actually thinks would be helpful.  He’s quite successful personally and isn’t reliant on political connections to further himself personally now or after his term ends.  He appoints outsiders and people who haven’t been part of the system to head major agencies.

This infuriates those who disagree with him, who are unable to understand how and why anyone without relevant experience in a given area, or with experience that is deemed undesirable in an area should be placed in charge of a government agency.  They seem convinced that the system is just fine.  In need of some tweaks and fine tuning, perhaps, but essentially functioning properly.  In the case of education, this means decrying the appointment of someone from outside of the teacher’s unions and without relevant bureaucratic experience as Education Secretary.  Despite the fact that a long string of far more qualified people have failed to improve substantively the quality of public education as a whole.

We could be in the middle of a difficult and surprising transition, an opportunity to become smarter despite the prevailing wisdom which is grounded in ideas and policies of the past.  How shocked many people would be to look back in five or ten or twenty years and recognize that the major changes suggested by an unpopular and inexperienced administration could actually be smarter than the advocacy of staying the course or doing things the way they’ve been done for years!  I imagine that critics today, confronted with their obstinance at some point in the future, would defend themselves by saying that there was no way that anyone could have known that such changes were actually smarter than prevailing wisdom, just as Loomis and Hastings undoubtedly would say in their own defense today.

A familiarity with history should ultimately lead us towards humility, rather than smugness.  One constant of history is that people have been surprised by major shifts in nearly every aspect of life.  It hasn’t been a steady progression of getting smarter, but often the raucous in-breaking of an outsider’s ideas that have made all the difference.  We’re grateful for their contributions in hindsight, but at the time they were nuisances or written off as charlatans, persecuted and mocked.

In the sciences as well as in every field, we need to train our young people to retain a bit of humility regardless of how  advanced their studies, how many degrees they accumulate, or how many articles they publish.  They may be critical of new ideas and have many good supporting reasons, but they should also be open to the possibility that they’re wrong.  That they’re only human and therefore blind to an opportunity to become smarter.  Not because they’re bad people, but just because they are limited in what they can know. The bleeding edge of becoming smarter is a pretty exciting place to imagine yourself, but odds are that a lot fewer of us are actually on that edge than imagine ourselves to be.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s