Perils of Taking your own Ideas too Seriously, if you are...
by P. Fraundorf © 1999
Dept. of Physics & Astronomy
UM-StL, St. Louis MO, 63121
My favorite reaction of "an expert too long in one job" is this response by Hermann Kolbe (a journal editor running low on humility) to the 1875 predictions by Jacobus van't Hoff (Chemistry's first Nobel Laureate) of the tetrahedral nature of carbon molecules (as quoted by Martin Gardner in The New Ambidextrous Universe, W. H. Freeman, NY, 1990, p.112.):
"Recently I pointed out that deficiencies in fundamental chemical knowledge and the lack of a good liberal education characteristic of many professors is responsible for the current decline of chemical research. As a result of this deplorable situation, there has been a proliferation of that weed, seemingly erudite and profound but actually trivial and shallow natural philosophy. This style of explication, expunged fifty years ago by exact natural science, is now being retrieved, by scientific quacks, from the junk pile of man's errors. Flashily dressed and covered with a lot of makeup like a worn-out old hooker, she is smuggled into respectable society, where she does not belong. If anyone thinks my concerns are exaggerated, he should read, if he can stomach it, a recent monograph by a Mr. van't Hoff, entitled The Arrangement of Atoms in Space, a book swollen with infantile foolishness....This young punk, employed by the Cow College at Utrecht, evidently has no taste for exact chemical investigation. He prefers to mount his winged horse (Pegasus), evidently borrowed from the barns of the Cow College, and to proclaim that upon his bold ascent to Mount Parnassus he had a vision of atoms arranged in space. The sober-minded chemical world does not relish such hallucinations.
It is characteristic of these days -- uncritical and anti-intellectual -- that a virtually unknown chemist from a veterinary school has the gall to make pronouncements on the most fundamental problems of chemistry -- which may never be solved -- and to propose solutions with a self-assurance and insolence that can only astonish true scientists."
This probably seems quite humorous, since most "experts" would keep their mouth shut even if they felt this way! It is less humorous when one realizes that all of us who are successful with one strategy, will be subject to such perceptions when confronted with a different approach for better OR worse.
For example, the impression above of something "erudite but shallow" was echoed by Albert Einstein, in reaction to the special relativity insights of former teacher Hermann Minkowski. This was before realizing, in the following decade, that Minkowski's insights were key to Einstein's own subsequent development of the general theory of relativity.
This tendency to filter out the unexpected is a weakness associated with expertise in many areas, and not only with paradigm-shifts in science. The reason: Success at discerning patterns of one sort may naturally lessen one's propensity to recognize patterns of another! An excellent example involving our perception of playing cards is illustrated in the film Discovering the Future by Joel Arthur Barker (Charthouse Learning, Burnsville MN), where numerous examples from the business world are given as well. I don't elaborate further here on the illustration in the film, because it involves an experience you should encounter freshly on your own. The origins of the resulting insight may have been first predicted by Wolfgang Kohler's work, earlier this century, on the principles of Gestalt Psychology. As a result, experts in "the standard" may be those least qualified when it comes to matters of taste (as distinct from fact) if strategies which could change the standard in fundamentally positive ways are at hand.
For more on the prospects, pioneers, and pitfalls of such "deep simplifications", check out the web version of our recent presentation for the 1998 Symposium on the Legacy of Edwin T. Jaynes.