There I was with my best old breakfast buddy Graham, solving the problems of the known world one after another, when I happened to mention that a lot of significant scientific discoveries are made by people working either at the start of their careers, or working just outside the borders of their chosen specialty. This caught Graham’s ear, and he asked for cites.
I’m pretty sure I came across this observation in a delightfully readable little book, “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions,” by Thomas Kuhn. (Don’t let the high falutin’ title fool you. It’s a marvelous book.) Discoveries can, of course, be made mid- or late- career, but Kuhn’s subject of study (about which, more in some other blog) brought the trend to his attention.
Upon reflection, it’s not hard to find reasons in support of his conclusion, starting with the plain truth that the status quo is seldom shaken up by those who have an investment in it. (This is similar to the idea that organizations born to solve a particular problem develop a tendency to perpetuate the problem, and couldn’t we ALL just blog about that?)
Though the British royal family had its children inoculated for small pox as early as the 1720s, more than a century later, the moral theory of disease propagation (bad people get sick/sickness is ordained by God to teach us something) was still a force to be reckoned with.
The moral theory of disease has some advantages: Everybody can learn something from a spate of illness, and everybody has some Bad Deeds in their past which might appear to justify a retributive affliction. The hypothesis fits the data, more or less. The hypothesis also kept Victorian moralists busy trying to get all the wicked (often starving) sex workers to repent of their sins. This is a laudable undertaking, and had much more appeal (to the generally well fed moralists) than trying to fund public health wards where syphilis, gonorrhea and the like might be treated. The hypothesis fit the agenda of the established interests—church, medicine, and dominant society.
To be fair to the Victorians, they wised up, developed the science of epidemiology, and tackled more enormous problems successfully than many a previous society attempted (to wit: the London sewers, some of which dated back centuries).
Kuhn’s observation has another angle, though. Knowledge is a burden that can hamper imagination. Think of that little kid who pointed out to the state trooper, the truck driver, and everybody else in the growing traffic jam that letting some air out of the truck’s tires would allow the semi to roll through an otherwise too-low tunnel.
The boy didn’t know soggy tires are bad, flat tires very bad. He couldn’t recall panicked calls to AAA, or the feel of road-grit grinding into his shins while he peered under a chassis to figure out where to put a rinky-dink car jack.
What we call ignorance can be innocence, and a powerful kind of innocence at that. It can be the innocence that lets us tackle enormous problems with common sense solutions, or the inspiration to dream impossible dreams. Ignorance is not bliss, but it isn’t always a curse, either. Ignorance, determination, and an open mind can be a wonderful combination.
When I became a mom, I had no idea what I was getting into, and had I known, I probably would have been too scared to embrace the best thing that ever happened to me.
When has ignorance aided you more than hindered you?