Thinking Independently is Risky

By challenging the Church’s doctrine of a geocentric universe, Galileo spent the last years of his life under house arrest. From our vantage point 400 years after the fact, it is hard to reconcile the immutability of the Church’s dogma in the face of “the ultimate arbiter of truth,” observation and experimentation. Unfortunately, even to this day, scientific findings that challenge “a priori beliefs” are still criticized and ridiculed, even among other learned scientists. I offer up a few contemporary examples here.

Dr. Kilmer McCully, the founder of the homocysteine theory of arteriosclerosis, was ostracized from his own Harvard medical community because of his findings that cholesterol and clogged arteries were not the causes of heart disease, but rather the symptoms of it. Dr. McCully gave me permission to quote from his essay “Pioneer of the Homocysteine Theory”:

When the Atlantic Monthly article ‘Beyond Cholesterol’ was published in 1977, there was a flurry of attention paid to the striking conclusions of the article in the conventional media, especially the Boston Globe and Time Magazine, but also in the tabloid press, including The National Enquirer. When Robert Lees was questioned by a reporter from the Boston Globe about the article, he labeled the approach as ‘errant nonsense,’ and ‘a hoax perpetrated on the public ’.”

Dr. Barry Marshall, unable to convince the medical community of his research findings that ulcers were caused by the bacteria Helicobacter Pylori, and not stress, downed a petri dish full of the bacteria to prove it. In his Nobel Prize address, he recalls, “On the morning of the experiment, I omitted my breakfast but took 400 mg of cimetidine, believing that the infection might be easier if my stomach acid level was lowered,” he notes. “Two hours later, Neil Noakes scraped a heavily inoculated 4 day culture plate of Helicobacter and dispersed the bacteria in alkaline peptone water (a kind of meat broth used to keep bacteria alive). I fasted until 10 am when Neil handed me a 200 ml beaker about one quarter full of the cloudy brown liquid. I drank it down in one gulp.”

Thinking independently is risky behavior, and is rarely espoused in compulsory education. In fact, quite the opposite is true. Students who follow the rules, do what they’re told and perform well on tests are rewarded with good grades, glowing recommendations and prestigious college acceptances. These are my favorite students to teach. It may very well be, however, that the students who challenge the status quo, break the rules, and make regular visits to the principal’s office are the ones who will move the world. Does this mean that the good student will not or cannot move the world? No, not at all. It’s just that the latter are more risk-adverse. In fact, Adam Grant espouses in his book Originals that achievement motivation, the drive to succeed, interferes with original, independent thinking. While the drive to succeed is responsible for many of the world’s achievements, it often simultaneously crowds out original thinking. According to Grant and the research he cites, “The more you value achievement, the more you come to dread failure.” And failure is the necessary prerequisite to innovation.

Interestingly, the research suggests that birth order has much to predict about one’s willingness or unwillingness to take risks. First-borns are more likely to to follow the status quo, to be motivated by parental approval and school and professional achievement. Later-borns, on the other hand, tend to take greater risks, be more independent, fun-seeking and socially engaged. Later-borns are more likely to challenge a priori beliefs, while first-borns wait patiently for indisputable and time-tested evidence to sway them. Frank J. Sulloway, psychologist and preeminent UC Berkeley Researcher on birth order, describes how accepting the theory of evolution fell along birth order lines. Prior to Darwin’s findings, 56 out of 117 later-borns believed in evolution, compared to only 9 of 103 first-borns. Sixteen years after Darwin’s findings, the acceptance of the theory of evolution increased to 56 out of 103 later-borns, and actually dropped among first-borns. Apparently, the more accepted and established evolutionary theory became, the less favor it received among the more rebellious later-borns.

It would seem then, with all this talk of birth order, that Nobel prize-winning scientists are predominantly later-born. This however, is where their similarities to other original thinkers meet the proverbial fork in the road, and where we get a real sense of what makes for great scientists. Out of 118 Nobel Prize-winning scientists surveyed, 14 were only-borns while 47 were first-borns, the two categories comprising 57% of the recipients. Scientists, unlike thoroughly original thinkers, are bound by the evidence, to follow it wherever it leads. Their original ideas, their independent thoughts, come not from brief flashes of inspiration, but from flashes of insight born of painstaking and often tedious experimentation over many years, a preponderance of failures, and an undying passion to follow their curiosity. Yet when the evidence guides them unmistakably toward a conclusion, they’ll drink the Heliobacter “Kool-Aid” to prove it so.

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