Spunky language in the search for truth

Yesterday I gave an example of bad–meaning squeamish, cowardly and therefore intentionally obtuse–writing. Today I came across an example of good–meaning courageous, irreverent and therefore clear and authentic–language.

It comes in the form of a spunky almost-ninety-year-old Welsh lady named Elaine Morgan. She took the stage at TED and clearly and humorously laid out her case that we descend not from apes that stood up because they left the trees and went onto the savannah (the mainstream paradigm) but rather from aquatic apes. The video is below.

A few things, before you watch:

  • Her theory is fascinating, but whether or not it convinces you is not my point. Most people are not convinced.
  • My point is the clarity of her language that comes from her courage, the corollary of my view that bad writing/expression comes from fear.
  • Worth noting: Morgan’s talk contains humor and sprezzatura, which often accompany courage but never cowardice.
  • She nods to Thomas Kuhn, whom I declared one of the runners-up for the title of greatest thinker ever. Kuhn, remember, was the guy who described how scientists will disregard any evidence (and messenger) that does not fit their paradigm until that paradigm collapses entirely. It is her way of saying to her audience: Snap out of it and open your minds!
  • Listen to her point about how to treat “priesthoods”!
  • Finally, think about how she would react if new evidence came to light that proved her theory wrong but advanced our understanding. Would she be upset? Or would she celebrate?

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Great, if not greatest, thinker: Kuhn

I’ll make this the last post in my sub-series on “honorable mentions” for the prize of the world’s greatest thinker ever. We could of course go on forever, but I don’t want it to get tedious. So, the next post will present the runner-up, and the one after that, well, the world’s greatest thinker ever. And I promise that you’ll be surprised.

But today: Thomas Kuhn.

(Remember, the honorable mentions have all gone to great thinkers who made a simple yet non-obvious contribution to a circumscribed area of human endeavor.)

Area of Interest: The progress of human knowledge

Why great: Because he showed that (scientific) knowledge does not accumulate in a steady (linear) way, as common sense has it, but rather that it leaps ahead in sporadic upheavals or “revolutions”. This means that at any given time, society can be in one of three phases: before a crisis/revolution, when the world seems stable; during the crisis/revolution, when it appears to be anything but stable; and after, when the world looks completely changed.


It’s a pity that the sort of crisis/revolution/upheaval that Kuhn described has since become known as a paradigm shift, which must be the ugliest and corniest piece of jargon out there (along with leverage and core competency). But that shouldn’t distract from Kuhn’s amazing insight.

The default assumption for most people is that every scientist (thinker?) pushes ahead independently into new territory. Kuhn says No. Most scientists are “puzzle solvers” that try, conservatively, to corroborate whatever theory they have been taught. If evidence shows up that contradicts the theory, the scientist producing that evidence is blamed for getting it wrong.

But eventually, the contradictory evidence accumulates, and everybody panics. Then, some people start thinking outside of the box. A breakthrough occurs. We shift to a new understanding. Nothing is ever the same again. And a whole new set of gray mice in white coats gets busy corroborating the new theory.

This reminds me of the old debate in the field of evolution between the “creeps” and the “jerks”. In this context, Kuhn says, knowledge advances in jerks. Lesson: Don’t assume you’re wrong just because everybody else says so. (But don’t assume you’re right either.)

Incidentally, this also dovetails with Galenson’s theory about “young geniuses” and “old masters”: As Kuhn said,

Almost always the men who achieve these fundamental inventions of a new paradigm have been either very young or very new to the field whose paradigm they change.

(I don’t know why he said “men” instead of “scientiests” or “thinkers”. Applies to women just as well.)

Anyway, I could go on forever with the honorable mentions: Hayek, Burke, Aristotle, Laozi, …. But, as I said, just two more posts. Runner-up, then winner. The former will not be surprising, the latter most assuredly will.

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