How History Forgets That Searching for Truth Entails Risks

Because biographies of famous scientists tend to edit out their mistakes, we underestimate the degree of risk they were willing to take. And because anything a famous scientist did that wasn’t a mistake has probably now become the conventional wisdom, those choices don’t seem risky either.” writes Paul Graham in an excellent short post, ‘the risk of discovery‘.

newtonalchemyBiographies of Newton, for example, understandably focus more on physics than alchemy or theology. The impression we get is that his unerring judgment led him straight to truths no one else had noticed. How to explain all the time he spent on alchemy and theology? Well, smart people are often kind of crazy.” (and it seems Newton’s dog helped burn his alchemy writings as well).

There are at least two interesting learning points from this reflection:

  • People who truly seek new truths at the border of knowledge will seem a bit crazy and will investigate potential avenues, some of which might not be fruitful at the end. And they will put in question mainstream knowledge, which can be dangerous for them.
  • History only highlights what is becoming new mainstream knowledge forgetting about the rest, and deleting it from collective memory. But that is reductive because we don’t know what will become mainstream in the future.

So it quite normal that we take risks if we strive to progress science and find new truths. Taking risk is part of it. Let’s not stop at it!