Month: August 2016

Challenging conventional wisdom: in praise of Galileo and other iconoclasts

As neuroeconomist Greg Berns pointed out in his 2008 book, Iconoclasts, humans face many constraints on innovative thinking, including the urge to conform, the tendency to interpret sensory information in familiar ways, and of course, the fear of missing out on a promotion, or even losing a job. Over 20+ years working in health and development, I’ve come to realize just how powerful these constraints are. I’ve observed many development policy and health policy experts following the dictates of conventional or ‘organizational’ wisdom, even as they perceived, ever more clearly, its unsoundness. Reflecting carefully, I’d have to place myself among those who have often “gone along, to get along”. These reflections have increased my appreciation of iconoclasts, those too-rare individuals who question even the most cherished, or revered, beliefs. I am thus inspired to share a few tidbits about Galileo, perhaps the most famous iconoclast in human history.

A great scientist.     As most know, “Galileo made major discoveries about the motion of planets and stars, the motion of uniformly accelerated objects (i.e. that two objects would fall at the same rate regardless of their masses), sound frequency, and the basic principle of relativity, among other things—and major advancements in technology, including inventing or improving upon the telescope, microscope, thermometer, pendulum, and the compass. His work was central to most future developments in science, including those of Newton and Einstein, and most of what he discovered was in contradiction with conventional wisdom.” Summary by Tim Urban at

..and iconoclast.     What is most praise-worthy, in my view, is that Galileo did all this despite the threats and repression of the Catholic Church. Ultimately, Urban notes, in 1633, “the Church found him ‘vehemently suspect of heresy,’ and placed him under house arrest for the rest of his life.”

…and clever(?) public communicator.     Striving to get his not-acceptable-to-the-Church views understood more widely, Galileo wrote a book – Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems. It presents a series of discussions, among two philosophers and a layman, and is written in vernacular language. Salviati argues for, and explains, Galileo’s views; Sagredo is an intelligent layman who is initially neutral; and, Simplicio, presents the conventional wisdom about the structure of the universe. The 6:10 – 8:10 section of this episode of the Great Books TV series, gives a description of the book and a dramatic presentation of one of the exchanges. Despite the technical complexity of the topics, you can see, the dialogue is witty and engaging. Much of what Simplicio says were well known to be the views of the Pope (Urban VIII), indirectly insulting the Pope and contributing to Galileo’s later conviction and sentencing to house arrest. Nevertheless, the book, and all the trial-related publicity it received, doubtless helped draw attention to the problems with the conventional wisdom and persuade many to rethink their long held beliefs about how the universe is structured.

Dialogue Concerning Development Thinking? A few development policy and health/ development experts are working to challenge unsound, but deeply held, and operationally-entrenched, beliefs. Bill Easterly, Lant Pritchett, Michael Woolcock, and Matt Andrews come to mind. Reading bits of Galileo’s Dialogue, I couldn’t help but wonder whether something similar might be useful for challenging those beliefs.

What I’m listening to: “Conversations with Tyler” podcast

Many of you likely know Tyler Cowen through the Marginal Revolution blog he runs with Alex Tabarrok, or, perhaps his contributions to the New York Times Economic View column . Tyler recently began conducting interviews with a variety of people who are “making an impact on the world through their ideas” (e.g. Peter Thiel, Dani Rodrik, Jonathan Haidt, Luigi Zingales, Jeff Sachs). I find many of the interviews thought-provoking, and here is why: Tyler steers conversations down less-traveled paths thereby liberating his guests from recounting or rationalizing their position on topics for which they are known. He asks quirky, sometimes provocative, questions. For more reflective interviewees, this approach elicits responses which are far more interesting than what you’d encounter in their most recent “book talk”. The rich conversations with Dani Rodrik, Jonathan Haidt and Luigi Zingales vividly illustrate the virtues of this approach. Tyler’s off-piste interview style doesn’t work as well with less reflective guests. Jeff Sachs, for example, appears to have little of interest to say, beyond recounting and justifying his well-known positions. But hey, it’s a pod- and vid-cast, you can easily skip to the next episode.

You can subscribe to audio and/or video feeds of “Conversations with Tyler” through your favorite podcast manager or youtube.