A simple and powerful idea that everyone needs to know

Laboratory section, Japan Baptist Hospital, Kyoto, 1955

WARNING: Daft piece of terminology coming up, but don’t be put off! It’s called The pessimistic meta-induction from the history of science  from Kathryn Schulz‘ essay of the same title. I read it in a book called ‘This Will Make You Smarter‘ (I thought I could do with the help, OK?)

Here’s what it means in plain English:

Because so many scientific theories from bygone eras have turned out to be wrong, we must assume that most of today’s theories will eventually prove incorrect as well. And what goes for science goes in general. Politics, economics, technology, law, religion, medicine, child rearing, education: No matter the domain of life, one generation’s verities so often become the next generation’s falsehoods that we might as well have a pessimistic meta-induction from the history of everything.

It’s powerful and incredibly obvious when you think about it. We find it easy to look at the past and shake our heads at how wrong we used to be about taking other humans as slaves, drilling holes in the skull to cure disease, tulip bubbles, and burning people as witches. The list is endless and we wish that we knew then what we know now in order that we might have avoided the awful consequences of our naivety.

So why do senior leaders in politics and business have such strong courage of their convictions, as if they believe we’ve finally reached the apex of human understanding where we have nailed what’s right and what’s true? They act as though there’s no possibility of their ideas being completely disproved – not just being wrong, but held to be massively damaging by future generations.

If the world understood this concept it would be incredible humbling and perhaps frightening as we face up to how pathetic we will look through the lens of history. But the world would also be filled with more possibility and hope. Things can be so much better than they are today. Perhaps leaders would become more open to ideas which seem radical today, but which may become mainstream in the future. At the very least, just asking the question ‘What will seem laughable tomorrow about what we are doing today?’ would be extremely powerful.

Umair Haque talks about this same concept in The New Capitalist Manifesto. Today our economic system is mostly based to a large extent on the ideas of two men. Adam Smith believed that in the pursuit of profit, an ‘invisible hand’ would deliver positive benefits for society through the provision of useful goods and services. John Maynard Keynes believed that it was the sole duty of a company to pursue profit, and that markets will self-regulate and end up with the best outcomes. However the financial collapse of 2008, and other mega-trends like impending climate crisis are thoroughly proving these theories insufficient and harmful.

Is this really the best we can do? Do we expect to have the same economic systems in place in 100, 200 or 300 years time? Surely things will look almost unrecognisable that far into the future, and our current ways will seem hopelessly naive and flawed. But we don’t see our leaders facing up to this, and the challenge of discovering what better systems will come next.

The first step is to recognise that the way things are today is going to be proved to be almost entirely wrong. Then with this shift in attitude we can move away from fixed ideology and dogma and become open to what the future might look like, including both small and radical ideas. If we do this then we stand a much better chance of avoiding catastrophe and reaching a better future, faster.