On the difference between truth and fantasy

Posted by healthblogger on 21/07/10
Tags: ,  
Negative prediction value in binary classification

As we search for the solutions out of the recession, toward a better future and more competitive post-Lisbon (jargon!) economy, it is worth recalling some of the dumb things people have said that has often acted as a brake on progress and change. In healthcare in particular, prediction has a big role as models of the future are driven by the relentless march of demography and various assumptions about the progress of science and technology.

Equally relevant is the meaning of policies designed to drive forward change into the future based on the advice we take from people.

Bringing substantial change to healthcare (or education or whatever interests you) can be frustrated by people, who often from positions of authority, spout nonsense.  And while the items on the list below are famously wrong-headed, other commentators have said things that did make sense (and whose advice we did or did not take, like the few who worried about cheap housing in the US), but the problem is are we are just not very good at telling the difference.

Herewith a few gems (from a regretfully much longer list sourced from various documents); we can be glad their words were generally ignored. If nothing else, the list is testimony to hubris.

  • “…so many centuries after the Creation it is unlikely that anyone could find hitherto unknown lands of any value.” Committee advising King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain regarding a proposal by Christopher Columbus, 1486.
  • “What can be more palpably absurd than the prospect held out of locomotives traveling twice as fast as stagecoaches?” The Quarterly Review, March, 1825
  • “If a train speed is more than 180 km/h, passengers will suffocate” D. Lardner, Professor at the University of London, 1850
  • “Louis Pasteur’s theory of germs is ridiculous fiction”. Pierre Pachet, Professor of Physiology at Toulouse, 1872
  • “The abdomen, the chest, and the brain will forever be shut from the intrusion of the wise and humane surgeon”. Sir John Eric Ericksen, British surgeon, appointed Surgeon-Extraordinary to Queen Victoria 1873
  • “The Americans have need of the telephone, but we do not. We have plenty of messenger boys.” Sir William Preece, chief engineer of Britain’s General Post Office, The Economist, 1876
  • “Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible.” Lord Kelvin, president, Royal Society, 1895
  • “Airplanes are interesting toys but of no military value.” Marechal Ferdinand Foch, Professor of Strategy, Ecole Superieure de Guerre.
  • “Everything that can be invented has been invented.” Charles H. Duell, Commissioner, U.S. Office of Patents, 1899
  • “There is a low probability that we will one day master the atomic energy” Robert Millikan, Nobel Prize in Physics, 1923
  • “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.” Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM, 1943
  • “We have a computer here in Cambridge; there is one in Manchester and one at the National Physical Laboratory. I suppose there ought to be one in Scotland, but that’s about all.” Douglas Hartree, Physicist, 1951
  • “The world potential market for copying machines is 5000 at most.” IBM, to the eventual founders of Xerox, saying the photocopier had no market large enough to justify production, 1959
  • “If I had thought about it, I wouldn’t have done the experiment. The literature was full of examples that said you can’t do this.” Spencer Silver on the work that led to the 3-M “Post-It” Note
  • “We can close the books on infectious diseases.” William H. Steward, Surgeon General of the United States,  1969; speaking to the U.S. Congress – cited in The Killers Within: The Deadly Rise Of Drug-Resistant Bacteria by Mark J. Plotkin and Michael Shnayerson, 2003
  • “There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.” Ken Olson, president, chairman and founder of Digital Equipment Corp., 1977
  • “Satellite TV in Britain will be a flop.” Michael Tracey, head of the Broadcast Research Unit, Sunday Times (London) 1 December 1988

And to give us renewed vigor and energy, keep in mind what these sensible Europeans said the next time you are confronted by policies that don’t make much sense:

  • “The probable is what usually happens”. Aristotle  [Policy people often have trouble understanding that some things happen despite their best efforts to exert control; healthcare systems are complex and adaptive, but does policy consider that? The world is wicked.]
  • “It is a truth very certain that when it is not in our power to determine what is true we ought to follow what is most probable.Descartes, Discourse on Method [But policies are pursued frequently with little regard for the real world and a greater eye to political compromise; I doubt Descartes would have been employed as a policy advisor today.]
  • “It is remarkable that a science which began with the consideration of games of chance should have become the most important object of human knowledge. … The most important questions of life are, for the most part, really only problems of probability”. Laplace, Théorie Analytique des Probabilités, 1812 [It is perhaps worthy of further reflection as slavish pursuit of evidence-based policies ignore the fine print that says the evidence is only as good as the research behind it and much of that has varying degrees of statistical reliability.]

One Response to On the difference between truth and fantasy »»

  1. Comment by Stuart Langridge | 2010/07/22 at 08:42:39

    Wonderful stuff! Thanks for this.

    I especially like the idea about computers that “there ought to be one in Scotland”.


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