Outsiders by Design (Ep. 179): Full Transcript
This is a transcript of the Freakonomics Radio podcast “Outsiders by Design.”
[MUSIC: The Civil Tones, “One Day, Again and Again” (from City Stoopin’)]
Hey podcast listeners. Our mission at Freakonomics has always been to tell you things you always thought you knew but didn’t … and things you never thought you wanted to know, but do. Now it is your turn to tell us something that we don’t know.
On Monday, October 6, in New York City, we’re launching a live radio game show called “Tell Me Something I Don’t Know” — and the audience, that’s you, is the star. So if you want to get up on stage and tell us something fascinating, please go to freakonomics.com/TellMe to sign up.
It might be an idea, a technological breakthrough, a new line of important research, a set of strange facts, a historical wrinkle, or perhaps just a great, unasked question.
All we ask is that the thing you tell us is interesting (at least to you), worthwhile (at least a little bit), and — well, true (there will be a fact-checker on hand). There will also be prizes — and celebrity judges, including Malcolm Gladwell. I cannot wait to hear what you’ve got to say.
[MUSIC: Clay Ross, “Army For You” (from Entre Nous)]
Simon WINCHESTER: No one took his ideas particularly seriously.
Norman SWAN: And he was ostracized and isolated they thought he was mad. In the Australian parlance, a complete nutter.
Ed GLAESER: You know, there were people who called him a great American humorist within the profession.
WINCHESTER: He was intellectually alone. He had got this idea and no one was particularly interested in it and by God he was going to do it on his own if it killed him.
Does that sound like anyone you know? Maybe even sounds like you? If so, you might be interested in today’s show. We tell the story of three people whose lives – well, let’s just say their lives did not proceed in a perfectly straight line. This episode is called “Outsiders By Design.”
* * *
[MUSIC: Peter Mulvey, “Brady Street Stroll” (from The Knuckleball Suite)]
This episode was inspired by the recent death of Gary Becker. Now since you listen to Freakonomics Radio, you may have heard of Becker; but most people probably haven’t. He was born in 1930, grew up in Brooklyn. He was a good student. At 16, he faced an important decision: join the handball team, or the math team. He was better at handball. But he chose math. He got into Princeton, where he studied economics, even though the fit wasn’t quite right.
Gary BECKER: When I first started taking economics I almost left it in my senior year because it seemed to me it didn’t deal with important social problems. Sociology, for example, did, and I tried thinking about sociology but I finally decided that it was a little too hard.
Richard POSNER: Well, he said that when he went to college his interest was in the traditional subjects that sociologists study.
That’s Richard Posner. He’s a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals in Chicago; he also teaches law at the University of Chicago. He and Becker were longtime friends.
POSNER: But he thought that sociology was a weak field analytically; whereas, economics had a great deal more rigor. And he thought that the methods of economics could be used to deal with sociological issues.
[MUSIC: Pearl Django, “Spiral Waltz” (from System D)]
Becker went on to get his Ph.D. in economics at the University of Chicago. He took a course with Milton Friedman, who was in the midst of redefining the field.
GLAESER: So twenty years earlier, economics meant money and banking. It meant international trade. It meant finance. It meant a very clearly defined set of topics.
That’s the Harvard economist Ed Glaeser.
GLAESER: But there was no clear methodology. Economics was as much moral philosophy as modern social science during those early years. But there you have Friedman who comes along and says, ‘No, economics is about science, it’s about science to do with human beings.’ And Becker, before anyone else sees the implication of that, which is, well, if it’s about science applied to human beings why do I have to work on money and banking? Why can’t I work on something that seems like a more pressing social problem like discrimination?
BECKER: I would tell myself, it’s so obvious that discrimination is such an important topic. That economists don’t see it? Eventually they’re going to have to see it.
POSNER: So Becker’s approach is what’s called “rational choice.” Since it is assumed that people are rational, trying to maximize their utility, welfare, happiness, so forth, in all domains of life.
GLAESER: It’s impossible to overstate how radical it was. There are famous stories that Becker told about people leaving the room when he was giving a seminar, in a huff, saying, “I thought this would be about price discrimination.” So it is clear that this was something that was not at all treated with some degree of reverence, because it doesn’t look or feel like economics.
POSNER: It wasn’t regarded as an economic field and Gary was actually laughed at. He was rather bitter about the reception that his work had received.
Becker believed that any domain of human activity was worthy of an economist’s scrutiny. So it wasn’t just discrimination. He studied the economics of marriage, and child-bearing. He wrote a paper called “A Theory on the Allocation of Time.” At Harvard today, Ed Glaeser still teaches a 1968 Gary Becker paper called “Crime and Punishment: An Economic Approach.” Here’s how Glaeser introduces the idea to his students:
GLAESER: We are all criminals. Right? I certainly did not drive at 55 mph all the way to work today and I cannot promise that I have stopped at the red light on every street getting to this lecture. And I’m sure all of us have things that we all have violated to a greater or lesser degree. And I think that respect shown for people who have chosen to violate the law is crucial. If you think about just how immediately obvious the power of that observation to solve the puzzle, the supposed puzzle of recidivism. The fact that you sent people to prison and they decided to go back to doing crime again. If you have some view that they are sadly misinformed subhuman people who with a little bit of right thinking you can convince to go straight. Well, that is a puzzle. But if you view criminals as being people who made a decision to undertake a particular profession, why should sending them off to be a guest of the state for a couple of years cause them to change that choice of profession? That’s what made sense before and it’s what makes sense afterwards. That’s the immediate implication of viewing criminals as being rational.
[MUSIC: Clay Ross, “Forget The Math” (from Entre Nous)]
Becker had his supporters but more common were the detractors who thought his work lay somewhere between silly and worthless:
GLAESER: You know, there were people who called him a great American humorist within the profession. There’s that famous article on the economics of brushing your teeth, which is clearly sort of mocking the Beckerian approach. So clearly there were people who, you know, for whatever reason thought that this was embarrassing to the profession or beneath what economists should be about.
POSNER: He argued a lot, or was criticized a lot by another very distinguished economist at the University of Chicago, Ronald Coase, because Coase said economics is the study of the economic system, period, not of the entire social system. And of course Gary had a very more expansive view of the scope of economics. So that was a big disagreement.
GLAESER: I think it probably stung him more than he would usually admit. He was a pretty… Gary was not a let-it-all-hang-out kind of guy.
Becker preferred to keep his head down and do his work; he wasn’t big on self-advocacy:
BECKER: I was always a shy person particularly when I was younger so I wasn’t one of these aggressive persons who went out there, talking about everything they knew, it wasn’t my nature.
[MUSIC: Clay Ross, “Army For You” (from Entre Nous)]
What does the universe do with someone like this, someone who is out there on his own, following his own off-kilter curiosities and sensibilities? You know what the universe does: it ridicules them, or beats them up, maybe just ignores them. As we all know, if you want to get ahead in life, you have to color inside the lines. No excuses, no exceptions. No papers on the economics of crime. No more crazy ideas of any sort, thank you very much.
SWAN: They thought he was mad, in the Australian parlance a complete nutter.
[MUSIC: Clay Ross, “Street Sweep” (from Entre Nous)]
Around the time Gary Becker was getting beaten up for papers like “On the Interaction Between the Quantity and Quality of Children,” a young Australian doctor named Barry Marshall was just getting his career underway.
SWAN: I think it’s important to actually set the scene a little bit in terms of Barry and his personality.
That’s Norman Swan, he’s a renowned medical journalist in Australia who trained as an M.D., himself.
SWAN: There is a word in Australian English which is “larrikin.” And it just means somebody who is a bit of a lad, who doesn’t respect authority, but is honest and straight, but doesn’t mind irritating people and annoying people. And that was Barry. He came from essentially a working class family. And he got into medicine. But he wasn’t a star in medical school. He didn’t win any medals. And then he started training as a specialist physician. To get his specialist exams, he needed to do a research project. And he was looking around for one and he came across this shy, retiring, geeky pathologist called Robin Warren, who had noticed when he was doing biopsies of ulcers that there were these bacteria there. What were they doing there? But he needed some help. And just by happenstance, Barry was looking around for his research project, and this was a meeting made in heaven.
[MUSIC: Spencer Garn, “Corn Nuggets”]
The notion that bacteria might be causing an intestinal illness seemed far-fetched. It had long been held that the gastric environment was too acidic for bacteria to thrive; they were thought to be incidental to the action. It is tempting, in the modern age, to think about medicine as a massive body of known, provable science. But the more one knows about medicine, the more one will acknowledge how much is not known – even about something as seemingly straightforward as the ulcer.
SWAN: So there were all these ideas floating around. But as you know, Stephen, medicine is not very good on mechanism. Doctors post-hoc invent mechanisms in many ways to explain phenomena that they see. And the mechanisms did not easily explain ulcer disease. So nobody had an idea really of what caused them. There are all sorts of theories: stress, and indeed acute stress can cause ulcers, but people thought maybe chronic stress did. People thought that smoking increased the risk. And smoking does in fact increase the risk.
At the time, ulcers weren’t cured; they were merely treated, or managed, and not all that well.
SWAN: So when I trained in medicine there really was only one effective treatment if you had gastric or duodenal ulcer. And it was surgery. Where they cut nerves to the acid-producing areas of the stomach to reduce acid. And then they developed drugs which actually turned off the acid. And these were massive industries, not just for treating ulcers. Well, they didn’t treat ulcers, they actually treated the symptoms and settled them down. But it was very hard to get ulcer healing. So this was a multi-billion dollar international industry.
But Barry Marshall suspected that all this conventional wisdom might be wrong. He wondered if the ulcer – the foundation of a multi-billion-dollar industry which didn’t even cure it – if the ulcer were perhaps related to this squiggly bacteria that he and Robin Warren were studying. This bacteria came to be known as Helicobacter pylori. Marshall was working hard in the lab, trying to learn the bacteria’s properties.
MARSHALL: Well we did some animal experiments but we could not make the human bacteria infect animals such as rats or pigs…
To Marshall, the next step was obvious:
MARSHALL: …so I said, I have to test it out on a human.
Hmm. Feeding a potentially dangerous bacteria to human test subjects. Not so easy. And therefore:
MARSHALL: Well I decided that I was going to have to drink the bacteria myself and I thought what would happen is I’d have no symptoms for few years and then I’d have an ulcer and, Hallelujah, It would be proven.
Marshall first had to make sure his own gut didn’t already contain any of this bacteria. He asked a colleague for an endoscopy.
MARSHALL: And I think he knew what was going on. But he said, as he put the scope down me, he said Barry, I’m not going to ask why I’m doing this. So he took biopsies from me and they were all clear. No bacteria.
Marshall didn’t tell anyone what he was about to do. Not his wife, not his research partner, Robin Warren …
MARSHALL: If it was successful and I developed an ulcer, or stomach problems from the bacteria, that proved they are harmful and possibly I was right and they caused ulcers. But if nothing happened that means that my two years of research by then were wasted.
Barry Marshall drank the bacteria. The two years, it turned out, were not wasted.
MARSHALL: After five days I started having vomiting attacks. Had another endoscopy and the bacteria were everywhere, there were absolute millions of them in the lining of my stomach. So at that point I proved that the bacteria could infect a healthy person and cause gastritis.
Having studied the bacteria in the lab, Marshall knew what kind of antibiotic he could treat it with – so he took the antibiotic, and quickly made himself well. Norman Swan again.
SWAN: They’d done now what they call now “the killer experiment.” I suppose in Barry’s case it almost was the killer experiment.
Barry Marshall had proved, at least to himself, that bacteria was the true cause of ulcers. So what happened now? Did the worldwide medical community immediately hoist Marshall on their shoulders and praise his breakthrough? No, they didn’t. His research was ridiculed, dismissed, badmouthed.
SWAN: The response, I think, at least in Australia, was dominated by the response to Barry. He wasn’t from the establishment, he wasn’t one of them. He made this discovery before was even, before he had even got his specialist qualifications. He wasn’t a card carrying researcher. And Barry’s a bit odd. Barry’s, um, he’s odd, he’s very amusing. He’s remarkably candid, outgoing, he can be quite manic. And he would present and people would think “who is this nutter?” Because it was with almost a religious fervor from this good Catholic boy that he was promoting this, because he believed it so strongly. And there was this question in their mind that if he was selling it this hard, in this kind of odd way, was there something fishy about the research. So that was, if you like, the subtext that people did not quite articulate, but it was certainly there. That Barry was not seen as credible researcher. And regardless of his finding, because he wasn’t credible, because he just was not one of them, he was rough and ready. And I think that was a major part of it. And then the pharmaceutical industry found every angle they could do oppose it.
And how did he respond?
SWAN: Well, I think Barry just got angrier and angrier. So, in other words, he didn’t tailor his message to the boys. You know, he wasn’t a good old boy sat around the table. You know, he wasn’t going to tailor the message. The message was the message and he just kept banging away at it. And didn’t compromise.
Which must have made him seem even more of a nutter to his opponents, yes?
SWAN: I think so.
[MUSIC: Tallboy 7, “Electro Acoustic”]
Coming up on Freakonomics Radio: one more heretic who tries to buck the establishment:
WINCHESTER: These early maps evoked enormous hostility. Because the received wisdom of the day was that the earth was created at a very specific point in time.
And: are all these outsiders doomed for lifelong despair?
MARSHALL: People would always say Dr. Marshall do you feel vindicated? Well, we won. We knew we were going to win. We knew we were going to win because we had the truth.
One more thing: did you know you can subscribe to this Freakonomics Radio podcast, for free, on iTunes? You can. It has not been shown to prevent ulcers – yet … but you never know. New research in this field every day…
* * *
[MUSIC: Johannes Brahms, “Academic Festival Overture”]
Today we’ve heard the stories of Barry Marshall and Gary Becker, one a doctor, the other an economist. They both followed their own light – and paid for it. In each case, the Establishment treated them like rank outsiders. Well, if you want to see how an even more established Establishment can marginalize someone who dares to try something new, let’s go back to 19th-century England. Among a certain portion of upper-crust gentlemen, the rage of the day was collecting fossils. They were considered objects of beauty and fascination:
WINCHESTER: And they’d have rather genteel dining clubs where they would pass around. You know, “we found a new trilobite, have a glass of sherry, but don’t you think this is absolutely beautiful, Your Honor.”
That’s Simon Winchester, an author and journalist. His best-known book is The Professor and the Madman, about the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary. Winchester has also written a book about a man named William Smith, who was born in 1769 into a farm family in Oxfordshire. Smith was nothing like the gentlemen who drank sherry in clubs. He did, however, love to collect fossils.
WINCHESTER: So he became interested very much in the earth and the kind of things that were to be found in the earth, not only relics of former living things, like fossils were, but the actual sandstones and limestones of which his neighboring countryside was constituted.
Smith took a job as a land surveyor, which got him acquainted with the topography – and got him curious as to what lay beneath it. Working for a coal-mining company, he got a chance to take a look. Smith observed a sequence that few before him had noticed.
WINCHESTER: Siltstone, mudstone, sandstone, limestone, coal, siltstone, mudstone, limestone, coal.
Not only that, but he noted that each layer contained different kinds of fossils.
WINCHESTER: And he began to have thoughts about geology and particularly sedimentary geology, the laying down of sedimentary rocks, which were quite revolutionary. No one else had really begun to think like this. And then there was this extraordinary epiphany.
Smith traveled all over the English countryside. He noticed that the sequence of layers, and their corresponding fossils, were the same from place to place.
WINCHESTER: Sandstone with an ammonite, limestone with a brachiopod. Then you have another limestone or another sandstone with a trilobite. Those three unique rocks, if he found them 100 miles away, those same three rocks, same order, same color, same fossils, then he said: these are clearly the same strata of rock and all they are doing is they are disappearing beneath the surface of the earth and then coming up and reappearing 100 miles away. I can therefore draw a map showing where these things outcrop, showing how they slope down and at what angle down below into the subsurface of the earth. And I can draw a map which will enable people to predict where, when they dip down in that 100 miles, how deep below the surface they will be. In other words, I can draw a map of the invisible underneath of the British Isles.
[MUSIC: Wolfram Grus, “Petit Gennevilliers”]
A map of the invisible underneath of the British Isles, or of any isles, would be, as you can imagine, revolutionary. For science. For industry. For history. The Church, for instance, disapproved mightily.
WINCHESTER: These early maps evoked enormous hostility. Because the received wisdom of the day was that the earth was created at a very specific point in time. That was the Church’s belief, that the Earth was, let’s say in the 1880’s, 4004 + 1800, so that’s 5,804 years old and that was that. To challenge that in any way, as these maps did, because these maps were based on the evidence of fossils — which when you look at them carefully change so imperceptibly slowly — that you had to be oblivious to reality to assume that all of these could be changed and evolve and create you and me in 5,804 years, it simply was not possible. So these early geologists drove a horse and cart through the biblical teaching that the earth was only 6,000 years old. So there was great hostility and these maps were seen to be instruments of heresy.
But William Smith pressed on, almost entirely by himself. He created a massive, hand-drawn, hand-colored map; at his own great expense, he had it printed to be sold to the public. Its name alone was quite descriptive:
WINCHESTER: “A delineation of the strata of England and Wales, with a part of Scotland, exhibiting the collieries and mines, the marshes and fen lands originally overflowed by the sea, and the varieties of soil according to the variations in the substrata, illustrated by the most descriptive names.” And out it came, it was uttered for publication, as they say, on the 1st of August, 1815. And what then what happened is the sort of central tragedy of this story.
The tragedy, as Simon Winchester tells us, emanated from London:
WINCHESTER: I mentioned earlier that geology was a calling of the upper classes. And the Geological Society of London was peopled entirely by men, aquiline-nosed, refined dandies who would pass around fossils and mineral samples for the sheer delight of looking at them and collecting them.
And who came from the kind of families that William Smith did not come from.
WINCHESTER: Precisely. They saw this map, that was produced by a man who wore rough old boots and workman’s clothes and had dirt under his fingernails and didn’t know how to hold teacup properly, as a gross impertinence. And one of their number, a man called Greenough, said, ‘I’m going to copy this map, and I’m going to sell it under the authority of the Geological Society of London, and I am going to sell it more cheaply than this upstart’s map, which is on sale in the bookstores in London and Oxford and Cambridge. If he is charging 7 pounds we are going to charge 5 pounds for ours.’ So you had this extraordinary situation in the winter of 1815, 1816, where two maps, almost identical, one by William Smith and the other unresearched and plagiarized but with the imprint of the Geological Society of London on it being sold for less money. Well, the outcome was obvious. The Greenough map sold to those who were interested, and a growing number of people were, because this was not only beautiful, but everyone knew that it would allow you to dig for minerals and therefore possibly make yourself wealthy. And Smith’s map didn’t sell. He had to pay his money back, his loans back. He went into a financial tailspin, and he went bankrupt and he went, how humiliating for this decent human being, he was sent to debtors prison. I mean it’s a terrible story.
So William Smith works creatively, and tirelessly, and usually singly for all these years. Creates and publishes this astonishing map that turned out to be prescient on many dimensions, that turned out to be revolutionary on at least a few dimensions. And yet the publication is essentially sabotaged by people with greater means and access to, well, the public and access to good reputation and so on. He gets thrown in debtors prison. He comes out and he has lost home, his possessions have been bought up, yes? He had to sell off his collection of fossils, is that right?
So it’s incredibly heartbreaking that a man who worked hard and so brilliantly and nearly always alone creating this map of lasting usefulness was so deeply unrewarded for life’s work. But… the story doesn’t end there, does it?
WINCHESTER: Yes, it doesn’t end there.
[MUSIC: Niklas Aman, “Above the Clouds” (from Above the Clouds)]
The years pass. William Smith – poor, aging, dispirited — takes a job in Scarborough, in North Yorkshire. He’s working as a surveyor for a man named Johnstone. Smith creates one of his elaborate hand-drawn maps of Johnstone’s property.
WINCHESTER: So Johnstone looks at this map that this old man, because he is now a pretty… at least he has suffered mightily, he is stooped and weary and somewhat asthmatic, and he gives him this beautifully produced map of his estates. And a light bulb goes on in Johnstone’s mind. He says, “Wait a minute, this map. I recognize your style. You’re Smith aren’t you? Didn’t you create a map of the whole of the British Isles? I’ve seen it in London.” And Smith said, “Yes, I have the honor to say it was me that done that, sir.”
Mr. Johnstone, as it turned, out, was not only an influential gentleman — a member of Parliament – but a geology enthusiast:
WINCHESTER: He said, “So, what are you doing here working as a jobbing surveyor on my estate? You should be being honored and living in London in great comfort and be showered with medals and decorations and things.” And Smith says, “Well, life didn’t turn out like that.” And Johnstone says “This is monstrous and I’ll see what I can do.” And blow me down, he did.
In short order, William Smith was brought to London, where he was welcomed into the Geological Society of London and was more generally hailed for his earlier achievement:
WINCHESTER: And he got his due. In the end he was recognized and honored as “The Father of English Geology.”
Simon Winchester’s book about William Smith – it’s a wonderful book; I encourage you to read it – is called The Map That Changed the World.
WINCHESTER: And it did change everything, so far as humankind’s search for minerals. Because it altered the economic landscape of the planet.
[MUSIC: Reid Willis, “The Self-Loathing Optimist” (from Rockslide Lullabies)]
What’s most remarkable about the story is not how hard Smith worked to create his map, nor how wise and clever he was. What’s remarkable is that this outsider, whose reputation was taken from him, lived to see that reputation rehabilitated, his ideas celebrated. It would have been so much more likely for him to die broken and bitter, in the wilderness, utterly unrecognized. That is a risk taken by people who work outside the system, who challenge the conventional wisdom. Like Barry Marshall, the Australian gastroenterologist, who had the audacity to suggest that he had found a cure for ulcers even though the medical establishment didn’t believe him. Here’s the Australian doctor-journalist Norman Swan:
SWAN: Medicine chose to ignore it. They chose to ignore it because it didn’t suit their prejudices, because they didn’t quite like the way the messenger was selling it, and because of a huge marketing push by a very influential industry which told them it was bull.
But after years and years of promoting his theory – and of being ridiculed for it – Marshall finally, in 1994, saw his findings accepted by the National Institute of Health.
MARSHALL: People would always say, “Dr. Marshall do you feel vindicated?”…well, we won. But we knew we were going to win. We knew we were going to win because we had the truth.
SWAN: If you look at history of medicine, it’s interesting how long it takes for evidence to get into the thick skulls of doctors. So when Pasteur proved the germ theory of disease it took about thirty years for the medical profession around the world to accept the germ theory of disease. Amazingly. It took twenty-odd years for doctors to accept that aspirin reduced the risk of dying of coronary heart disease after you’ve had a heart attack. It was well proven, it took twenty-odd years for doctors to accept that. It takes a long…it’s a conservative profession. It takes a long time to convince them of new ideas, and this was no different, because it was so radically outside of what they were expecting.
Radical indeed. Barry Marshall and Robin Warren’s work proved not only that Helicobacter pylori was the true cause of ulcers, but of stomach cancer, as well. In 2005 – more than 20 years after Marshall swallowed that batch of bacteria – they were awarded the Nobel Prize.
SWAN: It is very rare in medicine to find a cure for anything. You can never really be sure you’ve cured cancer, even though the treatment, for say, breast cancer is effective these days. You certainly can’t cure heart disease. Once you’ve got it you have got it for life. You can’t cure diabetes. I mean, yes, you can reverse it in some people, but it tends to come back. But you can cure infections. So antibiotics do get rid of infections and you can cure them. And this is a rare example, a really rare example, in modern medicine of a cure rather than an effective treatment. So what they had before was an effective treatment. It was expensive. It was for life. And here was something which got rid of the disease. And it got rid of the disease pretty cheaply.
[MUSIC: Clay Ross, “Army For You” (from Entre Nous)]
And what about Gary Becker, the rogue economist who led off today’s program? He thought his field should look beyond finance and banking and consider all of human behavior, from racial discrimination to mate-picking. Well, Becker, too, after years of being marginalized, was ultimately celebrated. Time caught up to his way of thinking. Becker, too, won a Nobel Prize, in 1992; and, in 2007, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. How did he feel about the Nobel? Here’s his friend, Judge Richard Posner.
POSNER: Well, he was pleased. I think he felt it was overdue. He should have gotten it earlier, that’s the standard reaction to these things.
And Harvard economist Ed Glaeser, who studied with Gary Becker, and still teaches his work:
GLAESER: This is person who in some sense felt if he was being universally loved he was screwing up, right? That he, in fact, wants to push you out of your comfort zone on this.
Let me just ask you maybe in summary: I’m curious whether you think that there are any lessons to be learned from Gary Becker’s experience generally, and maybe how anybody who’s listening to this, whatever occupation or vocation they might be thinking about, could perhaps apply some of that determination of Gary Becker’s to their own lives?
GLAESER: It’s the right question to ask. And I think Becker is different from many of the wilderness-years-type scientists that we think of in the sense that he was not somebody who came out of nowhere who had a brilliant idea and was mocked for it initially. He was someone who was part of a very well-established economics department, who had, early respect, early rewards in lots of different ways. But what’s different from many of us is that he didn’t in any sense rest on those, and he didn’t rest them not just in the sense that he kept working, although he worked like heck. He didn’t rest on them in the sense in which he decided to risk everything on every throw of the dice, right? He wanted to always be out there. He wanted to push as far as he could. He wanted be as risky; he wanted to risk going back into the wilderness even though he had, you know, gotten himself a seat in the throne room, right? And that’s what’s really special about him, it’s being in the wilderness by design, by choice. Here’s a guy who over and over again decided to take those risks, to court disaster, to be on the very edge, to go into rooms, to enter fields in which he knew that people were going to think that he was outrageous. He knew that people were going to denigrate his work. And yet he still did it. And that’s what made him so productive. And I think the challenge for all of us, particularly all of us who are in the idea business is it’s a reminder to try to push ourselves as much as possible to try to be different, to be unpopular often, to do things that are troubling to the status quo, that risk us being thought of as being, you know, less than we are. And I think that’s the Becker lesson is it’s trying to be an outsider almost by design.
I asked Norman Swan what the story of Barry Marshall and Robin Warren could teach the rest of us.
SWAN: I think the generalizable takeaway from Barry and Robin’s discovery and the resistance to it is that people should judge things on their scientific merit and not shoot the messenger. And to make a discovery like this probably does take somebody who is out of the ordinary. And somebody who is out of the ordinary may not communicate in the way that we expect or have become used to amongst our colleagues. And therefore we really do need to go back to the science.
And, finally, Simon Winchester on map maker extraordinaire William Smith.
WINCHESTER: Well, I don’t want to get too sappy about this, but tolerance for the true eccentric is important. I think it is important for people like you and like me, writers who are interested in the unsung heroes, to listen to these stories. Listening is important. Being kind and tolerant is important, too. And you’ll discover, I think, an unsung hero in places where you would have no thought that such a person would exist.
[MUSIC: Greg Ruby Quartet, “Deja Vu” (from Look Both Ways)]
This is a transcript of the Freakonomics Radio podcast “Outsiders by Design.“