Outsiders by Design (Ep. 179)

Listen now:
(Photo: Nishanth Jois)

(Photo: Nishanth Jois)

What does it mean to pursue something that everyone else think is nuts? And what does it take to succeed? That’s what this week’s episode is about. It’s called “Outsiders By Design.”  (You can subscribe to the podcast at iTunes, get the RSS feed, or listen via the media player above. You can also read the transcript, which includes credits for the music you’ll hear in the episode.)

You’ll hear about three radical thinkers whose lives didn’t proceed in a perfectly straight line. In each case, their work was ridiculed or ignored — but ultimately, they triumphed. This podcast was inspired by the recent death of the economist Gary Becker, whose firm belief in the rational choice model led him to publish works like “Crime and Punishment: An Economic Approach” and “A Theory on the Allocation of Time.” As described by the Harvard economist Ed Glaeser — a former student of Becker’s, who has appeared on this podcast before — Becker’s early work on the economics of racial discrimination caught the academy off-guard:

GLAESER: I think 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.” It was something that was not at all treated with some degree of reverence. Because it doesn’t look or feel like economics.

You’ll also hear from Richard Posner, the federal judge and legal scholar with whom Becker wrote the spirited Becker-Posner Blog for many years.

Around the time Gary Becker was getting beaten up for his work, a young Australian doctor named Barry Marshall was just getting his career underway. Marshall came to have a radical notion about the cause — and cure — for ulcers. And, in a risky bout of self-experimentation, he proved he was right. But it would be many years before his findings were accepted, as explained by the medical journalist Norman Swan:

SWAN: The response, I think at least in Australia, was dominated by the response to Barry. He wasn’t from the establishment, not one of them. Barry was not seen as credible researcher. … And then the pharmaceutical industry found every angle they could do oppose it.

(Photo: Public Domain, Scan by the Library Foundation, Buffalo and Erie County Public Library)

(Photo: Public Domain, Scan by the Library Foundation, Buffalo and Erie County Public Library)

William Smith, a proto-geologist in 19th-century England, was also very much not a part of the establishment. And so when he created, after many years of solitary work, a map that laid out the invisible mineral underlayers of the British Isles, he was both condemned and plagiarized. The author and journalist Simon Winchester (whose books include The Professor and the Madman and The Men Who United the States tells us how Smith’s work was received by the Church of England:

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. [But] the 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.

Despite the odds faced by all three men, they ultimately got their just rewards. Sometimes it can pay to be an outsider by design, as you’ll hear in the podcast.

Special thanks to the Australian Academy of Science for the use of their Barry Marshall interview footage.

Additional resources:

Milly Lang

I listened to Outsiders by Design yesterday in the common room of the earth sciences and engineering department at Imperial College London (I'm in the bioengineering department for the summer, but their common room is nice and quiet). And I realised, as I was listening, that the podcast was about the massive map on the wall behind me. It's a big, beautiful map (taller than the average person by a good margin) and is signed W. Smith.

Philosopher of Science

While the stories of the individual "outsiders" were very interesting, emphasizing these particular cases while failing to mention the broader landscape paints a seriously distorted picture of what's going on here and illustrates hindsight bias and selective sampling.

If the "outsiders" involved had not happened to be right, we would not be calling them brilliant creative thinkers but at best obscure figures in intellectual history who got it wrong, or at worst cranks. In reality, most "outsiders" who challenge the scientific consensus or operate outside of the slow, incremental grind of peer-review, duplication of experimental results, and building consensus among experts, are simply proved wrong. Many or most of these methodological solipsists are rightly called cranks or psuedoscientists. Global warming denialists, anti-vac doctors, and a variety of pseudoscientists operate as "outsiders". Why didn't the podcast discuss those cases?

Science, reason and expert consensus building are mechanisms for separating well-supported claims from poorly supported claims. Sometimes it makes errors, either by incorrectly thinking that a particular claim is true or incorrectly denying that it is true. That should come as no surprise, but from an epistemic standpoint it will always be more likely that expert consensus is correct than that it is false, even if the consensus is later overturned by newly available evidence, and so it is usually better to agree with expert consensus than with the views of an "outsider".

Finally, as someone said during the podcast, the evidence stands on its own regardless of who is putting it forward. But ironically, the whole podcast focused on the people, not the evidence.


Phil Persinger

Philosopher (if I may be informal)--

How does "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions" fit with your comment?


just for saying my thanks. it was really a great one,thanks a million.


The flip side of this outsider-with-wild-idea thing, and one that's more easily applied by most of us, is the outsiderness of not doing something that consumerist society says we should. For example, at a rough guess my disinterest in buying a fancy new car every few years has, over the 25 years or so that I've been able to afford to do so, saved me upwards of $150K. Or assuming I'd invested the monthly payments at 7%, about $325K.

Xianhang Zhang

You guys should do a counterpoint podcast on the flip side of iconoclasm with people like Linus Pauling or Fred Hoyle who achieved great mainstream success and then advocated for theories that are still not commonly accepted today, most likely because they're spectacularly wrong.

Phil Persinger

Mr. Zhang--

The podcast might better have framed itself around a culture's-- and its establishments'-- reaction to novelty and not around the "oddball" subjects who proposed their novel views of the world.

You should cut Fred Hoyle some slack. He resisted the "Big Bang" theory only while he was not convinced by the evidence that it should supplant the once-commonly-held view (culturally-based and not personality-driven) that the universe was in a "steady state." He eventually folded his tent and went over to the other side. Hoyle is one of many who have suffered such a transform; it's how science is supposed to work.

Please also remember that Einstein never accepted the quantum theories developed in the 1920s because he was never convinced by the evidence-- or, perhaps, he was culturally biased against the seemingly random, arbitrary and spooky ramifications of that view of nature.

William Smith strikes me as being another instance of the old (and not dead yet) problem of British class prejudice, since much of what Smith accomplished was famously (for real scientists) presaged by James Hutton's work over a century before and therefore should not been an issue. One only need remember John Harrison's similar class-based difficulties in securing credit and payment for his marine chronometer.

Linus Pauling's is another case entirely.

It's interesting that two of the examples from the podcast are from economics and medicine, since neither of those disciplines for honest reasons has been exactly stellar in real-world application of science. That, as Replier of Philosopher has noted above, gives gadflies, oddballs and radicals more room to be "correct" relative to a professional consensus which is itself scientifically questionable. Pauling strayed from "hard science" chemistry into "practical arts" medicine and made a name for himself there until the actual science of medicine-- such as it is-- finally caught up.



The story about William Smith the unrecognized geologist hurts my soul. I hope the plagiarizer got his comeuppance.

Jessie Henshaw

It's a good insight, that throughout history popular societal beliefs have had to be overthrown as if they were like "mad science"... Belief in the inequality of races, genders, faiths, lifestyles... are overthrown again and again that way. So, YES, then quite often "first they ignore you, then they oppose you, then you win" (Ghandi).

There is a great exception to that rule.

When the mad self-deception is in the interests of those concentrating wealth, you lose. The evidence is that whole civilizations have collapsed, led to their doom by the pursuit of multiplying wealth. The best recorded example is Rome, but it appears to apply to all the other complex technological societies that have brought about their own demise too.

Technological societies that "grow like fury" are driven by social forces that are ignorant of the limits of doing that. They're a clear sign of the presence of powerful investors, driven to multiplying their power with multiplying investments. The "public" and the "pundits" in our day clearly just get swept up in the faith that it creates ever expanding wealth too, just because they are unable to understand how that works. It ends up burying rich and poor in the refuse of the collapse that naturally follows from rampant over-building of things the society ultimately builds beyond their to take care of.

So, when the "mad science" of society is that of ignoring the "good science" of how a society can comfortably accept natural limits,... the opposite rule tends to apply. Then the rule is most often "First they ignore you, then you are silenced forever". It does seem to have happened historically again and again.... It's very clearly happening right now, decade after decade with the good science being tossed out instead of foolish limitless greed, again and again, big time.

To keep the earth profitable (job #1 for any energy using system!!) we need an honest way to measure the real costs of expanding development. Theres a quite practical one being actively suppressed today, by the institutional managers of "sustainability accounting" (in turn being managed by big money of course) : A World SDG.


Eric Rayburn

Really enjoyed the episode on outsiders by design. It reminds me that there have been so many people who made great discoveries that were not recognized until much later.


This was an interesting podcast (as they usually are) however I'm extremely disappointed that there was not a single woman in the examples given. Women have made extraordinary contributions to math, science, and history and often those contributions are ignored or stolen or glossed over simply because as women they were outsiders to not only the field where they made contributions but the professional world in general. Come on Freakonomics, do better.

Megan Ewing

Hello Freakonomics,

I am a big fan of your podcasts and listen to them regularly. I was particularly intrigued by your episode, Outsiders by Design. The stories in this podcast spoke to me because my grandfather was an Outsider by Design. Unfortunately, he passed away and will not see the recognition of his life's work, but like the story about the doctors who discovered a cure for ulcers (thank you for pointing out the difficulty of the medical profession to accept new truths-and thank you for pointing out the conflict in the industry of medicine over cure vs. masking of symptoms), my grandfather, Dr. Abram Hoffer, "The Grandfather of Orthomolecular Psychiatry," worked his whole life, successfully treating people with mental illness. A chemist by trade and then a psychiatrist, he discovered that people who suffered symptoms of Vitamin B deficiencies were those deemed mentally ill. By replenishing the vitamins that were lacking (due to environmental factors, genetics, or the changing nature of our food sources), often with mega vitamin doses, the symptoms of mental illness went away. He would always say that he could cure schizophrenia, and cure to him meant that his patients were paying income tax. The medical community has yet to recognize his ground breaking work and discoveries, and for me, the biggest sadness is that so many people are suffering unnecessarily. The words about him are controversial and often focus on his earliest work with Humphrey Osmond and LSD. I hope one day his treatments are made known to more and that people who are deficient in vitamins, will find their cure. It seems like such an easy solution to such a devastating illness-so why not give it a try. It doesn't hurt you to take a vitamin, but might really help. Your podcast gave me hope that this is still a possibility. Thank you.


Scott Ruffner

While Gary Becker certainly was an outsider (contrarian?), and revolutionized economics, his notion of humans as "Rational Econs" remains a silly conceit, as amply demonstrated by Freakonomics and another personal favorite: Dan Ariely, neither of which would be regarded as serious or legitimate if only Coase's view predominated. I'm not quite sure I'd put Becker on the same level of 'persecuted' as Barry Marshall or William Smith, but then Geology and Medicine are less subjective subjects.

Jen Y

Just a short comment on the "Winner" and "Loser" experiment- couldn't it be that having "Winner" as a name has a negative impact, and having "Loser" as a name actually has a positive impact?

i mean, i'd feel somewhat offended if someone just walks into the room and starts calling himself the winner.


doesn't seem like any of these folks were outsiders by design...

Paul Cruz

I've finally been able to get some free time to listen to this podcast. Another thoroughly enjoyable episode. Thank you! One side commet, as I'm listening AND coming on the heels of just watching to Frontline's "League of Denial", I'm wondering if it is going to take 30 years for the NFL to finally accept the current wave of research about the connection between football and chronic traumatic encephalopathy.

Jessie Henshaw

I have a problem with being ridiculed and dismissed, for a life's work as a scientist who found a very cool way to learn a lot about how natural systems are organized by observing their behaviors, so providing a second way of studying systems in addition to our studying the data and making up formulas. Having two scientific methods for studying the same thing, however, seems anathema to science.... making scientists speechless.

That resistance is so strong it unfortunately seems to expose the established culture of scientific as unable consider nature as behaving by itself, and unable to discuss natural phenomena except as examples of their theories. Demonstrating that science is functionally fixated on its theories is about as easy as demonstrating that two religions can't both be true. You can prove it all you want and it may not overturn any beliefs.

That functional fixation with our own beliefs is a strong candidate for why we humans have such a poor understanding of the future. Trusting our established ways of thinking, treating nature as following our mental rules of the past, we'll always be misled by the emerging systems of the future.

A practical method of for recognizing changing organization in nature helps overcome that, but I'm at a loss. Even after 35 years of demonstrating major results, solid scientific methods, answering quite important current questions... I hardly find anyone being inquisitive, and people preferring to imagine that nature works by *their* own theory, rather than by her own. http://synapse9.com/drafts/InterpretingBigData-draft.pdf

What matters is complex. Whether such marginalized innovations in science become socially accepted or not, even within the culture of science, is oddly then more important than whether someone taking an interest and finds they really work. Well established social myths can be completely false, only needing to fit the self-image of the social culture holding them, perhaps having close to nothing to do with being true in nature at all.



I'm with Dewin on that one.
Listened to this episode with my wife on a long ride home. Halfway through it, just as the third "outsider" figure was about to be revealed, we started chanting: "A woman! A woman, c'mon!"

No dice.

Since the happy ending for two of these "outsiders by design" seemed to be the Nobel Prize, here's my idea for a story that would make a good follow-up. 860 people received the Nobel Prize so far. 46 of them were women. In a fair and ideal world, we'd be 384 women short of a 50/50 split. What's the "design" that makes for those "outsiders?" How much is this design costing the universities, the knowledge-based economies - and the women researchers themselves? Or are we (unbelievably) better off by having a 20:1 ratio like this in place?