Outsiders by Design (Ep. 179)

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(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:

Ali Simonson

What was society like at the time Freakonomics was published? If it's any different, do you think your book has had an effect upon society?

Holland Wilson

What's the name of the outro song?