December 18, 2013, by Kelly Cookson
A Christmas message: Bacon and turkey not necessarily a recipe for continuing success
We are all familiar with the terms “hiding in plain sight” and “can’t see the wood for the trees”. Depending on one’s viewpoint, it is either fitting or unfortunate that both have become such tired tropes, because they are rather useful in discussing the merits of original thought.
It was Francis Bacon (1561 – 1626) who remarked that “noble inventions may be lying at our very feet, and yet mankind may step over without seeing them”. To address this problem he proposed a technique to facilitate new discoveries – the “fixed and directed application of reason and industry”. Bacon argued that we should proceed gradually and without interruption, advancing step by step rather than in leaps and bounds.
Proceed with weights to remain grounded in reason
At the heart of this methodology was the notion that our intellect should be constrained to prevent it from jumping and flying away. Bacon (who, mark you, wrote in Latin because he cherished its precision) expressed the idea as “Itaque hominum intellectui non plumae addendae, sed plumbum potius et pondera” – which, roughly translated, urges us to proceed not with wings but with weights to ensure we remain grounded in reason.
But Bacon himself stepped over – or even around – a treasure without spotting it. For history is dotted with great inventions that are the fruit of the very flights of fancy that he counsels against. It is indeed dangerous to jump to conclusions but sometimes it is leaps of imagination that bring about the greatest insights.
Past performance is no guarantee of the future
Bacon is credited with establishing the inductive method of scientific inquiry. A neat parable, developed over the last hundred years by various luminaries from Bertrand Russell to Nassim Taleb, illustrates the limitations of inductive reasoning:
Imagine a fine and intelligent representative of our domestic poultry, able to predict its future using strict empirical observations. A wise old bird, this particular fowl would take Bacon-like pains to check his data. Every morning when the sun rose, he was fed and watered and allowed out to play; every evening, as the sun went down, he went to roost happy, healthy and heavier than the day before.
Then one day, around this time of year, just before Christmas, the sun rose as usual – and you can guess the rest… As Bertrand Russell pointed out “More refined views as to the uniformity of nature would have been useful” Past performance is no guarantee of the future. That’s what you get for not using your wings; and thus we see that unshakable faith in what has gone before – in others words, unoriginal thought – sometimes invites a stuffing.
Invention that is more than the sum of its parts
Cybernetician and computer scientist Valentin Turchin, author of The Phenomenon of Science, christened some of the innovations that defy the Baconian approach “metasystem transitions”. He cited as a Stone Age example a flint-tipped spear – a composite system made from two subsystems, a stone tool and a wooden pole, both of which already were successfully functioning independent entities.
There are numerous such instances of an invention that is more than the sum of its parts. All the elements of Bacon’s chosen example, the printing press – fine metal casting, the screw press, paper, ink – existed before Gutenberg combined them in a way never before imagined. A more modern example is wireless telegraphy – all the constituent parts of Marconi’s ‘magic box’ had been conceived by others; his talent was to combine them to unprecedented effect. Spotify is similar – no fundamentally new discoveries, just an original way of putting them together.
Interestingly, following a long struggle by its proponents, it has finally been accepted that something similar can happen in the sphere of biology. Darwin quoted the aphorism “Natura non facit saltum” – “Nature doesn’t jump” – in On the Origin of Species, but we now think that in some cases it does; by making new combinations. As biologist Lynn Margulis wrote of endosymbiotic theory in 2001: “Life did not take over the globe by combat but by networking.”
Taking notice of momentous discoveries
The trouble is that we can be too easily constrained by our own preconceptions and the environments to which we are accustomed.
Delivering a lecture in 1895, physicist and philosopher Ernst Mach underlined this tendency in reflecting upon the nature of momentous discoveries: “Unquestionably,” he said, “many were seen numbers of times before they were noticed.” In short, we see what we expect to see – which brings us back to hiding in plain sight, the wood and the trees.
George Orwell attacked the corrosive influence of cliché in his Politics and the English Language, suggesting that it required an “effort of the mind” to cut out “stale or mixed images, all prefabricated phrases, needless repetitions and humbug and vagueness generally”. We ought to adopt the same approach to our thinking and our problem-solving endeavours.
After all, although setting our intellect free, casting off the weights and taking flight does lead to a lot of accidental stumbling around, that is where we will stub our toes on the next big thing. We can afford to do it; we have enough time to do it. We need to do it, but we need to be bold enough. It may sound obvious to say that it is only by resisting the lazy attraction of rehashing the old that we can sincerely encourage the genuinely new, but it is surprising how easily and quickly we forget as much – not to mention how tempting it is to do so.
(Several very bad puns attempted to infiltrate this article. Sage advice prevailed and many of the worst were foiled: no words or phrases were irreparably damaged and all have now been returned to the wild.)
Article written by Paul Kirkham and Neil Robinson.
Paul Kirkham is a researcher in the field of entrepreneurial creativity with Nottingham University Business School and co-deviser of the problem-solving process taught to students at its Haydn Green Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship.
Neil Robinson is managing editor of Bulletin Academic, a specialist communications consultancy that works with universities to help enhance the impact of their research. He was a journalist for more than 20 years.