Stumbling Over Truth

Michael Metzger

Tripping gracefully
Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) supposedly started a riot when he discovered that, contrary to what the church taught and everyone believed, the earth revolves around the sun. The Copernican Revolution helped “science suddenly burst forth when a weakened Christianity could no longer prevent it.”1 This makes for a great story except for one niggling detail. It didn’t happen that way. Huh? Don’t worry. Stumbling over truth can be fun, Horace Walpole said—but only if you know what to do after losing your footing.

Sir Horace Walpole (1717-1797) was an English playwright who, in 1754, received a portrait of the second wife of Duke Francesco de Medici from his friend Horace Mann. In planning a frame for the portrait, Walpole accidentally stumbled upon an old Venetian coat of arms with a fleur-de-lis added to a blue ball denoting a forgotten alliance by marriage between two great Italian families, the Medicis and Capellos. This unexpected discovery moved Walpole to express his delight with a new word.

“This discovery, indeed, is almost of that kind which I call Serendipity.” From where did Walpole draw this word? “I once read a silly fairy tale, called ‘The Three Princes of Serendip’… as their Highnesses travelled, they were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of …”2 Walpole said a wealth of wisdom is available to those who are ready to see the unforeseen. Serendipity became the faculty of making happy and unexpected discoveries by accident.

This added a bit of lilt, or bounce, to the enterprise of learning. Yet sadly, serendipity is in shrinking supply today. Think about how we do research. I can remember trudging to the campus library and having to read an entire book to follow the argument and find the best quote. In so doing however I was occasionally accosted by an argument I didn’t necessarily agree with. Today you can skip the library and google a word or simply turn to Amazon.com’s “Search Inside the Book” to find a quote. But the satisfaction of finding “just what you’re looking for” hides from you the simple fact that you have not found anything you weren’t looking for, says Wheaton College professor Alan Jacobs.3

Serendipity’s sunset means fewer accidental stumbles over new ideas and higher rates of “availability bias.” In 2002 Daniel Kahneman and the late Amos Tversky were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their work on “availability bias.” This is the human tendency to judge the validity of an idea by how easily or naturally it fits with preconceived notions.4 Let’s say you imagine that all religions essentially say the same thing and it is intolerant to judge between them. Serendipity is willing to trip over new truths while availability bias will kick out anything disturbing. This would be a great loss, says Evan Williams.

Evan Williams is one of Silicon Valley’s most successful innovators. In the late 1990s his team set out to build a complex software tool to let people collaborate. The project flopped but the group accidentally stumbled on a product—a simple diary they used during development to keep in touch. The software tool was tossed but Williams morphed the diary into the first web service that let people create a blog in a few clicks (called Blogger). Google bought it in 2003.5 From this experience, Williams believes that genuinely new ideas are more often accidentally stumbled upon than sought out.

Michael Sveda and Roy Plunkett would agree. In 1937, while doing lab work for his doctorate at the University of Illinois, Sveda brushed his lips without having washed his hands and found that his fingers tasted sweet. He stumbled upon artificial sweeteners. As a researcher for DuPont in 1938, Dr. Roy Plunkett was looking to find a better refrigeration gas. He left a batch of gas in a container overnight, and on returning the next day, the gas had become a waxy solid. He stumbled upon Teflon. Serendipity.

After Blogger, Evan Williams launched a website called Twitter that experts initially rejected as hare-brained and frivolous. By 2007 it had become the third “next big thing” in Silicon Valley—after the iPhone and Facebook. Through these two experiences, Williams has serendipitously learned two more lessons: “that new ideas are by definition hard to explain to others, because words can express only what is already known.”6 Yes indeed. This is why Albert Einstein and C. S. Lewis painted pictures to express new ideas. Williams has also learned that “good ideas seem obvious in retrospect.”7 True again. So he’s developed Obvious, a website trying to make accidents a regular occurrence—like accidentally stumbling upon the myth of Copernicus.

Winston Churchill once observed that men occasionally stumble over the truth, but most of them pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing ever happened. The most important step after stumbling is seeing whether you found anything you weren’t looking for. For example, most educated people of Copernicus’s time, including Roman Catholic prelates, said the earth was round. The Venerable Bede (ca. 673-735) taught that the world was round, as did Bishop Virgilius of Salzburg (ca. 720-784), Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), and Thomas Aquinas (ca. 1224-1274).8 If this trips you up, maybe you should put a little spring, or serendipity, in your step.

________________
1 Rodney Stark, For The Glory of God: How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Science, Witch-Hunts, and the End of Slavery, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003), p. 135.
2 As given by W.S. Lewis, ed., Horace Walpole’s Correspondence, Yale edition, in the book by Theodore G. Remer, ed.: Serendipity and the Three Princes, from the Peregrinaggio of 1557, Edited, with an Introduction and Notes, by Theodore G. Remer, Preface by W.S. Lewis (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1965). LCC 65-10112
3 Alan Jacobs, “Serendipity: In Praise of Accidental Sagacity,” Books and Culture, April 2, 2007.
4 Holman Jenkins, Jr., “The Science of Gore’s Nobel,” The Wall Street Journal, December 5, 2007.
5 “Evan Williams: “The Accidental Innovator,” The Economist, December 2, 2007, p. 110.
6 Williams, “Accidental”
7 Williams, “Accidental”
8 Stark, p. 122.

ClaphamInstitutePodcast
PODCAST

The Morning Mike Check

Don't miss out on the latest podcast episode! Be sure to subscribe in your favorite podcast platform to stay up to date on the latest from Clapham Institute.

5 thoughts on “Stumbling Over Truth”

  1. Mike,

    This is a compelling article. Ironically, the concept of serendipity and its impact on our world fits well within my preconceived notions of reality. I guess that I, too, am subject to availability bias.

    Have you read Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s book, The Black Swan? In this book published last year, the author makes a strong case for the viewpoint that the most significant events in our world (discoveries, the birth/growth of major religions, wars, inventions, political/economic turmoil etc.) do NOT evolve in a regular, predictable manner. In other words, they are serendipitous – though for bad, as well as good. This idea has tremendous impact on how we see our world and, indeed, how we live. I have been mulling the idea off and on since I read the book last summer, seeing some parallels in my Christian worldview and some sticking points, as well.

  2. As usual, this is a very insightful post, Mike, and helps add dimension and clarification for me to your previous posts on “worldviews” and “frames” – that if the facts don’t fit in our frames, the facts bounce off and the frames remain. Leaving room for Serendipity, and inviting the culture to do the same… now that’s a concept that is both important and non-threatening to a culture whose “frame” says that all religions are basically the same! We can encourage the culture to keep learning… you never know what you might stumble upon by “accident.” Thanks, as always, for your insight.

  3. Excellent piece! It brought to mind Darwinists that continue to stumble over evidence of design in living things, but most of them pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing ever happened.

    Lately, there has been a whole of of stumbling going on.

    Dave Eaton
    Deephaven, MN

  4. Really enjoyed this piece. I love serendipity myself and hope I can meander through life finding interesting and often unsought thoughts, like this, that bring a smile to my face (oh that they would also bring cash to my pocketbook!).

    That is why I love reading my mothers’ old books on subjects I would never select for myself. At this time I am trying to browse her 1881-first edition of Georg Ebers, The Emperor, an historical fiction on the life of the Emperor Hadrian while he was in Alexandria, Egypt. Who knows what thoughts they had in those days!
    Always – April, Pagosa Springs, CO

  5. Excellent piece! It brought to mind Darwinists that continue to stumble over evidence of design in living things, but most of them pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing ever happened.

    That cuts both ways, Eaton. I could say exactly the same thing about Young Earth Creationists, with or without their coat of “Intelligent Design” camouflage paint.

    Intelligent Design used to mean “Natural Theology”, the idea that science is discovering God’s creation — “Thinking God’s Thoughts after Him”, more a philosophical underpinning of Western science than science itself.

    However, today we have Intelligent Design (nudge nudge wink wink know what I mean know what I mean), aka Young Earth Creationism with a new coat of paint. So a centuries-old intellectual tradition becomes nothing more than a weapon to ram YEC down everybody’s throats.

Leave a Reply to Ken Cancel Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *