- Thomas Thurston
Doing it impossible-style
Impossible. Some use this word to describe things that can’t happen, ever.
After their landmark flight at Kitty Hawk in 1903, Wilber and Orville Wright continued to fly around Ohio for a year as they tested and refined their Flyer. Before long they were flying several miles at a time. Imagine tens of thousands of people trekking out to Dayton that year to behold and applaud the innovation. Imagine droves of reporters, marching bands, academics, engineers and even President Roosevelt himself coming out to stand in awe of the achievement.
That didn’t happen. Yes, the Wright brothers flew. No, nobody believed them.
Repeated attempts to contact the government (the Wright Brothers thought flight could be helpful in war) were ignored. When the War Department finally bothered to write back, it ridiculed the brothers for their absurd claims. Nobody credible would come to their demos and Scientific American called them “The Lying Brothers.” They were even called “crazies” by their local newspaper, that could have cleared up the whole mess if they’d bothered to take a 5 minute drive down to the airfield.
So, the Wright brothers packed up and moved to Europe where they hoped for a better reception. No luck. The Europeans were even more skeptical, not just because the brothers claimed to have solved powered flight, but because they were also “Americans.” It wasn’t until years later that the US War Department put out an ad looking for flying machine proposals, if anyone could do it. The Wright brothers had the only credible bid and the rest, eventually, became “history.”
Imagine how the Wright brothers must have felt those early years. They were being publicly laughed at, called liars and viciously disrespected by every manner of authority because what they claimed was “impossible.” Meanwhile they were… uh… doing it.
Around the same time as the Wright brothers, American junior officer William S. Sims figured out how to dramatically improve the aim of Naval artillery guns. You’d think, in war, every advantage would be embraced. Yet despite reams of proof, endless appeals and passionate advocacy, Sims was ignored. When Washington finally bothered to write back, he was told his “continuous-aim firing” was impossible. Meanwhile he was… uh… doing it.
Sims didn’t give up, which led Washington to start attacking his character. He was insulted, discredited and accused of falsifying evidence. It wasn’t until he wrote a hail-Mary letter to President Roosevelt himself (who coincidentally liked letters of this sort) when Sims was made Inspector of Target Practice and improved the Navy’s aim.
More recently, most of us know the “Moneyball” story by Michael Lewis. Oakland Athletics Manager Billy Beane started using statistical models to recruit and coach, resulting in incredible results-per-dollar-spent and a significant shift in how professional baseball is now understood. At first Beane was made fun of and accused of being a fool. Then, as he began accumulating wins, rather than being swayed his harshest critics grew even more furious. Some still aren’t convinced, but most are starting to see the light.
Most of us also know the story of Nate Silver, who used statistical models to correctly predict the winner of the US presidential election in 49 out of 50 States as well as the winner of all 35 US Senate races. Despite Silver’s quantified track record and the transparency of his models, anyone with a TV this past November can probably recall the ferociousness with which he and his methods were attacked by those who didn’t like what the models were saying.
In each story, as in countless others, truth doesn’t always walk an easy road. Being “right” is necessary but, sadly, too often insufficient to change some people’s minds. As Arthur Schopenhauer said “all truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.” There will always be those who, with good intentions or bad, stand in the way of progress. Some are quick to shout “impossible.” Meanwhile others are simply… doing it.