How A Contrarian Idea Gains Traction: The Incredible Story Of James Hutton

640px-Edinburgh_Castle_from_Portsburgh

It is 1785. A young man is hurrying on the streets of Edinburgh, a bit late for his work appointment. On his right-hand side, he has a magnificent view of Edinburgh Castle, perched high up on a rock.

He admires the view, but thinks nothing of how that rock atop which the Castle sits was created. As far as he is concerned, the Earth is 6 thousand years old. That is the common dogma of his age and not to be questioned.

Yet not far away, a slightly-built man close to entering his 6th decade of life, is working on a theory that contradicts all this “knowledge”. In time, it will change our whole understanding of this world and usher in a new era of science.

However in 1785, that new era is still far off.

The name of the slightly built old man is James Hutton. He was a polymath who tried his hand at many different things, but his life’s work was centered around rocks and geology. His passion was to go around and observe natural phenomenon, which led him to form some very original theories.

By 1785, he felt ready to share these theories with the world. Being a member of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, a gathering of some of the finest minds of the 18th century, provided him with a natural place to do this.

On the 7th of March of that year, his friend Joseph Black read out a part of the theory and on the 7th of April, Hutton himself presented his theory. This was followed by another presentation on the 4th of July.

What he presented was met by utter disbelief and turned into hostile criticism. He was accused of going against the established order of things, of being an atheist, of lacking logic.

Hutton decided to go back and try to find further evidence for his assertions and to better defend his thesis. For the next few years, he travelled around Scotland, examining different rock formations, trying to find further proof for his theories.

In 1795, equipped with numerous examples to illustrate his points, Hutton published a huge book on geology. It met with little success.

Two years later, Hutton died without having his theory gain wider acceptance. In fact, it seemed that his opponents had won the day and his ideas were on their way to obscurity.

Yet today they form the fundamental basis of our own understanding of how our planet evolved. How is that possible? How did ideas that were almost stamped out, succeed in gaining dominance? And how come Hutton himself wasn’t able to do it?

The above questions are key to unravelling the process through which contrarian ideas gain traction and eventually cause a paradigm shift.

The setting for the showdown

James Hutton’s key contribution to science was a new understanding of how the Earth was formed and which eventually led to determining how old it is.

During his time, the prevailing view was the Biblical interpretation of how the world was created. However, first chinks in the armor of that world view were starting to unravel.

In the 1760s, Joseph Black (the same Joseph Black who would later deliver the first lecture on behalf of Hutton in 1785) discovered carbon dioxide and proved that air was not made of one type of matter, but instead could be subdivided.

Geology too was slowly starting to come up with new theories. At the end of the 18th century (and well into the 19th century), the most popular theory on how the Earth was formed, was that of a German scientist, Abraham Gottlob Werner.

Werner proposed that all the rocks on Earth were formed due to the work of an ocean that in prehistory covered the entire globe. According to this theory, the first rocks crystallized under the ocean and as the ocean slowly receded, it shaped all the different rocks and minerals we find on Earth today.

This was the beginnings of a more scientific explanation of geology, as Werner observed the different strata of rocks and surmised that there must have been outside forces shaping them.

Even though he did not link this explanation to the Bible, the theory did not contradict the Biblical descriptions, and many of the religious authorities linked the ocean proposed by Werner to the ocean that covered the globe in Noah’s Flood.

To challenge all this and turn the dogmatic world-view on its head, stepped in James Hutton with his own theory. He proposed that the Earth was undergoing a continuing process of transformation, which was driven by different environmental processes, such as erosion, weathering or vulcanism.

For him, the main forces shaping the planet were underground heat and pressure, and not the Earth was older than previously thought.

What led to Hutton forming his ideas and what was instrumental in them gaining traction?

In order to analyze this, we need to be very careful in trying to avoid survivorship bias. By looking at all the different contributing factors, we can surmise which ones were the crucial ones.

His starting line

Hutton came from a family in good standing and had money. So this gave him an advantage over the vast majority of people from poorer conditions that did not have his opportunities. He was also lucky that the waters of dogmatism were beginning to be lifted and he was living in an era which would subsequently be known as the Scottish Enlightenment.

While these factors played a role, they were not the determining ones. Many other people fit into these categories as well, yet they didn’t meet success.

How was the idea born? Hutton started noticing patterns around him that caused him to start thinking about alternative explanations to how the world was formed.

Those patterns were out in the open for everyone to see though. People could see the different rock strata with their own eyes and at times fossils of water-borne creatures were found high up in the mountains. However these findings were usually taken to support Noah’s Flood.

What Hutton did was to take the same evidence that everyone else had access to, but reinterpret it in a different way.

He did have specialist knowledge. He studied medicine, which was the best place in those days to learn about chemistry, as well as other sciences. This distinguished him from the general masses and even much of the gentry, but there were still thousands of other guys who did this.

He had an interest in geology, but so did hundreds of others.

Looking at his starting line, it was not much different from that of thousands of other men of his generation and so he had no insider track to develop the ideas that he did. There must have been other factors that were crucial for this.

His strong points

1) Charisma

One thing that Hutton had and that had drawn many of the greatest Scottish thinkers towards associating with him, was his charisma. Jack Repcheck in his biography of Hutton “The Man Who Found Time” includes a telling description of the man:

He was a late bloomer who came of age during a watershed period of Scottish history. A jack-of-all-trades, Hutton tried being a lawyer, doctor, and farmer before finally finding his true calling as a scientist. Though he was the last of the great Edinburgh scholars to publish his seminal ideas, he commanded the respect of all the other participants in the Scottish Enlightenment. All who came in contact with him noted his animated personality, his energy, and his good cheer. People were simply drawn to him.

Charisma is an important characteristic for anyone who wants to build a network of contacts, as well as convince others of their ideas. If you are a charismatic person, other people are naturally drawn to you.

It seems that Hutton, even though he had his specific peculiarities, was a charismatic man that could inspire others. He used this trait in order to build lasting friendships with people like Joseph Black or John Playfair, which would prove crucial for spreading his ideas.

2) Love of learning

Hutton was a man who above all else was curious. He wanted to know how things worked and was always learning about new things, exploring and trying to find explanations for what he discovered. He was doing it not for the money, but for the knowledge itself. He was motivated intrinsically.

This is very important if you want to overcome different challenges on your journey. People who are primarily motivated by extrinsic factors like money, usually give up at the first sign of trouble or failure.

This type of intrinsic motivation is very important for drive and persistence. Hutton was very driven and persistent.

Hutton didn’t give up when he was met with ridicule. Instead, he just started working harder in order to find further evidence to support his claim.

3) Keen eye for detail

One thing that distinguished Hutton from others was his keen eye for detail. He noticed the little things that others missed.

This keen eye for detail manifested itself after 1754, when Hutton started to work on his own farm. This is where he used his power of observation to find out the different natural processes at work on his land.

Ironically, erosion, evident in so many parts of Scotland and the essential starting point for Hutton’s theory, is not very obvious in the region around Slighhouses. It is a testament to Hutton’s skills of observation that he properly assessed its power not by watching storm waves decimate the North Sea coast but by watching his soil wash away.” Jack Repcheck

Hutton was always observing and looking for better explanations:

Most of us look. The genius sees. Hutton noted when something wasn’t quite right, didn’t fit. Rather than dismiss such incongruities or explain them away, he investigated further. He asked questions. Why, for instance, was one layer of rocks, called Salisbury Crags, darker than others in the area? What were fish fossils doing on the summit of a mountain?” Eric Weiner

4) Eventually built a strong network of contacts

James Hutton lived in a period which has since been named the Scottish Enlightenment. He became a part of the inner circle and some of the major figures of that era like Joseph Black or John Playfair became his closest friends. So he managed to build a strong network of very smart, but also influential contacts.

5) Polymath (could bring in ideas and observations from different subjects and combine them)

One of the primary strengths of James Hutton was the fact that he was a polymath. He tried his hands at a variety of things and could bring in ideas and observations from different subjects (chemistry, farming, …etc.) and then combine them.

Hutton was a very practical man and could spend hours observing different phenomenon and thinking about them. He was also adept at first principles thinking by looking at something, going down to its first principles and then coming up with a new explanation or process.

For example he used his knowledge of chemistry to come up with a new process of making sal ammoniac, which is a mineral that is used in metalworking and was becoming more important as the industrial revolution was getting off the ground.

At the time, the only viable source of this mineral was Egypt. James Hutton and James Davie experimented with this mineral for a bit and came up with a new way to create it from coal soot.

Based on this process, Davie created a company to manufacture it and Hutton became a partner in it. Hutton had no involvement in the daily running of the company, but the fact of being a partner gave him a comfortable steady and automatic income.

Together with his family inheritance, this freed up Hutton from having to do a daily job and gave him a lot of spare time which he could use for more productive purposes.

So being a polymath and adept at first principles thinking, allowed him to create passive income, which then freed up his time. The free time then gave him the freedom to do whatever he wanted. This was instrumental in allowing Hutton to explore, experiment and come up with his theories.

Potential Obstacles

There were many potential obstacles that Hutton needed to overcome and which could have stopped him along the way.

One big problem showed itself up on the personal level. Hutton had problems with the fickle nature of women and often ended up heartbroken. This is how he described it in a letter to his friend:

O, if the ladies were but capable of loving us men with half the affection that I have toward the cows and calfies that happen to be under my nurture and admonition, what a happy world we should have!

For many guys, this is a huge problem that can often cause depression and lack of will. Hutton struggled with it, but at the end came to accept it and instead started focusing on his work.

This could also be tied to some of his weak points. Hutton was a bit of a loner and not good with words, so not very persuasive. This weakness in social skills was a key factor in his life.

Another potential obstacles manifested itself on the societal level. He was still living in a society where the religious factor was still very strong and most people looked at the world through a religious lens.

This state of affairs was one of the main obstacles for anyone trying to push through a radical reinterpretation of the world. Luckily, the times were changing and Hutton also lived at a time, when the religious establishment was losing its power and people were slowly adopting a more scientific outlook on life.

The X-Factor

If you want to win a war of ideas, there are two factors that you need to take into consideration. There are two processes at play: the process of coming up with the idea, and the process of spreading it.

Hutton was good at coming up with ideas, but bad at explaining them. If you want to convince people that you are right, you need to be able to explain your idea and convince others of its rightness. Then you need to promote it. This is where Hutton failed.

As Eric Weiner noted in his “Geography of Genius”, marketing is fundamental for success:

Talent alone was not enough. You also need marketing. Beethoven wouldn’t be known as a genius if he wasn’t good at marketing. Mozart had a built-in marketing machine with his father. The notion of the lone genius is a folktale, a story we like to tell ourselves.

If you don’t have the possibility to sell yourself, to be known, you won’t be a genius. You cannot just sit under a chestnut tree and write or paint or whatever. I know five painters who are real geniuses, but no one has discovered them. You can be as good as Rembrandt, but if no one discovers you, you will only be a genius in theory.

You might have the perfect solution, but if you don’t know how to market it, then you won’t get too much success.

Hutton’s ideas did not gain much traction during his lifetime. He made speeches and wrote a book to explain them, but the arguments were not very clear and the book was very long and written in a very obscure and hard to read way.

This stands in stark contrast to the ideas of Hutton’s main competitor in the scientific explanation of the world, Abraham Gottlob Werner.

During Hutton’s life and later, Werner’s ideas were very popular. This is because, as opposed to Hutton, Werner was a good marketer. He explained his ideas well and had the ability to inflict passion about his explanation in the people who were listening to his speeches. In that way, he trained thousands of students who were dedicated to his ideas and who helped spread them.

When Hutton died, it seemed that his theory on how the world works would soon die a very quick death after him, and that Werner’s ideas would dominate.

However there was one residual thing that ended up tipping the scales in Hutton’s favor in later stages. While Hutton was bad in spreading his ideas to a wider audience, one of his advantages was that he had built a quite good network of influential thinkers, who became his friends.

One of these was John Playfair.

Malcolm Gladwell in his book “Tipping Point” described three types of people who are instrumental in an idea spreading and gaining popularity: mavens, connectors and salespeople.

Mavens are the guys who have the ideas, connectors are the guys who have the wide social network and connections, while salespeople are the ones who sell the idea.

James Hutton was the maven. He came up with the idea of how the Earth was formed and of deep time. He associated with other mavens of the Scottish Enlightenment, some of which knew others and so through these connectors he managed to meet many influential people. So he had the maven and connector part down.

He just didn’t have the salespeople to market his ideas, since he couldn’t do it himself. However luck would have it, that one of the influential people that he had met, John Playfair, would turn into a salesperson of Hutton’s ideas after Hutton died.

The thing is that while Hutton did not have the necessary skills to promote his idea well, he did build up all the right circumstances and set them in place in order for serendipity and luck to play its part.

If you manage to reach the connectors, there is a greater chance that a marketer will find you. In Hutton’s case, one of his connections turned into a marketer.

After Hutton’s death, John Playfair saw that the idea of his friend was quickly dying. Playfair decided to revive it and turned into an evangelist for his dead friend’s theory.

He saw that the book that Hutton left was very hard to read, so he decided to write an easy to read book to explain Hutton’s ideas. The result was a book called “Illustrations of the Huttonian Theory of the Earth”, which came out in 1802.

This was the first shot in the battle to popularize Hutton’s ideas. At Playfair’s funeral, one of his nephews summarized how powerful this book was:

With what success “Illustrations” was attended we may judge from the fame and credit which have been attained by the theory, which, but for its commentary, seemed likely to be known only through the erroneous statement of its opponents.

This book was also the instrument through which Charles Lyell, one of the most prominent geologists of the 19th century, learned about Hutton’s ideas. After reading the book, he became a convert to deep time and the idea that the Earth is still being shaped by the same natural forces that shaped it in prehistory. And through Lyell these ideas got to Charles Darwin, who then used them as a basis for his theory of evolution.

Going back to the comparison between Hutton and Werner, Werner was a popularizer who had a gift for enthralling many different people towards his view, while Hutton was more personal and instead only had a limited number of very good friends who however became dedicated to his ideas.

Luckily these good friends were very influential and later would play an instrumental role in spreading his ideas and enthralling others for them. Playfair was able to step into the role of a popularizer when he wrote his illustrated book on Hutton’s theory, but the the biggest and most influential popularizer was Lyell, a man who learned of the idea from reading Playfair’s book.

How an idea gains traction

In order for your idea to gain traction, you need to do several things:

1) Prove that the idea works

Hutton spent a lot of time brooding his ideas over, observing rock formation and natural phenomenon and trying to find explanations for them. He came with up a credible theory on why the landscape around us looks the way it does.

In 1785, he felt that he had an idea that worked well enough and decided to share it with the world.

2) Then you need to prove that the idea works better than the alternative

However those initials presentations did not convince the listeners. So Hutton decided to go back into the field and try to find evidence for his thesis. He went out and found different rock formations which could not be explained by other theories and which proved that his theory was the superior one.

However these two steps are not always enough and can be ignored by the masses if the competing idea has better marketing.

3) Explain the idea in a simpler way, so as for it to be understandable for the masses

If you want your idea to succeed in the competitive marketplace of ideas, you need to be able to explain it in a simple way. This is key and something that Hutton failed at.

Playfair was the one who presented Hutton’s ideas in a more understandeable and popular way.

4) Link up with potential influencers

Throughout this entire process, you will need to network and hook yourself up with potential influencers. Hutton did this and it proved crucial later on. He was good friends with some of Scottland’s greatest thinkers. Some of them would keep on promoting his ideas even after his death.

If he had been some loner working in a shed, the idea would have most likely been buried. This way it was out in the open, for anyone to take up…

5) Market the idea

Hutton was not good at marketing his ideas, while his chief competitor Werner was. However, the fact that Hutton’s explanations won out in the end, was that guys liked Playfair picked it up and made the message more sexy.

The 5 steps above very well illustrate at which stages you absolutely need the mavens, connectors and salespeople that Malcolm Gladwell mentions in “Tipping Point”. Hutton was a maven, the guy who had the information.

On his journey he met other mavens, some of which proved to be connectors and introduced him to other people. In this way, Hutton build a good network of friends and contacts.

This network would serve him even after his death, as one of the fellow mavens, John Playfair, also became one of the primary salesmen of Hutton’s ideas.

This is the basic process through which contrarian ideas gain traction.

Hutton’s ideas ended up totally redefining the known world. And come to think of it, if it weren’t for a few lucky circumstances, they could have ended up collecting dust.

James Hutton burst the boundaries of time, thereby establishing geology’s most distinctive and transforming contribution to human thought–Deep Time.” Stephen Jay Gould

Luckily Hutton succeeded in spreading his idea to the people who knew people and so the idea was out there. Once an idea is disseminated enough, then potential marketers can manage to find it.

Hutton created the conditions for his idea, but did not take it far enough (no marketing). However he set everything up well and then it was just a matter of a little luck. This luck came.

He had dedicated friends who continued to work in order to prove his assertions. Guys like James Hall and John Playfair worked hard on finding more proof, further disseminating the work and coming up with simpler explanations for it. This ensured that the battle against the religious order and against the Wernerians was won.

His work turned upside down all the notions of how the world evolved and built the building blocks that redefined the way that man sees his place in this universe. It created a major paradigm shift in science.

Paradigm Shifts

Paradigm shifts are a term that comes out of a book by Thomas Kuhn called “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”. This is basically a fundamental change in the way the world is viewed and things are done in a scientific discipline.

What Hutton did was to start the entire process of paradigm change in geology, which culminated many years after his death in a paradigm shift. This is the preponderant paradigm in geology today.

Over time, the concept of a paradigm shift has been applied to many things that imply a fundamental change in the way things are done. For example, the advent of smartphones brought on a whole set of paradigm shifts.

Today’s world seems to be a world of constant paradigm shifts. That’s a blessing and a curse in one. A curse in the fact that the rules keep on constantly changing and people often end up confused. A blessing in the fact that now it is much easier to ride the wave of paradigm shifts right up to the top.

People who adopt an agile way of living will have a much greater chance of success.

Paradigm shifts can occur on the normal everyday level now much more often that they did in the past. You can take advantage of this and get your ideas across and maybe cause a shift of your own.

This is all related to the idea of tipping points, the make or break points which cause an idea to go viral. Whether you have an Earth-shattering theory or a little product that you want to dissemeniate, the underlying basics are the same.

You need to create the conditions necessary for the tipping point to be able to take place. You can learn many valuable lessons from the way Hutton did it.

The general principles include that your idea needs to be explained in simple terms, you need to reach out to the connectors, people who can disseminate your ideas to wider networks of people, and then you need to engage in some effective marketing of your idea. The main lesson here is that without good salesmanship, even a superior product can falter.

This is due to the way people think and the biases they have. Most people are not very logical and you need to engage them on an emotional level as well, if you want to convince them.

Do you have an idea that you think is potentially world-changing?

Action plan for getting your idea through:

1) Come up with a Vision

You should always have a Vision to guide you where you are going. As part of the vision, identify potential obstacles that you might face and maybe some ways to rectify them. Also be agile, don’t be too rigid in sticking to things, but change up your approach or goals when you see that the current process isn’t working or you identify a new opportunity.

2) Work on social skills

If you want to build strong networks and convince people, then you need to work on your social skills. This applies especially if you are an introvert. Work on your storytelling, your humor, and your overall persuasion skills. This will be the key to your success in the next step.

3) Market your idea

Marketing your idea is essential. Don’t forget that.

 
Read More:
Article on survivorship bias

Article on contrarian thinking

 

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