Harmless Lunatic

A person whose interpretation of a problem is radically different from the received view, and who therefore lives in a storm of ridicule and contempt before turning out to be right.

Oh, all right—not all harmless lunatics do turn out to be right, not all lunatics turn out to be harmless, and not all harmless people are lunatics, but the record of dissidents in thinking afresh about problems, and developing solutions despite expert scorn, is impressive. In the cooler language of the research monograph, summarising its results,

Local-level institutions learn and develop the capability to respond to environmental feedbacks faster than do centralised agencies.H1

Lean Logic was introduced to harmless lunatics by the historian Joan Thirsk, describing the local wisdom and inventive contributions made by farmers at times of agricultural change.H2 They exist at sea too. Among the different varieties of fishermen earning a living from catching cod in the North Atlantic were some who worked on a small scale. Most of the cod were caught by large, refrigerated trawlers that spent weeks at sea, were able to fish through pack ice, used the most advanced equipment to locate the cod and to handle smaller-sized fish, and were owned by companies with boards of directors and pension schemes. The inshore fishermen, by contrast, used small boats with crews of self-employed labour, and they were out and back in a couple of days or less. They couldn’t afford the high-tech equipment, but they didn’t need to because the skipper knew what he was about. He had probably learned it from his father.H3

Starting in the 1970s, the inshore fishermen noticed that something odd was happening; the migration patterns and numbers of cod were changing, and both the ages of the fish caught and the size of inshore catches were falling. They reported on this to the Canadian authorities, but their concerns were dismissed as anecdotal. Eventually, they themselves commissioned a report which was published in 1986, showing that the estimates prepared by the official body (Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans) were overstating stocks by up to three times the reality. This led in due course to two official reports being commissioned, one of which, published in 1990, led to action. But by that time, the cod was poised for collapse. A moratorium—simply a recognition that the cod had gone—was imposed in 1993.

Why were the officials so reluctant to take any notice of the local knowledge of the inshore fishermen? The study that was commissioned after the event pointed to three errors in the science on which the officials relied:

• They treated the entire stock as a single unit, whereas it actually comprised distinct populations with different patterns of migration.

• They measured the survival of cod of different ages as an average of wide fluctuations, whereas it is the fluctuations themselves that supply the needed data—the averaging-out wipes the model clean of the useful information.

• They relied on measurements taken over a short period, which proved to be untypical.

But the politics were significant, too:

• Perhaps the scientists did know what was happening, but were not allowed to say anything because it would have meant problems for the management.

• The responsible authority was a bureaucracy, and bureaucracies are naturally defensive.

• The task of fisheries management calls for the skill of working alongside independent-minded people like inshore fishing communities, and there is no recognised discipline for doing this.

• Scientists’ communications with policy-makers tend to be poor in any case, with the scientists feeling under pressure to moderate bad news in order to avoid being frozen out: the theory is that it is better (when a sharp warning is needed) to be heard merely sounding a note of caution than not be heard at all.H4

But whatever the reason, the lifetime wisdom of the informal, inshore fishermen was dismissed until too late. Life-saving information tends to come in local dialects.

The difficulties faced by dissident views in the face of established scientific orthodoxy were described by Thomas Kuhn in 1962. Science, he argued, is developed in consistent frameworks within which there is a high degree of consensus; the problem is that discussion within those frameworks is, at least in part, circular and mutually-reinforcing. Dissidence is rejected; in a sense it is inaudible. Sometimes something happens: new ideas break through and become established, causing a paradigm shift, but until that breakthrough happens, the dissidents have to cope with ridicule, stalled careers, even death threats, especially if they are whistle-blowers whose work has implications for an established industry.H5

But being in the minority doesn’t make you wrong—as the Russian thinker Alexander Herzen (1812–1870) observes:

Is a man less right merely because no one agrees with him? Does the mind stand in need of any other warrant than that of the mind? And how can universal insanity refute personal conviction?H6

The small-scale local detail of an ecosystem responding to a particular mix of species, soil, ocean currents, climate and management is below the horizon of the scientific model. The implication is not that, one day, models will be made big enough to take account of all the anomalies, but that local detailed observation is intrinsically different from the data supplied by a model. By the time a person has observed a particular (but apparently insignificant) pattern, lived in the place long enough to think about it, and learned enough from local traditions to make his own original contribution, he is getting close to an accurate and sufficient interpretation. It is extreme observation that matters. But, from the point of view of the scientific model and the coordinated policy, all the local observer of detail has to offer is anecdote.

We are living at present under a paradigm of paradigms—the presumption that, should one paradigm be eventually defeated, another will take its place. In the future, that metaparadigm will make way for the appreciation of a different kind of understanding: when it has had its day, ordinary knowledge will take its place, in all modesty, in long observation of local detail and local experience. Here is the sustained reflection of the harmless lunatic, walking in the garden in the cool of the evening, engaged, self-reliant, peculiar to the place, alert.

 

Related entries:

Sunk Cost Fallacy.

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David Fleming
Dr David Fleming (2 January 1940 – 29 November 2010) was an economist, historian and writer, based in London. He was among the first to reveal the possibility of peak oil's approach and invented the influential TEQs scheme, designed to address this and climate change. He was also a significant figure in the development of the UK Green Party, the Transition Towns movement and the New Economics Foundation, as well as a Chairman of the Soil Association. His wide-ranging independent analysis culminated in two critically acclaimed books, Lean Logic and Surviving the Future. A film about his perspective and legacy - The Sequel: What Will Follow Our Troubled Civilisation? - was released in 2019, directed by BAFTA-winning director Peter Armstrong. For more information, including on Lean Logic, click the little globe below!

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