Monday, August 30, 2010

Crackpots and Free Thinkers

What determines whether an person with unusual ideas is a crackpot or a free thinker? Perhaps that crackpot with the odd, repugnant ideas about making our lives go better is really a free thinker? Maybe your admirable free-thinking friend is really a crackpot? May you yourself are a crackpot or free thinker. The question is: how to know? And: is it even possible to know?—or perhaps the difference is necessarily subjective, as some claim is the distinction between normal and abnormal. Taking a clue from E. F. Schumacher and his idea of convergent and divergent problems, I propose that there is an objective answer to this question.

From the Wikipedia article :

Convergent problems are ones in which attempted solutions gradually converge on one solution or answer. An example of this has been the development of the bicycle. Early attempts at developing man powered vehicle included three and four wheelers; and involved wheels of different sizes. Modern bicycles look much the same nowadays.

Divergent problems are ones which do not converge on a single solution. A classic example he provides is that of education. Is discipline or freedom the best way to teach? Education researchers have debated this issue for thousand of years without converging on a solution.

Bicycle makers continue to make all sorts of changes to bicycles. With road bicycles during the last decade, the compact frame with the sloping top tube and the rear-wheel cutout in the seat tube have become popular. However, the overall geometry of the bicycle has remained the same for about one hundred years: that of a diamond shape formed by two triangles. With rare exception, changes in bicycle design continue to focus on optimizations to this core, convergent principle.

Whereas, in education, it's difficult to get many people to agree on even first principles. Changes to education just as often entail wholesale reform as they do optimizations. Homeschooling is one example of a recently popularized reform in education, one that enables its participants to make all sorts of radical (and non-radical) changes to the education process.

So, what does the distinction between convergent and divergent problems have to do with crackpots and free thinkers? I propose that a free thinker is a person who maintains an odd, minority opinion about a divergent problem, whereas a crackpot is a person who maintains an odd, minority opinion about a convergent problem. To continue the example: a person who insists on homeschooling children is a free thinker; a person who insists that the penny-farthing is the best bicycle design is a crackpot. In the former case, historical evidence is impartial to what the person insists (though people of different opinion will often insist that historical evidence backs up their position and not the others'); in the latter case, historical evidence is partial: penny-farthings are dangerous and less practical.

Does this make your friend with the odd ideas a crackpot or a free thinker? Is your friend dealing in the realm of convergence or divergence? Now you know whether to be dismissive or admiring appropriately.

Except, of course, being a crackpot doesn't mean one is wrong. (And being a free thinker doesn't mean one isn't wrong.) A lot of human technological progress is achieved by both crackpots and free thinkers alike. For example, in Europe during the Middle Ages, using oxen as draft animals for farming was a convergent solution. Though horses can pull with the same force at twice the speed and are thus superior farm animals for plowing, it wasn't until a crackpot invented a non-choking harness that horses became viable farm animals.

Rigidly defining crackpots and free thinkers may very well be just that: playing with semantics. However, this post invites some introspection on our parts: what are some convergent problems in which you disagree with the majority, consensus opinion?

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