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The Willow-Bark Fallacy [and a challenge to readers]
In the history of discovery, most discoverers struggled to recognize their discovery. The value of Gregor Mendel’s famous pea experiments were only recognized decades after his death. Without the theory of evolution—or the concept of heredity or DNA—Mendel had little idea what, exactly, he had uncovered. When Galileo viewed Saturn’s rings (the first person to do so) he incorrectly guessed that they were moons.
In 1537, the French barber surgeon Ambroise Pare went to war against the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V. As a medic, he used oil and elderberry to cauterize and heal wounds from firearms. Once, he ran out of oil and used “a digestive made of egg yolk, oil of roses and turpentine” as a substitute. He discovered that those with the substitute treatment healed much faster and experienced less discomfort. What he didn’t realize was that thanks to his short supply of oil, he became one of the first physicians to implement a crucial component of the scientific method: the control group. Unfortunately, the value of a control group never occurred to him, and physicians would continue to kill people they could have saved for another few hundred years.
Historians are drawn to these near-misses. In his early teens, Blaise Pascal constructed the first mechanical calculator, ideal for a 17th century accountant, yet ignored for 250 years. The dice-throwing and gambling Greeks were wily mathematicians but never explored probability and statistics. Why?
On the road to discovery, we rarely know what we are about to discover—if we did, we would have already discovered it.
This brings me to Druin Burch’s Taking the Medicine*, from which I discovered the following anecdote and insight:
In 1757, an English clergyman named Edward Stone took a walk. For unknown reasons (even to Stone) he decided to taste the bark of a willow tree. It was bitter. But it reminded Stone of cinchona, which at the time was used to cure malaria. Stone subscribed to the ancient and erroneous maxim that “many natural maladies carry their cures along with them or that their remedies lie not far from their causes.” From this, he reasoned that “since malaria was very coming in the marshy places where willow grew” Burch writes, “it was likely that the tree would cure the disease.”
Stone collected the bark, waited a few months until it was dry and pounded it into a powder. He began treating patients who had malaria and discovered that the bark was an efficacious treatment. Given that cinchona was expensive (it had to be shipped from South America) this was good news. Stone wrote a letter to the Royal Society and his remedy was adapted around the country.
The problem was the dried willow bark didn’t cure malaria – it simply reduced fevers (it was later synthesized and is now the main ingredient in aspirin). As Burch points it, “Stone’s achievement was to note a real effect of the bark – its ability to bring down fevers – even though he mistook this for a guarantee of its helping provide a cure.” It gets worse. When the Napoleonic war broke out, importing cinchona became harder, which rose the demand for the bark. “Willow, which did not cure malaria, thus partly replaced cinchona, which did.”
So let us term this The Willow Bark Fallacy: improving something based on erroneous beliefs and falsely believing that you know what you’ve improved, which actually renders things worse off in the long run.
The Challenge: I challenge my readers to think of other examples (from as many domains as possible) of the W-B Fallacy. I’m eager to hear what you’ll come up with. You can post in the comments or email me directly
* The Pare also comes from Burch's book.
A Mercury-bound spacecraft's noisy flyby of our home planet.
- There is no sound in space, but if there was, this is what it might sound like passing by Earth.
- A spacecraft bound for Mercury recorded data while swinging around our planet, and that data was converted into sound.
- Yes, in space no one can hear you scream, but this is still some chill stuff.
First off, let's be clear what we mean by "hear" here. (Here, here!)
Sound, as we know it, requires air. What our ears capture is actually oscillating waves of fluctuating air pressure. Cilia, fibers in our ears, respond to these fluctuations by firing off corresponding clusters of tones at different pitches to our brains. This is what we perceive as sound.
All of which is to say, sound requires air, and space is notoriously void of that. So, in terms of human-perceivable sound, it's silent out there. Nonetheless, there can be cyclical events in space — such as oscillating values in streams of captured data — that can be mapped to pitches, and thus made audible.
Image source: European Space Agency
The European Space Agency's BepiColombo spacecraft took off from Kourou, French Guyana on October 20, 2019, on its way to Mercury. To reduce its speed for the proper trajectory to Mercury, BepiColombo executed a "gravity-assist flyby," slinging itself around the Earth before leaving home. Over the course of its 34-minute flyby, its two data recorders captured five data sets that Italy's National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF) enhanced and converted into sound waves.
Into and out of Earth's shadow
In April, BepiColombo began its closest approach to Earth, ranging from 256,393 kilometers (159,315 miles) to 129,488 kilometers (80,460 miles) away. The audio above starts as BepiColombo begins to sneak into the Earth's shadow facing away from the sun.
The data was captured by BepiColombo's Italian Spring Accelerometer (ISA) instrument. Says Carmelo Magnafico of the ISA team, "When the spacecraft enters the shadow and the force of the Sun disappears, we can hear a slight vibration. The solar panels, previously flexed by the Sun, then find a new balance. Upon exiting the shadow, we can hear the effect again."
In addition to making for some cool sounds, the phenomenon allowed the ISA team to confirm just how sensitive their instrument is. "This is an extraordinary situation," says Carmelo. "Since we started the cruise, we have only been in direct sunshine, so we did not have the possibility to check effectively whether our instrument is measuring the variations of the force of the sunlight."
When the craft arrives at Mercury, the ISA will be tasked with studying the planets gravity.
The second clip is derived from data captured by BepiColombo's MPO-MAG magnetometer, AKA MERMAG, as the craft traveled through Earth's magnetosphere, the area surrounding the planet that's determined by the its magnetic field.
BepiColombo eventually entered the hellish mangentosheath, the region battered by cosmic plasma from the sun before the craft passed into the relatively peaceful magentopause that marks the transition between the magnetosphere and Earth's own magnetic field.
MERMAG will map Mercury's magnetosphere, as well as the magnetic state of the planet's interior. As a secondary objective, it will assess the interaction of the solar wind, Mercury's magnetic field, and the planet, analyzing the dynamics of the magnetosphere and its interaction with Mercury.
Recording session over, BepiColombo is now slipping through space silently with its arrival at Mercury planned for 2025.
Erin Meyer explains the keeper test and how it can make or break a team.
- There are numerous strategies for building and maintaining a high-performing team, but unfortunately they are not plug-and-play. What works for some companies will not necessarily work for others. Erin Meyer, co-author of No Rules Rules: Netflix and the Culture of Reinvention, shares one alternative employed by one of the largest tech and media services companies in the world.
- Instead of the 'Rank and Yank' method once used by GE, Meyer explains how Netflix managers use the 'keeper test' to determine if employees are crucial pieces of the larger team and are worth fighting to keep.
- "An individual performance problem is a systemic problem that impacts the entire team," she says. This is a valuable lesson that could determine whether the team fails or whether an organization advances to the next level.