J. B. S. Haldane? Louis Agassiz? Apocryphal?
Dear Quote Investigator: The British geneticist J. B. S. Haldane stated that interesting new truths were resisted, and acceptance required traversal through a series of four stages. During the first stage the new fact or theory was rejected as nonsense. Are you familiar with Haldane’s quotation on this topic?
Quote Investigator: In 1963 J. B. S. Haldane reviewed a book filled with tables of statistics describing human longevity. The tables revealed that humans were living much longer than insurance companies were commonly calculating. Haldane thought that there was a financial incentive for companies selling life insurance to overestimate the probability of death when setting prices. He also thought that the new data would initially be rejected. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1
This will create a resistance. I suppose the process of acceptance will pass through the usual four stages:
1. This is worthless nonsense,
2. This is an interesting, but perverse, point of view,
3. This is true, but quite unimportant,
4. I always said so.
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
The notion that new truths must pass through a series of stages has a long history although the types of stages vary. The archaeologist William Boyd Dawkins presented a groundbreaking scientific paper in 1862 that mentioned three stages before acceptance. He credited the tripartite description to the prominent Swiss-American biologist Louis Agassiz: 2
And this startling result of the combination of geology with archaeology, so unexpected, and so completely subversive of our pre-conceived notions, having met with, during the last fifty years, two out of the three inevitable objections which, according to Professor Agassiz, all new and startling facts in science must encounter, first, “that it is not true,” and secondly, “that it is contrary to religion,” has now happily arrived at the stage in which people say “everyone knew it before.”
To learn more about the saying ascribed to Agassiz please visit this webpage.
In 1917 a New York based journal called “Safety Engineering” presented a different three stage sequence: 3
It has been said that any new idea must pass through three stages. First, it is ridiculed; second, it is subject to argument: third, it is accepted. The safety idea has reached the final stage. It is accepted.
(Great thanks to Wall Street Journal reporter Jason Zweig who inquired about quotations that outlined multiple stages in the acceptance of a new idea. QI hopes to create several articles on this topic. Zweig located the quotation by Haldane.)
- 1963 December, Journal of Genetics, Volume 58, Number 3, Section: Book Reviews, The Truth About Death by J.B.S. Haldane, (Book Review of “The Chester Beatty Research Institute Serially Abridged Life Tables, England and Wales, 1841-1960”), Start Page 463, Quote Page 464, Revived in 1985 and now published by Indian Academy of Sciences, Bangalore, India. (Indian Academy of Sciences Archive at www.ias.ac.in; accessed February 27, 2014) link ↩
- 1863, Somersetshire Archaeological and Natural History Society, Proceedings During the Years 1861-2, Volume 11, Part II, Papers, Etc., Wookey Hole Hyena Den by W. Boyd Dawkins, Start Page 197, Quote Page 198, Published by Frederick May, Taunton, England and Bell & Daldy, London, England. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1917 June, Safety Engineering, Volume 33, Number 6, The Accident Prevention Problem in the Small Shop by Earl B. Morgan (Safety Engineer, Norton Company, Worcester Massachusetts), A paper read before the New Haven Safety Council, New Haven, Connecticut, Start Page 363, Quote Page 366, The Safety Press Inc., New York. (Google Books Full View) link ↩