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Why Good Ideas Take So Long To Take Hold: Sam Arbesman in<em> HBR</em>
Science | December 04, 2012

Why Good Ideas Take So Long To Take Hold: Sam Arbesman in HBR

Facts are changing all the time, says Samuel Arbesman. But just because we know that things change doesn't mean that we accept these changes right away. In fact, as he explains in a recent article in the Harvard Business Review, new ideas don't trickle into popular belief for quite some time. Why? "The short answer is we're intellectually stubborn," says Arbesman. Even things that seem obvious to us now were at one point highly-contested and went through a long and messy process before they were generally accepted as common knowledge.

"Usually, we're defensive in the face of change, spouting alternative theories and contradictory data," Arbesman writes in the article. "Although this type of resistance can help keep everyone honest, it can also produce very bad effects." He cites the example of Ignaz Semmelweis, a physician who proposed that doctors should wash their hands before they deliver babies. It wasn't until there was a mountain of evidence supporting his recommendation that doctors started to heed his advice. Semmelweis nearly drove himself insane by being ignored by his colleagues—despite having an idea that was beneficial to the health and safety of everyone.

"Clearly, science and business, and others fields of knowledge are not abstract ventures. They're human affairs, so they're prone to passions and biases," Arbesman explains. There is a lot at play in terms of why people are hesitant to accept new ideas, and it is difficult to pinpoint exactly why some theories take longer to take hold than others. Since empirical facts are constantly in flux, as Arbesman proposes in his popular book The Half-Life Of Facts, it is important to be open to accepting new things. In articles he has contributed to the New York Times and The Atlantic, he explains that navigating through a changing world requires an ability to embrace change. Changing facts aren't a bad thing, he explains. Rather, these changes make way for new knowledge and the ability to learn more about the world around us.
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