When I was running a Kung Fu school, I ran a number of promotions to get people to sign up for classes. Among them were programs where people could get their first three months of classes free if they bought their uniform. I also got to know some of my students personally, and we would discuss the things they were doing on the side, and often we would direct each other to free offers around town, as friends often do for each other. In all of these situations, I was known for a particular quote: “As a not-so-very-wise-man once said, ‘Free is a very good price.'” This was a reference to Tom Peterson, a well known salesman in Portland, Oregon. We were in St. Helens, which is a suburb of Portland and all of our television came out of Portland. Even though I didn’t take over teaching Kung Fu until after Tom Peterson was out of business and only a few years before his death, his history and advertising was at that time still fresh in the minds of most of my adult students and the parents of most of my children students.
Tom Peterson had gone bankrupt a few times running electronics stores despite having a magnetic personality and winning advertising campaigns. He brought people into his stores in untold numbers and still managed to run his business into the ground. He reopened with the condition set by his creditors that his wife, Gloria, be on the business deed as well. It again went under. The Petersons continued to work in advertising and management after that, but for other companies. He had skills, they just weren’t in business ownership.
No one ever questioned my evaluation of Tom Peterson as not-so-very-wise. A few objected that Tom Peterson was just not putting his skills to best use and needed to be middle management and advertising, not ownership. When pressed, everyone admitted that this only demonstrated his lack of wisdom at the time he was saying these things to a wide audience over the airways.
This did prompt a few people to question why I was quoting such an obviously not-so-very-wise source. My answer was simple: I respect the Truth regardless of its source. Experience and study has led many to conclude that free is, in point of fact, a very good price.
Tom Peterson is hardly the most egregious example of wisdom from un-wisdom though. Tom Peterson was honestly trying, he was just trying to do things that weren’t his natural skill set. Once he was into his natural skill set he did very well. This isn’t true for everyone.
In 1897, Dr. Edward Goodwin thought that he had found a way to square a circle. This was based on the assumption that Pi was exactly 3.2, an assumption that was incorrect. Now a good servant of Truth would recognize that better approximations of Pi exist, that the method discovered was not accepted by professional mathematicians, and that all of this strongly implied that his proof was in fact in error. That’s not the direction that Dr. Goodwin decided to go with his ideas. He helped to push through Indiana General Assembly Bill #246 requiring that his method be taught in schools as established fact. The Committee of Education saw this as a bill worthy of a vote by the whole committee. The only thing that prevented the bill from passing was the happenstance that Professor Clarence Waldo happened to be in town on a fundraising trip for Purdue University. Professor Waldo spoke to the assembly and assured them that Dr. Goodwin’s ideas were not grounded in mathematical reality.
It’s easy to see the difference between Mr. Peterson and Dr. Goodwin. Both made errors in judgement, but once Mr. Peterson found the place where his skills were best used he thrived. Dr. Goodwin wasn’t just wrong, he was wrong in a way that the top 70th percentile of teenagers cold explain why he’s wrong with a little prompting. When he was shown he was wrong, he didn’t accept it. Not only did he not accept it, he tried to push a law forbidding others to accept that he might be wrong. This is not a dedication to Truth. Although it’s impossible to judge Dr. Goodwin’s motives, from here it almost looks like he was trying to get these things wrong. I don’t know why that might be, but it’s clear that he wasn’t motivated by an earnest desire for Truth. He was wrong about Pi, the square root of two, the ratio between lines and arcs in circles, etc. Yet for all that, Dr. Goodwin was an accomplished physician, and you don’t become an accomplished physician by getting lots of things wrong about human anatomy. I have absolutely no doubt that if I were in a trivia game of human anatomy with Dr. Goodwin, he would undoubtedly win hands down. I’m less convinced that he would beat me in a math duel, even though math is hardly my best subject.
Dr. Goodwin does show all the signs of being a reliable source of error. If all you know about Mr. Peterson is his failure as a business owner, it’s tempting to group him in as another reliable source of error. Yet Truth still did find a way to make use of these vessels. Dr. Goodwin went on to be well respected in his community according to his obituary, and Mr. Peterson was successful in other business endeavors. There’s a lesson to be learned in all of this. When we’re listening to someone, we can’t simply dismiss them because they have been wrong, no matter how often. We have to consider their reasoning in everything they’ve said. We might be inclined to believe someone who has been right about a particular subject often rather than learn a whole new subject just to confirm an idea, but the reverse is never true. We can never dismiss someone simply because they’ve been wrong often before as a means to avoid serious study. We may defer to those who have studied in that field as to where the greatest evidence lies, but we can’t simply disregard them because they have been wrong before. As an example from biology, Lynn Margulis was an early proponent of endosymbiotic theory. Even though she proposed different ways that every kind of eukaryotic cell structure could have come from bacteria, the consensus is that she was wrong about many of them. If we focused on her errors, we would reject an entire branch of biology which has since become very strongly supported. Instead of focusing on heros and calling them right about everything, we should search for Truth wherever we find it, even if we are simply pulling golden specks of Truth that need to be carefully extracted from the gravel of error that surrounds it.
There’s another angle to the same lesson. We aren’t looking for heros. We are looking for Truth. Someone who has failed to deliver Truth often may be just the one to deliver the Truth we need right when we need it. When that happens, we need to remember that the Truth is alive and it has chosen this means and this time to reveal itself to us. This reminder can take us away from looking for heroic truth tellers, instead looking past them to the Truth they tell.