When experts go wrong

05 Dec

At times, experts can lull us to complacence. Of course you must be pretty sure of yourself before you ignore expert opinion. Nevertheless, history shows that even experts have at times gotten influenced by the lull of the masses and stood in the way of inventors, achievers and explorers. Quite often, the progress of the human race has only been achieved when people of extra ordinary faith defied the conventional wisdom and changed the course of history.

Before 1954, there was universal consensus that it is impossible for a human being to run the mile in less than four minutes. Doctors and scientists produced scientific papers claiming that the record of 4.01 that had been reached in the 1940’s could not be improved upon. In as far as the mile distance is concerned, they said, humanity had reached its best time. The human body would experience exceeding pressures at any speed faster than that and would as a result collapse, experts said.

It took the burning desire of a poor English boy to achieve the “impossible”. Roger Bannister was born to an average working class family. He desired to study Medicine but knew that his family could not afford the University fees. At around 10, he discovered that he had a running talent and he decided to use it to secure an Oxford Scholarship to study Medicine – which he did.

In Oxford, he became so good in athletics that he disappointed the country by failing to participate in the 1948 Olympics. During the 1952 Olympics, it was taken for granted that he would win in the 1500 meters race. A last minute change in the scheduling of the event so badly disrupted his preparedness that he became 4th in the race. The defeat was so demoralizing that he took the next two months contemplating to quit races altogether. But he decided to give it one more attempt.

Ignoring expert opinion, Bannister set his sights on the sub-four-minute mile. He started to train in earnest and gradually improved on his time. As he continued to slash fractions of a second in his training, he realized that he had not set himself up on an impossible goal. It could be done. When experts conceded that the four-minute mark could be broken, they said that it could only be done on a day without wind, at 20 degrees Celsius, on a dry clay track, and in Scandinavian climate. They also said that such a feat would only be achieved in front of a huge cheering crowd of tens of thousands of people. For Roger Bannister, pressure was piling from his Australian competitor John Landy who also wanted to break the record.

May 6th 1954 was not an ideal day for the sub-four-minute mile. It was cold, the track was wet and it was windy. There were only three thousand people gathered for the meet. Bannister had rested for the previous five days because he thought that he had reached his peak, both physically and psychologically. He was aware that Landy was already on his way to Finland looking for the ideal conditions. Bannister knew that it had to be done that day or he would not be the person to do it.

When the race began, the wind was up to fifteen miles an hour. Six men entered the race. By the third lap, the race did not look too good for Bannister. His time was 3.07 and he needed 59 seconds for the final lap.  In that last lap, Bannister obliterated from his mind everything else leaving only himself and the track. In that moment when nothing else existed to him, he poured his soul to the track and gave the body no chance of choosing whether to cooperate or not. This was his day.

When the results were read, he had broken a world record and had clocked 3.59.4. He had shattered the psychological ceiling that everyone had placed on humanity. He had proven that if impossible ever existed, it only existed in the mind. Bannister’s win inspired athletes across the world such that within 46 days, Landy had bettered on Bannister’s record. Since 1954, more than 20,000 athletes including High School kids have done a sub-4-minute mile.[1]

One may be interested to find out what changed after 1954. Studies have not found any significant change in the Human DNA since 1954 to warrant the wide-spread ease at breaking the four-minute mile record. Yet before 1954, the whole world was pre-occupied with what today cannot be considered a problem. What changed is the mindset of the athletic community, spurred on by the achievement of one man.

A similar story can be told of the Wright brothers who flew the first airplane off the bumpy plains of Kitty Hawk in North Carolina, US. Basing their arguments on the difficulty of achieving the correct model for a body that was heavier than air to fly, experts poured cold water to the possibility of the Wright Brothers succeeding in flying their contraption. “An opium-induced fantasy. A crack-pot idea!,” experts said. An influential scientific journal lamented that time and money was being wasted on aircraft experimentation when it was obvious to everyone that it was impossible for man to fly. The journal based its argument on man’s anatomy and concluded that no engineering aptitude could get man to fly.  Wright Brothers made their flight a week later![2]

In 1490, Queen Isabella and King Ferdinad of Spain commissioned a Royal Commission to study Christopher Columbus’s proposal of navigating the world and discovering a shorter route to the fabled Indies. The committee, headed by Spain’s leading Geographer presented their findings saying that it could not be achieved. Quite impossible, they said. Fortunately, Queen Isabella and King Ferdinad and more importantly, Christopher Columbus, ignored the views of the experts and the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria set sail. The “flat” world was proven to be globular and the “non-existent” new lands were discovered.[3]

Even in the invention of the microscope, the experts were again caught napping. Van Leeuwenhoek was not a scientist regarding himself as a businessman. He only proceeded to write about his discoveries on the insistence of Dutch Physicist Reinier de Graaf. He never published a single scientific paper writing his discoveries as letters to the Royal Society of London that was kind to publish them and credit him for his discoveries. He would only write in colloquial Dutch instead of English or Latin that were the recognized publishing languages of the time. At some point, the Royal Society doubted about Van Leeuwenhoek’s credibility and had to send Sir Robert Gordon and six others, two of them church ministers to verify his observations and methods.

[1] Joel Runyon (April 5, 2014)   Impossible Case Study: Sir Roger Bannister and The Four-Minute Mile Accessed from on 20th April 2017

[2] D. Stuart Briscoe. The Preacher’s Commentary Series Volumes 1 -35. (Deuteronomy). Thomas Nelson Inc.

[3] Ibid.

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Posted by on December 5, 2017 in Uncategorized


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