17
Nov

2015

Bumblebees Can’t Fly

Post by Steven Dale

Above: A bumblebee not flying. Image by flickr user cuellar.

There exists an almost century-old anecdote about a German aerodynamicist and a bumblebee.

Over dinner, the aerodynamicist remarked to a biologist that – according to his calculations and the accepted theory of the day – a bumblebee was incapable of flight.

This, of course, wasn’t true. Bumblebees could fly (still do, I believe) and it didn’t matter that the aerodynamicist and his calculations said otherwise. Delighted by the absurdity of the situation, the biologist spread the story far and wide.

Is the story true? Who cares. It’s a good story and that’s all that matters.

Whether the story is true or not is irrelevant because as a fable and piece of folklore it resonates with us as human beings (check out The Straight Dope for their take on the tale).

For better or for worse, it’s a story that feeds people’s willful distrust of experts, specialists and trained professionals.

Most of the time, I think, we should listen to the experts, specialists and trained professionals. The reason they’re experts is because they know more about something than the general population does.

But the same mechanism that makes an expert an expert can also blind him to anecdotal reality. Nine times out of ten the aerodynamicist will be right with his calculations. But because he knows nothing about bumblebees and their biology, his calculations were worthless in the above situation because no matter what his equations foretold, we’ve actually seen bumblebees fly.

It’s in those moments where it’s incumbent upon the non-expert to point out the error – and incumbent upon the expert to admit his shortcomings.

According to the accepted theory of the day you probably can’t use gondolas as public transit. But that doesn’t mean people aren’t doing it.

A good rule to live by for non-experts: Defer to the experts until they’ve demonstrated themselves no longer worthy of the name.

A good rule to live by for experts: You’re ability to remain an expert is dependent upon your willingness to admit what you don’t know and defer to those that do.

 



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Comments

  1. Matt the Engineer
    A slightly broken analogy. Of course the aerodynamicist knew bumblebees can fly, and by pointing out this paradox must have been explaining the limitations of his profession's calculations.
  2. Yeah, that particular myth always struck me as rather stupid, for much the same reason. Incorporating other people's ignorance/fallacies into your own arguments only weakens them.