"When it becomes necessary to develop a new perception of things, a new internal model of reality, the problem is never to get new ideas in, the problem is to get old ideas out." – Dee Hock
Question: How many planets are there in our solar system?
The answer is eight. If you said nine don’t feel bad because that was the correct answer until August 24, 2006 when the International Astronomical Union, in its infinite wisdom, declared Pluto was no longer a planet.
In addition to delivering a crushing blow to Pluto’s planethood by ignominiously demoting it to “dwarf planet” status, the IAU also single-handedly rendered obsolete the famous childhood mnemonic — “My Very Excellent Memory Just Served Up Nine Planets — for recalling the names of the then nine planets: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune and Pluto.
In terms of unlearning, however, it is not Pluto which concerns us but rather Uranus. This is because between 1690 and 1769 the planet was observed no fewer than 18 times — six times by the English astronomer, John Flamsteed, and an additional 12 times by the French astronomer, Pierre Lemonnier. In each instance, the orb was not recognized as a planet and rather believed to be a star because of its dimness and slow orbit.
It was not until William Herschel observed the planet on March 13, 1781 and then described it as a “comet” in a report to the Royal Society that experts began to consider it might be something other than a star. Still, it took an additional two years before most astronomers agreed that the celestial body was neither a comet nor star but, in fact, a new planet.
The story reminds us that when we are predisposed to see something, it can be difficult to see things differently. In a landmark psychology study, Jerome Bruner and Leo Postman showed a group of 28 college students a series of cards. Most of the cards were normal but some were incongruous. In other words, the colors and suits were reversed so that, for example, the three of hearts would be black and the six of clubs red.
Whereas most students quickly identified the normal cards, it took, on average, four times as long to correctly identify the incongruous cards. There were three typical reactions. The most common was what the authors called a “dominance reaction.” In such cases, heart-shaped cards would be seen as red regardless of whether they were colored black.
A second outcome was what Bruner and Postman called a “compromise reaction.” A black heart might be described as “purple” or “brown.” In essence, the “red” heart the subject expected to see would blend with the black heart on the paper and merge in their mind’s eye to create a compromise color. Lastly, in a few rare instances, the subject would recognize that something was wrong but be unable to articulate the appropriate solution.
For unlearning, the real world implications of this study and the Uranus story are evident in many aspects of our lives. In his book, Moneyball, Michael Lewis describes how many baseball scouts eschew a player’s statistics and instead draft baseball prospects on their physique because “they look like a baseball player.”
Voters do much the same with political candidates. In a recent study people were shown the pictures of two opposing candidates – with no other information – and were asked to identify the more competent candidate. Surprisingly, their selections corresponded with the winning candidate 70% of the time. The finding strongly suggests that voters, when engaged in one of the most important civic duties in a democracy, are taking into consideration things other than performance-based information when selecting political candidates.
Like Uranus, baseball scouts and voters might believe they know a “star” when they see one but they would be better off using this new mnemonic for recalling the eight planets: Many Vain Experts Must Just Study Unlearning Now!
Homework Assignment #7: Could a politician with the physical appearance of Abraham Lincoln or the physical disabilities of Franklin Delano Roosevelt be elected President today? If not, why not and are there similar prejudices in how people select their doctors or a marketing executive or salesperson is hired?