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Monday, 28 September 2009

The Grand Canyon as a gated community

In Sunday's Independent, Michael Brooks looks at how Nobel Prize winners have been mocked on the way to their great discoveries. The new vaccine that reduces the risk of HIV infection was mocked by competitors in the field, ( "Everything I've seen about the Thai trial suggests that it doesn't have a prayer."), Crick and Watson's (and somebody elses's?) work on the structure DNA was scoffed at, Black Holes and Continental Drift were just fantasies until they stopped being fantasies and became new universal truths.

"Given that, you might wonder how science ever progresses. But that is the beauty of the system: unstoppable curiosity, coupled with a sheer bloody-mindedness and rhino-thick skin, can overcome the resistance. The stories of many Nobel laureates are of ridicule and persecution worn down by dogged persistence; the road to Stockholm is lined with jeering colleagues."

The same kind of thing happens in politics - any idea that brings something new, especially if it progressive in some way, is mocked at. In Britain, the idea of universal primary education was fought by many in the church and business, making child labour illegal was a violation of the rights of free enterprise, free health care, pensions and the minimum wage were argued to be counter-productive to the interests of wider society. The Race Relations Acts, The Clean Air Act, Laws against domestic violence, the Sexual Relations Act were all fought against as being some kind of invasion of privacy and limitation of our right to bully and batter and abuse.

Which brings me on to Rupert Cornwell on America's National Parks, a creation of government that is universally approved of. Cornwell asks, "...what might have happened to some truly famous places is no laughing matter. The idea of the national parks, in the words of their most famous presidential advocate, Teddy Roosevelt, was that such special places "should be preserved for all the people and not confined to the rich". As it was, back in the 1870s, before New York set up a state park in the area, you had to pay a private huckster for a decent view of the Niagara Falls. The same fate might have befallen Yosemite. As for the Grand Canyon, Burns speculates, it would probably be run by a gated community."

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