When Theories Fail

In all the reminiscing and analysis that's emerged following Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens' retirement announcement last Friday, the piece that's intrigued me the most is the explanation of how Stevens came to change his views on the death penalty over the course of his tenure on the court.

Linda Greenhouse, a former Supreme Court correspondent for The New York Times noted that Stevens had renounced his support for the death penalty two years ago "in an opinion based not in abstract principle but in years of sorrowful observation of how the death penalty was actually being administered." Stevens, she said, had come to the conclusion that "the premise that the justices had assumed in 1976, that the death penalty could be rational and fair, had gone unfulfilled," and it was now time to reconsider "the justification for the death penalty itself."

The justices had been operating on a theory that, at least in Justice Stevens' opinion, the messy reality of life had not matched. And so he came to change his opinion about the theory.

That is, of course, what all good scientists are supposed to do. We develop theories, and then we test them, or see how they play out in real life. If reality doesn't behave the way the theory predicted, we're supposed to use that information to modify and improve our theories and opinions. What makes that anecdote about Stevens notable is how few public figures -- or even private individuals, for that matter -- manage that kind of measured re-evaluation of their beliefs or positions, despite how often our theories about business, economics, foreign policy or human behavior prove themselves less perfect in practice than they sounded on paper.

Take, for example, the grand theories about free access and content on the Internet. In a recent issue of Newsweek, Andrew Zoll, an early advocate of free content on the Internet,   acknowledged that the approach he'd espoused was, in retrospect, a phenomenally bad idea. The oft-repeated mantra that "information wants to be free," he says, was actually a shortened, zippy piece of a much longer and more nuanced thought by Stewart Brand explaining the tension between information wanting to be expensive, because it's so valuable, and wanting to be free because the barriers to publishing were becoming lower.

"Selling 'free' made us seem like visionaries," Zoll said. "Unfortunately ... the idea that we Internet visionaries sold was a load of crap." He went on to apologize for his role in promoting the flawed theory, and argued that we all really should pay for the content we get on the Web -- although he acknowledged that it may take new platforms like the Kindle and iPad to change the "free" paradigm that's now accepted practice.

As someone who never thought the "free content" movement was all that terrific an idea, or made economic sense for any creative person (or entity) whose product was content, I wasn't all that mollified by Zoll's "oops ... sorry" after the fact. But I have to give him credit. At least he re-examined his beliefs -- and began advocating a new approach -- when reality didn't pan out the way his theory predicted. He also took responsibility for his role in advocating the flawed theory.

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Lane Wallace is a pilot and adventure writer. She is the author of Surviving Uncertainty: Taking a Hero's Journey.

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