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Planning is no match for dumb luck. That saying, which I will always associate with the gubernatorial campaign of South Carolina’s James Edwards1While reading, I had a thought. Damon Linker’s latest Substack Post. His praise of Martin Gurri’s book The Revolt Of The PublicIt reminded me of an important corollary: In the world of books, intelligence is not enough without dumbluck. It’s an absolute miracle Martin Gurri’s book, which is excellent, has become well known.
I know this because I gave The Revolt of Masses a crucial boost—and I only discovered it because my own book, The Power of Glamour,It was buried in obscurity. Frustrated with the lack of attention, I spent an evening Googling “visual persuasion” in hopes of finding smart people who might find my analysis interesting enough to mention to others. My search led me to a 2010 article for the Army War College, co-authored by Gurri, titled “Our Visual Persuasion Gap.” I sent him a note: “I read your article on the visual persuasion gap and would like to send you a copy of my book. Could you please send me your postal address? Are you related to Adam?” He responded that he preferred to think that Adam was related to him—his son—and that we should trade books.
Review: 1) I wrote an article on visual persuasion. Martin Gurri is a visual persuasion enthusiast. Gurri wrote an important book on visual persuasion. 4) I knew Gurri’s son. We did not know we existed.
I was very impressed by his book. So when Cato Unbound invited me to write an essay on “Visual persuasion in politics” and to suggest people to write responses, I recommended him. It was July 2014. The symposium was over. Still The Revolt of the Public didn’t break into public consciousness, even among the kind of people who read Cato Institute publications.
In December 2015, I published a piece entitled “Another Look at the Work of A. Bloomberg Opinion columnThe following are some of the most effective ways to improve your own effectiveness. The Revolt of the Public. I’m sure many people read the column, but only one of them mattered to the book’s public profile:
Arnold KlingWho He wrote about it in his blogIn January 2016. Arnold was a well-connected and effective evangelist. Stripe Press released an issue in 2018. Updated versionPrint, audio, and digital formats are available. Since then, the book is a reference for understanding the rise populist movements. Agree or disagree, people trying to figure out our political moment have to consider Gurri’s analysis—which they know about because of dumb luck.
The importance of luck to the spread of valuable insights—and creative work in general—is widely underestimated (except in Hollywood, where it makes everyone crazy). In Works in ProgressUlkar Aghayeva writes about the “sleeping beauties”Science: Important papers that are published but are rarely cited over a long period of time.
“Anthony van Raan was a researcher who specialized in quantitative science studies. In 2004,. In his study, he identified sleeping beauties between 1980 and 2000 based on three criteria: first, the length of their ‘sleep’ during which they received few if any citations. Second, the depth of that sleep – the average number of citations during the sleeping period. And third, the intensity of their awakening – the number of citations that came in the four years after the sleeping period ended. Van Raan, using (somewhat arbitrarily-chosen) thresholds for the criteria, identified sleeping beauties in about 0.01 percent all published papers of a given year.
The study revealed that sleeping beauties were even more common. A systematic studyIn 2015, using data from 384.649 papers published in American Physical Society journal, along with 22.379.244 papers from the search engine Web of Science found a wide and continuous range of delayed acknowledgment of papers in all fields of science. This increases the estimate of the percentage of sleeping beauties at least 100-fold compared to van Raan’s.
Many of those papers became highly influential many decades after their publication – far longer than the typical time windows for measuring citation impact. For example, Herbert Freundlich’s paper ‘Adsorption in Solutions’ (though its original title is in German) was published in 1907, but began being regularly cited in the early 2000s due to its relevance to new water purification technologies. William Hummers and Richard Offeman’s ‘Preparation Graphitic Oxide’, published in 1958, also didn’t ‘awaken’ until the 2000s: in this case because it was very relevant to the creation of the soon-to-be Nobel Prize–winning material graphene.”
She doesn’t mention one of the most important examples of a sleeping beauty: Gregor Mendel’s 1866 paper “Plant Hybrids: Experiments,” which was rediscovered in the early 20th century. From the BritannicaThe article below explains how to get started. on Mendel:
“Mendel was mentioned in 15 sources other than the journal in which his paper was published. You can also find out more about the following:Plant hybridization. Few of these provide a clear picture of his achievement, and most are very brief….
In 1900, Dutch botanists and geneticists Hugo de VriesGerman botanist, geneticist Carl Erich CorrensAustrian botanist Erich Tschermak von Seysenegg independently reported results of hybridization experiments similar to Mendel’s, though each later claimed not to have known of Mendel’s work while doing their own experiments. However, both de Vries and Correns had read Mendel earlier—Correns even made detailed notes on the subject—but had forgotten. De Vries had a DiversityIt was not until 1900, when he reread Mendel, that he was able select and organize the data into a rational framework. Tschermak did not read Mendel prior to obtaining his results. His first account of the data he collected was interpreted in terms of hereditary power. He described the 3:1 ratio as an “unequal valancy” (Wertigkeit). In his subsequent papers, he incorporated Mendelian segregation theory and the purity of germ cell into his text.
In Great Britain biologist William BatesonLeading the way proponent of Mendel’s theory. Around him, a group of enthusiastic supporters gathered. Darwinian evolutionMendel, on the other hand, worked with variations that were clearly non-blending. Bateson found out that Darwinians opposed his advocacy of Mendel. He and his supporters became known as Mendelians. Their work was deemed irrelevant for evolution. It took three decades before Mendelian theory found its rightful place within evolutionary theory.“
These analyses are for any obscure scientific work that is at least published. Who knows how many valuable arguments or empirical findings never make it to print?
On her Substack
“When I say literary talent is not rare, I mean that it is not the limiting reagent when it comes to our supply of good books to read. There are more great books and even genius works being written than what is currently published. It is mathematically correct, as only a small subset of manuscripts are ever published. But I would argue that the number of great manuscripts is at least a hundred times greater than what we see, and that if publishers merely accepted every great manuscript they saw—accepted every Proust—then the shelves would bulge with greatness.
This is provocative, and what militates against it is that most of us have had the experience of reading unpublished manuscripts that aren’t that good. Or they are good but not quite ready. Or reading a manuscript that was good and didn’t get published, but the author published the next one.
You can also find out more about the following:I am apparently the only person who has read not one, but three manuscripts I thought were among the best in contemporary fiction and then seen them all rejected. And yet, none of these authors have published another novel. I am not saying that these authors would have been Proust. But they would have definitely been in the running to become a Franzen.“
Theodore Sturgeon said that 90 percent of everything is crap. But that doesn’t mean that the only good stuff is in the 10 percent that sees daylight.
I suspect that nonfiction works are easier to discover, even if the publishers are small or partisan. However, the problem is still finding them. Knowing the story of Martin Gurri’s now-seminal analysis makes me believe that, especially in our current sea of content, many excellent works surely go unnoticed. Finding and promoting overlooked work is one of the most important things that anyone involved in intellectual endeavors can do.2
Virginia Postrel, a writer, has a special interest in the intersection between commerce, culture, technology, and other factors. Author of “The Future and Its Enemies,” “The Substance of Style,” “The Power of Glamour,” and, most recently, “The Fabric of Civilization.” This essay originally appeared on Virginia’s newsletter on Substack.
Banner image courtesy of author: Ideogram.ai result from prompt “Cross-stitch sampler reading ‘No Amount of Planning Beats Dumb Luck.’” Ideogram is supposed to do a better job incorporating non-gibberish words than other AI image generators. It does but it’s still not quite there. This was the best result I got from six.