Orthodontics is the epitome of constantly changing Science, with new materials and new theories being proposed every day. Sometimes genial ideas are rejected because they are “too new” or because they differ from traditional concepts.
Let’s remember what happened when C. Tweed presented his extraction cases to the orthodontic community for the first time. He was considered a fool and a visionary, who distorted the teachings of E. Angle. Today, Tweed’s theory is considered a step forward in the progress of modern Orthodontics.
An important lesson on what happens when society holds on to its old convictions and cannot adapt to change comes from Robin Dunbar’s The Trouble with Science, a book which I strongly recommend.
In the last decades of the tenth century, when the Vikings colonized Greenland, they brought along the customs and agricultural techniques developed in their native Scandinavia. Initially things seemed to work fine, with three-thousand newcomers living on three-hundred farms. Then, toward the end of the fourteenth century, something changed: temperatures lowered, due to the beginning of the Small Glacial Era, cattle and other farm animals died, and cornfields were destroyed. Chilly weather and poor crops decimated the Viking colonies, which eventually disappeared in 1410. This failure seems to have been caused by the community’s inability to change its customs and adapt them to new conditions. The Vikings thought that their century-old customs would help them in the new territory. Scandinavia, however, differs from Greenland because of the Gulf Stream, which sweeps the Scandinavian coasts, resulting in a temperate climate. At the same latitude, Greenland has more extreme temperatures. Contrary to the first American colonists, who learned hunting and survival techniques from the native populations, the Vikings refused to adopt the Eskimos’ customs. Ignoring the fact that the Eskimos based their traditions on centuries of life in the Arctic, the Scandinavians considered them uncultured and pagan.
This unbending attitude was exacerbated by three negative factors. First, the old-country customs allowed the colonists to survive for three centuries: when something works, people are reluctant to change it. A second factor was the slowly changing climate: when the Vikings finally realized that their plagues were no longer due to a single unlucky year, but were becoming a pattern, it was too late. A third factor, probably the most important one, was that the Vikings met the Eskimos too late and didn’t understand their superior ability to survive in the Arctic climate. For example, while the Eskimos would quickly build igloos to follow the migratory sea mammals they were hunting, the Vikings insisted on building stone houses, too complicated and time-consuming to be used as temporary shelters. The Vikings’ fate in Greenland isn’t the only example of a society unable to realize that changing times require new techniques. Nevertheless, it is a reminder of the consequences we may have to pay when we decline to reconsider our knowledge and assumptions. It is not a cause for pessimism: the Eskimos’ efficiency in fighting adverse conditions is a good reminder that it is always possible to succeed by keeping into account the lessons from the past.
VJO associate editor