Saturday, 2 June 2007

How long does it take a good idea to triumph?

There's a provocative post on Econlog which raises an interesting question. Suppose someone has a good academic idea. How long does it take to be become part of the canon of accepted wisdom?

Clearly some ideas hit quickly: many of these are simple technical improvements which are obviously correct. Some never hit because, although correct, they are too boring and marginal to make a difference. Indeed some ideas enter the canon then leave it again as subject areas die: a great example here are many of the techniques used to speed tedious calculations from the days before digital computers.

As Kuhn pointed out, however, some ideas are so radical that they cannot be incorporated into the mainstream without effecting it: the paradigm must change. These ideas tend to take longer to be accepted.

I'm interested in mid-sized ideas: theories which are somewhat disruptive, but which are not big enough to qualify as paradigm changes. My suspicion is that these are slow to be accepted too, perhaps even slower than paradigm changing ideas because there is less payoff from including them, yet they still challenge the current academic hegemony. I'd love to see a careful sociological study on this. Could it be that the average time to acceptance of a such an idea is a significant fraction of a career?

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