Martian Canals! 1911 NY Times Report Teaches Young Leaders Lessons

Woah nelly. This article really happened – in 1911, the New York Times Sunday Magazine printed a feature on two gigantic (1000 miles x 20 miles) canals that were built on Mars in just two years. The 105 million square foot canals would have easily been larger than anything ever built on Earth and, as awesome blog Futility Closet points out, the Times was blown away by this supposed Martian accomplishment:

Canals a thousand miles long and twenty miles wide are simply beyond our comprehension. Even though we are aware of the fact that … a rock which here weighs one hundred pounds would there only weigh thirty-eight pounds, engineering operations being in consequence less arduous than here, yet we can scarcely imagine the inhabitants of Mars capable of accomplishing this Herculean task within the short interval of two years.

So what happened? It turns out, as science advanced and the picture literally and figuratively became clearer, it was discovered that the canali, improperly translated in popular texts to canals, were actually a series of small features that produced the appearance of canals. And then the Mariner, Viking, and Pathfinder conclusively determined that there was no humanoid-like life on Mars.

What can young leaders learn from this?

1. Review the most recent information before reaching a conclusion – As the Futility Closet review of the article pointed out, scientist Percival Lowell was using outdated opinions. Former Martian Canal advocator Camille Flammarion had opined in 1892 that the canals seen on Mars had the same appearance as man-made canals on Earth – by 1909, a full two years before the New York Times Magazine article was published, with more advanced optics, Flammarion was able to determine these canals were not as he envisioned them. Lesson – Always use the best available data before making a conclusion.

2. Don’t be afraid to change course – By 1909, Lowell had many books, fiction of course, of life on Mars inspired by the popular theory that canals on Mars were Martian made. In fact, Lowell even had a back story – the water on Mars had run so low that the poor Martians had to dig canals to the ice caps to redistribute the water throughout the planet. In fact, Lowell was so impressed that he applauded the Martians for their effort! Lowell had a chance to take a different stance in this article, save face, and advance science. But he didn’t.

Which leads me to tip 3:

3. Hypothesize but don’t be ridiculous – Lowell had two years and a community of arguably better respected scientists standing against the fact that Mars had canals yet alone that Martians dug them.

Safe hypothesis – Mars has features that look like canals + Mars appears to have ice caps = Water may have once run through Mars

Unsafe hypothesis – Mars has features that look like canals + Mars appears to have ice caps = Mars has a series of super Martians that have developed technology so advanced that it can build 105 million sq. foot canals in 2 years.

And finally:

4.) Don’t make a business decision out of a series of hypotheticals. Use a solid foundation of data What Lowell did was absolutely insane and is what Ancient Aliens is routinely always guilty of: they used a very iffy piece of information and drew iffy conclusions from said iffy information. Lowell came to a conclusion about Mars that many scientists, including the top astrologists of the time, said was wrong based on his jumping off point from of information. This is equivalent to averaging averages or making a decision based on a small, inconclusive sample. While an entire picture’s worth of data isn’t always available, make sure it is a solid sample and make sure that there is a valid jumping off point.

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