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The Law of Blue Mud

Whenever the locals rub blue mud in their navels, I rub blue mud in mine just as solemnly.

Robert A. Heinlein in “Time Enough for Love”

Heresy is a dangerous pursuit. It is not enough to be right; one must also be overwhelmingly perceived as correct. Unadorned proof is insufficient. One must "sell" the proof. When you adopt a position at odds with established truth, those invested in the establishment will attack. They will react emotionally and will not employ logic and reason but instead the tools of hostility, derision, and scorn.

     Failing to understand the Principle of Blue Mud can be deadly serious. It can get you ridiculed, excoriated, and sometimes even get you killed.

     Consider the flying car. Flying cars have long been a staple of science fiction and a part of many an imaginative dreamer's desires. The concept of flying cars, and flying chariots, and so on has been with us for millennia. Ezekiel had his flying wheel, Aladdin had his flying carpet, and so on. The modern flying car appeared in Robert Heinlein's 1951 masterpiece "The Puppet Masters." When Hollywood made the Heinlein classic into a bad 1994 Science Fiction movie, Heinlein fans revolted. They did so not only because it was a bad movie. More significantly, the producers did not bring their beloved flying cars to the screen version.

     The flying car appeared again in 1961 in a children's TV series called "Supercar." Daring test pilot Mike Mercury and scientists Dr. Beaker and Professor Popkiss used their experimental flying car to battle the forces of evil.

     In 1962 “The Jetsons” came to our TV screens, and again George Jetson had a flying car. Flying cars appeared in various other places, including some real-world, non-fictional vehicles. These were almost always more or less conventional small airplanes with removable wings and thus able to drive on roadways to a limited extent. These real-world machines fell far short of their fictional counterparts and often ended when their inventors were killed in a fiery crash.

     In the late 1960s, engineer and inventor Paul Moller began working on his flying car idea. His first vehicle looked a lot like George Jetson's animated transportation. It flew, not very high or fast, but it did fly. In the intervening five decades, he has redesigned his vehicle several times, refining it as new technologies and materials became available. He has been flying his prototype for decades, and each time he has demonstrated it, he has been met with scorn and derision.

     When he took his company public, he was hit with accusations of stock fraud and multiple lawsuits. “Everyone knows” a flying car is impossible, and he must therefore be a fraud. Yet Moller not only imagined, but developed, flew, and sold fully functional drones more than 25 years before today’s drones appeared. Despite this success, his ideas failed at acceptance because he was ahead of his time. He has been unable to attract enough investors or get permission from Insurance companies or the FAA for flight testing of his prototype dream car. His test flights have been necessarily limited, consisting of “flying” while tethered to a crane amid an endless assault of detractors, with numerous websites attacking him as a fraud and charlatan. Yet his car does fly, as demonstrated by multiple videos showing it hovering effortlessly under a crane-supported tether. A scaled-up version of his successful UAV platform, it seems entirely reasonable that it should fly, as do millions of inexpensive drones.

     Mr. Moller was born in 1936. His drive and ambition have sustained the dream of a flying car for half a century. His major problem was that he was too far ahead of the pack and available technology. Despite Moller’s challenges, others are entering the space, and in some ways, drone technology has surpassed him. Just as before the Wright Brothers publicized successes, “everyone knew” flight was impossible, “everyone knows” a flying car is still impossible. Nonetheless, ubiquitous drones are now changing that perception.

     My purpose is not to vindicate Moller. Someone will build flying cars. My point is, what “everyone knows” may or may not be correct, but even when you have demonstrable, reproducible physicality, going against the entrenched orthodoxy is challenging. Some of this is due and proper. As Carl Sagan said, “Extraordinary claims demand extraordinary proof,” and a certain degree of skepticism is a proper part of the scientific method. However, skepticism does not include covering your eyes and ears and singing “ya ya ya” at the top of your voice to drown out those claims.

     The demarcation between healthy scientific skepticism and prosecuting a heretic is crossed when, rather than examine the claims and proof and assess where they are valid and where they are lacking, the critic merely resorts to scorn and ridicule.

     Hostility, scorn and derision are the tools of the politician, not the scientist. Any scientist who resorts to this tactic immediately surrenders their scientific credentials.

     A Ph.D. does not a scientist make. Indeed, outlandish claims are often bogus, and there is a duty for those making genuine, if incredible, claims to approach the established orthodoxy with care and good marketing. Nonetheless, a scientist always reacts to the extraordinary with wonder and curiosity. Asking for more evidence is proper, but refusing to consider presented evidence is not.

     We see otherwise respectable scientists abandoning their scientific credentials in an ever-expanding number of areas. When science departs, crackpots and conspiracists flourish.

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