Saturday, February 28, 2015

This Idea Must Die

In 1997, John Brockman founded Edge ( a website and online salon, whose purpose is nothing less than to explore the edge of knowledge. It's slogan:  "To arrive at the edge of the world's knowledge, seek out the most complex and sophisticated minds, put them in a room together, and have them ask each other the questions they are asking themselves."

Each year, Brockman poses a question to thinkers in a wide range of fields: psychology, theoretical physics, evolution, cognitive science, and more.  Last year's question was "What scientific idea is ready for retirement?"  Brockman collected the responses to that question in the book, This Idea Must Die: Scientific Theories That Are Blocking Progress.  The book contains 175 short essays on ideas that should be discarded to allow knowledge to move forward.

Frequently scientific inquiry is spurred on by the realization that old ideas do not fit the data or otherwise do not work, whether it’s the four bodily humors, the geocentric universe, or the steady state theory.  These essays identified old modes of thinking that should be cast aside to allow exploration of new ideas.

In NPR's Science Friday last week, host Ira Flato interviewed theoretical physicist Sean Carroll and quantum mechanic Seth Lloyd -- two of the 175 contributors -- about their proposals for which ideas must die.  Here is that discussion: 

You can also read excerpts from the book describing the two proposals here, and vote for which ideas you think should die.


What are others' thoughts, both on the question of the desireablilty of jettisonning unhelpful scientific theories and on the question: if you were to kill off an idea, what would it be?  I'd especially like to hear from the scientist readers, Peter, Mike, Steve and Tom Nascenzi. 


James R said...

There may be many ideas in science that should die, e.g. the idea that ideas in science are in some sense true and shouldn't die, but in my humble opinion the two presented here sound like two intelligent people lobbying for more research money for their specific areas of expertise.

Essentially they both admit that eliminating empirical falsifiability harkens to philosophy. They should have pursued that more because empirical testing is what science is. Without empirical falsifiability you have become the hated philosopher.

Both of their ideas, while noble and should be pursued, are not science, but philosophy. One may speculate about a non universe realm, but it is not science until it can be tested. You can speculate about non testable ideas, but that is not science until you can test them.

James R said...

Now, I stated in a comment years ago that perhaps science's criteria for 'truthness'' will change, and that very well may happen as is hinted by these two scientists. The definition of science and its practice is only what we say it is. It is king presently, and everyone from psychologists to economists want to get under the science umbrella, so there is pressure to change the rigorous testing of science.

Personally I would like to have something, maybe it will no longer be called science, but something that studies events that are repeatable, such as chemistry, physics, and biology. Now, perhaps we will find that even those areas are not strictly repeatable, and maybe all science will have to change its focus. But until then, I think empirical testing should be the hallmark of science.

Big Myk said...

I must admit that when I first heard about this idea -- killing off ideas that were impeding scientific advance -- I thought it was pretty cool and a somewhat innovative way of thinking about scientific inquiry. After all, we all know that no one puts new wine into old wineskins.

But then the more I read about the actual proposals for the dustheap of history, I discovered that these essays weren't so much about casting off deadend ideas but were more about each scientist pushing his or her own beloved theory. Maybe that was the point: just a gimmick to get a conversation started.

On your second comment, I agree that empirical testing should be the target every bit of scientific inquiry. But, the question is this: if something is untestible, does that take it out of the realm of science altogether, or perhaps a better way to say it, is that something about whcih scientists should not concern themselves? I think that having smart well-trained scientists thinking about anything is probably a good thing, and as Sean Carroll points out, just because we can't test something now, doesn't foreclose us from being able to test in the future.

As for you thought that we need to re-think what is meant by truth and falsity (clearly these concepts have already lost much of their weight in quantum mechanics), one of the included essays actually makes that very proposal. Although that proposal is made by actor Alan Alda (Edge also poses its questions to non-scientists). His thoughts, as well as some of the other essays in the book, can be found in the Guardian article:What scientific idea is ready for retirement?