"Over the Side With Old Scientific Tenets"
January 14th, 2014
The New York Times
Here are some concepts you might consider tossing out with the Christmas wrappings as you get started on the new year: human nature, cause and effect, the theory of everything, free will and evidence-based medicine.
Those are only a few of the shibboleths, pillars of modern thought or delusions — take your choice — that appear in a new compendium of essays by 166 (and counting) deep thinkers, scientists, writers, blowhards (again, take your choice) as answers to the question: What scientific idea is ready for retirement?
The discussion is posted at edge.org. Take a look. No matter who you are, you are bound to find something that will drive you crazy.
John Brockman, the literary agent and provocateur who presides over intellectual bar fights at Edge, his online salon, has been posing questions like this one since 1998. The questions have included what you believe but can’t prove, how the Internet is changing everything, and what you’ve changed your mind about.
“It’s really the same thing every time,” Mr. Brockman said over the phone, explaining that this year’s question had arisen at a conference on the social sciences last summer and immediately engendered a debate about whether it was suitable for the Edge forum.
Mr. Brockman’s contributors, many of whom are his clients, are a rambunctious lot who are unified by little more than a passion for ideas and the love of a good fight. (He represents several New York Times writers, although not this one.)
Some are boldface names in the pop-science firmament, like Freeman Dyson, the mathematician and futurist at the Institute for Advanced Study; Steven Pinker, the best-selling linguist from Harvard; Richard Dawkins, the evolutionary biologist and best-selling atheist from Oxford University; and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the psychologist who invented the notion of flow, or being completely lost in what you are doing, and who says scientists need to let go of the idea that the truths they find are good for all time and place.
“Some are indeed true,” Dr. Csikszentmihalyi says, “but others depend on so many initial conditions that they straddle the boundary between reality and fiction.”
That thought was echoed by Alan Alda, the actor and science popularizer who criticizes the idea that things are either true or false, a staple of logic and math. Sometimes context matters.
Take death, which seems a pretty definitive state. “The body is just a lump,” Mr. Alda says. “Life is gone. But if you step back a bit, the body is actually in a transitional phase while it slowly turns into compost — capable of living in another way.”
Frank Wilczek of M.I.T., a Nobel Prize winner in physics, would retire the distinction between mind and matter, a bedrock notion, at least in the West, since the time of Descartes. We know a lot more about matter and atoms now, Dr. Wilczek says, and about the brain. Matter, he says, “can dance in intricate, dynamic patterns; it can exploit environmental resources, to self-organize and export entropy.”
We can teach it to play chess.
But don’t get too excited. Roger Schank, a computer scientist and psychologist for the nonprofit group Engines for Education, says that a chess-playing computer won’t tell us anything about how or why humans play chess nor will it get interested in a new game when it gets bored. We should abolish the term “artificial intelligence,” he says, adding: “There really is no need to create artificial humans anyway. We have enough real ones already.”
Stewart Brand, founder of the “Whole Earth Catalog,” among many things, wants to talk about nuclear power, which he argues has been hampered by the unprovable notion that no level of radiation, no matter how low, is safe. As a result, billions of extra dollars have been spent to provide “meaningless levels of safety” around nuclear power plants — meaningless because our cells contain mechanisms for repairing radiation damage to DNA and because, moreover, “we all die.”
Professor Dawkins and Lisa Feldman Barrett, a psychologist from Northeastern University, both attack the concept of essentialism, which holds that things like dogs and cats, triangles and trees, space and time, emotions and thoughts — all have an underlying essence that makes them what they are. This works great in math, Professor Dawkins argues, but is a disaster when applied to species or politics, disallowing the possibility of change or gradation.
“Florida must go either wholly Republican or wholly Democrat — all 25 Electoral College votes — even though the popular vote is a dead heat,” he complains. (The number is now 29.) “But states should not be seen as essentially red or blue: they are mixtures in various proportions.”
Max Tegmark, a cosmologist at M.I.T., claims we could get along just fine without the notion of infinity. The computer scientist W. Daniel Hillis of the technology company Applied Minds claims we can get along without the notion of cause and effect, which he says is just an artifact of our brains’ penchant for storytelling. Seth Lloyd, a computer scientist at M.I.T., says it’s time to lose the notion of a universe.
Yes, nothing is sacred. Take evidence-based medicine, all the rage in the new age of health care. Gary Klein, a psychologist for the company MacroCognition, says the idea can impede medical progress by discouraging doctors from trying alternative treatments that have not been blessed by randomized controlled trials. He points out, for example, that many patients suffer from more conditions than experiments can control for.
Ian McEwan, the novelist, attacks this year’s question itself. Retire nothing, he says; science needs to hang onto its traditions and ideas. “Aristotle ranged over the whole of human knowledge and was wrong about much,” he says. “But his invention of zoology alone was priceless. Would you cast him aside? You never know when you might need an old idea.”
The whole thing runs more than 120,000 words. You can dip into it anywhere and be maddened, confused or stirred. If there is an overall point, it is that there is no such thing as a stupid question.
The true currency of science, after all, is not faith or even truth, but doubt. It’s hard to imagine a similar effort coming out of the College of Cardinals or the Politburo of the Chinese Communist Party. In science, as in democracy, everything has to be up for grabs. When the scientists and other intellectuals stop squabbling, then we will know we are in trouble.