To Kill or to Keep an Intriguing Idea?
By LeRoy Lawson
This Idea Must Die: Scientific Theories That Are Blocking Progress
John Brockman, editor
New York: Harper Perennial, 2015
The Hunt for Vulcan: . . . And How Albert Einstein Destroyed a Planet, Discovered Relativity, and Deciphered the Universe
New York: Random House, 2015
So you are running into resistance to change in your church, are you? So you believe religion alone is the great resister of new ideas, do you? So you’ve been thinking science, on the contrary, is always based on objective, bias-free research and reason, have you?
In This Idea Must Die, John Brockman, publisher of Edge.org, which England’s The Guardian has labeled “the world’s smartest website” (but how is that smartness calculated, one wonders), has published another of his annual challenges to some of the world’s sharpest thinkers. The 2014 question, put to 175 scientists, artists, journalists, and philosophers, was this one: “What scientific idea is ready for retirement?” That is, what thought—once new and exciting—has grown stale and obstructive and is now a roadblock keeping newer and presumably better ideas from taking hold?
Great question. Physicist Max Planck many years ago lamented that scientific thinking basically progresses by funerals: New ideas can take hold only after champions of old ideas die. But even that idea has to die, according to this book. Change is accelerating too fast; we can’t wait for deaths to deliver us.
Here’s a sampling of this volume’s provocative ideas:
We need a bigger definition of science itself (Sam Harris).
We need a better working theory of human behavior (Steven Pinker).
We need to abandon the standard deviation in statistics (Nassim Nicholas Taleb).
We need to rethink what we mean by “artificial intelligence” (Sherry Turkle).
We need to get rid of the concept of race (Nina Jablonski).
We need to stop glorifying unlimited economic growth (Hans Ulbricht Obrist).
And on and on through 175 brief chapters.
In other words, just about everything we think science or “common sense” has settled is either unsettled or needs to be. Together, these essays plead for a suspension of certainty, since certainty stifles the very questions that promote change. The chapters are as much about faith as about fact, even when making the case for fact over faith. And they frequently disagree with each other.
I couldn’t help comparing these conflicting points of view over cherished scientific doctrines with the clashes of dogma that rocked the centuries when theology was queen of the sciences. It took a Reformation to break the stranglehold of orthodoxy.
Some of my favorite authors appear here, like Steven Pinker, Jared Diamond, and surprises like Alan Alda.
You’ll also find some noted critics of religion like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett.
This is not a book for the timid.
I found my own bias in Ian McEwan’s essay, “Beware of Arrogance! Retire Nothing!” It’s his plea against prematurely throwing away too much. Even wrong ideas can “help others be right,” he argues. “Some are wrong, but brilliantly so. Some are wrong but contribute to method. Some are wrong but help fund a discipline. . . . ”
Right. This is why we study history, literature, religion, and the evolution of science (and even the science of evolution). Nothing is wasted, even when it strikes us as completely wrongheaded.
But—and this is the point of the book—not everything deserves to hold sway. There’s a time for some ideas to retire from the scene.
That thought is balanced by the last sentence of the last essay, however: “Let us measure progress not by what is discovered but rather by the growing list of mysteries that remind us of how little we really know.”
Some Ideas Must Die . . .
As if to prove the point that some ideas must die, along comes Thomas Levenson’s The Hunt for Vulcan: . . . And How Albert Einstein Destroyed a Planet, Discovered Relativity, and Deciphered the Universe. It’s about a planet that never existed and all the brilliant people who were sure it was there.
For more than 50 years scientists searched for it. They believed Isaac Newton’s laws demanded it be there, tucked into orbit between Mercury and the sun. Some well-known astronomers even claimed they had found it.
Here’s the rub. It wasn’t there.
Clear back in 1687, Newton’s famed laws explained how all matter in motion worked—he thought. Then, almost two centuries later, Urbain-Jean-Joseph Le Verrier, building on Newton’s work, predicted the existence of the planet Vulcan. He could prove it, he said. Others followed his lead. The hunt was on.
And so it was until the 20th century, when Albert Einstein called a halt to the hunt. He found the problem—in Newton’s theory of gravity. Vulcan hunters were operating under a false set of assumptions. They believed an idea that had to die.
It was easy to believe in Le Verrier, by the way. He had earlier used Newton’s laws to discover the planet Neptune, a remarkable achievement. He then turned his attention to the behavior of Mercury, which seemed to indicate that another body was exercising gravitational pull on that planet. Just as there had to be a planet beyond Uranus (Neptune), so by the same Newtonian laws there had to be a planet (Vulcan) to account for Mercury’s orbit.
Then along came Einstein. I can’t go into the physics here—as they say, some things are “above my pay grade”—but the end of the matter is that Mercury behaves as it ought to behave given its proximity to the sun, which causes that minute “wobble” in Mercury’s orbit that baffled generations of scientists.
If you are interested in how science works, this is a helpful book. Levenson tells a good tale, doesn’t assume a scholarly readership, and lets us skip over the mathematics to get on with the story. I’ve included it in this column, as I said, because the belief in Vulcan is such a good example of an idea that was forced to retire.
. . . And Some Must Not
James Cone’s The Cross and the Lynching Tree is another provocative book, but for a very different reason.
If it is true that some ideas must die, it is also true that some ideas must never be allowed to die. Professor Cone’s idea is this: Lynching was (is) white America’s equivalent of crucifixion in the Roman Empire. Most white theologians have either ignorantly or deliberately refused to deal with the awful similarities between Golgotha’s cross and America’s lynching tree. But black theologian Cone won’t stand for their refusal any longer.
The cross is central to white America’s Christian faith. Jesus died on that cross, that “emblem of suffering and shame,” and by means of it brought salvation. Likewise, the lynching tree symbolizes African-Americans’ suffering and shame—and their salvation from one who shared their humiliation and death and thus identified with them.
The undeniable fact is that in my lifetime lynching was in much of America the unofficial law of the land. Movies portray outlaws stringing up their enemies. The bad guys are doing the bad deed. But in real life, so-called good people are guilty of the bad deed: sheriffs and posses and vigilantes hunted down, tried, judged, and then hanged their predominantly black victims while white crowds cheered and religious leaders applauded and photographers snapped their pictures.
While reading this book, I was also reading today’s news stories. Many are filled with hate: of Muslims, homosexuals, illegal aliens, political opponents . . . of anybody who is different from us. It’s the same kind of hate that led respectable people to think lynching was normal. Like crucifixions in Jerusalem.
We have come a long way in this country, no doubt. We don’t lynch anymore. Is that because we’ve become more civilized, or because we have found other ways to get rid of people we don’t like?
As I said, a provocative book.
LeRoy Lawson serves as international consultant with CMF International.