(Editor: As in all science where direct testing cannot be done, scientists come up with theories that seem to fit the data available. Of course, the usual objectivity with which actual scientific tests are conducted is impossible, so subjectivity falls into play. And that of course can be the problem when untested hypotheses or theories are cited as facts.)
Joseph Brean of The National Post comments on the “retiring of old ideas”.
IQ, Big Bang, evolution on list of incomplete or outdated ideas scientists suggest are ready to be ‘retired ’
Unlike rock stars, scientific ideas do not usually burn out. They fade away and outlast their usefulness.
This is what motivated a new survey of 166 scientists and intellectuals, asking which ideas ought to be “retired” from science, not quite because they are wrong, but because they are old and ineffective, like nature versus nurture, left-brain versus right-brain, or carbon footprints.
As with Newton’s law of gravity, which gave way to Einstein’s, many of these ideas were once on the cutting edge, but have since been revealed as incomplete, outdated and bland. So the survey, released Tuesday by U.S. literary agent John Brockman, founder of the web salon Edge.org, is like spring cleaning for science. The point is to clear away junk, but sometimes you rediscover something useful under the couch.
Candidates for retirement include foundational ideas from across the spectrum of human inquiry: addiction, race, the self, common sense, free will, human nature, IQ, “information overload,” Moore’s Law on increasing computer power, the Uncertainty Principle, cause and effect, statistical significance, the continuity of time, spacetime, string theory, brain plasticity, artificial intelligence and the idea that the Big Bang was the beginning of time.
Many focus on innateness, instinct or human nature. Some are on process, such as “the scientific method,” or “scientism,” the belief “that empirical science entails the most complete, authoritative and valid approach to answering questions about the world.” One psychologist suggests doing away with evidence based medicine on the grounds that “medical science is not comprehensive.”
Roger Highfield, a former science journalist now at the U.K.’s National Museum of Science and Industry, wants to retire the idea that evolution is true, not because it is false, but because the dogmatic declaration of its “truth” lures a thinker into a close-minded confidence, unjustified by even the best current science of evolution.
It is a worthy reminder for a career scientist, whose own education can sometimes obscure strange new insights, and inflate old ideas beyond their worth.
Edward Slingerland, Canada Research Chair in Chinese Thought and Embodied Cognition at the University of British Columbia, said some of these old ideas are “impeding progress.” In one of his fields, the evolution of religion, he said there are people who refuse to acknowledge the ideas they grew up with are no longer cutting edge, but dated and near useless.
“I feel like we’ve got people who are just not acknowledging the state of the field and are continuing to assert positions that really are not tenable anymore,” he said. “And so in that sense I do think it’s important, maybe not to throw away views, but say, hey, this is not really a plausible position to embrace anymore.”
Prof. Slingerland’s contribution to the survey was “scientific morality,” the idea that a theory could capture and explain all the diversity of humanity’s moral views.
“As long as we are embracing this myth that we could really emerge as unmarked, rational agents into a completely objective world, it actually inhibits our ability to understand how morality works in people’s minds around the world, or throughout history,” he said in an interview.
Nature/nurture is a ‘beguiling concept’ with a ‘poetic moniker’ that ‘truly deserves a bullet in the back of its head’
Most contributions are like this, big ideas from a specific field, and many of them still seem new to the layman, or at least current.
These include the nature/nurture divide, which Timo Hannay, a scientific publisher, suggests we retire. He calls it a “beguiling concept” with a “poetic moniker” that “truly deserves a bullet in the back of its head.” In his written response, he cites the Canadian neuropsychologist Donald Hebb, who formulated the best known debunking of “nature or nurture?” by asking, rhetorically, which contributes more to the area of a rectangle: its length, or its width.
Another is Universal Grammar, the grand linguistic theory of Noam Chomsky, to which “evidence has not been kind,” writes Benjamin K. Bergen, a cognitive scientist at the University of California San Diego.
Daniel Dennett, a philosopher of mind famous for his view that we are robots, suggests we retire the idea of the “hard problem” of consciousness, which says it is “easy” to say how the brain does individual tasks, but “hard” to say how it unites them into consciousness.
Richard Dawkins suggests “essentialism,” quoting himself by defining it as “the tyranny of the discontinuous mind.” He writes that scientists fetishize the unchanging “essence” of things, and “seem ill-equipped to deal mentally with a continuous spectrum of intermediates.”
Prof. Slingerland said he was particularly struck by the contrarian response of novelist Ian McEwan, who questioned the question.
“Beware of arrogance! Retire nothing!” Mr. McEwan wrote. “A great and rich scientific tradition should hang onto everything it has. Truth is not the only measure. There are ways of being wrong that help others to be right. Some are wrong, but brilliantly so. Some are wrong but contribute to method. Some are wrong but help found a discipline.”
Some ideas can be wrongly retired, Prof. Slingerland said, which makes it hard to recall them into service. He gave the example of group cultural selection, a theory in evolutionary science that suggests natural selection can act on groups, not just genes, and has come to be regarded as “wooly headed.” Steven Pinker, the Canadian cognitive scientist at Harvard University, has called it a “scientific dust bunny.”
“It’s kind of a truism. All you have to do is say, ‘Well that’s a group selection argument,’ and it’s like saying, ‘That’s wrong,’” Prof. Slingerland said. “Once you do that, it makes it really hard to bring it back, even in the face of positive evidence in support of it. And the fact that we trashed it is impeding progress now because it’s so hard to get people to talk about it.”
• Email: firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter:
(Editor: Perhaps other old ideas which cause more questions than answers also need retiring? Can you think of any?)