Edge.org has just published the answers to its annual question. This year: What Scientific Idea is Ready for Retirement? The editors quote theoretical physicist Max Planck who noted that
A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.
In other words, science advances by a series of funerals. In yet other words, if human lifespan is the single most determinant variable of the rate of variation in our pool of ideas, what should we expect given the accelerated rate of technological change that’s driving our society?
As every year, there are interesting proposals in this particular redundancy plan for scientific ideas which range from physics to psychiatry and social sciences: Some I find particularly in line with my own list of preferences are (absolutely non-exhaustive, and just for the sake of argument):
- Martin Rees, Former President of The Royal Society and Emeritus Professor of Cosmology & Astrophysics, University of Cambridge: We’ll Never Hit Barriers To Scientific Understanding
- Stuart Pimm, Doris Duke Chair of Conservation Ecology, Duke University: Unbridled Scientific and Technological Optimism
- Gavin Smith, Climatologist with NASAs Goddard Institute: Simple Answers
- A. C. Grayling, Professor of Philosophy at Birkbeck College, University of London, and a Supernumerary Fellow of St Anne’s College, Oxford: Simplicity
- Jonathan Haidt, Social Psychologist: The Pursuit of Parsimony
- Daniel C. Dennett, Philosopher; Austin B. Fletcher Professor of Philosophy, Co-Director, Center for Cognitive Studies, Tufts University: The Hard Problem
Interesting as they are, I find that this year’s crop of answers is not particularly illuminating. There are quite a few well-known, repeated ideas which, true, they might be still waiting for their time, together with some more provocative ideas but —how would I say this? — spelt without too much faith or conviction; and frankly nothing particularly new. I must say I have not been surprised.
The most interesting proposal comes from a writer: Ian McEwan’s counter proposal. He thinks that we should not retire any idea at all:
Beware of arrogance! Retire nothing! A great and rich scientific tradition should hang onto everything it has. Truth is not the only measure.
In a globalized, fully connected world, the greater cultural risk we face is cultural homogenization. Like genes, ideas are more valuable as tiny contributors to a large pool of competing ideas than isolated. It is diversity which counts, specially in a fast changing environment. So, my vote goes to McEwan.
The Edge question didn’t ask for ideas outside the realm of science, however I think the question is probably more interesting when extended to ideas in general. There are a few ideas that have made a very long journey down the road of human history, and they are maybe too old to continue apace. They have led us to where we are today and they have exerted and still exert a huge influence on our society. For a good reason, we try to keep those ideas walking along beside us, but they fall and fail and, with the bear behind us, they are becoming a risk to our survival.
I think of ideas like justice, equality, trust and the like. Like mammoths or sabre tooth tigers, they should have got extinct long ago because they have not suited the current environmental conditions for years. In fact, they have never properly existed except as ideals, like beacons which guide our perilous journey in the darkness of the night. Unfortunately, old unfit ideas might be moving us in the wrong direction now. Like sirens, they might be attracting us to a certain death. These old ideas have been sequestered and are being used as a partisan and self-interested weapon by the elites to control the hopes of the less well-off. They are dangerous ideas because they make us believe (and act) in terms which have been proved wrong and they make us hopelessly hope.
Therefore I propose a dignified retirement for these ideas. I do not propose to kill off old ideas. Like old people who have worked hard and whose experience, encouragement and love we want to preserve, I propose to pay these ideas a well-deserved pension and retire them from the “labour” market for ideas. They will continue to inspire us, but they should not play an active role anymore. We need the sons and daughters of these old ideas taking over the flag. A new breed of social ideas which make people think of what’s reasonable and possible to expect and achieve in a comprehensible way. We need new ideas for a more complex world.
Where are you thinkers? (Hopefully not in Davos…) We want more ideas not fewer. Tell me, please. I’m listening so hard that it hurts…
Featured Image: Leonard Cohen, Old Ideas, Cover Art
Image above: The ArtBlog of Shaun Pinello, Old Ideas