Which scientific ideas do we need to get rid of?

Illustration for article titled Which scientific ideas do we need to get rid of?

It's the start of the new year, and that means it's time for the Edge's annual Big Question — and as always, it's a provocative one. Nearly 170 prominent thinkers were asked: "What scientific idea is ready for retirement?" Here's what they said.


"Science advances by a series of funerals," writes Edge.org editor John Brockman. "Ideas change, and the times we live in change. Perhaps the biggest change today is the rate of change. What established scientific idea is ready to be moved aside so that science can advance?"

With that asked, here are snippets of some notable answers:

Nina Jablonski: Race

Despite major shifts in scientific thinking, the sibling concepts of human races and a color-based hierarchy of races remained firmly established in mainstream culture through the mid-twentieth century. The resulting racial stereotypes were potent and persistent, especially in the United States and South Africa, where subjugation and exploitation of dark-skinned labor had been the cornerstone of economic growth.

After its "scientific" demise, race remained as a name and concept, but gradually came to stand for something quite different. Today many people identify with the concept of being a member of one or another racial group, regardless of what science may say about the nature of race. The shared experiences of race create powerful social bonds. For many people, including many scholars, races cease to be biological categories and have become social groupings. The concept of race became a more confusing mélange as social categories of class and ethnicity. So race isn't "just" a social construction, it is the real product of shared experience, and people choose to identify themselves by race.


Steve Fuller: Human being = Homo sapiens

On the topic of nonhuman animal personhood:

The fact that claims to 'animal rights' carry no sense of reciprocal obligations on the part of the animals towards humans raises question about the activists' sincerity in appealing to 'rights' at all. However, if the activists are sincere, then they should also call for a proactive policy of what the science fiction writer David Brin has termed 'uplift', whereby we prioritise research designed to enable cognitively privileged creatures, regardless of material origin, to achieve capacities that enable them to function as peers in what may be regarded as an 'expanded circle of humanity'. Such research may focus on gene therapy or prosthetic enhancement, but in the end it would inform a 'Welfare State 2.0' that takes seriously our obligation to all of those whom we regard as capable of being rendered 'human', in the sense of fully autonomous citizens in The Republic of Humanity.

Martin Rees: We'll never hit barriers to scientific understanding

There's a widely-held presumption that our insight will deepen indefinitely—that all scientific problems will eventually yield to attack. But I think we may need to abandon this optimism. The human intellect may hit the buffers—even though in most fields of science, there's surely a long way to go before this happens.


Sherry Turkle: Robot companions

The appeal of robotic companions carries our anxieties about people. We see artificial intelligence as a risk-free way to avoid being alone. We fear that we will not be there to care for each other. We are drawn to the robotic because it offers the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship. Increasingly, people even suggest that it might offer the illusion of love without the demands of intimacy. We are willing to put robots in places where they have no place, not because they belong there but in our disappointments with each other.


Seth Lloyd: The Universe

I know. The universe has been around for 13.8 billion years and is likely to survive for another hundred billion years or more. Plus, where would the universe retire to? Florida isn't big enough. But it is time to retire the twenty-five hundred year old scientific idea of the universe as the single volume of space and time that contains everything. Twenty-first century cosmology strongly suggests that what we see in the cosmos—stars, galaxies, space and time since the big bang—does not encompass all of reality. Cosmos, buy the condo.


Andrian Kreye: Moore's Law

If Moore's law is allowed to become a finite principle, digital progress will be perceived as a linear progression towards a peak and an end. Neither will become a reality, because the digital is not a finite resource, but an infinite realm of mathematical possibilities reaching out into the analog world of sciences, society, economics and politics. Because this progress has ceased to depend on quantifiable basis and on linear narratives it will not be brought to a halt, not even slowed down, if one of it's strains comes to an end.


Alison Gopnik: Innateness

Its commonplace, in both scientific and popular writing to talk about innate human traits, "hard-wired" behaviors or "genes for" everything from alcoholism to intelligence. Sometimes these traits are supposed to be general features of human cognition—sometimes they are supposed to be individual features of particular people. The nature/nurture distinction continues to dominate thinking about development. But its time for innateness to go.


Matt Ridley: Malthusianism

World population will almost certainly cease to grow before the end of the century; peak farmland is very close if not already past; electric cars driven by nuclear power stations are to all intents and purposes an infinite resource. The world is a dynamic, reflexive place in which change is all. Time to retire the static mistakes of misanthropic, myopic, mathematical Parson Malthus because he never was and never will be right.


Frank Wilczek: Mind versus matter

Imagine an artificial intelligence, with human-like insight, contemplating her own blueprint. What would she make of it? I think it's overwhelmingly likely that among her first thoughts would be how to begin making improvements. This processor could be faster, that memory more capacious—and, above all, the reward system more rewarding!

…In bad science fiction, androids are sometimes horrified to learn that they are "mere machines". Following the instruction of the Delphic oracle, to "Know Thyself", we find ourselves making a similar discovery. The wise and mature reaction to the realization that mind and matter are mind/matter, is to take joy in what a wonderful thing mind/matter can be, and is.


Daniel Dennett: The "hard problem" of consciousness

One might object that the Hard Problem of consciousness (so dubbed by philosopher David Chalmers in his 1996 book, The Conscious Mind) isn't a scientific idea at all, and hence isn't an eligible candidate for this year's question, but since the philosophers who have adopted the term have also persuaded quite a few cognitive scientists that their best scientific work addresses only the "easy" problems of consciousness, this idea qualifies as scientific: it constrains scientific thinking, distorting scientists' imaginations as they attempt to formulate genuinely scientific theories of consciousness.


Other answers included the collapse of the wave function, the uncertainty principle, the habitable zone, large randomized controlled trials, artificial intelligence, human nature, the scientific method, addiction, nature versus nuture, free will, essentialism, infinity, and calculus.

That's just a quick sampling; check out this ridiculously impressive list of contributors:

Andre Linde, Nina Jablonski, Martin Rees, Julia Clarke, Fiery Cushman, Seirian Sumner, Jay Rosen, Laurie Santos & Tamar Gendler, Alan Guth, Dean Ornish, Robert Sapolsky, Andrian Kreye, Benjamin Bergen, Kai Krause, Gary Marcus, Amanda Gefter, Paul Saffo, Ian Gold & Joel Gold, Dimitar Sasselov, Jamil Zaki, Scott Sampson, Susan Fiske, Alexander Wissner-Gross, Kate Jeffery, Tor Nørretranders, Kiley Hamlin, Oliver Scott Curry, Bruce Parker, Brian Christian, Kate Mills, Athena Vouloumanos, June Gruber, Eduardo Salcedo-Albaran, N.J. Enfield, Kathryn Clancy, Eldar Shafir, Ross Anderson, Ian Bogost, Simon Baron-Cohen, Bart Kosko, Tom Griffiths, Sarah Demers, Stephen Stich, Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, Roger Highfield, Todd Sacktor, Victoria Wyatt, Ernst Pöppel, Gavin Schmidt, Bruce Hood, David Buss, Nigel Goldenfeld, Steve Giddings, Michael Norton, Catherine Bateson, Laurence Smith, Frank Tipler, Stephen Kosslyn, Brian Knutson, Robert Provine, Gerd Gigerenzer, Paul Bloom, Laura Betzig, Buddhini Samarasinghe, Kurt Gray, Daniel Goleman, Susan Blackmore, Alun Anderson, Martin Nowak, Marcelo Gleiser, David Deutsch, Donald Hoffman, Samuel Arbesman, Gregory Benford, Seth Lloyd, Nicholas Carr, Thomas Metzinger, Alex Holcombe, Leo Chalupa, Hans Ulrich Obrist, Stuart Pimm, Ed Regis, Giulio Boccaletti, Nicholas Christakis, W. Daniel Hillis, Michael McCullough, Gary Klein, Alex "Sandy" Pentland, Luca De Biase, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Jonathan Gottschall, Azra Raza, M.D., Cesar Hidalgo, Aubrey de Grey, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, Sherry Turkle, Scott Atran, Patricia Churchland, Gerald Smallberg, Peter Woit, Charles Seife, Robert Kurzban, David Myers, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Roger Schank, Paul Steinhardt, Peter Richerson, Helen Fisher, Abigail Marsh, Lisa Barrett, Irene Pepperberg, Adam Waytz, Andrew Lih, Steve Fuller, Stewart Brand, Gordon Kane, Andy Clark, Melanie Swan, Satyajit Das, Pascal Boyer, Richard Nisbett, Samuel Barondes, Jerry Coyne, Alan Alda, Paul Davies, Neil Gershenfeld, Dan Sperber, Richard Dawkins, Lawrence Krauss, Matt Ridley, Lee Smolin, Sam Harris, A.C. Grayling, Eric Topol, M.D., Timo Hannay, Ian McEwan, Alison Gopnik, Adam Alter, John McWhorter, Freeman Dyson, Emanuel Derman, Haim Harari, Jared Diamond, Carlo Rovelli, Jonathan Haidt, John Tooby, Max Tegmark, Richard Saul Wurman, Edward Slingerland, Christine Finn, Frank Wilczek, Victoria Stodden, Steven Pinker, Howard Gardner, David Gelernter, Rodney Brooks, Douglas Rushkoff, Hugo Mercier, Michael Shermer, Beatrice Golomb, Terrence Sejnowski, Sean Carroll, Daniel Everett, Margaret Levi, Richard Thaler, Tania Lombrozo, Daniel C. Dennett, Maria Spiropulu, Nicholas Humphrey, George Dyson, Kevin Kelly


Read the whole thing here.

Top image: Vadim Sadovski/Shutterstock.


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All a bit heavy for my poor brain to comprehend, I must admit.

I think we should give up on the idea that the next step in interactive technology is to have computers implanted in our brains. Not including for medical necessity, I can't see why anybody would voluntarily choose to do something so inherently risky and pointless.