Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Giving some ideas a decent burial

Debashish Munshi & Priya Kurian

One of us was talking to our colleague David McKie today about re-designing a course we teach and he said that one way of taking the course into the future was to facilitate the extinction of some ideas that we feel obliged to work with and generate fresh ways of thinking and communicating.

It’s during this conversation that David referred us to John Brockman’s just-released anthology This Idea Must Die:Scientific Theories that are Blocking Progress (New York: Harper Perennial). The volume is a collection of answers provided by well-known as well as not-so-well-known scientists, writers, and thinkers to Brockman’s question “What scientific idea is ready for retirement” on his popular digital discussion platform Edge.

We haven’t read this new book yet but going by the reviews, it looks like it is engaging and thought-provoking. Writing about the volume in a recent issue of New Scientist, Simon Ings says that “Some ideas cited in the book are so annoying that we would be better off without them, even though they are true. Take "brain plasticity". This was a real thing once upon a time, but the phrase spread promiscuously into so many corners of neuroscience that no one really knows what it means anymore.” Ings’s favourite response in the volume is from the “paleontologist Julia Clarke” who would like people “to stop asking her where feathered dinosaurs leave off and birds begin” because making sense of animal behaviour based on fossil data is far too complex than linear projections.

Last year, the Edge posted its annual question:
Science advances by discovering new things and developing new ideas. Few truly new ideas are developed without abandoning old ones first. As theoretical physicist Max Planck (1858-1947) noted, "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. Why wait that long?
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?  
A total of 175 responses came in and each of them is fascinating in its own right. Maria Popova’s review of the book on the Brain Pickings site goes over what she describes as a catalog of broken theories that hold us back from the conquest of Truth” and these range from IQ to the left brain vs. right brain divide; from human nature to romantic love. Popova chronicles in detail many of the responses that capture the interplay between philosophy and science and shows how public understanding of science is also inherently philosophical.

While on public understanding of science and a word we started this blog with – extinction, an article forthcoming in PUS focuses on whether extinction refers to a point of no return or whether scientists and the lay public alike cause confusion by misusing the term to mean different things in different contexts. For example, can there be such a thing as “local extinction”? Or, for that matter, can species declared extinct be resurrected?

The article by Brenda D. Smith-Patten, Eli S. Bridge, Priscilla H. C. Crawford, Daniel J. Hough, Jeffrey F. Kelly and Michael A. Patten of the University of Oklahoma, USA, argues that frequent misuse of the term has major consequences for systematic conservation action. A loose expression of ‘extinction’ such as conflating it with extirpation (disappearance of a species in a particular geographical area despite being in existence elsewhere), they say, “will result in the term failing to spark the sense of urgency needed for grass roots conservation action and policy change.” Also, there is a tendency to “trumpet rediscoveries or reversals of extinction” which are equally misplaced as they often refer to the sighting of species that had not been seen since being declared extinct.

Clearly, for the authors, extinction is irreversible. It is part of the biological processes of evolution. Living species do have a life span which depends to a large extent on physical and environmental contexts. But work in biology keeps progressing. Surely, ideas have a life span too and it should be fine for some to die out when they are no longer relevant.