2 March, 2015Issue 27.4LiteratureNon-fictionScienceThe Essay

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Must Everything Really Die?

Kanta Dihal

John Brockman (ed.)
This Idea Must Die: Scientific Theories That Are Blocking Progress
Harper Perennial, 2015 (general release 26 March)
£6.99 (paperback)
592 pages
ISBN: 9780062374349

On his website Edge.org, a place meant to facilitate discussion between the world’s leading “intellectuals,” editor John Brockman asks his collective a different question each year. In 2013, the question was, “What *should* we be worried about?” In 2000, “What’s today’s most important unreported story?” And this year, he asked his great minds, “What scientific idea is ready for retirement?” One hundred seventy-five scientists, philosophers, journalists, and others wrote essays in response to this question, which are collected in This Idea Must Die: Scientific Theories That Are Blocking Progress.

With these many responses collected in one book, it cannot come as a surprise that the essays are all quite brief, some less than a page in length. This gives the author just enough time to introduce the concept that “must die”, explain how it has negatively influenced current thinking, and argue why we should get rid of it. Though this might sound likely to lead to a collection of fragmented snippets, it turns out to be the perfect length to push the boundaries of the reader’s general knowledge just a little further with every essay. Very few of the essays collected here preach to the choir, or simply repeat statements which have been widely advertised in the media before. Nicholas Humphrey’s essay belongs to this minority: keen to do away with the concept “The Bigger an Animal’s Brain, the Greater Its Intelligence,” Humphrey claims that the average reader will probably find this idea obviously true, backing up this claim with the laughable argument that in the twentieth century, a bigger computer meant more computing power. He similarly fails to reflect on the fact that dolphins and whales, for example, have bigger brains than we do.

Brockman’s definition of the kind of intellectual who can contribute to Edge.org is extremely inclusive, which leads to an assortment of authors that is unlikely to be found anywhere else, except perhaps in a collection of TED talks. His authors include famous academics such as Martin Rees, Jared Diamond, Richard Dawkins, and Daniel C. Dennett, but also science writers such as Amanda Gefter, and people who have no professional relation to the science-oriented question at hand: novelist Ian McEwan and actor Alan Alda (M*A*S*H). The latter, however, presents an immensely insightful article on the idea that “Things Are Either True or False,” in which Alda presents himself as a lover of science who gives a lot of thought to his object of affection, as true lovers do.

What does seem to be missing from this book is coherence and internal debate. The essays are cleverly arranged in such a way that most of the time the reader will recognize a link between each essay. However, in many cases, more than one author has written on the very same topic: Giulio Boccaletti and Laurence C. Smith, for instance, have both written an essay against “Stationarity,” and there are two essays titled “Left-Brain/Right-Brain.” In many cases, the two or three authors writing on the same topic approach it from entirely different angles, adding to the debate, but a few essays contain overlapping explanations, which is unfortunate in a book in which the average essay is shorter than this review.

The book is especially intriguing where one essay directly contradicts another. Frank Tipler, for instance, argues for getting rid of “String Theory,” while in the next essay, Gordon Kane argues in its favour. It is a pity in these cases that authors do not interact at all in this book: it would have been interesting to see brief polemics develop. The authors choose to polemicize against earlier authors and writings instead. On the other hand, the fact that these essays are entirely independent gives the reader the chance to make connections between the opposing viewpoints, and to consider which side is more convincing.

Surprisingly, there are even a few essays that directly argue against the premise of the Edge question. Various authors, including Richard H. Thaler, and Ian McEwan in a less convincing essay, argue that no theory should ever be discarded. Jared Diamond claims that it is not always the case that new theories must replace old ones—sometimes new theories can come out of nowhere and fill a vacuum in our knowledge. Brockman opens up questions usually limited to discussions on the philosophy of science simply by including authors who think his question was a strange one to ask.

It must be said that in some cases, as in the aforementioned essays on “Stationarity,” the condemned idea is not necessarily well-known to the general public. This puts extra pressure on the author, who must explain the concept first, before arguing why it should be retired, and all that in five pages. In the case of Boccaletti and Smith, this has not worked out well; Smith’s essay comes after Boccaletti’s, but contains a considerably clearer explanation of the concept of stationarity, the idea that phenomena in nature fluctuate with an unchanging statistical uncertainty. In Luca de Biase’s essay against “The Tragedy of the Commons” this issue becomes even more problematic, as he does not care to explain what he means by “the commons.” It is unfortunate that only a few dozen contributors have made use of the opportunity to provide footnotes, as these would have been useful for the reader who wanted to learn more about a certain topic. In the case of Kai Krause’s essay on “The Uncertainty Principle,” for instance, it would have been helpful if Krause had provided more information on the mistranslation of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle from the German word “Unschärferelation“, since, although this is the commonly used German term for the principle nowadays, in Heisenberg’s original 1925 article he calls it “Ungenauigkeit“.

This book approaches science from a position not often taken within science popularization: the question that is asked assumes there are flaws and mistakes in science which could be hindering it, and the book also shows that people sometimes strongly disagree about the kinds of ideas that are, or are not, productive. The question for 2015 is, “What do you think about machines that think?” This question is addressed a few times in This Idea Must Die, and the contributors will have a hard time creating a series of answers that are as diverse and productive as the 2014 question.

Kanta Dihal is reading for a DPhil in English at St Anne’s College, Oxford. She is a Senior Editor at the Oxonian Review.