New science has a difficult time. As physicist Max Planck said long ago, a good idea does not automatically replace a bad one; “opponents eventually die and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”
In his latest compendium, Brockman (What Should We Be Worried About?: Real Scenarios that Keep Scientists Up at Night, 2014, etc.), publisher of the online science salon, Edge.com, asked 175 scientists, philosophers and intellectuals for ideas that have outlived their usefulness. At one to four pages, these are thoughtful essays that answer the question when they’re not doing the opposite (defending the author’s life’s work) or wandering off to answer a different question. There are the usual suspects. Free will, Malthusianism, racism, IQ tests and religion do not do well. Mostly, the contributors hate simple explanations. Scientists studying the brain insist that it’s not a computer, that the left-brain–right-brain dichotomy is silly, and that studying neurological activity won’t explain consciousness because it’s an illusion. Some ideas were never true: Rationality is not a major feature of human behavior. Some debates (nature vs. nurture) are nonsense. Occasionally, the news is good. Altruism is not necessarily self-sacrifice. We benefit as individuals, and most of us experience pleasure when we help others. Finally, novelist Ian McEwan disparages the book’s theme, pointing out that you never know when you’ll need an old idea. “It might rise again one day to enhance a perspective the present cannot imagine.” No one wants to retire Shakespeare. Other contributors include A.C. Grayling, Richard Dawkins, John McWhorter, Sherry Turkle and Jared Diamond.
Although they often beat dead or nonexistent horses, these ingenious cerebral tidbits will stimulate, provoke and confuse (in a good way) intelligent readers.