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Not All Old Ideas Should Be Recycled



(p. C16) "What is true in the consumer tech industry is true in science and other fields of thinking," Mr. Poole elaborates. "The story of human understanding is not a gradual, stately accumulation of facts" but rather "a wild roller-coaster ride full of loops and switchbacks."

Horses, for example, are once again being used in warfare in the Middle East. Vinyl records are back after losing out to digital CDs and internet streaming. Leeches, whose use was once considered a barbaric medieval practice, are now an FDA-approved "medical device" for cleaning wounds. Bicycles are making a comeback as a popular and efficient means of moving about in large, crowded cities. Blimps are starting to compete with helicopters for moving heavy cargo.


. . .


To understand this process of rediscovery--"old is the new new"--we need to abandon the myth of progress as something that results from a rejection of all that is old.

Still, not all old ideas will return reconfigured into new and useful ones, and it is here where readers may find room for disagreement, despite Mr. Poole's many caveats.


. . .


That there are many unsolved mysteries in science does not always mean that we should turn to the past for insight. Sometimes--usually, in fact--the bad ideas rejected by science belong in the graveyard. Phlogiston, miasma, spontaneous generation, the luminiferous aether--wrong, wrong, wrong and wrong.

Nevertheless, those notions--and many others that Mr. Poole surveys in this thought-provoking book--were wrong in ways that led scientists toward a better understanding, and the middle chapters of "Rethink" elegantly recount these stories. Going forward, Mr. Poole ends by suggesting that we adopt a "view from tomorrow" in which we "try to consider an idea free of the moral weight that attaches to it in particular historical circumstances" and that "we could try to get into the habit of deferring judgments about ideas more generally" in order to keep an open mind. On the flip side, skeptics should not rush to dismiss a consensus idea as wrong just because consensus science is not always right. Most of today's ideas gained consensus in the first place for a very good reason: evidence. Do you know what we call alternative science with evidence? Science.



For the full review, see:


MICHAEL SHERMER. "Everything Old Is New Again." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., December 10, 2016): C16.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date Dec. 9, 2016, and has the title "Electric Cars Are Old News.")


The book under review, is:

Poole, Steven. Rethink: The Surprising History of New Ideas. New York: Scribner, 2016.






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