Does science suffer from a lack of imagination?

Eric Weinstein says that we need to rethink the current scientific model to allow for more dreaming.

Does science suffer from a lack of imagination?
Photo credit: Josh Hild on Unsplash
  • On his new podcast, The Portal, Eric Weinstein argues the scientific method strangles ingenuity by fostering groupthink over imagination.
  • He quotes Jim Watson: "In order to make great advances, we need to be irresponsible."
  • Working out errors in public will prove more valuable than defaulting to consensus.

In the second episode of his new podcast, The Portal, mathematician Eric Weinstein takes current scientific methods to task, claiming that peer review, while touted as a necessary process of discovering provable facts, is actually a hindrance. In his words, the common practice in the scientific community is "an intrusion into the hard sciences."

The need for verification from others dampens the potential for imagination, which Weinstein believes to be essential for stretching beyond what is currently known to dream the unknowable. This, he argues, is how the sciences actually evolve.

Weinstein points to a 1963 Scientific American article by Paul Dirac in which the theoretical physicist discusses the discovery of a third dimension, itself a revolutionary idea proposed by Newton, and then to four dimensions, as provided by Einstein. Imagination is required to make further theoretical leaps, which might require not listening to present-day consensus.

As Dirac writes,

"Our feeble attempts at mathematics enable us to understand a bit of the universe, and as we proceed to develop higher and higher mathematics we can hope to understand the universe better."

Weinstein notes that when Crick and Watson published their seminal 1953 paper on the double helix, Nature did not need peer review to allow its publication. "It was an editor's job to figure out if it was worthy of publication." Thankfully, the editors allowed it; that paper revolutionized our understanding of molecular biology. Their work is the basis of all genetic research today.

Peter Thiel on "The Portal", Episode #001: "An Era of Stagnation & Universal Institutional Failure."

As Siddhartha Mukherjee writes in The Gene, Crick and Watson were playing with a model set in an attempt to construct a triple helix, which turned out to be an epic letdown. Deflated, the team did not stop there. As it turns out, after Watson had his morning coffee a few days later, they imagined the double helix while tinkering with cardboard cutouts. After quoting the poet and philosopher, Paul Valéry, Mukherjee continues,

"To see DNA is to forget its name or its chemical formula. Like the simplest of human tools — hammer, scythe, bellows, ladders, scissors — the function of the molecule can be entirely comprehended from its structure. To 'see' DNA is to immediately perceive its function as a repository of information."

Later, as Weinstein mentions, Watson said that in order to make great advances we need to be irresponsible. Perceived wisdom becomes trapped in its own echo chamber; specialized sciences become their own sort of trap, as Weinstein discusses with venture capitalist Peter Thiel in episode one of The Portal.

Going against the grain to imagine new possibilities puts you at risk of being outcast by your community. Even though we all know this, most researchers seem to follow consensus regardless of what their instinct tells them, a fact that Weinstein sees as a major hurdle for the advancement of the sciences.

Children play in a public fountain as temperature reaches 39°C. For the 2nd time in a month, an intense heatwave is on Western Europe, particularly France. Photo credit: Alain Pitton / NurPhoto via Getty Images

What about the double-blind experiment, the gold standard of science today? Weinstein also criticizes this method, as have others: the replication problem is a serious issue in modern research. Weinstein concedes that "proof checking" is important, yet not the most important aspect of scientific methods:

"A lot of the work we do in science has been incredibly imaginative. You might even say it's irresponsible until it comes into final form and can be reconciled with experiment. But instead we've developed a culture in which immediately upon proposing something, we are told that sine qua non of science is that there be an agreement between theory and experiment. This is wholly untrue."

This is especially important today as we need to create new economic vistas to address problems associated with climate change, timely advice from the mathematician considering the record heat wave in Europe is expected to hasten the melting of Arctic ice. As the current administration is reportedly forcing entire science departments to leave Washington in hopes that many researchers will quit (they are) and their influence will wane (it is), we need all the progress we can get.

To push the boundaries of science, Weinstein says we need to start dreaming more aggressively, in public, in order to unlock the potential of human imagination. He hopes The Portal will serves as a venue for conversations that will provoke a "war on stasis, war on groupthink, war on everything that has enervated our society."

A worthwhile goal, if only the stasis of political gridlock can be broken through and the boundaries of our imagination pushed wide open, once again.

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Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook.

A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source: whrc.org

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source: whrc.org

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source: whrc.org

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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