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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.
- 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.
- Eric Weinstein on Intellectual Dark Web and Disagreeability - Big ... ›
- Could genomics solve the climate change crisis? - Big Think ›
Some mysteries take generations to unfold.
- In 1959, a group of nine Russian hikers was killed in an overnight incident in the Ural Mountains.
- Conspiracies about their deaths have flourished ever since, including alien invasion, an irate Yeti, and angry tribesmen.
- Researchers have finally confirmed that their deaths were due to a slab avalanche caused by intense winds.
a: Last picture of the Dyatlov group taken before sunset, while making a cut in the slope to install the tent. b: Broken tent covered with snow as it was found during the search 26 days after the event.
Photographs courtesy of the Dyatlov Memorial Foundation.<p>Finally, a <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s43247-020-00081-8" target="_blank">new study</a>, published in the Nature journal Communications Earth & Environment, has put the case to rest: it was a slab avalanche.</p><p>This theory isn't exactly new either. Researchers have long been skeptical about the avalanche notion, however, due to the grade of the hill. Slab avalanches don't need a steep slope to get started. Crown or flank fractures can quickly release as little as a few centimeters of earth (or snow) sliding down a hill (or mountain). </p><p>As researchers Johan Gaume (Switzerland's WSL Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research SLF) and Alexander Puzrin (Switzerland's Institute for Geotechnical Engineering) write, it was "a combination of irregular topography, a cut made in the slope to install the tent and the subsequent deposition of snow induced by strong katabatic winds contributed after a suitable time to the slab release, which caused severe non-fatal injuries, in agreement with the autopsy results."</p><p>Conspiracy theories abound when evidence is lacking. Twenty-six days after the incident, a team showed up to investigate. They didn't find any obvious sounds of an avalanche; the slope angle was below 30 degrees, ruling out (to them) the possibility of a landslide. Plus, the head injuries suffered were not typical of avalanche victims. Inject doubt and crazy theories will flourish.</p>
Configuration of the Dyatlov tent installed on a flat surface after making a cut in the slope below a small shoulder. Snow deposition above the tent is due to wind transport of snow (with deposition flux Q).
Photo courtesy of Communications Earth & Environment.<p>Add to this Russian leadership's longstanding battle with (or against) the truth. In 2015 the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation decided to reopen this case. Four years later the agency concluded it was indeed a snow avalanche—an assertion immediately challenged within the Russian Federation. The oppositional agency eventually agreed as well. The problem was neither really provided conclusive scientific evidence.</p><p>Gaume and Puzrin went to work. They provided four critical factors that confirmed the avalanche: </p><ul><li>The location of the tent under a shoulder in a locally steeper slope to protect them from the wind </li><li>A buried weak snow layer parallel to the locally steeper terrain, which resulted in an upward-thinning snow slab</li><li>The cut in the snow slab made by the group to install the tent </li><li>Strong katabatic winds that led to progressive snow accumulation due to the local topography (shoulder above the tent) causing a delayed failure</li></ul><p>Case closed? It appears so, though don't expect conspiracy theories to abate. Good research takes time—sometimes generations. We're constantly learning about our environment and then applying those lessons to the past. While we can't expect every skeptic to accept the findings, from the looks of this study, a 62-year-old case is now closed.</p><p> --</p><p><em>Stay in touch with Derek on <a href="http://www.twitter.com/derekberes" target="_blank">Twitter</a> and <a href="https://www.facebook.com/DerekBeresdotcom" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Facebook</a>. His most recent book is</em> "<em><a href="https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B08KRVMP2M?pf_rd_r=MDJW43337675SZ0X00FH&pf_rd_p=edaba0ee-c2fe-4124-9f5d-b31d6b1bfbee" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy</a>."</em></p>
As patients approached death, many had dreams and visions of deceased loved ones.
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Research reveals a new evolutionary feature that separates humans from other primates.
- Researchers find a new feature of human evolution.
- Humans have evolved to use less water per day than other primates.
- The nose is one of the factors that allows humans to be water efficient.
A model of water turnover for humans and chimpanzees who have similar fat free mass and body water pools.
Credit: Current Biology
Being skeptical isn't just about being contrarian. It's about asking the right questions of ourselves and others to gain understanding.