Looking for innovation in ridiculous ideas

Physics used to make sense to me when I was a kid. I used to think that I was part of those who think scientifically and don’t believe in God. Concepts like gravity, magnetism, atoms, evolution were pretty easy to grasp. They also fitted perfectly with my view of the world.

Then I learned about the next level of physics. The concept of quantum mechanics, Einstein’s special relativity theory. It pretty much blew my mind. Not because it was difficult to understand or believe. It just didn’t fit with my absolute truth about the world. More specifically, I had a problems grasping the fact that particles can be at two places at the same time, or that time could slow down for one person if they travelled faster than another person. I didn’t have a problem believing it. I usually believe in science. But still, I thought: gee the world is weirder than I thought. It approached what I would consider as magic.

I think learning about it has had ab overall positive effect on me. It opened my mind to things I used to consider as scientifically impossible. If quantum physics was real, what prevents the existence of ghosts? Or telepathy? Or God? Or the Giant Spaghetti monster?
Perhaps there’s a scientific explanation for those, but it doesn’t mean they don’t exist.
Realizing that there was still a lot of mysteries in this world was rather refreshing more than frightening.

The more I learned about science, the more I realized how little I know about this world. I think that shifted my mind towards the artistic side.

But what does this have anything to do with the title of this article? Well, I’m getting to it.

As I was browsing for science and TED-talk videos, then one caught my attention. It wasn’t on the TED-talk youtube channel, and the title was BANNED TED-talk. Why would someone ban a TED-talk? Was it overly racist or extremely boring?

The talk was a scientific talk given by Rupert Sheldrake. I was expecting something offensive, but instead, the talk was just… intriguing. It turns out the reason it was banned was due to ridiculous claims, such that when a rat learns a new trick in London, rats all over the Earth seem to automatically know it, or that the speed of light which is a constant has slowed down over the years. I didn’t think it was that far fetched, but it does seem to violate several laws of physics. Oh yah, one of Sheldrake’s claim: The laws of physics evolve over time. Talk about an innovative way of seeing the world!
But I didn’t actually think it was so outrageous to be banned. I agree that there are some eyebrow raising moments, but it’s up to the audience to decide the truth. If you look at TED-talks, most of them are motivation speech: take more risks in life, be happy with yourself, nothing really new. For once, someone had a speech showing he is very different than ordinary people. But perhaps, that indicates an important point: his talk wasn’t accepted because it was too different. I proceeded to read the comments. It ranged from people praising his original way of thinking, to people dismissing his ideas as completely ridiculous. But who are those closed minded people who would be so against those fresh ideas. Well, if we think about the cause of this particular ban, it would be the scientists.

Why would scientists, who are supposedly the brightest minds in the world, be so resistant to new ideas? Is it arrogance leading them to believe that what they know is the truth? But then how can scientist possibly discover anything new if that’s the case?
Perhaps this does not apply to all scientists, but there’s one thing that still baffles me. Why do most scientists have such a hard time believing in God? Can’t they at least think there’s a possibility that they might be wrong about that? I thought scientists consider Einstein as their role model, but Einstein believed in God.

I think there is one element of thinking from the scientific method that leads to that. Like mathematics, science defines a set of rules, which lead scientists to a logical conclusion and help them predict the world. If we changed one of those rules, then the prediction wouldn’t fit anymore. But that often happens. When looking at distant stars in the universe, or when dealing with particles approaching the speed of light, the rules change depending on the situation. The discovery of quantum theory itself had to be made because scientists realized that observations kept breaking the rules of traditional physics. Heck, we can even say that claiming that the Earth is round breaks the ancient rule stating that the Earth is flat.

I understand that it is difficult to work as a scientist if you can’t assume what you know is true. I am myself a computer scientist, and unexpected results in my program do drive me absolutely nuts!

Perhaps another factor which is more attributed to the fact that scientists are very knowledgeable mind. Remember as a kid, you knew nothing about the world, and kept asking questions. Your mind was opened to believe any silly beliefs from the easter bunny to the Pythagorean theorem. As we become more knowledgeable, we tend to solidify our version of the truth, which is necessary as an adult. We protect our beliefs because it makes us feel safe, while the unknown feels scary. Thus we are more seeking signs to confirm that we are right, rather than look for signs that show we are wrong. This video from Veritasium shows that.

Derek asked people to guess a rule for a series of 3 consecutive numbers, and they were allowed to provide any series and asked if they fit the rule.

Derek provided the first series: 2–4–8
Then people tried those numbers:
- does 16–32–64 fit the rule? Yes
- 3–6–12? Fits the rule
- 10–20–40? Fits the rule
- 1000–2000–4000? Fits the rule
Then the rule is keep multiply by two? No.
They kept trying until they realized the only way to figure out the rule is to provide numbers that don’t fit the rule. Yet, they kept reinforcing what they believe is the rule, rather than disproving their beliefs.
Try it yourself, think up 3 numbers…

So the rule was actually 3 numbers in ascending order. Did the numbers you choose follow that rule?
Back to the point, I think that knowledgeable people tend to seek confirmation of their belief rather than trying to disprove it. Yet, reinforcing what you already know, doesn’t bring any new information. It doesn’t help to evolve our understanding of the world. You could also argue that if a person is right about a belief, then attempting to disprove that belief will fail, which doesn’t bring new information either. Here’s the ironic part. The only way to get new information and to evolve, is to find out that you’re wrong!

So, scientists should really embrace the idea that they could be wrong because it’s what leads to progress. When quantum entanglement was discovered, it broke the traditional laws of physics. And it was awesome! Look how much science evolved as a result of that.
So what if Sheldrake theory really doesn’t hold… then why not try to prove that through experiments, rather than saying: it doesn’t fit with what we know so we’re not gonna bother with it.

Another important consequence of knowing too much is that knowledge makes things impossible. Sometimes, it’s good to know that you can’t survive a drop from the top of the Eiffel tower. Other times it is bad to know that you can’t get into Stanford because the percentage of acceptance is so low and your friend who has a higher GPA couldn’t get in. People who dare to doubt common beliefs are the ones who might try things that are impossible. And often, amazing breakthroughs result from people turning things from impossible to possible. That is actually a recurring theme in TED-talks!
Take a closer look at history. We can see that many scientific breakthrough theories were ridiculed at their time: Darwin’s theory of evolution, Einstein’s theory of relativity. Perhaps, that means ridiculous ideas are good indicator of breakthroughs?
Sometimes yes, often not. But even if a claim is wrong, it doesn’t necessarily have a negative impact. A lot of failed experiments lead to new discoveries as a side effect. Christopher Columbus stumbled on America because he was mistaken thinking that his ship would reach India sailing west from Europe. Basically, rather than dismissing ridiculous ideas, we can leave the door open to explore where this ridiculous idea can lead us. Next time someone makes a ridiculous claim, don’t shut it down. It’s ok to laugh about it, because laughing is good. But don’t shut it down like it’s an insect carrying malaria. Be brave enough to approach it and be curious about it. In the back of your mind, consider that the ridiculous claim might lead to an innovative breakthrough.

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