2020: The Year of Eccentric Thinking
In the spirit of scientific inquiry, do not fear to be eccentric in opinion
I recently watched Amazon’s new production, The Aeronauts, which traces the perilous journey of pilot Amelia Wren and meteorologist James Glaisher to explore the air. The film is based on the real-life balloon flight of British aeronauts James Glaisher and Henry Coxwell, the latter of whom is replaced by the fictional Amelia Wren, although the stories of her relationship with her husband Pierre are based on the actual flights of Sophie Blanchard and her husband Jean-Pierre.
In addition to Henry Coxwell and Sophie Blanchard, Amelia’s character may also have been influenced by Margaret Graham, a British aeronaut and entertainer, and Sophia Stocks, an intrepid woman who accompanied English balloonist Thomas Harris on a flight on which he was killed.
Glaisher’s meticulous measurements and observations lead to the discovery that the atmosphere has layers. If you’ll indulge me, I’m going to go on a short tangent here. Ironically, the very discovery that took so much effort to establish as fact may now be threatened by the advent of 5G wireless technology. Today, many meteorologists, lawmakers, and federal science agencies are particularly concerned about the auctioning of 24 gigahertz radio for 5G transmissions, as these frequencies are very close to those used by weather satellites use to predict the amount of water in the atmosphere. Nature Correspondent Alexandra Witze expounds,
The 5G transmissions will involve many frequencies, but the key one under discussion is 23.8 gigahertz. Water vapour in the atmosphere naturally produces a weak signal at this frequency, which satellites use to measure humidity. Those data feed into weather forecasts. But if a 5G station is transmitting a signal near the 23.8-gigahertz frequency, a weather satellite might pick it up and interpret it as water vapour. And that bad data could degrade forecasts.
The potential harm may be more global than anticipated as well, as not having atmospheric data from the United States can hurt forecasts for Europe, whose weather patterns are often guided by conditions from the United States 3–4 days earlier, according to Stephen English, a meteorologist at the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts in Reading, UK. Now that I’ve communicated these concerns, I’ll return to my main point.
Let us not forget that anything widely accepted today began as an idea. An idea that, more often than not, was met with resistance. An idea that was not considered credible or legitimate. An idea that constituted the ramblings of a lunatic. To quote the 19th century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer,
“All truth passes through three stages: First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as self-evident.”
Those thinkers who are ahead of their time undoubtedly face dismissals, merciless taunts, persecution. While we casually acknowledge these obstacles, we don’t really appreciate the struggles of those who endured them.
None of us remember the time when the germ theory of disease was regarded as a miasma or meteorologist was a taboo word. Some of us remember a time when ulcers were thought to be caused by stress and spicy foods, the prevailing scientific consensus insisted on no causal link between cigarette smoking and lung cancer, and lead was still ubiquitous in consumer products.
Considering how often we’ve underestimated the harm caused by various compounds, perhaps warnings regarding the dangers of certain substances, such as fluoride, glyphosate, PFAS, PFOA (a.k.a. C8), and thallium in our food and water supply ought to be taken more seriously. As my friend Brandyn Webb succinctly puts it,
They’re not making the same mistake, they’re making the analogous one, and the error in their thinking is in not realizing how the situation back then looked exactly the same from the inside as theirs does now.
“Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.”
— British mathematician and historian Bertrand Russell
Today, the vanguard challenging much of our deeply entrenched dogma, such as the amyloid β hypothesis or the diet-heart hypothesis or the somatic mutation theory of cancer, face the same pushback from those who defend convention. Indeed, it is nearly impossible to receive government funding for an Alzheimer’s trial which does not target amyloid plaques. Robert Moir, a pioneer who lead the way in establishing the connection between microbes and Alzheimer’s disease, recently passed away at the age of 58 from glioblastoma and tearfully recounted to one of his colleagues that his discoveries would not be published:
STAT News offered the following description of his scientific legacy:
His idea that Alzheimer’s has something to do with microbes in the brain, that amyloid plaques form in defensive response to those pathogens, and that something besides eliminating amyloid is probably our best shot at preventing or treating Alzheimer’s.
While a strict adherence to the scientific literature may be considered admirable by some, it is nevertheless quite limiting and allows us to examine only the evidence at hand without any regard for future possibilities and advancement of our understanding. Remaining within the confines of existing knowledge stifles innovation and originality of thought. How can one think outside the box if one never travels outside of it? How can one see beyond the limitations of the ivory tower without venturing outside?
Regarding empiricism and understanding, there have been many occasions where we have mistakenly accepted absence of evidence as evidence of absence, e.g. refuting the existence of lymph nodes in the brain, the function of the appendix as a safehouse for microbial commensals, and the possibility of neurogenesis over the entire course of one’s life.
Let us keep ingenuity alive and continue to question and test our foundations so that we may arrive a few steps closer to the truth. Let us acknowledge the complexity of disease models; we just may arrive at a better understanding through integration of these models.
To those who dare challenge existing dogma, let us offer respect rather than ridicule, remembering that the greatest of ideas can come from the unlikeliest of places (take Michael Faraday who received no formal education and worked as an apprentice prior to becoming Sir Humphry Davy’s laboratory assistant). To quote yet another brilliant thinker,
“Sometimes it is the people no one can imagine anything of who do the things no one can imagine.”
My wish for this upcoming decade is that we will embrace novel thinking more fully. For it is the avant-garde who advance science. I’m not saying we need to indiscriminately entertain every single idea that challenges convention, but we should pay more attention to novel ideas, especially when our old ways of thinking haven’t yielded effective results.
(Tangent: According to the Gregorian calendar, the anno domini or common era began in the year 1 AD, and the first decade was complete at the end of 10AD. By that logic, the end of the current decade will be December 31, 2020. While technically accurate, starting a new decade in 2021 can certainly feel anticlimactic. In fact, the social convention of decades starting years ending in zero and end on years ending in nine is so deeply entrenched that even the Encyclopedia Britannica uses it.)
Regardless of the convention to which you subscribe, let us make this year one of eccentric thinking and the decade ahead one of scientific revolutions. If you do subscribe to the idea of decades beginning on years ending in 0, my friend and science fiction writer Trafton Crandall remarked that this coming decade will be known as either the Soaring or Sinking Twenties. Fingers crossed that it’ll be the former!
“The biggest people with the biggest ideas can be shot down by the smallest people with the smallest minds. Think big anyway.”
— Hedy Lamarr
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