This Idea Must Die: A New Freakonomics Radio Podcast

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(Photo: Kim Carpenter)

(Photo: Kim Carpenter)

Are you an idea junkie? Of course you are! It’s exciting to hear about ideas, especially new ones. There’s a progression that happens when you hear a new idea – you run it through your brain, try to envision where it might lead. Who will benefit from this new idea? Who will it hurt? Will it be worth the cost? Is it legal; is it morally defensible? Is it, in fact, a good idea?

In our latest episode of Freakonomics Radio, we run that progression in reverse. Rather than asking if a new idea is a good one, we ask whether it’d be better if some of the ideas we cling to were killed off. The episode is called “This Idea Must Die.” (You can subscribe to the podcast at iTunes or elsewhere, get the RSS feed, or listen via the media player above. You can also read the transcript, which includes credits for the music you’ll hear in the episode.)

The episode is drawn from a fascinating book of the same name: This Idea Must Die: Scientific Theories That Are Blocking Progress (Edge Question Series). It’s the latest edition in an annual series of books put out by the intellectual salon Edge.org and its ringleader John Brockman.

Brockman makes his living as a literary agent, but for decades he’s also been a curator of great minds and big ideas. Years ago, he organized something called The Reality Club. “The idea,” Brockman tells us, “was that we would seek out the most interesting, brilliant minds, have them get up in front of the group — which was the way they could get in the group — and ask aloud the questions they were asking themselves.”

That group eventually migrated and became Edge.org, a community of scientists, writers, and other thinkers. Every year, the entire community is asked to write an essay in response to one question. This year’s question: What scientific idea is ready for retirement?

The question came from Laurie Santos, an Edge.org member and a professor of psychology at Yale. In the podcast, you’ll hear Santos explain her motivation for the question and then you’ll hear our hand-picked selection of some of the 175 submissions that flowed in.

For instance: Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, a professor of cognitive science at University College London, wishes to kill off the notion of the “left brain/right brain” construct. “This is an idea that makes no physiological sense,” Blakemore tells us. She also explains where the notion came from, why it’s wrong, and the damage it does.

I could tell you all the other ideas in this episode, but that would spoil the fun, wouldn’t it? I will, however, tell you the rest of our stellar lineup:

+ Alan Alda, the actor, writer, lifelong science buff, and visiting professor at the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University.

+ Alun Anderson, an author and longtime veteran of New Scientist.

+ Sam Arbesman, a complexity scientist and author.

+ Paul Bloom, a professor of psychology at Yale.

+ Emanuel Derman, a professor of financial engineering at Columbia, a former physicist and Wall Street analyst.

+ Seth Lloyd, a professor of quantum mechanical engineering at M.I.T.

+ Michael I. Norton, a professor of business administration at the Harvard Business School.

+ Azra Raza, an oncologist and professor of medicine at Columbia.

+ Douglas Rushkoff, an author and professor of media studies at Queens College – CUNY.

You’ll also hear the idea that Steve Levitt would like to kill off, and how he feels about this project in general:

LEVITT: I love the idea of killing off bad ideas because if there’s one thing that I know in my own life, it’s that ideas that I’ve been told a long time ago stick with me,  and you often forget whether they have good sources or whether they’re real. You just live by them. They make sense. Especially the worst kind of old ideas are the ones that are intuitive. The ones that fit with your worldview, and so, unless you have something really strong to challenge them, you hang on to them forever.


Heidi

I have to admit I rolled my eyes when they introduced an actor to share his views on science (like certain other certain actresses weighing in with medical advice) BUT I actually really appreciated everything he had to say. I have been saying for years, the great thing about scientific consensus is that it changes and the larger body of "science" is willing to accept new ideas. I definitely think his work at the university is much needed in helping scientists communicate the latest research, as so many are scientifically illiterate and mistrustful of the scientific process. Hopefully we can all come to be more analytical when it comes to science reporting in the news.

Perry F. Bruns

I disagree strongly with Prof. Rushkoff's statement that the "atheism requirement" in science must die.

What atheism requirement? For an idea to be retired, it actually has to have some traction first, and Rushkoff failed to demonstrate any real evidence that a substantial number of scientists, much less a majority, actually predicate their models on the lack of any kind of supreme being or creator. He just asserted such as though it were a known fact. I want names and statistics. I want him to cite a study showing a clear percentage of how many scientists actually insist on modeling their research in this fashion.

Additionally, a proper scientist would have to necessarily assume the lack of anything he or she cannot observe, or cannot prove mathematically based on existing observations. Since no god has been observed, any postulation of such would allow a scientist to fudge the numbers at will.

Finally, any scientist who "requires" the nonexistence of a supreme being or creator is misapplying the scientific method. Note that this is not an example of the "No True Scotsman" fallacy, since the scientific method is quite specific:

1) Formulate a question.
2) Form a hypothesis.
3) Predict results of logical testing.
4) Test.
5) Analyze the results.

A scientist who either requires or eliminates the possibility of theistic influence before formulating the question is completing step 2) out of order. QED.

Prof. Rushkoff owes us all the time back for listening to his segment, and should reformulate his entire concept.

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Josh

Calm down guys! Rushkoff just rants about atheists for 2 minutes. He's a proffesor of media studies nobody gives a shit what he thinks.

Glyn

Another brilliant podcast, I love your work

Bruce Freadrich

Bad idea that needs to die. . . Daylight Savings Time.

James

YES!!!!!

Sam Gibson

I think the public's concept of Right or Left brain dominance is more nuanced than the intro guest suggested. People realize that isn't just one or the other, but it's perceived as a dominance akin to which hand or foot is used for most activities. Based on how hard it can be to change that, I think she's correct in that people assume it's difficult to shift dominance or have an even approach...to have an ambidextrous brain, and maybe that is an idea that needs to be challenged...but is there evidence to back it up?

Jay Cornelius

Does god have a place on Freakonomics?

I thought the whole idea of Freakonomics was to ask a question and then see what the evidence and data say. God isn't in the data. Did you guys consider god when you were looking at abortion rates' effect on crime?

It's these soft attacks on science that get creationist "theories" into science textbooks. Science is put on the defensive for something it never cared about answering in the first place.

Disappointed,
Jay

Kressel

If life isn't regarded as sacred, then what's to stop a new wave of concentration camps or slavery?

Chad

As many have already said, Douglas Rushkoff clearly doesn't understand the topic he was discussing. I would have hoped to hear from experts in the field about what ideas should die.

His "narrative" description of the formation of the universe, to the best that I can tell, is his own invention. No scientist talks about atoms "seeking" anything. Nor does science require a story narrative, they are just describing the conclusions drawn from the most predictive models that we have.

The mere fact that we have several examples of top scientists who are also theists should prove his entire point moot. The simply use methodological naturalism in their field because it is a necessity (to the best of our knowledge). If he thinks methodological naturalism is NOT a necessity, I would love to hear him give an alternative approach.