This Idea Must Die (Ep. 199)

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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 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, 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 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.

Bryan Creel

Out of these speakers, Douglas Rushkoff stood out to me as rather egregiously attacking a straw-man. He seems to be espousing 2 specific ideas that he just wants us to accept as the current reality, which he then attacks:

1) Atheism is the assertion that no gods exist

Atheism is a rejection of the god hypothesis. Say someone asks, "Do you currently believe a god exists?" If you can't say "Yes" then you are an atheist. It is a rejection of a belief, not the assertion of the belief that /no gods exist/. There is a big difference. Now obviously there will be many interpretations of this word "atheist" but I think the one I just gave is the one you will get from the more public atheist figures. Even if he just used the wrong label for the idea "no gods exist" (sometimes called "strong atheism"), I think the next part is worse.

2) Scientists require this assertion as a foundation of their models

Perhaps Rushkoff is privy to some polling data I haven't seen. Yet he doesn't even provide a single example. I do know that the more popular atheist scientists like Richard Dawkins, Lawrence Krauss, Neil Tyson, Sam Harris, and Sean Carroll are always very careful to say that we don't know what came before the inflationary period of the Big Bang, so I have no idea where he is getting this idea. I'm just not willing to accept it as fact, in the face of what I've always heard from science communicators, without some compelling evidence from Rushkoff.

This was a very short-form message from Rushkoff and I can't find any articles on his site that expand on it. From what I heard though, I would definitely recommend that he better familiarize himself with the subject before attempting to characterize it.


Daniel C

Your first point is mainly semantics and it is important to interpret what he means rather than how you think those words ought to be used. I personally would disagree with your definition for various philosophically useful reasons, but that is not important here. The important thing is Rushkoff is claiming that science is being done with the presumption that no god exists. That would be the idea to dispute.

Regarding your list of "atheist scientists" (Tyson, for instance, doesn't like to label himself and doesn't use the word atheism), Dawkins and Harris are far from experts on the subject of the inflationary model of the big bang. We have to be careful here to see what Rushkoff is proposing. He is claiming that scientist do the work but pre-reject god/God.

Krauss believes in creatio ex nihilo but does so in an equivocable way. He believes that the quantum vacuum/de sitter space (nothing) randomly fluctuated and then we had the big bang. He is essentially trying to avoid tricky questions by playing silly rhetorical games. Essentially, this is a way to cope with his cognitive dissonance without having to address the question of God.

Carroll believes that the idea of God is not a useful hypothesis. He believes we can describe the universe in such a way that God is not necessary (harkening back to Laplace's "I had no need of that hypothesis"). He points to models like Hartle-Hawking to show that physics can be self-contained (which isn't exactly what this model shows). He proposed the Carroll-Chen model to try to answer the question of an initial low-entropy state (which has the problem of Boltzmann brains). He clings to tenseless time in order to deny the meaningfulness of temporal beginnings. He denies causality in the event that the B-theory of time does need to be abandoned. He loves the Everett interpretation because it helps him deny the problem of Boltzmann brains in models that solve other problems for him (and it might not help him solve the problem even granting the Everettian interpretation). He interprets the BGV theorem in such a way that it doesn't show that the universe began, but he does so in a way that means certain problematic models must be true.

Carroll is much more honest than Krauss; however, it is quite clear that he takes these positions BECAUSE of the presumption he has. He is trying to get around problems for the sole reason that he wants his premise to be true. You can hear this all the time when he criticizes the God hypothesis as inefficient and evil (which is a philosophical idea that he is not experienced in).

I think it would be nice if everyone is more open to these problems existing in the godless models of reality. Instead of presuming that these problems will be solved, we should be open to learning as they may never be solved.


Bryan Creel

I agree with you on the semantics of the term "atheism" and I tried to point out that problem in my comment. This is why I tried to reduce it to the idea I felt Rushkoff was referencing: "no gods exist."

I'm also familiar with the general ideas about beginnings from the people I mentioned. I'm not sure what you reference as Krauss' "cognitive dissonance" but I'd rather not run off on tangents about their specific views since they also do not relate to my point about Rushkoff.

What I'm trying to get across in reference to Rushkoff's talk is that I've never heard any of those people say "I know there is/was no god." I've heard some of them say that a particular god claim is inconsistent. They also make remarks about a lack of evidence for god claims. What I would challenge Rushkoff to do is to find, in context, one of them asserting that they know god(s) do not/have never existed.

Godless models of reality certainly have problems. They also, at least, have some (incomplete) robust, reproducible evidence to support them. Models that rely on god(s) do not. That's about the strongest statement science can make on the matter and I contest Rushkoff's claim that the scientific community makes a positive assertion as a general rule.


jc lopez

Loved this episode. This exercise of killing bad ideas is not performed as frequently and consistently as it should.

However, the idea of "atheism (and lack of meaning of the universe) as a prerequisite for scientists" is one of the least insightful concepts I've heard on this podcast -- not to mention contradictory. The person arguing for killing this "scientific idea" said that atheist scientists who use the notion of singularities do so to make their story of the universe consistent with their models. This way scientists anthropomorphize the history of the universe, so to speak, making the "story beginning" a requisite.

I agree that this particular model of the universe most probably is wrong, but that does not translate into making a "universe with a higher-power and meaning" the null hypothesis. In my opinion that is, on the contrary, the most anthropomorphic, restrictive, and unimaginative of all descriptions of the universe.


Daniel C

"I agree that this particular model of the universe most probably is wrong, but that does not translate into making a “universe with a higher-power and meaning” the null hypothesis."

The problem is that scientists are making "universe with no higher-power and meaning" the null hypothesis. They both are claims that require warrant.

Bryan Creel

Can you please provide some references, in context, where scientists are making a positive claim about a “universe with no higher-power and meaning”?


I really enjoyed this episodes.

Levitt's point about "Life is sacred" is a terrific one. Especially given that in many ways we put a dollar figure value on our lives through opportunity cost of activities or life insurance, but we're uncomfortable letting other people make that decision about other people.

He kind of danced around this in the Gun episode, that the loss of life from guns (and you can use cars or alcohol too) doesn't really amount for much. But if we were to use loss of life value as a starting point, then excise taxes on fattening foods and sugary drinks would be far more important than guns control, automobile accidents, alcohol or tobacco. And then people profit off this situation.

I'd like to retire the idea of being scared of statistically insignificant events.

Ehsan Hosseini

The idea of multiverse is just a mathematical/philosophical hypothesis. As far as I know there is no scientific proof for it.

The idea that we should retire the idea of the "Universe" just because some physicists would like us to (mainly because they don't like a fine-tuned universe) is just unscientific and unrealistic [1]. It will misinform the general public and lead us to believe that something new has been discovered here.

Even the big bang now has its own doubters.

[1] The Singular Universe and the Reality of Time: A Proposal in Natural Philosophy Hardcover –
by Roberto Mangabeira Unger.

[2] God and the Multiverse: Humanity's Expanding View of the Cosmos Hardcover – September 9,
by Victor J. Stenger.

Daniel C

I would agree with everything you said. It doesn't seem to be in the same category as the others that could be ideas we are ready to retire.

One problem with the speaker's interpretation is that is has been proven false. The speaker says that the universe is essentially a computer that DOES calculate everything.

This is essentially Max Tegmark's multiverse. The idea that all mathematically describable realities (all modal possible worlds) are real. The problem is that this flies in the face of Gödel's incompleteness theorems which state that there are certain theorems in mathematics that are impossible to prove. If a mathematical reality showed a calculation that proved one of these improvable theorems, then we have a contradictory problem.

Essentially, Tegmark tries to cling to his ideas by adding an ad hoc assumption: that all provable mathematical worlds are real. That is far from obvious and quite a problem to accept if Tegmark's principal reason for believing this idea is Occam's razor (not that Occam's razor should be warrant for metaphysical or physical theories anyway).


Marie Peer

"This Idea Must Die" is excellent!

Every idea that must die was a super podcast! Thank you!!

I particularly liked the one you set forth... we need to kill the idea that life is so sacred that we can afford any cost to preserve it. I totally agree that we must become more realistic about the notion that every one of us is entitled to the best in health care regardless the cost. No society, ours included, can afford to give everyone the ultimate in health care. Although I have good health insurance, I can't afford the copays for the best in health care. I simply am not Warren Buffet nor a US Senator or a US Representative, nor the US President or retired US Presidents nor any other who can afford the best in health care. I don't resent their ability to get that care; I simply don't have the financial means to do it and I don't believe you (in the role of taxpayer or in the role of insurance subscriber) should be paying for me to have "the best" either. I've thought this for a number of years and am very glad others see it as well.

I thought it was interesting that when you two were talking about the percentage of your total assets you would pay to keep the other alive, it didn't occur to you to name the percent of your OWN assets you would use to buy one more year of life for yourself. I'd love to know that percent each of you would use to buy one more year of life for yourself.

For the sake of full disclosure, I'm a social worker.

Marie Peer


Ricky B

Douglas Rushkoff's section was probably the most horribly misinformed commentary that I've ever heard on Freakonomics.

He claims that there is presupposition/requirement in science to be atheist completely ignoring that most of the history of science has been done with the presupposition/requirement of theism. It was later CONCLUDED that the god hypothesis is either incoherent, untestable, unnecessary, or wrong depending on the exact hypthothesis of god that is being put forward. There are so many different claims of god it's really hard for science to say that they are wrong, because some are just unnecessary (intelligent design), some are incoherent (all knowing god that imparted free will on humans), some are untestable (God created natural disasters to test our faith), or just plain wrong (faith healing can cure cancer). I just gave a couple of examples there, but the claims go on and on and on. Science in no way has presupposed the non-existance of a god, merely that the god hypothesis fails constantly to provide useful information and hence is rejected based on the exact claims being made.

Secondly, his repeated claim that without god we have no meaning in our lives is just bigoted rhetoric. This theist claim that god is the only source for meaning in life, but atheists don't have a god, so they have no meaning in their lives is just stupid. Who gave them the right to claim that the only source of meaning is god. It's about as stupid as saying that only my store sells shoes, if you have things on your feet but aren't from my store then you don't have shoes.

Lastly, the shameless claim to say that all/most atheist scientist believe in the singularity hypothesis is just completely uninformed. Yes, people believe that idea. Yes, some of them are prominent scientists, atheists, or both. But in no way is that idea a universally accepted idea. At best it's an set of ideas (and there are many of them) that people proposed and question and are trying to explore if it is true. In no way is it the foundational tenant of science that he makes it out to be. And then shamelessly suggests that atheist scientists are trying to destroy all of humanity and have us migrate to computer intelligence.

I can't believe the Freakonomics creators would allow this kind of drivel be on their show.



You raise an interesting point when you say "scientists believe". To be a good scientist, you must learn to abandon belief (at least in your professional life), and go with what the experimental evidence shows. For instance, you may have a devout belief in a flat Earth, or one that's the center of the universe with the sun, moon, and planets affixed to crystal spheres, but if you want to build space probes that work correctly, adhering to those beliefs during business hours is going to be somewhat counterproductive.

George Wang

I agree with others that this was an interesting episode, but one of the ideas struck me as particularly off:

Douglas Rushkoff could not be more wrong (at first I was really surprised that this idea would be suggested by a scientist, I had to rewind to catch that he is not a scientist). The reason I can say that he is wrong is because his epistemology is demonstrably incorrect.

Atheism is not a prerequisite for being a scientist, but the lack of belief in an interventionist god sure helps for one simple reason:

Science must ignore the supernatural. With its inclusion, supernatural factors would supercede all observable patterns in the universe, and empiricism would fail.

e.g. If two scientist performed the same experiment and reported contradictory results, we could not rule out the possibility that one had simply prayed harder for "success".

This is a silly example, but no more silly than the notion that science would benefit from the inclusion of an unknowable supernatural force into modern, empirically based science.


David Haile

The last few minutes of this podcast starting around 46:00 are inspiring! After a bad bike wreck, resulting shoulder surgery and rehab, all covered by insurance, I was appalled when I saw the total bill. It is easily one year's salary for the average person. Assuming I'm an average person with average income and a 40 year useful work life, a single flip over the handlebars was 2.5% of all the income that I'd ever make and around 25% of my flexible spending budget of a lifetime. Surely this is a common enough problem that the procedure can be made infinitely more efficient with higher quality and lower cost! You've stumbled on the answer.

If 100 of us forfeit 1% of our net worth to giving Dubner an extra year, would he continue creating Freakonomics podcasts?