This Idea Must Die (Ep. 199)
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:
+ Alun Anderson, an author and longtime veteran of New Scientist.
+ 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.
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.