Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The end of ideas?

A provocative piece in the Sunday New York Times, written by Neal Gabler, suggests that we're living in a 'post-idea world'.  While big ideas used to be part of popular culture, he says, in the information age people no longer care to think:
[Ideas] could penetrate the general culture and make celebrities out of thinkers — notably Albert Einstein, but also Reinhold Niebuhr, Daniel Bell, Betty Friedan, Carl Sagan and Stephen Jay Gould, to name a few. The ideas themselves could even be made famous: for instance, for “the end of ideology,” “the medium is the message,” “the feminine mystique,” “the Big Bang theory,” “the end of history.” A big idea could capture the cover of Time — “Is God Dead?” — and intellectuals like Norman Mailer, William F. Buckley Jr. and Gore Vidal would even occasionally be invited to the couches of late-night talk shows. How long ago that was.  
Indeed, The Origin of Species was a best seller when it was first published.

Regardless of some of the rather pedestrian instances he cites, Gabler says that we're not only living in a 'post-Enlightment age', in which science and rationality have given way to orthodoxy, faith, opinion and superstition, we're living in a 'post-idea age', in which people are not even thinking anymore. 

In part, he says, this is because we're in the Information Age, where the glut of facts available to us means we don't have time to process it all.  We prefer knowing things to thinking about them.  Twitter, he says, makes the instantaneous exchange of inane information so easy that that's all we're exchanging.

To a large extent we agree, particularly if all you are tuned into is popular culture, where the loudest most obnoxious 'pundit' wins, celebrity gossip rules, and adherence to truth is tenuous at best.  Tale-telling way outscores factuality.

What about at universities?  Gabler says:
There is the retreat in universities from the real world, and an encouragement of and reward for the narrowest specialization rather than for daring — for tending potted plants rather than planting forests.
This is certainly largely true, at a time in history when the smallest fundable unit is rewarded, in contrast with new and innovative big ideas.  Unless they are patentable. This is in a sense a careerist, bourgeois takeover of one of the main places one might expect new ideas to come from.  But even this isn't all that new: the really great ideas come from individuals with skill and luck to be in the right context.  Many of them would never have made it in the institutional world, where we have to work for a living and hence have to play the game, not make too many waves, etc.

There are those, including Gabler's examples of big thinkers, such as Steven Pinker and Richard Dawkins, who have successfully crossed the line from the academy to popular culture, and have written best-sellers that engage the public, though Gabler wishes the likes of Pinker and Dawkins were more mainstream.  But it's a rare thinker who can translate complex, nuanced ideas for the public.  Not only are scientists still frowned upon for writing popular books, but it's damned difficult to write about science in an engaging way, and without dumbing down.  Or without becoming an idealogue, and selling grand but rather empty or wholly contrived ideas not constrained by serious testing, which it could be argued both of these 'public intellectuals' have become.  Most celebrity scientists are past their prime, and usually in a hungry-media society, way less conceptually deep or innovative than the image suggests.  But, of course, the public love the things they sell, which are usually very well done for what they are.

Ideas are out there, if you stray away from the big media outlets.  They aren't hidden -- you can find interesting, non-ideological thinking in some literary magazines these days, even some newspapers still, particularly outside the US, some radio (as you all know, we're partial to the BBC ourselves), some places on the web, including many blogs.

But, how much of it is science?   The Enlightenment period which inaugurated modern science about 300 or 400 years ago, engendered the kind of empirical, systematic science that we have institutionalized by now.  It can nibble away at the truth, and it can generate massive facts (and factoids).  Industrialized as it is now, it can guarantee new, if incremental, knowledge and usually will also generate unexpected facts.

Such discoveries are rife in the life sciences, and we now know scads more about almost any area of biology you want to name. But that is not the same as great new conceptual understanding, of the Darwin or Einstein variety.  They and other leaders in conceptual science commented about the stifling nature of universities even in their time.   Rare indeed are such things, but at least in the past people were trying. Today, grand theorizing is a big seller, but truly transformative ideas are rare as hen's teeth. The same basic ideas in biology -- theory, if you will -- have been around for well over a century.

It may be that while we don't understand everything about evolution or genetics, we understand enough that our basic theory hasn't changed. Maybe it will, because maybe what we don't understand will force us to new insights of a profound nature. But the institutionalized, industrialized, bureaucratized nature of science does not give any hints as to what they might be, or when it may happen. There are all sorts of speculative wonderments being proposed, such as antimatter, Bosons, multiple universes, and all that. How much will play out, or be relevant to what we want to know about life, is impossible to tell.  We have just published a commentary on this subject in regard to evolution and genetics ("Is life law-like?" in the journal Genetics), where we question the basic nature of the current 'theory' in biology, in the context of laws of nature....but we did not discover the next Great Idea (if there is to be one) about life.

It would be more interesting, for us at least, to be able to live in an era when such new, really fundamental insights were dropped into our awareness -- as in Darwin's, Einsteins, or Newton's time. The closest example that may give MT readers a taste of what it would be like, is probably the acceptance of continental drift and its implications for geology. Hopefully, something new like that is in the offing. But don't hold your breath (just get back to writing your next grant application)!


Texbrit said...

Lord knows, *I'm* all out of ideas!

Holly Dunsworth said...

The program "Through the wormhole" on the Science Channel makes me hopeful: http://science.discovery.com/tv/through-the-wormhole/

Holly Dunsworth said...

The episode last night asked of quantum explanations for consciousness, stemming from this finding: http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2010/02/quantum-photosynthesis/

Ken Weiss said...

Big ideas are rare beyond rare. Big claims to big ideas are common. People have been struggling to explain consciousness in a scientific way since at least William James in the late 19th century. The idea was to bring 'mind' into the realm of science, taking away the mind-body dualism that was formalized by Rene Descartes.

Quantum mechanics has cache and seems very advanced and technical. I even had a correspondent who worked for the US military who wrote to me when I was a graduate student with such an idea.

But at present it's fluff and trying to hard. Quantum activity is sub-atomic, yet consciousness occurs at the level of billions of complex cells. Relative to quantum activity a cell is like a galaxy relative to the earth. Statistical aspects of interactions leading to the 'emergent' property of thoughts and 'mind' may well be involved, but is there a size component? Brain size and consciousness don't seem to be correlated in any way, for example.

And what about your arm? It has billions of cells that communicate with each other. Does it have conscious self-awareness? And the Artificial Intelligence people have argued for years about whether a computer whose behavior seems by external standards to be conscious 'really' is so.

To me, this is not a new idea and though appealing in principle, it's trying too hard. I think that nobody knows nearly enough to have any idea of what consciousness 'really is'

Anne Buchanan said...

There are 2 issues at play here. One, whether we're in a post-idea world, where no one wants to think at all, and we all spend our time tweeting about what we're having for lunch, and the other is the quality and innovativeness of the ideas people do manage to sneak in around those tweets.

I would argue that most people are doing a lot more thinking than Gabler suggests. (At least people who aren't hooked on the likes of Rush Rumbaugh. Though, there are certainly left-wing ideologues that keep people from thinking their own thoughts, too.) People are tweeting what they just used to say to their office mate.

As for Big Ideas, are they rarer than they used to be? They've always been rare. And, much has been written about the sociology of scientific revolutions. So, I would argue that not much has changed, except perhaps the speed with which data are generated and disseminated. It still takes the rare thinker to synthesis the information and see what new kind of sense it makes.

Ken Weiss said...

I would agree, except that we're spending huge amounts of public money to keep ourselves in business. The work may be of high quality, which most of it is, but the results are of low impact per byte, and especially in regard to the people paying for it. Mainly, the results are to support each other of us in the science 'club'.

Cutting back funds might actually force more innovative thinking. Perhaps great advances as made by Bell Labs, IBM, and a few others were possible because bright people were given the time an freedom from immediate bottom line productivity.

Otherwise, the high energy creativity of the university and industrial sectors these days certainly exists in its incremental form, but is not nearly matching the claims it makes for itself--at least, in terms of really major new conceptual ideas.

Anne Buchanan said...

True enough. And, it is notable that the flood of data doesn't seem to be triggering a flood of Big Ideas.