can you get a little too skeptical?

June 20, 2009

Probably one of the strangest critiques many popular science bloggers get when we talk about very advanced concepts which are still far too complex for us to test, isn’t from people who have a grudge against science or conspiracy theorists. Instead, they’re from people who say that some of the most radical ideas we have on the drawing board simply can’t be done. They say none of them will ever work, that they all sound too weird or too vague on details and even indulge in biting sarcasm to make sure we know just how little they think of those fantastical concepts. We can’t blame them for being skeptical, but skepticism is a two edged sword and being a skeptic doesn’t mean that anything outside everyday convention must be immediately waved off as absurd.

overflowing trashcan

History tells us that every time there was a groundbreaking idea, there were more than enough critics to call it nothing more than imagination run amuck. Everything from locomotives to airplanes to manned space flight was once dismissed with sarcasm and strong words. Of course history also tells us that out of the many out- of-the-mainstream ideas really were ridiculous and the number of failed attempts at changing a paradigm in the world of science and technology vastly outnumber successful ones. So how do we tell a good idea from a bad one when it comes to things like warp drives, searching for alien life and building space planes? We do the same thing scientists do with all hypothetical concepts. We test them and see if they work, or at least have the potential to work in the future.

Keep that in mind when you come across an idea that might sound strange to you. Just because it sounds a little off at first, doesn’t mean it’s wrong or it will never work. If it makes predictions you can test at some point in the future, wait until it’s put to the test. Running around and declaring what works and what doesn’t without doing the proper investigation doesn’t make you a skeptic. It makes you a cynic who’s approach to new ideas hinders innovation and hobbles scientific discovery. When such cynics decide how universities and research labs will work and grants are allocated only to those whose research sounds straightforward and intuitive in a meeting, they effectively put a lid on truly creative and amazing research. Maybe it will fail spectacularly, maybe we’ll get a unified theory of everything by the time it’s done, we don’t know. We just have to put new ideas to the test and see how they’ll work. That’s the nature of science.

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  • GL

    Well said.

  • This post has been linked for the HOT5 Daily 6/21/2009, at The Unreligious Right

  • One can be sceptical without going so far as to lack the power of imagination. To choke off speculation and stifle debate is an individual choice, no matter whether you’re a strict scientific rationalist or a fundamentalist Christian.

    Fortunately, I don’t generally see such a lack of imagination among scientists and sceptics. Many are talented musicians, others are creative writers and poets, and a large majority are fans of science fiction, some of whom would relish the idea of balding their heads and dressing up as Jean-Luc Picard to attend a Star Trek convention.