Here’s a notion: When we discover a big new thing, this often requires an abandonment — or at least serious doubt — of a commonly accepted notion.
I’m about a third of the way through Rob Dunn’s brand-spanking-new book about the human heart. I just finished the parts about the science of the heart before the 1900s. People always have had ideas about the function of the heart, and for most of human history, these ideas have been really mistaken. One influential person might establish an untruth as fact, and that fundamental error (albeit reasonable in its social context) might be inherited for over a thousand years. For example, that’s about how long it took for people to realize that the heart did not pump air, I just learned.
In his previous two books, Dunn also shared the stories of many other scientists who made discovering by doubting commonly accepted truths. He points out to us, time and again, that much of the world is not known. That includes the world which we are currently looking at straight in the face. Carl Woese doubted that all single-celled organisms were bacteria. Lynn Margulis didn’t buy the party line on membrane-bound organelles. Lyell didn’t assume that the surface of the earth was static. And so on.
I think chatting with elementary students about your research might be the best way to ferret out those assumptions. They’ll be the ones who will really wonder about the fundamental assumptions because they (hopefully) haven’t been trained to buy into them yet. If someone asks a question, and we can only muster a vague it is known, then maybe… it’s not?
So, to make huge discoveries, you just gotta set your mind free, you know man? You just gotta toss your assumptions and incorrect dogma and then you’ll be able to know better than everybody else around you. If only.
It’s such a fine line between stupid and clever. Doubt correct dogma, you’re an ignoramus. Doubt incorrect dogma and show that you’re right, you’re a visionary.
Some of the foundational ideas in ecology must be wrong, just as they must be in any other discipline. I’ve got to wonder which foundational ideas in ecology are flat-out wrong, or pointless, in a way that’s constraining or misdirecting progress.
I spent about 20 minutes writing and deleting a bunch of ideas. I’m not ready to share overly wacky ideas that I can’t buy into. But, on the lighter side, I’ve ditched the principle of competitive exclusion, I’m tired of the pervasive temperate bias, and while it’s abundantly clear that current theoretical frameworks aren’t build to understand the evolution of sterile workers in social insects, I don’t have a better one for sale. (I do think that people are overlooking the role of behavioral and developmental canalization that happens after functional sterility evolved, and it’s a little silly to have to explain the adaptive nature of reproductive decisions by females that had no choice but to be born without the structural capacity to have productive sexual intercourse and probably were also endowed with a bunch of other genetic baggage that undermines what would be in the interest of their genes that they’re not passing on, but that’s not in my sandbox.)
I suppose there’s something to be said in here about the Kuhn, Popper, paradigm shifts, and the Structure of Scientific Revolutions but, at the moment, that’s not how I’m rolling. But y’all are more than welcome to share, as always.