Rethink by Steven Poole

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Innovation doesn’t always require the invention of new ideas. Sometimes all it takes is taking a look at old ideas. We can learn a lot from our history. Some ideas were born hundreds or thousands of years ago, but they weren’t ready to be implemented until today. And now, they are coming back. They are being rediscovered and upgraded. Innovators are making things better by resurrecting and improving the ideas of the past.

Yes, the past contains bad ideas and errors. But it also holds surprising gems that should not be forgotten. To rethink means to question our ideas of authority, knowledge and judgment. The same idea can be bad at one time but good at another. The best new ideas are often old ones, and it’s time to rethink them. Author Steven Poole takes a look at the history of new ideas and how we can best learn from them.

Part One

There are a few different ways to rethink ideas. The first is when new circumstances require old thinking. For example, leeches have been used for medicinal purposes since ancient Greece. In nineteenth century Europe, leeches were considered the ideal treatment for nearly everything.

Eventually, science prevailed and the days of leeches as treatment dwindled away. Then, in 1985, a dog bit off the ear of a five-year old boy in Boston. A doctor sewed the ear back on but there were some complications with his blood clotting. The doctor remembered reading about therapeutic leeches and attached two to the boy’s ear.


[emaillocker]In minutes, the ear recovered, and that doctor became the first to successfully reattach the ear of a child using microsurgery. Today, leeches are frequently used in reattachment operations and plastic surgery since they are so good at keeping the patient’s blood flowing in a damaged area. Rethinking the use of leeches turned out to be beneficial in the present day context.

The second type of rethinking is when an old idea becomes relevant again with the discovery of new information. For example, many years ago, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck questioned how giraffes got their long necks. He thought that the giraffes stretched their necks to reach the higher leaves, and over time the neck grew longer, and that stretched neck was passed on to their offspring.

However, this theory was dismissed when scientists decided that genes were fixed at birth, and therefore nothing that happened in an animal’s lifetime could affect what it passed on to its offspring. Then, in 2003, French scientist Isabelle Mansuy conducted a study that examined the offspring of mice that were exposed to stressful situations that caused depression. The offspring had higher rates of depression even though the depression was an acquired trait in their parents. It turns out that Lamarck was right all along.

The third is when innovation results from reviving an old idea in a new context. This happens a lot in the pharmaceutical industry, where it is known as repositioning. For example, Ritalin was initially engineered as an antidepressant. Then it was discovered that it could be used as a treatment for ADHD and it was repurposed. All it takes is a new context to turn an old, bad idea into a powerful one.

The fourth way of rethinking ideas is looking at an old idea with a new attitude. When some ideas are first proposed, the cultural, social, or economic order is not ready to embrace them. But when attitudes change, the idea can flourish.

For example, Herbert A. Gilbert patented a design in 1965 that strikingly resembled the modern e-cigarette.However, nobody liked his idea at the time. Forty years later, the time for e-cigarettes came because society had a new attitude about the dangers of smoking normal cigarettes. Cultural attitudes may change slowly, but when they do, rethinking can save lives.

Part Two

Rethinking is responsible for a lot of great ideas, but not every idea has been thought of before. Sometimes there really is a new idea. For example, Newton’s idea of gravity was novel. He was able to come up with his theories because of relative human knowledge and technology, but the actual theory itself was unprecedented. But the idea that innovation must be original is foolish. Often discovery really is rediscovery.

Ideas build on each other. For example, an app that measures heart rate may be a novel idea, but it’s built on the ideas of other machines that measure heart rate, as well as other apps.

Many ideas build off each other. And some ideas keep coming back even though, and possibly because, it might never be possible to confirm them. Philosophers often make claims but it’s often difficult to tell if they are objectively right. Sometimes ideas gain significant traction even if it is still unclear of confirmation.

One example of this is the idea of consciousness in objects, or panphychism. Recently, Galen Strawson and philosophers have been arguing that consciousness is a fundamental property of matter. He says there is no evidence for supposing that consciousness isn’t part of the shimmering pattern of atoms. And panphychism has emerged as a somewhat respected theory recently, even thought it was ridiculed when it first emerged. Ideas like panphychism keep returning throughout history to nag at, or help define, the limits of our understanding, even though it is impossible to confirm them.

Some ideas return even when they should have stayed dead. For example, rapper B.o.B. posted to Twitter in 2016 arguing that the world is still flat. And he’s not alone. The flat-earth view has been resurging in recent years, despite the abundant evidence against it. This is an example of a zombie idea – an idea that you can try to kill, but it simply will not die.

These ideas will persist if they benefit some influential group of people or if people are too lazy to check the original facts. Often, zombie ideas are widely accepted to be true, such as the idea that the human tongue has different areas for specific flavours (such as sweet, sour, and bitter). That is not the way the tongue works at all, although many people believe it to be true. Be wary of everything, and don’t be afraid to question ideas.

That being said, incorrect ideas can be useful in reminding us what we don’t know. If we don’t investigate things that seem unlikely, we may miss out on surprising truths. Sometimes you have to be wrong first to be right later on.

Some old ideas are so engrained in our minds and society that it doesn’t matter whether they are true. Take, for example, the idea of free will. It doesn’t matter whether it is true or not – everyone is going to carry on living their life as if they have free will. It may only be a placebo effect, but we don’t have any choice. If one person says that they don’t have free will, they will still need to continue living their life and making choices as if they do. Otherwise nothing will happen.

Part Three

Now, the question we must ask ourselves is “what ideas are worth resurrecting to improve our current world?” One example of this is universal basic income.

The idea of universal basic income dates back to at least 1796 when Thomas Paine mentioned it in his pamphlet Agrarian Justice. It was dismissed, and since then has been brought up in many different time periods. Universal basic income has been repeatedly proposed and rejected over centuries, mostly under the criticism that people would only sit around and watch TV if they had enough money to feed themselves.

But pilot studies have been conducted and show that that is not always the case. Alternatively, many people argue that having a basic income will allow people to spend their time thinking of and working on new ideas that will advance society instead.

People also argue that the idea may be too simple to solve all the complicated problems in the world. But projects in Brazil, Uganda and Kenya show that “just giving people money” may be the most effective way to combat poverty, regardless of its simplicity. We tend to value complex and sophisticated ideas, but sometimes simple ideas are the best ones.

Some ideas seem to be right or wrong in a moral sense, but are subjective to the context in history. Moral attitudes have shifted frequently throughout time. Our moral views of today will one day be rethought, just as we rethink the moral views of the past. Pariah ideas are those that are unfairly tainted by a particular context, such as designer babies.

If there were a pill you could give your three-year-old child that would make them smarter, would you give it to them? Is it really so different than signing them up for piano lessons and tutoring sessions? Now, what if there was a pill a woman can take while she’s pregnant that will have the same effect on the unborn baby? What is the difference between pharmaceutical enhancement and genetic enhancement?

Eugenics has a bad reputation because its history is littered with horrors. But just because the idea has been used for evil doesn’t mean it will always lead to evil. Positive eugenics would mean encouraging “higher-quality” people to have more children, instead of not allowing potential humans that have “bad” qualities. Perhaps it’s time to reconsider eugenics.

Evidence is not a solid, unchanging, unconditionally reliable ground. There is nothing that we can be absolutely sure about. No matter how much information we have that supports an idea, we can still never fully prove it to be true because there could be more information supporting the opposite idea as well.

This summary has explained many ways of thinking about ideas, both new and old. And they all depend on a certain degree of belief. Acknowledge that we know what we don’t know, and we don’t know what we do know.

Our culture pays little attention to our history’s great struggles of thought. But the looping evolution of ideas implies that new approaches to many problems may lie in the intellectual past waiting to be rethought and rediscovered.


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