Reviews

'This Idea Must Die' Puts Speculative Self-correction Back in the Driver’s Seat

This collection from 175 scientific luminaries is something between a Faustian romp and a dilettante’s bedside companion.


This Idea Must Die: Scientific Theories That Are Blocking Progress

Publisher: Harper Perennial
Length: 568 pages
Author: John Brockman, Editor
Price: $15.99
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2015-02
Amazon

Traditionally, one proud boast of science has been that it offers a refreshing alternative to the dogmatism so prevalent in other realms of human endeavor. Nothing is sacred in science, its practitioners like to say, since any prevailing theory is shown the door when a usurping theory with greater explanatory power arrives on the scene.

That sounds sporting enough. However, in recent years the spirit of earnest self-correction has all too often suffered the grimy imprimatur of human nature. Study findings have been exaggerated or statistically massaged. Problematic data points go AWOL when they undermine desired outcomes. Would you believe money often plays a leading role? Say it isn’t so! That’s right. White lab coats are not always indicative of antiseptic integrity because, well, absent grant money, they risk getting retired to the closet. Big Money doesn’t just finance Big Science. Often, between the lines it buys predetermined outcomes. Then it’s a hop, skip and a jump to bad O-rings en route to Mars.

As a recent study showed (to paraphrase the Dentyne ads of yore), four out of five scientists surveyed are all-too human. In other words, we’re all prone to cavities -- and influences. Take Dutch social psychologist Diederik Stapel. Not satisfied with merely disappearing a handful of nettlesome outlier data points, Stapel conjured ex nihilo entire schools from which whole-cloth data were then presented as fact. As Sarah Estes of The Atlantic described it ("The Myth of Self-Correcting Science" 20 December 2012) Stapel’s mea culpa was more Shakespearian than Copernican. Far from his Bunsen burner breaking mid-experiment, he succumbed to the usual garden variety character flaws: “reckless, ruthless ambition and playing the odds against getting caught.”

If New Good Science can’t be trusted to hack away the detritus of Bad Old Science, perhaps we need to exit fully-appointed laboratories altogether for unfunded but informed speculation. That’s where Editor John Brockman’s This Idea Must Die fits the bill nicely.

This Idea Must Die is a fascinating collection of mini-essays from 175 scientific luminaries describing which scientific idea they deem most eligible for falling by the wayside, cushy grants and prevailing vogues be damned. In that sense this book puts speculative self-correction back in the driver’s seat. Think of a Pruner’s Digest that argues for clearing away old brush to make room for the green shoots of tomorrow.

The collection is something between a Faustian romp and a dilettante’s bedside companion. That’s right. You too can sound like Michio Kaku at your next cocktail party—though the Einstein mane is between you and your hairdresser.

In “Artificial Intelligence”, (sardonic/ironic quotes the author’s) longtime AI theorist Roger Schank attacks the efficacy of the term itself, feeling it a misnomer that served a priori to poison the inquiry. Part of the dilemma stems from emulating an altogether human phenomenon—intelligence—that science is far from comprehending within the hairy ape himself. It’s like attempting to paint a reproduction of a Picasso that’s kept in a dark room. Schank suggests changing the name of the endeavor to “getting computers to do really cool stuff” would better illustrate the nature of the inquiry.

One of the key fascinations of this collection is how some essays subtly contradict one another. For example, physicist Frank Wilczek is more sympathetic to AI than Schank, suggesting (in "Mind Versus Matter") that one of the three developments responsible for collapsing the mind versus matter demarcation stemmed from the realization that, “many accomplishments once viewed as prerogatives of the mind, from playing chess to planning itineraries to suggesting friends and sharing interests, are things that machines… by pure computation, can do quite well.”

Yet another take on the intelligence conundrum is suggested in Alexander Wissner-Gross’ "Intelligence as a Property", wherein he suggests intelligence itself is misunderstood as a “static property”, when it’s better thought of as a “dynamic process”. Tool use, for example, may not be a first-order static goal of intelligence so much as it is the, “side effect of a deeper, dynamical process that attempts to maximize future freedom of action.” Now that’s heavy. Where’s my hand-truck?

In the scientific humility department, physicists Geoffrey West and Martin Rees weigh in from slightly different vantages in "The Theory of Everything" and "We’ll Never Hit Barriers to Scientific Understanding", respectively. Both men puncture the hubris of a science that believes it will one day sit astride all things. West suggests the quest for a Grand Unified Theory has telltale echoes of religion’s monotheistic vision and therefore is “intellectually dangerous”. Like calculus’ asymptotic function, something will always be missing such that the goal of encapsulating everything will forever be left splitting an infinite difference.

Rees takes another tack, suggesting that even if science was capable of converging on everything, it is, in the end, constrained by the limitations of the observer: “Nonetheless—and here I’m sticking my neck out—maybe some aspects of reality are intrinsically beyond us, in that their comprehension would require some posthuman intellect.”

Technology Forecaster Paul Saffo inverts the question altogether by discarding the notion of scientific progress as being some imposing, ever-growing noosphere that threatens to subdue everything. He focuses instead on how scientific advance, paradoxically, accentuates how little of the mystery has acceded to our grasp. In short, science, suggests Saffo, highlights with each new discovery the “profundity of our ignorance”. Awe and wonder are still the appropriate responses.

Interestingly (particularly, one would think, for a PopMatters audience), two essays appear under the name ‘Culture’ that is to say, the latter is marked for white smock death. Twice. The first by Anthropologist/Psychologist Pascal Boyer, starts off oddly enough: “Culture is like trees. Yes, there are trees around. But that doesn’t mean we can have a science of trees.” But don’t we have a science of trees, dendrology or forestry? Though I lack the expertise to identify the grievance or turf war, Boyer seems to be wielding a professional axe against culture as science, suggesting the phenomena therein are more than addressed by sociology, anthropology, evolutionary biology, neurology and others. He may be right.

In the second essay, Anthropologist Laura Betzig is beautifully prosaic in her polite disavowal of culture as a creditable science. But is there the slightest hint of condescension in relegating culture scientists to a chorus line? Let the reader be the judge:

…it has seemed to me that ‘culture’ is a seven-letter word for God. Good people (some of the best) and intelligent people (some of the smartest) have found meaning in religion: They have faith that something supernatural guides what we do. Other good, intelligent people have found meaning in culture: They believe that something superzoological shapes the course of human events. Their voices are often beautiful, and it’s wonderful to be part of a chorus. But in the end, I don’t get it. For me, the laws that apply to animals apply to us. And in that view of life there is grandeur enough.

Bringing this review full-circle—back to the sociology of science, two interesting essays draw some rather sanguine conclusions about how science is presently conducted. In "The Way We Produce and Advance Science", anthropologist Kathryn Clancy reports on her disturbing recent study which found 60 percent of the respondents had been sexually harassed and 20 percent sexually assaulted while on field study sites. Other forms of exploitation are rife in the field promulgated typically by scientists in positions of power over others. Tenure is often held as a bargaining chip.

The implications are rather obvious. The quality of scientific study has to suffer in an environment where human beings’ welfare is not paramount.

Clancy points to other studies that reveal environments conducive to womens' contributions produce more papers and better research. In "Allocating Funds via Peer Review", Gerontologist Aubrey De Grey exposes a peer review process that favors low-risk, low-ambition projects for all the familiar bureaucratic reasons. Too much energy gets devoted to submission protocols and pleasing peer review panels that may lack the necessary expertise to assess the project’s merits. Alas, this risk-aversion bias is endemic across culture and is hardly a peculiarity of science.

This review barely scrapes the surface of what lies in store for the intrepid reader. The strength of the essays lies both in their disciplined brevity as well as the remarkable ability of these very brilliant thought-leaders to convey their areas of inquiry in a manner general readers can understand. For those who tend to stereotype the planet’s empiricists as plodding, observation-driven technicians, the elasticity of thought and imaginative excursions on display here easily dispel that notion. Buckminster Fuller once said, “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

Perhaps this non-confrontational, end-run approach is the optimal path to establishing new paradigms. But surely recognizing and articulating the sacred cows in our midst, as happens here, is one step towards constructing newer, better models.

8

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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