“I’m enough of an artist to draw freely on my imagination, which I think is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.” -Albert Einstein
“It doesn’t matter how beautiful your theory is, it doesn’t matter how smart you are. If it doesn’t agree with experiment, it’s wrong.”
There’s a deeper reason to valorize Einstein’s claim about imagination in physics. What I feel he is really saying is that imagination precedes knowledge, and indeed establishes the precondition for it. You might say that when the shape of imagination sufficiently fits the world, knowledge results.
The real point is that imagination in physics is what the paths to the future, to new knowledge, are built from. Actual knowledge – things we can accept as “true”, in the sense that they offer tried and tested ways of predicting how the world behaves – has been assembled into an edifice as wonderful and as robust as the Gothic cathedrals of stone, the medieval representations of the physical and spiritual universe. But at the point where knowledge runs out, only imagination can take us further. I think this is what Einstein was driving at.
Interesting article connecting the issue of language and climate change. This also gets at the fact that we don’t always communicate what we think we are and that different groups of people communicate differently. Frank Luntz, discussed below, often uses the adage: It’s not what you say, it’s what people hear.
The science community is supposed to interpret for the rest of us, but its dialect does not always pack rhetorical oomph. “I didn’t realize that pointing to a climate graph I think is the Rosetta stone — people don’t see it the way I see it,” says Brenda Ekwurzel, director of climate science for the Union of Concerned Scientists. “We as humans don’t experience an exponential curve viscerally, in our gut.”
More on Luntz
Frank Luntz is a popular American pollster but also famous for helping the Republican Party hone its messaging and use of language in the 1990s and 2000s. He authored a famous memo on messaging the “War on Terror.” One can argue with the ethics of what he did (intentionally tying 9/11 and Iraq in people’s minds without ever explicitly making the connection for example) but his work was devastatingly effective. This memo made for much better discussion teaching TOK 10 years ago but I think is very interesting to still study.
Download Luntz Memo On Terrorism
Here is Luntz being challenged about another famous memo he wrote on climate change. He has since changed his mind.
Image of Luntz now discussing messaging on discussing climate change.
Great video that lays out some key concepts in science about scientific models and predictions. What’s really interesting is that despite successful prediction, other observations may yet be incompatible and so we know that some explanations are “wrong” or at least, “incomplete.”
I think it’s time we take a lesson from the history of science. Beauty does not have a good track record as a guide for theory-development. Many beautiful hypotheses were just wrong, like Johannes Kepler’s idea that planetary orbits are stacked in regular polyhedrons known as ‘Platonic solids’, or that atoms are knots in an invisible aether, or that the Universe is in a ‘steady state’ rather than undergoing expansion.
And other theories that were once considered ugly have stood the test of time.
A Scientist Must Go where the Evidence Leads
When our cherished ideas are contradicted by the facts, we must avoid the human tendency to double down on those ideas.
Impartial attention to evidence should get priority over inertia or social pressure in dictating the mainstream scientific agenda. An honest response of scientists to failed models would set an exemplar for intellectual leadership on how to walk the walk, and not just talk the talk, about revising our notions of reality when the evidence demands we must. This has implications for all aspects of life—including public policy.
The ability to refresh our models of reality over time is the trademark of wisdom. The commitment of using our best models of reality to navigate forward is the trademark of outstanding leadership.
This topic connects well to so many related topics in TOK. How do we acquire knowledge? What ethical responsibility do media companies (like youtube) have to promoting “truth”? How do we produce knowledge in the natural sciences? How reliable is intuition in acquiring knowledge?
Related video on Netflix, Behind the Curve
Below are a few resources that explore the myth of MSG (food additive) being bad for you. This case demonstrates the intersection of various TOK concepts include how we produce knowledge in the natural sciences, the role of intuition in acquiring knowledge, and why we have such a hard time changing our minds once we believe something to be true.
That MSG causes health problems may have thrived on racially charged biases from the outset. Ian Mosby, a food historian, wrote in a 2009 paper titled “‘That Won-Ton Soup Headache’: The Chinese Restaurant Syndrome, MSG and the Making of American Food, 1968-1980” that fear of MSG in Chinese food is part of the U.S.’s long history of viewing the “exotic” cuisine of Asia as dangerous or dirty. As Sand put it: “It was the misfortune of Chinese cooks to be caught with the white powder by their stoves when the once-praised flavor enhancer suddenly became a chemical additive.”
This American Life: The Long Fuse (prologue and Part 1)
In this episode, the hosts explore the the MSG myth and in the process also demonstrate the challenges we face when constructing knowledge about the past
Since the ’90s, the FDA has listed MSG as perfectly safe for its intended use, like vinegar, salt, pepper. Today on our show, we have three stories like this one, where people throw words out into the world that take on a totally unexpected life of their own. And in all these stories, the words wreak havoc for years.
All of the links below speak well to the how knowledge is produced in the natural sciences along with the limitations and pitfalls that come with that process.
John Oliver discusses how and why media outlets so often report untrue or incomplete information as science.
This connects well this article:
“This is why you shouldn’t believe that exciting new medical study”
I adapted this article into this handout. It all goes well together.
TOK Day 56 This is why you shouldn’t believe that new medical study
This also connects well to the podcast:
“Is the knowledge factory broken”