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What to Do About All the Crazy-Ridiculous Research?

The government funds a lot of weird and wacky research, something politicians occasionally point out. How's a scientist to respond? "Crazy-ridiculous" is expected in a functioning scientific community.
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Every so often a congressman somewhere picks out an example of crazy-ridiculous research that the government funded. It's not altogether an unreasonable thing for a congressman to do. After all, checking up on how money is spent is part of a congressman's job description. If a piece of funded research really is crazy-ridiculous, then that's money wasted, money that could have been spent on good research. Better to route out all the crazy-ridiculous from the system, thereby creating a more efficient research community.

As intuitive as this argument may at first seem, there's a problem: a research community missing the crazy-ridiculous is a sure sign of a stagnant, sickly community.

You see, there's no science describing how to get new, revolutionary ideas. You can be taught how to test hypotheses with good experiments, and you can be taught how to appropriately analyze data. There are right and wrong ways to do these things. But the hypotheses themselves -- where do they come from? No one really knows. Not scientists. Not philosophers.

Revolutionary, non-incremental science hypotheses require creative inspiration just as much as that of avant-garde artists. And one of the dirty secrets behind "creative inspiration" is that, usually, it isn't so much inspiration as trial and error. Lots of it. Try this. Try that. How about this? And on and on.

And one of the keys to the sort of brainstorming that leads to revolutionary new ideas is that no idea, no matter how crazy, should be ignored. "Write 'em all down!" I tell my students. Only by digging in 100 holes can you hope to find the gem. In my own experience, I leave behind a couple hundred pages of tiny, hand-scrawled notes of near-jibberish for every good idea I've ever had. I try to mimic, in my own head, a community of scientists, and select the best idea among a hundred crazy-ridiculous ones.

Revolutionary hypotheses are possible in science communities (despite the lack of a "science of the revolutionary") when enough of the scientists are digging in potentially-revolutionary holes. Revolution is possible when teems of scientists allow themselves to "go avant-garde" and try out the crazy-ridiculous hypothesis no one tried before. Most will be wrong. But -- eventually, and perhaps only by chance -- someone will dig the right hole and find that new idea that fundamentally alters how we think about the problem.

The crazy-ridiculous is part of the mechanism of revolutionary science. Kill the crazy-ridiculous and all you have left is the boring, the next step, the incremental. Kill the crazy-ridiculous and you kill the revolutionary science, and sentence science to move incrementally forward within a theoretical framework that may, in fact, be the wrong one.

And it isn't just the failed revolutionary hole-diggings that are crazy-ridiculous. The correct one will usually be as well. In fact, I don't advise my students to write their crazy ideas down so that they eventually stumble upon a non-crazy one. Rather, the hope is to find the rare true crazy hypothesis.

You want it to be crazy-ridiculous, I tell them. Then people will say, "Whoa, I would not have expected that," rather than, "Yeah, that's kind of what I'd have guessed in advance." I know I'm on the right track when my lovely wife's response to my new idea is, "That is the silliest thing I've ever heard."

When the crazy-ridiculous gets lambasted for being crazy-ridiculous, what you end up with is more of the ever-so-reasonable. You get the incremental.

Or, for the scientists with an insatiable appetite for the revolutionary, to avoid a good lambasting many will package up their crazy-ridiculous ideas in techno-speak so that it's impossible to notice how crazy-ridiculous their idea is. The potentially revolutionary work gets all mixed up among the boring.

The crazy-ridiculous is treated better among entrepreneurs, and especially artists. Entrepreneurism without the crazy-ridiculous would give us a world where investors would only put money in tried-and-true technologies rather than going for broke for the revolutionary and risky new thing. Entrepreneurism without the crazy-ridiculous spirit would lead to a world where instead of driving 21st-century cars we'd be driving highly incrementally-optimized ... horse-drawn wagons. And art without the crazy-ridiculous would be one where today we'd be listening to variants of Vivaldi rather than the hundreds of genres of music at our disposal.

As with art and entrepreneurship, the crazy-ridiculous is at the heart of creative discovery in the sciences.

So, next time a congressman points out an example of the crazy-ridiculous, your response might be, "Yes, but is it crazy-ridiculous enough?"

Mark Changizi is Director of Human Cognition at 2AI. Some of his crazy-ridiculous research appears in his books such as The Vision Revolution (2009) and his new book Harnessed: How Language and Music Mimicked Nature and Transformed Ape to Man (2011).

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