Thought Experiment

Thought Experiments and Critical Thinking

I love thought experiments.  They are a great way of thinking creatively about old problems in new ways.  Many of history’s greatest thinkers engaged in various forms of thought experimentation.  Perhaps the most famous proponent, and beneficiary, of thought experimentation was Albert Einstein.  Aaron Bernstein wrote a series of popular science books that Einstein was introduced to at age 10 by a student boarder at the family house. Einstein himself later stated that he had read them “with breathless attention”.

In one volume, Bernstein describes a thought experiment involving a speeding train and the constancy of the speed of light which likely influenced Einstein’s own thought experiment as a 16 year old, and perhaps those in his 1905 special relativity paper. In another volume, Bernstein speculated about the existence of gravity waves. Like Einstein, Bernstein was also eager to tie together all of nature’s forces. The philosophy of science underlying Bernstein’s writings seemed to mirror Einstein’s later scientific realism and trust in the power of rational thought over experiment. For example, Bernstein wrote of the discovery of Uranus: “Praised be this science! Praised be the men who do it! And praised be the human mind, which sees more sharply than does the human eye.”

This raises the question of how strongly childhood preconceptions influenced the later physics and philosophy of science of Einstein and other physicists.

So here is a thought experiment for those of you suffering from chronic, pathological skepticism.

Imagine that you are a run-of-the-mill chemist working on a fairly mundane task, say reducing the degradation of rubber by ultraviolet light (a common but fairly un-sexy problem).  Now imagine that you go to your annual physical checkup (not out of any fear of illness) in order to keep your insurance premiums to a minimum, and to your shock, your doctor tells you that he has detected a rare, aggressive and 100% fatal form of cancer.  He goes on to explain that the test for this cancer is so specific, and definitive, that any chance of this being a misdiagnosis, is literally trillions to one.  Not being one to readily accept at first blush anything anyone tells you no matter how persuasive, you graciously thank the good doctor but respectfully announce your intentions to seek out a second opinion.  The doctor does not object but tries to lower your expectations given the grim circumstantial evidence mounting against you.  You seek out the world’s most eminent expert on the subject, and he too, confirms the diagnosis.

With the reality of your seemingly certain fate now beginning to sink in, you decide to take a leave of absence from work to sort out your affairs (basically make funeral arrangements and pay bills).  After arranging your leave of absence with the boss, you hurriedly begin cleaning up your lab station, where in your haste, you spill on your skin chemicals from your ultraviolet-resistant rubber experiments.  There is some local irritation and you decide to seek medical attention (although you feel a bit silly about minor skin irritation given your recent terminal diagnosis).  You tell your dermatologist how foolish you feel seeking treatment given the gravity of recent events, and the doctor clumsily tries to conjure some words of encouragement, words that mostly ring hollow.  The doctor then applies some cream to the affected area, and you suddenly have a painful local reaction to what is nothing much more than aloe vera cream.  This acute reaction leads to a series of tests to determine whether or not the rare cancer somehow played a role in this never-before seen reaction.

In the process of investigating this reaction, the growing team of experts now investigating, cannot find any sign of the rare cancer detected in your original diagnosis and second opinion?  They meticulously ran, and then re-ran all the same tests of the first two doctors and simply cannot find the source of your angst.

Now remember, you are a chemist.  You have been trained to systematically conduct experiments to test hypotheses.  You are now faced with the stark reality of an instant cure for at least one type of cancer.  You quietly use your leave of absence to conduct further testing on cancer-riddled rats and other animals, all affecting 100% instantaneous cures.  You have now convinced yourself that this is a universal cancer cure.  You then secure an extended leave of absence from work to begin volunteering at  a local hospice under the guise of wanting to come to grips with your own eminent demise (eminent as far as your boss is concerned).

You proceed to “accidentally” spill your lab chemicals onto patients at the hospice while making your rounds as a volunteer helper.  Suddenly, all of these dying patients recover and walk out.  No one suspects you because you are not doing anything that could possibly be construed as suspicious, but you obviously can’t keep this charade up indefinitely, particularly given the severity of your diagnosis.

Now here come the difficult questions:

  1. Who do you tell of your universal cancer cure?
  2. How could you possibly get anyone in the for-profit medical industry to consider “investing” in researching this 100% instant cure for all cancers, especially since the brew making up this cure consists of common laboratory chemicals, none of which are patentable?
  3. What would happen to all the cancer charities, the profession of oncology, the cancer infrastructure?
  4. What would happen to the National Cancer Institute?
  5. Who could you contact in the corporate-owned media (an industry heavily dependent on advertising revenues from big pharma), to tell your story to?

Are you beginning to vicariously sense some of the dread of your hypothetical pioneer?  Are you gaining a more empathic appreciation of the old saying “Pioneers get shot full of arrows?”  As improbable as an accidental, complete and instant cure for all cancer is, it’s not completely outside the realm of scientific possibility and provides valuable insight into just what one would likely face in light of such a dramatic discovery.  The reason you have difficulty imagining something as seemingly proposterous as an instant and complete cure for cancer is because you carry around with you a whole set of engrained assumptions about the cancer bogeyman, assumptions that are inculcated very early in your enculturation.

  1. Cancer is complex, if it weren’t, we wouldn’t be spending so much money and brain power studying it.
  2. No one would be cynical enough to exploit ineffective, or even harmful, cancer treatments, placing profits above safer, cheaper and more effective alternatives, would they?
  3. No one would be greedy and cynical enough to only pursue cancer treatments that can be patented and hence, monopolized, would they?
  4. The reason cancer is so complex is because it’s ever changing/evolving, like viruses, etc., etc.




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