The Case for the Research of Controversial Ideas

Innovation arises from new and often controversial ideas. Most of my business career has been focused on it. As an ‘innovation practitioner’ my job involves discovering and trying out new concepts to improve or create new customer experience. We’re spurred on by mottos like ‘Think Different’ or ‘Fail Fast’ or ‘Ask forgiveness not permission’. The more bold and audacious the ideas are, the more likely they will be innovative. At least this is the aim though in reality the outcome often gets weighed down by politics or red tape. But that’s a topic for another article.


Controversies of a Quantum Flavor


This piece is about science and how it handles new controversial ideas of which there are many floating around. I’ll take one area that is fascinating and almost unbelievable – Quantum Mechanics. This is a field I’ve been researching as I explore the human technology connection. I recently read a book called Mass by Jim Baggott which takes us through a history of mass. It takes us through a journey from the greek philosophers to Newton, Einstein and into modern day Quantum thinking. There are some interesting conclusions on the nature of mass which I won’t spoil for you but you can read my thoughts on it here.

The mysteries of Mass and Time (which is explored equally well by Quantum physicist Carlo Rovelli) and many, many other components have created more questions than answers the deeper we go. In the case of Quantum especially, the calculations and evidence add up before we understand the reasons why it’s happening. People say good scientists are curious and always ask why something exists. In the case of Quantum mechanics, this line of questioning is something to be weary of. In fact while working my way through an EdX Quantum Mechanics for Engineers course, I came across the phrase ‘shut up and calculate!’ This is the real, formal response given if you ask why something exists or if you dare to speculate on the meaning behind the numbers. It seems absurd to be told not to think too deeply on the why and just plug through the numbers but this is the advice. It’s an unsatisfactory answer  ‘We don’t know why it works, it just does so go with it’ but it probably avoids the temptation veer off into wild theories.


Why waste our time?


Moving on from the why, asking why not is a big no-no in science research. Again sticking to the field of Quantum physics, I came across a recent article on Nautilus about ‘Quantum Consciousness’ which is seen by some as a crackpot idea. Despite it being proposed by Sir Roger Penrose, renounced physicist, and one of 2020’s Nobel Prize winners. It’s a subject I’ve been reading more about and hesitantly write on – see my post on the connections between Quantum and the Brain. Penrose had developed a whole theory on this back in 1987 and together with anesthesiologist Stuart Hameroff put forward a proposal to support it called Orch-OR. The theory maintains that microtubules that are present in the brains neurons are the key to quantum events that could orchestrate our consciousness. This requires some complex thinking that is hard to comprehend for an average mind so I don’t think I can do justice in its explanation.

However, at a very high level, it puts forward a notion that quantum effects taking place in every atom of every piece of matter in the universe somehow has an effect on the brain’s consciousness. The problem is that the science behind it is lacking in evidence. In fact there is much to point you in the opposite point of view – that there is no way it could be possible. That is valid based on the knowledge we have right now.


History tells us to expect blockers


But then as the history of science has taught us, things change as new facts come to light. So why not believe there is a concept of quantum consciousness that we have yet to find evidence for but is worth investigating? If this was an innovation project in a business setting it might be tackled differently. Perhaps there would be a skunkworks team set up to investigate, with the acceptance it could be a risky return on investment. In science research however, you risk accusations of being unscientific for even considering it. Penrose received many objections to his theories including from the renowned AI guru Marvin Minsky. He response to this area of research was this – ‘Consciousness?, Oh, that’s what people wasted their time on in the 20th century.’

This attitude is more prevalent than I expected in science. It’s not entirely absent in Technology either. When facing something new and innovative, it’s commonplace to meet resistance. I was once told ‘if you work in innovation, expect to get a bloody nose’. Everywhere that innovation is occurs, especially the controversial kind, people object to change in the status quo.


Protecting ideas early on


Against this backdrop, how can controversial ideas be supported and researched? Many new ideas started out with this challenge and occurred in just about every field. The instigators of these new, daring ideas had to remain at the outer edges, often working in isolation until they had enough evidence. In innovation processes, we know early stage ideas are fragile and easy to kill by a single offhand remark. It’s the reason brainstorming requires an open mind and the hard rule that everything must be considered at the start of the process. Add in a ‘yeah but that wouldn’t work’ too soon and it can cut short a crucial flow of ideas.

Scientists have had great success when left alone to work through the most challenging problems. Einstein himself produced his infamous theories while working away from the science community. The ability to conduct his ‘thought experiments’ undisturbed helped him discover his groundbreaking theories.



“I never came upon any of my discoveries through the process of rational thinking.” — Albert Einstein




As many examples as there are of big thinking, there are equally stories of happy accidents that led to new ideas. But these are hard to plan for. Therein lays the dilemma. We need to court the controversial ideas even if they appear crazy. Then we can push the boundaries of what we already know and maybe stumble on some accidental discoveries on the way. However, we need to be mindful of the danger of spreading misinformation, now more than ever. A controversial idea, could inadvertently be misinterpreted as a truth. This is probably what the critics of controversial ideas want to prevent and it is justified.


How then to find a solution to this scientist dilemma?


Maybe there are some clues in business. Innovation seems to grow best in bubbles. Labs or startups that can dedicate time to blue sky ideas. The cost of failure is not that high and the ideas can thrive in a protected environment. This has the advantage of avoiding bad ideas getting out in public by keeping early findings private. Perhaps this is happening somewhere. I hope so.

This is also another area where diversity can stimulate debate and lead to new areas of investigation. In the case of quantum consciousness, a thorough study demands the combining of many different fields; physics, biology, neuroscience, psychology, philosophy and maybe more. There is a tendency to stick to a lane and go deep in both technology and science research. Many good reasons exist for this but another glance back at history shows the greatest ‘thinkers’ of the past did not always stay so narrow focused. In fact, there was a strong bias for philosophers to be scientists. This type of crossover between science and humanities served them well.

Today the issues in science, technology and humanities are converging with the advent of AI, Virtual Reality, and Social Media. Now more than ever we need to examine moral and ethical consequences of what we build. This may lead us to examine the most controversial of ideas.


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