I spent the last week of August at Burning Man - the festival of 70,000 that gathers for a week in the middle of the Black Rock Desert in central Nevada - and the only word I can think to describe it is extraterrestrial.
Maybe you've heard it’s a drug-addled hippy-fest filled with silly art and bad music. Maybe you’ve heard that, whatever it used to be, it’s now just where wealthy Silicon Valley entrepreneurs come to feign authenticity while sleeping in deluxe RVs and being served chilled mahi mahi on a bed of dry ice. Maybe you’ve heard it’s a place for horny college grads and uninhibited nudists to explore unfettered sexual experimentation at organized events like the Orgy Dome and the Spank Tent.
But these things, if they're true, are trivial compared to what Burning Man is at its core.
At its core, Burning Man is one of the best expressions of the wonderful weirdnesses of human beings (the creativity, the warmth, the loveliness, and, yes, at times, the insecurity) we’ve got going these days. Say what you want about the Burn, but people tend to spend it acting like themselves.
Much breath and ink has been spent extolling the virtues of Burning Man and harping on its flaws, and of course, as with all things, the truth lies somewhere in between. It would be a little overambitious to believe, as some people apparently do, that we should fashion society based on a strict interpretation of the principles of Burning Man. Gift-giving and free hugs sustain communities for a week-long sprint, not a life-long marathon.
On the other hand, this unique phenomenon, which buds like one of those super-rare Amazonian orchids in the most unexpected and inhospitable of places, teaches real and critical lessons to anyone willing to pay attention.
As a scientist, I found it impossible not to see particularly clear moral for my own field in the Burner principle of radical self-expression. The idea is exactly what you’d think. Be yourself, and stuff! Own it! Do you!
OK, fine, we’ve been told that before, at job interviews, dates, and on the first day of school. Old news, right? But clichés sometimes get so comfortable and familiar they become neglected and fade into the background, like that genuinely amazing tourist attraction in your home town that makes visitors swoon but that you haven’t really visited since that middle school field trip.
In science, the philosophy of self-expression—pursuing your own thoughts, beliefs, and opinions, however unpopular or inconvenient they may be—is not as vibrant as you might expect. Ideally, science encourages all sorts of creativity! But these ideals often get lost in shuffle of reality, which includes tons of boring things like grants and funding and publications and committees.
There's a philosopher and self-proclaimed “scientific anarchist” named Paul Feyerabend who has a lot to say about that in his book “Against Method.” Feyerabend spends a long time evaluating the case of Galileo, who in the 17th century upended astronomy by arguing for a heliocentric conception of the solar system, displacing earth as the center of all things.
What allowed Galileo to enact such shattering changes on the world as people knew it? It was Galileo’s irreverent approach--his willingness to circumnavigate well-entrenched theories, that ultimately allowed him to turn everything on its head. It was his penchant for self-expression.
We should take lessons from Galileo’s success, encouraging views very different from our own and evaluating ideas on their own merits in the exact same way people practice radical acceptance on the Burning Man "playa."
Take, for example, research on hallucinogenic drugs. Now, I know you think I'm saying that because all people do at Burning Man is drop acid and stare for hours at flashing lights, but hear me out! Isolated pockets of research have demonstrated extremely promising effects of hallucinogens on such ailments as alcoholism, migraines, and psychiatric disorders. But because of government restrictions, it is almost impossible to get approval, let alone funding, to further investigate these lines of work.
Plus, did you know there are some banned TED talks? TED! The organization that claims to be at the cutting edge of new ideas! The claims put forward in these talks (Graham Hancock talks about "freedom of consciousness"; Rupert Sheldrake believes when we look up at the night sky something goes out of our eyes and touches a star) are definitely unorthodox, but they are by no means dead in the water. It’s just that the guys in charge right now--the science police--have decided they're too out there. In 50 years people could be telling a different story.
Now, of course, brand-new ideas should be evaluated carefully. When it comes to powerful drugs, for example, we should be aware of the risks, and new theories should be based on fact, not faith.
And “standing on the shoulders of giants,” to use Newton’s phrase, is definitely not a bad thing. We don't always have to be coming up with some brand new theory, all the while ignoring all the valuable research that has come before.
All I'm arguing for is a little more humility. Incredible mysteries remain to be solved—questions whose answers we don’t know we don’t know. Human beings have the ability to interact and establish strange and beautiful communities, and nowhere is that more clear than at Burning Man. To continue to plumb those depths of discovery, it's going to help to think outside the box.