Not every experiment is a good thought experiment. Like any form of experimentation, there can be serious flaws built into thought experiments that ignore important pieces of contextual information to assure a manufactured solution. Of course, this is intentional: thought experiments are useful because they strip context out of the equation. Unfortunately, that lack of context can make them completely useless in addressing issues in reality.
We see this inadequacy in the realm of ethics quite a bit. A popular thought experiment is Peter Singer’s drowning experiment. In essence, the thought experiment questions if you are ethically required to save a drowning child in a lake. Saving the child would require you to wade in, make your clothes wet, and be late for work. Of course, practically everybody says that they would go in to save the child. The sacrifices are relatively minimal when compared to saving a human life. Singer counters this claim, by stating that we don’t make small sacrifices every day to save others.6 For example, our daily lifestyles can significantly contribute to escalating climate change, which could cause millions of deaths in the near future. While giving up some of our daily luxuries to help against the climate change effort, we often don’t maintain these habits. If we are obligated to save the child, we should be obligated to save everybody else that we can through drastic lifestyle changes.
Arguably, thought experiments like this one are inherently interesting. They give our imaginative, problem-solving brains plenty of material to chew on. Unfortunately, this is not how we deal with issues of mass ethics in reality. Typically, we design policies that don’t require us to take on so much individual responsibility. To tackle climate change, we build better renewable technologies, impose carbon taxes on large polluters, and wield the power of global agreements to bring down emissions. However, while consuming less meat and choosing to drive your car less help in decreasing greenhouse gas emissions, its effects don’t compare to that of collective techniques. To stop people from drowning, we hire lifeguards, fund the coast guard, and build fences to stop people from falling into the water. Certainly, you should save the drowning child, but in our reality, the situation probably won’t escalate to that point. While Singer’s thought experiment might present an interesting ethical dilemma, his suggestion to use individualistic solutions to solve an entire society’s problems ignores the vital reality that we often don’t rely on the goodness of others to fix large problems.
Furthermore, the usefulness of certain applications of thought experiments is debatable.7 While nobody would disagree with the legitimacy of tools that can explain complex phenomena for a lay audience, the use of thought experiments as a scientific tool is more controversial. After all, as we saw with Zeno’s tortoise, a thought experiment can be logically sound while not scientifically so. While thought experiments have been correct about scientific phenomenons in the past, our rapidly improving modeling and measuring tools have largely eliminated the use of thought experiments as the main tool of scientific inquiry.