EDGE World Question 2011: "What scientific concept would improve everybody's cognitive toolkit?"


Each year, über-big-think-literary-agent and EDGE founder John Brockman poses a question, and collects and publishes the answers. This year:

The term 'scientific"is to be understood in a broad sense as the most reliable way of gaining knowledge about anything, whether it be the human spirit, the role of great people in history, or the structure of DNA. A "scientific concept" may come from philosophy, logic, economics, jurisprudence, or other analytic enterprises, as long as it is a rigorous conceptual tool that may be summed up succinctly (or "in a phrase") but has broad application to understanding the world.
My response to the EDGE 2011 Question is here ("Ambient Memory And The Myth Of Neutral Observation").

Here is the index of all participants, more than 150 of them, including Brian Eno, J. Craig Venter, George Dyson, Kevin Kelly, Clay Shirky, Evgeny Morozov, Linda Stone, and Richard Dawkins (who will be returning soon as a Boing Boing guestblogger, I'm happy to report!).

News coverage so far includes: The Atlantic, Wired UK, New York Times, Sueddeutsche Zeitung , Newsweek, Die Welt, The Guardian , Publico.

(Image: RUDBECKIA, Katinka Matson)


  1. A problematic, if you will, Xeni, in your explanation.

    “The brain-record of those experiences sometimes submerges, then resurfaces, sometimes submerging again over time. As I grow older, stronger, and more capable of contending with memory, I become more aware of how different my own internal record may be from others who lived the identical moment.”

    The other or others in question could not have lived “the identical moment.”

  2. Simple.

    Have those disciplines claiming a scientific basis–yeah, you really expect me to believe that quantum mechanics allows teleportation for dolphins–to provide an assertion that is falsifiable.

  3. – Context. The sense that while extrapolation is worthwhile, it is also likely to multiply our mistakes.

    – Multiple working hypotheses.

  4. Always keeping in mind that correlation is not the same as causation. It’s very rare to see a mainstream article about a recent “scientific study” where a correlation found in the study is not presented as A causes B even if the study only found that A and B occur disproportionately within a particular group.

    Also the whole concept of confirmation bias and cognitive dissonance. Don’t fall in love with a hypothesis to the point that you ignore all evidence that might falsify your hypothesis.

  5. “Conservation” as a general concept – that you can’t make something (energy) out of nothing, that “the books have to balance” both in physical laws and economics [except in some very special and subtle cases (the nonconservation of parity in Beta decay)], that nature is something worth conserving because we can’t usually make more of it…

    1. If more people understood the basic energy conservation and accounting principles, the world would be a better place. Talk about a basic idea that applies to, like, practically every problem. Ever.

  6. Is perspective a scientific idea?

    I always think that folks lack perspective on the lack of permanence in our world and therefore fight progress and efficiency in some effort to keep things the same for some period.

    I am always reminded of this everytime I hear stories about one of two things. 1. When I hear complaints about gentrification IE any development that might make a poorer neighborhood seem more desirable to people with more money even though it might improve the value of all the homeowners in the area and imrove their economic situation. 2. When I hear people talk about keeping the elderly in their homes, spending large sums of money to keep people in homes much larger than they require, and encouraging them to drive years after it has stopped being safe for them.

    But the same silly attempt to keep things the same is apparent in so many human conflicts. Religion seems to be a life long quest to keep ones thinking identical to that of a childs.

    Not that a lot of folks don’t try and stop bad changes, but there seems some human propensity for fearing all change, but you might as well try to bail back the ocean. Ga

  7. Recognizing Feyman’s aim in Against Method — that a multi-model system and a poly-value logic are neccessary for understanding reality. Multi-Model = more than just the (useful but very limited) scientific method. Poly-valu logic = more than two value logic system. From there, the world!

      1. Excuse me, hahahaha! Been reading so much biology for a thesis application that I went sideways… yes, Paul Feyerabend. Thank you.

  8. think of all the other things we dont know yet, forgot, or cant…
    lost in time, or space, or simply other-ness…
    invisible, extinct, or finite
    that we can concieve of the inconcievable
    seek, try
    wander, wonder

    it’d write it pscience…

  9. It would be this: Just because we don’t understand something is no reason to toss perfectly good virgins into the volcano.

    Put less sardonically: If you don’t understand something, don’t automatically assume there is a mystical, metaphysical cause. The corollary: If something is not understood and not explainable by today’s methodology, that doesn’t mean it’s magic; it simply means we don’t yet have the proper tools just yet.

  10. A deep understanding of, a respect for, and a commitment to the process of peer-review for editing a (truly) widely-accepted and constantly scrutinized body of knowledge about the world.

  11. How about a real grip on the undirectedness of evolution? How about looking at the niche, and not the plastic stuff squeezed into the niche? The empty space is where the action is. How about a real realization that DNA is malleable, and not nearly so You-Dahling as relict tautologies insist?

    Understanding it correctly involves many ideas: testability, evidence, control (as in “control group”), prediction, causality, and in general a sense that it’s really easy to be fooled.

    — James Ph. Kotsybar

    The Universe has a fuzzy border
    at the limit of our best perception —
    there’s more probability than order
    and certainty is a misconception.

    Simultaneity just seems absurd,
    since Einstein’s explained relativity —
    observers can’t know when they’ve seen or heard
    an event without subjectivity.

    The very atoms of which we are made
    partly reside in hidden dimensions —
    there may be a Multiverse unassayed
    where we’ll lose nearly all our conventions,
    but we must keep researching even though
    we only find out how little we know.

  14. Relativity, because it is so anti-intuitive yet holds up under the most rigorous of tests.

    No reason for Newton to expect that
    (1) The speed of light is an absolute limit on objects with mass.
    (2) Objects change their basic attributes (mass, length, age) when they approach the speed of light, when observed relative to objects at rest.
    (3) Gravity bends space itself, so that light beams curve around massive objects.

    All true, all go against what our eyes and ears and minds tell us.

    Now what makes the tides work, Bill O?

  15. I would go for a push in educating people on cognitive biases. I find it very easy to underestimate the mistakes made by everyone in decision making due to using a brain that was fit for situations valid thousands of years ago.

    Alexandru Bolboaca

  16. I think that peak oil and peaking resources in general is the one scientific concept that would help improve everyone’s considerations right now. There’s a little too much sci-fi, not scientific, thinking found in today’s internet communities, especially the ones that are, like Boing Boing, centered around modern technology. It’s about time we shifted our attention from The Singularity to sustainability, renewable energy, technology that can be recycled and long-term survival and well-being of the human race.

  17. The fact that volume increases with the cube of distance, but surface area only increases with the square of distance. And distance increases with the 1th of distance.

    Very important for winemaking, and whale size.

  18. Excellent question,

    The understanding of time travel between the different generations.

    Learning that our experiences can assist others and that others experiences can assist us.

    Linking experiences together allows for understanding to surface.

    This will assist if the presence of fear that is imposed on society by various groups is removed. Fear causes regression and the lack of cognitive development, I think.

    David Lynn Horgrow

  19. why does Edge insist on that horrible site design year after year? It’s one of the least usable sites I’ve ever seen. Its’ baffling.

  20. yes, i second placebo effect, although the dynamics involved would loose effect once you know more about it, and this total dynamic, the before and after knowledge, i think is the larger conciliation of paradox, which is very useful…the idea that something is its principle and antithesis at the same time helps bridge a gap in pure analysis…

  21. My response to the Edge 2011 question would be replacement of the term, “counter-intuitive”, to describe a paradox, as is apparently the norm in scientific texts, when invariably what is indicated is, in reality, “counter-rational”.

    A paradox is a mystery any understanding of which, within the limits of what we currently, understand, is impossible, because illogical.

    The fact that, in physics, so many mysteries are eventually explained/understood, should not blind us to the fact that “the irrational” is often, not only possible, but remains every bit as incontrovertibly irrational.

    However, people Einstein called “naive realists”, trapped in a sort of mechanistic world, have been seduced into assuming that there is no reason to believe that our understanding of ALL the mysteries of the physical world will not one day become a reality. It is just a matter of time. The “promissory note”, as one physicist apparently called it.

    However, even God cannot make two mountains without a valley in between; and it is not my intuition that convinces me of this “chink” in God’s omnipotence; it my reason.

    Surely, we would all have a clearer understanding, however fragmentary, of the limitations of science, if scientists, themselves, replaced the term, “counter-intuitive”, with “counter-rational”, when it is really only rational to do so.

    Of course, there will surely remain mysteries that are soluble, some no doubt possessing an ominously baffling appearance, on first consideration. However, there is surely no reason to assume that no mysteries that baffle scientists will be genuine paradoxes and will remain completely insoluble, because as counter-rational as the mountains without valleys interposed.

    Of course, physicists have, implicitly at least, understood and accepted this, realising that while arrived at by reasoning, yet remaining, in themselves, impenetrable, paradoxes can be used by them as staging posts, indeed, spring-boards to further entirely rational discoveries. At least, until trying to fathom the significance of the next paradox on the journey.

  22. I don’t know if it’s exactly a concept; maybe method would be more appropriate. But basically, it’s this: Consider the extremes. If you’re trying to predict what will happen because of some condition, try changing the condition and seeing what happens. The answer should lie somewhere intermediate of the two extremes.

    Also, I think there’s a profound misunderstanding of the concept of “open mind.” Too many people treat open-mindedness as a willingness to to listen to the arguments of their opponent. Anybody can listen. A sure sign of an open mind is if you find yourself agreeing with your opponent without them saying a word; if, in the process of constructing a response, you discover the logical holes and inconsistencies of your own argument and willingly abandon your position.

  23. I would have chosen Bayesian probability theory. I had a quick scan to see if any of the contributors had chosen it – a few mentioned probability and uncertainty but none really made the argument I would have.

    The point is that a good understanding of Bayesian probability is not only tremendously useful in everyday life – it helps one to make decisions rationally – but also helps us to understand how two people can both be rational but hold different beliefs, drawing different conclusions from the same evidence (in technical terms, they have different priors). It is useful to understand that belief, even scientific belief, is about degrees of certainty and uncertainty rather than absolutes.

    Beyond this, Bayesian reasoning could easily be added to everyone’s cognitive toolkit by teaching it in school – the fundamentals are not very hard and don’t require much more than an ability to count and a basic understanding of fractions. But sadly, (in the UK at least) probability theory is currently taught in an old-fashioned and much less useful way.

  24. I believe that you are right. People who have memory should learn all the new ways to record it. I believe one way would be by turning those memories around by definition and give them a new meaning and new name. We need to make trama a gift. It is a gift. It gives you insight. It gives you strength and belief. If you believe you recieve. Both negatively and possitively. If you believe you are doomed, you are doomed. If you believe you are successful, you are successful. The power of perception needs to be taught. See and believe possitively and you will. You will see positivity and you will have positive reactions. Turn depression into a positive gift and you will use it positively. Words have way too much power. Acronyms weeken the power somewhat.
    like mentioned ,facebook, a new communication tool, it leaves perception wide open for the receiver. The word focus now means F-off because ur stupid. So if someone tells you to focus, it’s up to you to decide what that word means. Are you going to be insulted or are you going to take the advice and pay attention to what you are doing? Thats what it is all about. Perception. Perception. Percieve youself differently and positively first and you will percieve the entire world differently. On the flip side, view yourself negatively and you will see the entire world negatively. When you have perception, you see perception and then there is no such thing as an insult. Words from other people always have your perception on them, not theirs. If you take it negatively then you are your own enemy. The Law of Attraction is real. See it, believe it, have it. Life is simple and we are all mimics. Mimic good and you will have good. Mimic bad and you will have bad and you will teach bad and so on and so on and so on. Teach don’t show

  25. Develop the mental discipline to recognize and accept pattterns in seemingly random events. If all the animals know to move up the mountain before the tsunami hits; and all the cows and horses face away from the prevailing wind (before it even starts blowing!), what could happen to human learning and growth if we learned to read the signs?

  26. Maybe not a scientific concept, but effectively APPLYING an existing scientific concept, would improve our common cognitive toolkit. In view of the situation in the U.S. with it’s prominent ‘Creationist’ proponents, I would posit that while most of us realize that science doesn’t do theism, many don’t realize that science doesn’t do atheism either – neither do they want to see that this is exactly what Richard Dawkins doesn’t want to understand. That guy is using his position of fame as a scientist to promote atheism as the better way for scientists – thereby essentially betraying the scientific discipline, which wasn’t designed to deal with God questions, neither positively or negatively. Yet, mr. Dawkins will still complain about Creationism of course – while 99% of Christian scientists are hoping that the guy (and his new atheists) finally shut their mouth in order to give believers the room to accept science as something that doesn’t require atheism – hence doesn’t require an ‘exit’ from this atheist deadlock by turning to creationism.

    But OOOOOOOOOOOHHH, Dawkins is going to be your guest blogger soon? Oh, well, how good of you, Boing Boing. Good luck with that one;-) I’ll get here more often then, albeit just because Dawkins is the funniest kind on the block. Because the most stupid remarks always come from people who step outside their own discipline (in this case evolutionary biology). Dawkins on theology really is one of the funniest things around. That’s the only reason I bought his book The God Delusion. Clearly his insights on the subject of religion are identical to the insights of religious fundamentalists. He fights them on their own level of bible literalists and so on. There IS some fun about that, definitively.

    There has always been fun about people with only one line of thought. Even in his reply to the World Question 2011, Dawkins is talking as the apostle of new atheism, much more than as a scientist. Science has never been about binary thinking. The exact sciences are about exact thinking – even that is not binary thinking of course, it’s about reducing the field of research to a realm where you can test stuff in detail – but normally you remain aware of the fact that you play with a (deliberately) reduced observation. Dawkins doesn’t seem to be much aware of his playfield.

    Kind regards, no hard feelings. Boing boing the world. Good stuff.

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