8 Scientific Concepts that Should be Better Known

Edge.org asks an annual question to the world’s “most complex and sophisticated minds” and reports on their insightful answers. In 2017, the annual question was “What scientific term or concept ought to be more widely known?

Below, I share a selection of 8 responses (out of 206) that I found to be thought-provoking.

1. The Trolley Problem of Moral Philosophy

Original response by Daniel Rockmore

“The Trolley Problem” is another thought experiment, one that arose in moral philosophy. There are many versions, but here is one: A trolley is rolling down the tracks and reaches a branchpoint. To the left, one person is trapped on the tracks, and to the right, five people. You can throw a switch that diverts the trolley from the track with the five to the track with the one. Do you? The trolley can’t brake. What if we know more about the people on the tracks? Maybe the one is a child and the five are elderly? Maybe the one is a parent and the others are single? How do all these different scenarios change things? What matters? What are you valuing and why?

Decision making always comes with a value system, a “utility function,” whereby we do one thing or another because one pathway reflects a greater value for the outcome than the other. Sometimes the value might seem obvious or trivial—this blender is recommended to you over that one for the probability that you will purchase it, based on various historical data; these pair of shoes, this song versus that song, etc.

But sometimes there is more at stake: this news or that news? More generally, this piece of information or that piece of information on a given subject? The values embedded in the program may start shaping your values and with that, society’s. Those are some pretty high stakes. The trolley problem shows us that the value systems that pervade programming can literally be a matter of life and death: Soon we will have driverless trolleys, driverless cars, and driverless trucks. Shit happens and choices need to be made: the teenager on the bike in the breakdown lane or the Fortune 500 CEO and his assistant in the stopped car ahead? What does your algorithm do and why?”

2. Case-Based Reasoning

Original response by Roger Schank

“We do case-based reasoning all the time, without thinking that that is what we are doing. Case-based reasoning is essential to personal growth and learning. While we hear people proclaim that mathematics teaches one to think, or knowing logic will help one reason more carefully, humans do a different kind of reasoning quite naturally.

When we go to a restaurant, we think about what we ordered the last time we were there and whether we want to order the same thing again. When we go out on a date, we think about how that person reminds us of someone we went out with before, and we think about how that turned out. When we read a book we are reminded of other books with similar themes or similar situations and we tend to predict outcomes on that basis. When we hear someone tell us a story about their own lives, we are immediately reminded of something similar that has happened to us.”

3. Life History – How Organisms Change Over Time

Original response by Alison Gopnik

“”Life history” is an important idea in evolution, especially human evolution. But it also gives us a richer way of thinking about our own lives. A human being isn’t just a collection of fixed traits, but part of an unfolding and dynamic story.

And that isn’t just the story of our own lives, caregiving and culture link us both to the grandparents who were there before we were born and the grandchildren who will carry on after we die.”

4. Motivated Reasoning – Information that Supports our Beliefs

Original response by David Pizarro

“Why is it so hard to change people’s minds about truth even in the face of overwhelming evidence?

The failure of people to alter their beliefs in response to evidence is the result of a deep problem with our psychology. In a nutshell, psychologists have shown that the way we process information that conflicts with our existing beliefs is fundamentally different from the way we process information that is consistent with these beliefs, a phenomenon that has been labeled “motivated reasoning.”

Specifically, when we are exposed to information that meshes well with what we already believe (or with what we want to believe), we are quick to accept it as factual and true. We readily categorize this information as another piece of confirmatory evidence and move along. On the other hand, when we are exposed to information that contradicts a cherished belief, we tend to pay more attention, scrutinize the source of information, and process the information carefully and deeply. Unsurprisingly, this allows us to find flaws in the information, dismiss it, and maintain our (potentially erroneous) beliefs.

The psychologist Tom Gilovich captures this process elegantly, describing our minds as being guided by two different questions, depending on whether the information is consistent or inconsistent with our beliefs: “Can I believe this?” or “Must I believe this?””

5. Relative Deprivation – Comparing oneself to people “above”

Original response by Kurt Gray

“Relative deprivation is that idea that people feel disadvantaged when they lack the resources or opportunities of another person or social group.

An American living in a trailer park has an objective high standard of living compared with the rest of the world and the long tail of human history: they have creature comforts, substantial freedom of choice, and significant safety. Nevertheless, they feel deprived because they compare their lives with glamorous celebrities and super-rich businessmen. Relative deprivation tells us that social and financial status is more a feeling rather a fact, spelling trouble for traditional economics.”

6. Haldane’s Rule of the Right Size

Original response by Paul Saffo

“Toss a mouse from a building. It will land, shake itself off and scamper away. But if similarly dropped, “… a rat is killed, a man is broken, a horse splashes.” So wrote J.B.S. Haldane in his 1926 essay “On Being the Right Size.”

The power of Haldane’s rule is that it applies to far more than just organisms. Hidden laws of scale stalk humankind everywhere we turn.

Like the engine on an underpowered aircraft, the cost can be catastrophic. Everything from airplanes to institutions has an intrinsic right size, which we ignore at our peril. The 2008 banking crisis taught us that companies and markets are not exempt from Haldane’s rule. But we got the lesson backwards: It wasn’t a case of “too big to fail,” but rather “too big to succeed.” One cannot help but fret that in their globe-spanning success, mega-companies are flirting with the unforgiving limits of right size.

Our political institutions also cannot escape the logic of Haldane’s rule. The Greeks concluded that their type of democracy worked best in a unit no larger than a small city.”

7. Verbal Overshadowing – Words distort memory

Original response by N.J. Enfield

“Suppose that two people witness a crime: one describes in words what they saw, while the other does not. When tested later on their memories of the event, the person who verbally described the incident will be worse at later remembering or recognizing what actually happened. This is verbal overshadowing. Putting an experience into words can result in failures of memory about that experience, whether it be the memory of a person’s face, the color of an object, or the speed that a car was going.

Anything that interferes with memory interferes, effectively, with the truth.

The facts of linguistic diversity suggest a striking implication of verbal overshadowing: that not just different words, but different languages, are distinct filters for reality.”

8. Conceptual Combination – Brain’s Power of Accumulation

Original response by Lisa Feldman Barrett

“Right now, as your eyes glide across this text, you are effortlessly understanding letters and words. How does your brain accomplish this remarkable feat, converting blobs of ink (or patterns of tiny pixels) into full-fledged ideas? Your brain uses concepts that you’ve accumulated throughout your lifetime.

Each letter of the alphabet, each word, and each sequence of words that stands for an idea is represented in your brain by concepts. Even more remarkably, you can often comprehend things you’ve never seen before, like a brand new word in the middle of a sentence. You can see an unfamiliar breed of dog and still instantly know it’s a dog. How does your brain achieve these everyday marvels? The answer is: concepts in combination.”

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