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Elegant Explanations
January 15, 2012 9:08 AM   Subscribe


 
Something about Edge bothers me - it bills itself as a 'Conversation' and supposedly its all about getting smart people to talk to each other. According to the Guardian, its the "world's smartest website" and its partially based on the ideas of James Lee Byars - "gather the 100 most brilliant minds in the world in a room, lock them in and have them ask one another the questions they'd been asking themselves"

So it makes it sound like its based on dialogue ... That would indeed be a fantastic site. Socrates showed us how to arrive at the truth through dialogue. And as Wittgenstein said "A philosopher who is not taking part in discussions is like a boxer who never goes into the ring".

But the reality of Edge seems to be occasional open questions, with long essays for answers, and none of the thinkers ever being challenged on what they said or entering into a dialogue with any of the others.

If they really want to advance knowledge, it should be a forum, where maybe only certain people are allowed to post, but everyone is allowed to read. Then we'd get some really interesting discussions.

They are missing this obvious direction (allowing dialogue) in such a huge way that it must be a deliberate ommission. In its current form, Edge seems more optimised towards selling books than advancing knowledge.
posted by memebake at 9:36 AM on January 15, 2012 [22 favorites]


Metafilter: it should be a forum, where maybe only certain people are allowed to post, but everyone is allowed to read.
posted by edguardo at 9:41 AM on January 15, 2012 [8 favorites]


Oh my - I just had the weirdest experience - without reading "earlier" I just assumed it said "more inside" and nothing seemed to make sense. I feel like Rip van Winkle in a minute and a half.
posted by infini at 9:47 AM on January 15, 2012


From David Pizarro's answer: "I'm not an expert in this domain, and I accept that Diamond's explanation might be completely misguided. Yet the appeal to such basic mechanisms in order to explain such a wide set of complex observations is so deeply satisfying that I hope he is right."

I admire his forthrightness in coming right out and saying "I wasn't asked to chose an explanation that was correct, just one that was deep, beautiful, or elegant."
posted by escabeche at 9:48 AM on January 15, 2012


Good lord, memebake, me too! I was reading the various contributions, and started to get a strange feeling. The science-y subject are the kind of thing I love to read about, and some of the people I've seen in other contexts and really like (Carolyn Porco, yay!).

But after scanning through 15-20 of them, I started to wonder "How many are there?" I glanced at my scrollbar (take that, iOS users!) and saw that it was a very long web page. "Oh, there must be a lot of comments at the bottom." Nope, article after article. I gotta wonder who reads all of these. And the Edge website always seem to reek of self-congratulation. It feels like people are contributing just so they can say that they are a member of Edge.

It feels like the intellectual version of Gatsby showing off all his shirts.

It was weird to get that feeling and then come back here and immediately see memebake's post. So thanks for the post, gyan, I hope I can give it some more time and find the good ones. But you know what those people need? They need some way to show which postings other people liked, which found most favor. That would be useful.
posted by benito.strauss at 9:54 AM on January 15, 2012 [4 favorites]


Climate change really is a modern version of Pascal's wager. On one side, the worst outcome is that we've built a more robust economy. On the other side, the worst outcome really is hell. In short, we do better if we believe in climate change and act on that belief, even if we turned out to be wrong.

The fact that many people don't even understand the soundness of this powerful thinking tool and its application is a testament to how annoyingly irrational people can be.
posted by Foci for Analysis at 10:04 AM on January 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


This one had more potential when I read the link as "...favorite derp, elegant, or beautiful explanation."


It feels like people are contributing just so they can say that they are a member of Edge.

So, like Mensa?
posted by Foosnark at 10:25 AM on January 15, 2012


The calculation by Eratosthenes mentioned by Sperber is really incredible!

This is a tough question. If false explanations are admissible, then I think I vote for Anaxagoras's theory of seeds.
posted by painquale at 10:55 AM on January 15, 2012


I'm happy other people are as leery of Edge as I. Here's what you should know to explain why the site seems to be trying so hard:

The guy who runs the site, John Brockman, is a literary agent who markets science books to publishers . To whatever extent he sincerely relishes publishing fat platitudes on his site, he has an economic agenda to attract and market scientists willing to popularize their work. From what I know he auctions rights to Steven Pinker's books, among others. A highly lucrative work.

Personal story: a former employer of mine who studies psychopathy (and who is himself not a non-psychopath, to put it mildly) bragged to the lab (shortly before I quit) that instead of working on papers he was bagging a 6-figure book deal with John Brockman.

This isn't to malign anyone posting on the site, or to perjure Brockman's claims that he's interested in ideas. But it does explain to me why that site doesn't feel quite right.
posted by serif at 10:56 AM on January 15, 2012 [3 favorites]


Summary of most posts: "I as a representative of field X think that the most elegant idea is from the field X, especially one that I'm currently interested in!"

The rest tend to be general platitudes. It's the scientific method! That we comprehend the world! That we think!

Not that these are bad ideas a such, just that I can get the "We are all made from stardust! Amazing!" drone from reddit too.
posted by Pyrogenesis at 11:05 AM on January 15, 2012 [2 favorites]


My favorite explanation is phantom limb syndrome. They used to think it was irritated nerves and would cut more of the limb off. Then a guy named Ramachandran figured it out. The brain is efficient and starts to use the unused areas of the brain for other parts of the body. He took a a map of the sensory motor areas of the brain and figured out what areas of the body might be using the old area devoted to the limb.

So he went to that area and touched it. In every case, the people reported that they felt the phantom limb was being touched.

Next, he came up with an elegant cure. Putting a good limb in a mirror box, he presented the patient with a view of a limb in the position of the phantom position. He then asked the patient to stretch out both limbs. In many cases pain relief occured and repeated use of the technique reduced pain significantly. The brain thought the limb still existed in a painful position.
posted by Ironmouth at 11:09 AM on January 15, 2012 [7 favorites]


A lot of these are really great! I expected just a string of people saying 'natural selection' (boring), but there are a lot of genuinely cool theories in here. The best are the ones in which the authors admit the explanations are almost certainly false... that means the aesthetic qualities of the explanation are trumping. This is one of the good Edge questions. (Not like the older "What is your dangerous idea?")
posted by painquale at 11:39 AM on January 15, 2012


Yes this was definitely a good question. Lots of really interesting responses. As usual, I like how much leeway they give for people to write back: some are just a paragraph about a single phrase, others are long essays.

Edge does feel a bit pompous at times but they are a great platform for ideas.
posted by ropeladder at 12:46 PM on January 15, 2012 [1 favorite]




Around two hours ago, I finished all the 2011 responses and felt pretty good about myself for spending a snowy weekend working through all 115,000 words. Little did I know that they're published at the beginning of the year.

I have pressed this Darth Vader "Nooo" button about five times.
posted by ecmendenhall at 1:40 PM on January 15, 2012 [2 favorites]


Pascal's wager is a really bad idea; it is no better to use it to justify action on global warming than it is to use it to believe in the Christian god or to justify paranoia in the face of terrorism.

You can really come up with a ton of possible low-probability threats (or threats of unknown probability) that could destroy you, or your family, or the world. AGW is worth addressing, but you don't need to resort to Pascal's wager to understand why; we already have a pretty good idea that we're caught in some serious positive feedback loops that will crush us unless we do something about it.
posted by Jpfed at 1:50 PM on January 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


Do I have a chestburster growing in my abdomen right now, and what should I do?

I do, and I do nothing - horrifying, blood choking, bone shattering death filled with unimaginable torture, with an added bonus of unleashing a silent, acid-soaked, unearthly horror upon the world

I do and I operate - I may survive but I will probably also help out the bio-weapons division of a world power, to be used only for good, I'm sure

I don't and I do nothing
- nothing will happen but the nagging uncertainty of expceting a future of horrifying, blood choking, bone shattering death filled with unimaginable pain will be untolerable

I don't and I operate - I will find out that everything is good.

Therefore I should go to a hospital right now and volunteer for an abdominal operation. Just to be on the safe side.

And so should you.
posted by Pyrogenesis at 2:30 PM on January 15, 2012


Another classic is Cortex's decision to burn his ships upon arriving in South America, thus removing retreat as one of the options his crew could consider.
posted by fleacircus at 2:32 PM on January 15, 2012 [3 favorites]


Those mod guys never retreat, it's true.
posted by Segundus at 2:50 PM on January 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


And the Edge website always seem to reek of self-congratulation. It feels like people are contributing just so they can say that they are a member of Edge.

I always find that these sorts of criticisms reek of sour grapes. It feels like people are making them because no one asked them to be a member of Edge.
posted by hermitosis at 5:28 PM on January 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


I think it was Cortez who burned his ships, nor cortex.
posted by lukemeister at 7:21 PM on January 15, 2012


I really don't think it is sour grapes on my part. There's no way in hell I'd have anything useful to say on the Edge website — I'm not smart enough. And like I said I'm a big fan of this kind of stuff. It was just that I got that weird feeling while reading through it. I probably wouldn't have bothered to comment and just attributed to something about me if I hadn't come back here and seen as the first comment memebake exactly articulating the the feeling I had gotten.

So I hope I haven't diminished anyone's enjoyment of the article, 'cause there is fascinating stuff in there. But I do appreciate the info about John Brockman. It helps explain why it felt different from all the other science blogs I read.
posted by benito.strauss at 7:31 PM on January 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


** once again regrets not reading whole thread before making smartass comment **
posted by lukemeister at 7:31 PM on January 15, 2012


Not that these are bad ideas a such, just that I can get the "We are all made from stardust! Amazing!" drone from reddit too.
posted by scalefree at 8:35 PM on January 15, 2012


I think it was Cortez who burned his ships, nor cortex.
posted by scalefree at 8:38 PM on January 15, 2012


Actually I think it was Marko Ramius.
posted by stebulus at 8:57 PM on January 15, 2012


All brontosauruses are thin at one end, much much thicker in the middle, and then thin again at the far end.

So deep. So elegant. ... So strangely at odds with the comment I left here yesterday.
posted by dgaicun at 9:44 PM on January 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


When it comes to generally positive and entirely harmless stuff that people put out for others to look at, let's just say I'm not a huge fan of vague complaints that don't identify any actual problem.

It's not like there's a dearth on the internet of things to read on similar subjects that are presented in formats more to your preference.
posted by Anything at 12:50 AM on January 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


I glanced at my scrollbar (take that, iOS users!) and saw that it was a very long web page. "Oh, there must be a lot of comments at the bottom." Nope, article after article. I gotta wonder who reads all of these.

Yeah, well, yesterday I had a four-hour powercut, just after I'd clicked on this link. My router was down so I had no internet, couldn't watch TV and it was too dark to read. All I had was my laptop on battery power and this page already downloaded. So yes, I read it all, and enjoyed much of it.

Having said that - the term 'elegant' really annoys me when applied to scientific theories/explanations. What the hell has aesthetics got to do with it? What are people's favourite, messy, ugly, shallow explanations that are never the less true? I want a page on that.
posted by Summer at 2:57 AM on January 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


Having said that - the term 'elegant' really annoys me when applied to scientific theories/explanations. What the hell has aesthetics got to do with it? What are people's favourite, messy, ugly, shallow explanations that are never the less true? I want a page on that.

Because Truth is Beauty. And even if it's ugly and shallow, if it stands to scrutiny, it is therefore Truth, and elegant in a fashion. Elegant, Ugly, etc are all relative anyway.

I should know... I got some of the ugliest relatives you ever did see.
[/rimshot]
posted by DigDoug at 6:58 AM on January 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


the term 'elegant' really annoys me when applied to scientific theories/explanations. What the hell has aesthetics got to do with it? What are people's favourite, messy, ugly, shallow explanations that are never the less true?

Because truth does not exist in a vacuum, as long as humans are here to comprehend and speak it, and humans are sensitive emotional creatures who attach emotional and personal significance to everything we learn, and we marvel at concepts which appeal to the "finer" instincts and ideals which we've engendered in our civilization, and which we cling to in times of chaos or ugliness as talismans against the infinite encroaching darkness.

And because doing it your way would result in a hundred pages of totally grim Internet grimness that would turn people into Lovecraftian cultists by the time they reached the bottom of the page.
posted by hermitosis at 7:53 AM on January 16, 2012


"God creates dinosaurs. God destroys dinosaurs. God creates man. Man destroys God. Man creates dinosaurs."

Dr. Ian Malcolm
posted by grimcity at 11:50 AM on January 16, 2012 [1 favorite]




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