Edge.org Annual Question 2014
January 14, 2014 10:47 PM   Subscribe

"Ideas change, and the times we live in change. Perhaps the biggest change today is the rate of change. What established scientific idea is ready to be moved aside so that science can advance?" WHAT SCIENTIFIC IDEA IS READY FOR RETIREMENT? (171 essays; 125,000 words)

Previously on Mefi: 2012, 2011, 2002-2009
posted by dgaicun (41 comments total) 72 users marked this as a favorite

and 2013 previously
posted by the man of twists and turns at 10:49 PM on January 14

I've had my mind blown about 15 times already and the scrollbar is only about 10% of the way down.
posted by univac at 12:12 AM on January 15 [4 favorites]

Statistical independence is definitely a major issue.
posted by jeffburdges at 1:05 AM on January 15

posted by panaceanot at 2:26 AM on January 15

posted by coaster at 2:30 AM on January 15

As with other years, the most pressing question is "how to read the edge.org website?" I recommend starting on the list of contributors and scanning through for titles that look interesting. You shouldn't read more than about 3 answers in a single day.
posted by leibniz at 3:01 AM on January 15 [4 favorites]

My problem with the concept is with the particularist use of "a" gene-environment interaction, the notion that there can be one. This is because, at the most benign, this implies that there can be cases where there aren't gene-environment interactions. Worse, that those cases are in the majority. Worst, the notion that lurking out there is something akin to a Platonic ideal as to every gene's actions—that any given gene has an idealized effect, that it consistently "does" that, and that circumstances where that does not occur are rare and represent either pathological situations or inconsequential specialty acts.
posted by Jpfed at 3:31 AM on January 15 [5 favorites]

This year's list seems depressing. I think it's because so many of the entries are about debunking the standard toolkit of contemporary self-ordained rational thinkers. It's like the scientists are saying, "Guys, thanks for trying to take our side against the anti-evolutionists, creationists, and other idiots, but you're not really helping in the way you wish you were."
posted by ardgedee at 3:32 AM on January 15 [7 favorites]

On the contrary for me, I'm loving them. I'm entirely tired of reading sceptics/scientists attempting to debate anti-evolutionist/crackpots in internet comments and articles.

This reads like a healthy bunch of conjecture / ideas / personal philosophies of the very best kind. The kind that emerge from intelligent enquiring scientific minds having their turn to speak.

Short, very personal essays, no comments attached, touching on many areas of science and scientific conjecture that I've often pondered myself and, yeah... I'm really enjoying them.

I wouldn't reference this as a link when arguing with someone who believes in The Rapture, or denies climate change obviously.
posted by panaceanot at 3:47 AM on January 15 [1 favorite]

"Because life as we know it could not exist otherwise" is not an answer for "why?"

Life existing as it does is an effect, not a cause.
posted by walrus at 4:51 AM on January 15

Life existing as it does is an effect, not a cause.

Yeah, the Anthropic Principle is a variation on the tired old "God of the Gaps" argument, and one which already has a plethora of possible answers that don't get themselves too hung up on life as we know it existing - infinite worlds theory, for one. If there are infinite worlds, one of 'em was bound to be ours. (Actually, an infinity of them, along with an infinity of worlds where life could not exist. Infinity is awesome that way.)
posted by Slap*Happy at 5:09 AM on January 15 [1 favorite]

Is it just my browser, or are a lot of words missing from Seirian Sumner's piece on the genetic toolkit?
posted by mittens at 5:17 AM on January 15 [1 favorite]

In terms of the cosmic significance of life as we know it existing, it's about as relevant as a particular grain of sand existing in the totality of all the World's beaches. I don't think we probably need much more of an answer than "because that's the way it turned out". I'm not ruling out a completely inefficient creator or infinite worlds, but I don't need those explanations any more than a giant spaghetti monster unless someone can produce convincing evidence.
posted by walrus at 5:18 AM on January 15

ok y'all need to stop making fun of lamarckism. :P This is great, enjoying it immensely.
posted by xarnop at 6:35 AM on January 15

This year's list seems depressing. I think it's because so many of the entries are about debunking the standard toolkit of contemporary self-ordained rational thinkers.

There's more than a few blows to followers of St. Dawkins in there, which is a good thing as yelling "science" without actually having thought about it is a disservice to everybody.
posted by Artw at 6:50 AM on January 15 [1 favorite]

Also potentially problematic thinking, I notice de novo mutations are still associated with positive evolution when applied to non-human species but still often are presented to the public as "being associated with disease".

There are many many reasons this could be so including generations of humans in novel environments they aren't well suited to and the de novo mutations could potentially be attempts at positively adapting to knew molecular exposures in the air, food, water, environment (including molds, bacteria, virus, toxins, pollens, dusts, minerals etc etc) and also change in the environmental landscape including what sort of emotional content, work load, physical strain, emotional strain are required for the tasks of surviving and preventing social attacks or social isolation.

The human body is adapting and processing huge quantities of information and physical content and in societies where change is rapid and social support is more scarce we see more mental and often physical illness.

I'm very excited about the promotion of understanding human health in the context of the familial, social and physical environment the human is in, and about incorporating an understanding of mental health problems as potentially originating in the environment and also in other parts of the body than just the brain. Immune system issues and a host of other problems are likely candidates for many mental health symptoms and leaving only brain specialists to treating people with any mental health symptoms is not only failing them but could be making them worse by failing to find out what actually is wrong.

I know I jumped to what I found exciting which is advances in social thinking about health and genetics and our social obligation to understand and enact better conditions for human welfare into our policies and cultural practices and our very thinking about what health and healing should involve from a multifaceted perspective- but the rest I'm chewing on more slowly... it's all very interesting (and will itself all be subject to criticism and improvement of course.)
posted by xarnop at 6:57 AM on January 15

Max Tegmark's comments on infinity. Infinity doesn't exist, neither large nor small, other than as a mathematical construct. There is no nothing. The principle functions of the universe are on a log scale. If you eliminate the need to go below quantum levels of time and motion, the question of the nature of gravity is already solved.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 7:22 AM on January 15

It is time for science to retire the fiction of statistical independence.

The world is massively interconnected through causal chains. Gravity alone causally connects all objects with mass. The world is even more massively correlated with itself. It is a truism that statistical correlation does not imply causality. But it is a mathematical fact that statistical independence implies no correlation at all. None. Yet events routinely correlate with one another. The whole focus of most big-data algorithms is to uncover just such correlations in ever larger data sets.

To me this is like saying we should retire the number "zero." I mean, yes, nothing you measure is LITERALLY zero. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't be willing to treat unmeasurably or negligibly small quantities as zero sometimes; otherwise you're just standing there with your jaw open not doing anything!
posted by escabeche at 7:31 AM on January 15 [3 favorites]

I'm grateful for anything new by Sapolsky.
posted by todayandtomorrow at 7:34 AM on January 15 [1 favorite]

Why is Kai Krause weighing in on The Uncertainty Principle? He's a software designer not a physicist and the position he seems to be taking (uncertainty is not a fundamental property of the universe but an inability to measure) is almost certainly wrong.
posted by justkevin at 7:44 AM on January 15 [2 favorites]

even if you know about Paul Rozin's disgust work, you will still hesitate to drink Dom Perignon out of a sterile toilet bowl.

challenge accepted.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 7:48 AM on January 15

> otherwise you're just standing there with your jaw open not doing anything!

For a great many people, this outcome would be a net benefit.
posted by languagehat at 7:58 AM on January 15 [2 favorites]

More interesting still would be a list of ideas that fell out of favor only later to be proven true. Or at least fall back into favor. Step it up, science guys and gals!

I've got big hopes for phlogiston.
posted by IndigoJones at 8:11 AM on January 15 [3 favorites]

We're not sheeple! David Berreby says so!

posted by maryr at 8:23 AM on January 15 [1 favorite]

I wish someone would explain Guth's piece about entropy. I was going to say "in small words," but "gas" and "box" are already small words, and I am soooo confused by his piece.
posted by mittens at 9:35 AM on January 15 [1 favorite]

So Linde makes the claim "The best candidate for the "theory of everything" that is presently known to us is string theory."

I imagine he means the best candidate in terms of mathematical solution? I know there are quite a few physicists who might cock their head when reading that statement; Isn't string theory still highly contentious? What other candidates are there that are runners up, if not "the best"?
posted by symbioid at 10:31 AM on January 15

More interesting still would be a list of ideas that fell out of favor only later to be proven true.

The only one I can really think of offhand would be Continental Drift. I remember reading an old Asimov on Science book, and he had a section on "discredited scientific theories". He wrote sorry, no mechanism has been found, so though it sounds neat, it wasn't true.

Something like a year after publication magnetic studies of the ocean floor showed the lines caused by sea floor spreading. In a later volume Asimov apologized.
posted by happyroach at 10:32 AM on January 15 [3 favorites]

From Martin Rees, talking about how hitting a barrier to understanding for one area of science (e.g., reconciling quantum theory and gravity) need not affect other areas (e.g., child nutrition):

Our grasp of diet and child care, for instance, is still so meagre that expert advice changes from year to year. This may seem an incongruous contrast with the confidence with which we can discuss galaxies and sub-atomic particles. But biologists are held up by the problems of complexity—and these are more daunting than those of the very big and the very small.

The sciences are sometimes likened to different levels of a tall building: particle physics on the ground floor, then the rest of physics, then chemistry, and so forth: all the way up to psychology (and the economists in the penthouse). There is a corresponding hierarchy of complexity: atoms, molecules, cells, organisms, and so forth. This metaphor is in some ways helpful. It illustrates how each science is pursued independently of the others. But in one key respect the analogy is poor: in a building, insecure foundations imperil the floors above. In contrast, the 'higher level' sciences dealing with complex systems aren't imperiled by an insecure base, as a building is.

(I'm not sure how to both read all of the interesting stuff and get anything else done this week.)
posted by RedOrGreen at 11:04 AM on January 15

The scientific method, which makes science uninteresting to flexible thinkers.
posted by Oyéah at 11:17 AM on January 15

justkevin: Why is Kai Krause weighing in on The Uncertainty Principle? [...] the position he seems to be taking (uncertainty is not a fundamental property of the universe but an inability to measure) is almost certainly wrong.

Yeah, this one was weak sauce, complete with a smiley:

... even in the days of quantum computing, qbits and tunnelling effects, I still would not want to bet against Albert ;) His intuitive grasp of nature survived so many critics and waves of counter-proof ended up counter-counter-proved.

Seriously? As far as I can tell, it's a semantic argument: rather than stating that either position or momentum are "as yet undetermined", it became common usage and popular wisdom to jump to the conclusion that there is complete "uncertainty". Who thinks that? There's complete uncertainty only if we have an absolutely exact measurement of the complementary quantity. (Also, Bell inequality violation stuff is now well documented.)
posted by RedOrGreen at 11:40 AM on January 15 [1 favorite]

OK, to sum things up, the epistemic tools you thought were good are bad:

The Scientific Method
Replication As a Safety Net
Science Is Self-Correcting

... and the epistemic tools you thought were bad are good:

Bias is Always Bad
The Pursuit of Parsimony
Opposites Can’t Both Be Right
Things Are Either True Or False

And scientists are using statistics Wrong. All. Wrong.

The Power of Statistics
Scientific Inference Via Statistical Rituals
Statistical Significance
Statistical Independence
The Average
Standard Deviation
Multiple Regression as a Means of Discovering Causality
posted by dgaicun at 11:43 AM on January 15 [9 favorites]

I'm absolutely loving this year's question and all the interesting responses it's garnered. I've been reading through them all day now. Good stuff.
posted by iamkimiam at 12:02 PM on January 15

dgaicun, applause for your majestic list. But you missed Large Randomized Controlled Trials:

It is a commonly held but erroneous belief that a larger study is always more rigorous or definitive than a smaller one, and a randomized controlled trial is always the gold standard.

posted by RedOrGreen at 12:27 PM on January 15

Arg! It keeps failing to load for me. You damn MeFites are overloading the site!
posted by klangklangston at 12:35 PM on January 15

These are really fun, though I find this year to be a mixed bag. Some provocative headlines are not provocative at all in the text, some not-so-provocative headlines are quite off in their text. For example, this closer on multiple regressions for finding causality is just wrong, as far as I can tell:
And no amount of measuring of "control" variables can untangle the web of causality. What nature hath joined together, multiple regression cannot put asunder.
Because we establish causality all the time with control variables (e.g. a randomized experiment), and though there has been very confused literature in the previous century when it comes to multiple regression, in this century causality has finally found solid footing.

I find the one on "statistical independence" by an electrical engineer/signals processing professor to be somewhat incomprehensible, even though I generally speak his language as I understand and appreciate his recent publications. But I have really no idea what he means in there. Maybe he's looking for models that model much more conditional dependence? Is there a particular example of what he's railing against?

It seems that it's incredibly important to understand where each of these people is coming from, in order to understand what they think needs to be retired. Two different jargon words may have identical spellings but different implications in different fields, so it can be difficult to figure out precise implications.
posted by Llama-Lime at 1:33 PM on January 15 [2 favorites]

Anyone care to list a top ten or so?
posted by gottabefunky at 3:19 PM on January 15

OK, to sum things up, the epistemic tools you thought were good are bad:

Falsifiability - Theoretical Physicist
The Scientific Method - Entrepreneur
Replication As a Safety Net - Psychologist
Reproducibility - Statistician
Science Is Self-Correcting - Psychology

... and the epistemic tools you thought were bad are good:

Anti-anecdotalism - Business Guru
Bias is Always Bad - Psychologist
The Pursuit of Parsimony - Psychologist
Opposites Can’t Both Be Right - Psychologist
Things Are Either True Or False - Actor

And scientists are using statistics Wrong. All. Wrong.

The Power of Statistics - Business Quant
Scientific Inference Via Statistical Rituals - Psychologist
Statistical Significance - Journalist
Statistical Independence - Electrical Engineer
The Average - Physician
Standard Deviation - Business Quant
Multiple Regression as a Means of Discovering Causality - Psychologist

My study found approximately 1.66 scientists in this group.

posted by Herodios at 4:45 PM on January 15 [4 favorites]

I assume your full-fledged scientist is the theoretical physicist. So who's the 0.66 scientist? The statistician or the EE? Is it the "psychologist" who happens to be Director of the Center for Adaptive Behavior and Cognition at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin or the "psychologist" who happens to be Associate Professor, Psychology and Cognitive Science, University of California, Berkeley; Director, Institute of Cognitive and Brain Sciences. Who doesn't count, the professor at UMichigan or the professor at NYU?
posted by maryr at 8:18 PM on January 15 [2 favorites]

dgaicun's summary is really disappointingly facile.
posted by Jpfed at 7:36 AM on January 16 [1 favorite]

dgaicun's summary is really disappointingly facile.

I interpreted it as sarcasm.

A lot of the Edge list is obviously "share-bait", but some of the items are good.
posted by RedOrGreen at 10:22 AM on January 16

These are the ones I've found interesting and useful so far, even if I disagree:

Life Evolves Via A Shared Genetic Toolkit -- Seirian Sumner, Senior Lecturer in Behavioural Biology School, University of Bristol. I disagree strongly with full retirement, as a shared toolkit is clearly part of some evolution, but I would be interested in seeing the function of these species-specific genes, and see how they influenced the evolution of species.

Universal Grammar -- Benjamin K. Bergen, Associate Professor, Cognitive Science, University of California, San Diego; Author, Louder Than Words: The New Science of How the Mind Makes Meaning. A common criticism of Chomskian Universal Grammar pursuit is that it has lead to ignoring the great diversity of extant human languages, as languages are too quickly becoming extinct. Time to learn as much as we can before the languages are gone forever. We need a database of as many languages as possible.

Simple Answers Gavin Schmidt-- climatologist with NASAs Goddard Institute. We should generally assume that everything is far more complicated than it appears on its face, particularly when it comes to public policy.

Scientists Should Stick to Science Buddhini Samarasinghe -- Molecular Biologist. Lots of good examples of bad policy because we don't want to listen to our current best understanding of the outside world. Suggests that scientists should have to learn to publicly communicate as part of their training.
posted by Llama-Lime at 11:39 AM on January 16 [2 favorites]

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