edge.org question 2017
January 1, 2017 8:14 PM   Subscribe

Please let there be flowers on a scanner.
posted by Stonestock Relentless at 9:30 PM on January 1, 2017

posted by Stonestock Relentless at 9:31 PM on January 1, 2017

Gravitational radiation needs to be more widely known?

No. No it does not.
posted by ryanrs at 9:37 PM on January 1, 2017

I like how Dawkins' answer is totally "this idea I just made up a catchy name for." His Genetic Book of the Dead is a neat little thought experiment about reading out the more subtle impacts of previous selective pressures on current-day organisms, and there are definitely people working on that sort of thing, but as framed, it's not a particularly applicable scientific concept.

Maybe I'm just feeling curmudgeonly, but my top genetics choices would be the difference between "a gene for X" and a genetic variant that increases/decreases risk of X, and better understanding of complex heritability of traits and risk ratios. But this is probably why no one asks me to write scientific thinkpieces.
posted by deludingmyself at 9:45 PM on January 1, 2017 [14 favorites]

Second Law of Thermodynamics
posted by BentFranklin at 9:59 PM on January 1, 2017 [6 favorites]

geologic timescale, random mutation, natural selection. now to rtfa.
posted by j_curiouser at 10:09 PM on January 1, 2017 [1 favorite]

Linearity and superposition are pretty powerful tools for thinking about the world. I recall they were briefly mentioned in my high school physics class, but I don't think anyone there (including me) appreciated their significance.
posted by ryanrs at 12:25 AM on January 2, 2017 [3 favorites]

There's a lot of overlap between this year's question and the one from 2011 (“What scientific concept would improve everybody's cognitive toolkit?”).
posted by spheniscus at 1:00 AM on January 2, 2017 [2 favorites]

paging cortex to the courtesy sponge
posted by fleacircus at 1:01 AM on January 2, 2017 [2 favorites]

I like comparative advantage. It's an easy, basic result that's unintuitive, at least from the greedy individual point of view. I think it was kind of revelatory for me at a certain young alienated age, like discovering that there's a mathematical bias towards cooperation/community/specialization.

Oh barf there's a plea for gender essentialism.
posted by fleacircus at 1:56 AM on January 2, 2017 [6 favorites]

Why intuition is a poor rubric for evaluating the credibility of facts.

Also: Evolution -- not a synonym for progress, not a natural race toward sentience, not directional, not motivated, not a threat to anyone's perceived relationship with the infinite.

Further: Yes Victoria, the sky is falling.
posted by Construction Concern at 4:51 AM on January 2, 2017 [4 favorites]

I like Fermi problems and Bayes's theorem for this, as I've often found both of them useful in everyday life. Being able to make not-terrible estimates, both for quantities and probabilities, is really helpful for judging the "reasonableness" of any given answer you come up with or are given.
posted by fencerjimmy at 7:37 AM on January 2, 2017 [4 favorites]

I nominate the concept of complexity classes/different rates of growth of functions.
posted by eviemath at 3:10 PM on January 2, 2017 [2 favorites]

Bootstrapping. It is a statistical concept but can be applied to a lot of situations. It says the integrity of data or a hypothesis can be tested by its internal validity. For example, Trump claims his comments are average-guy locker room talk. That can be tested within the database of politicians' being caught on tape. If his statement is the worst, the validity of his claim is a lie. And if he has the top ten worst, this supports the notion that he is the worst. This is bit of a strained example, but there is a core concept.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 7:13 PM on January 2, 2017 [1 favorite]

The Jared Diamond response (Common Sense) is, not surprisingly, almost complete bollocks. He has no working knowledge of recent developments in the archaeology of the Americas and he makes the astonishing suggestion "don’t get bogged down in following the details of a proof, if it leads to an implausible conclusion."

Which is like the exact opposite of science, but then Diamond is obviously a master practitioner of cutting corners, so consider the source.
posted by Rumple at 8:35 PM on January 3, 2017 [1 favorite]

The problem with the comparative advantage entry is that Paul Krugman himself unambiguously changed his mind on the significance of the idea; this is clear if you follow some of his recent articles in the NYTimes where he repeatedly retrospects about it.

So what's going on in Edge.org is there's an evopsych academic excerpting an article that Krugman wrote decades ago, which seriously misrepresents the economist's current views (just look at what he said last year in the nytimes) by way worst of all ignoring Krugman's repeated caution about drawing implications about international free trade based on Ricardian comparative advantage.

And if someone just reads Edge.org they won't necessarily know to look up the full context of the idea in order to evaluate it, and how one expert's view is not necessarily the full story. And here academics don't have the excuse that it's bad science journalism. Yes, comparative advantage is an important concept. But not for reasons that one might immediately suppose.
posted by polymodus at 3:20 AM on January 5, 2017

Second Law of Thermodynamics

The bit about poverty reminds me of Piketty, though substitute "inequality."
posted by Foosnark at 5:34 AM on January 5, 2017

As for Steven Pinker my worry is that the way he builds his argument infects it with scientism, in that a) everyone generally agrees on the metaphorical version of the 2nd Law, e.g. in a certain other psychological discipline it is called the death drive; the issue is that humans don't agree on the path to mitigating entropy (the project of creating that refuge of his that if you read closely he switches to an authorial "our"), and b) there's a bit of insinuating "We're all dying anyways so why are you making a fuss over the fact that I ate the ice cream"? Which is kind of the same arrogance that the Doctor in Doctor Who sometimes exhibits. I mean, is the 2nd Law supposed to be enlightening for people with real trauma, depression, and other suffering? So unless he addresses these and other issues I'm not sure if Pinker is just writing in order to be provocative or if it's the case that he has written in one of his books a detailed, compelling argument that a physics-based worldview using some insight from statistical mechanics would make everyone's lives better off.
posted by polymodus at 12:43 PM on January 5, 2017

"Oh barf there's a plea for gender essentialism."

One of the pitfalls of Helena Cronin being a philosopher rather than a scientist is that when she talks about science, she oversimplifies to make a stronger argument rather than noting how the actual experimental and observational science weakens her case. This shows when she uses things like the argument that the nations with the highest index scores of gender equality have higher gender-based occupational division. But the index scores are largely based on things like political participation (e.g. suffrage) which are much more highly correlated with the relative level of wealth of a country, and its wealth distribution curve — countries with more overall wealth and more overall equality of wealth tend to have broader protections for women's rights and tend to have broader political participation. That's a much closer correlation than that of gendered occupation preference. And to hold this as evidence of an underlying biological component for "nurturing" versus "things and competition," you have to ignore a vast wealth of anthropological culture-based evidence that directly contradicts these so-called natural divisions, especially in hunter-gatherer cultures currently extant. With no explanation of why these cultures, which are generally held to have changed less than first-world industrialized, mediated societies, don't hew to traditional Western gender and parenting predictions, and fairly reasonable explanations for why even relatively legally egalitarian societies would still have divergence based on social roles, it becomes the evo-psych "Bell Curve" for sex and gender, rather than credible social science. It's a shame to see Edge give her that platform, but probably a bigger shame that the LSE does too.
posted by klangklangston at 2:39 PM on January 6, 2017 [1 favorite]

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