Improvements to Our Lives Through Science

Ask a hundred people how science can be used for the good and you’re likely to get a hundred different answers. Well, Edge Magazine did just that, posing the question: “What scientific concept would improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit”, to 159 critical thinkers. Below we excerpt some of our favorites. The thoroughly engrossing, novel length article can be found here in its entirety.

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Richard H. Thaler. Father of behavioral economics.

I recently posted a question in this space asking people to name their favorite example of a wrong scientific belief. One of my favorite answers came from Clay Shirky. Here is an excerpt:
The existence of ether, the medium through which light (was thought to) travel. It was believed to be true by analogy — waves propagate through water, and sound waves propagate through air, so light must propagate through X, and the name of this particular X was ether.
It’s also my favorite because it illustrates how hard it is to accumulate evidence for deciding something doesn’t exist. Ether was both required by 19th century theories and undetectable by 19th century apparatus, so it accumulated a raft of negative characteristics: it was odorless, colorless, inert, and so on.

Brian Eno. Artist; Composer; Recording Producer: U2, Cold Play, Talking Heads, Paul Simon.

That idea, or bundle of ideas, seems to me the most important revolution in general thinking in the last 150 years. It has given us a whole new sense of who we are, where we fit, and how things work. It has made commonplace and intuitive a type of perception that used to be the province of mystics — the sense of wholeness and interconnectedness.
Beginning with Copernicus, our picture of a semi-divine humankind perfectly located at the centre of The Universe began to falter: we discovered that we live on a small planet circling a medium sized star at the edge of an average galaxy. And then, following Darwin, we stopped being able to locate ourselves at the centre of life. Darwin gave us a matrix upon which we could locate life in all its forms: and the shocking news was that we weren’t at the centre of that either — just another species in the innumerable panoply of species, inseparably woven into the whole fabric (and not an indispensable part of it either). We have been cut down to size, but at the same time we have discovered ourselves to be part of the most unimaginably vast and beautiful drama called Life.

We Are Not Alone In The Universe
J. Craig Venter. Leading scientist of the 21st century.

I cannot imagine any single discovery that would have more impact on humanity than the discovery of life outside of our solar system. There is a human-centric, Earth-centric view of life that permeates most cultural and societal thinking. Finding that there are multiple, perhaps millions of origins of life and that life is ubiquitous throughout the universe will profoundly affect every human.

Correlation is not a cause
Susan Blackmore. Psychologist; Author, Consciousness: An Introduction.

The phrase “correlation is not a cause” (CINAC) may be familiar to every scientist but has not found its way into everyday language, even though critical thinking and scientific understanding would improve if more people had this simple reminder in their mental toolkit.
One reason for this lack is that CINAC can be surprisingly difficult to grasp. I learned just how difficult when teaching experimental design to nurses, physiotherapists and other assorted groups. They usually understood my favourite example: imagine you are watching at a railway station. More and more people arrive until the platform is crowded, and then — hey presto — along comes a train. Did the people cause the train to arrive (A causes B)? Did the train cause the people to arrive (B causes A)? No, they both depended on a railway timetable (C caused both A and B).

A Statistically Significant Difference in Understanding the Scientific Process
Diane F. Halpern. Professor, Claremont McKenna College; Past-president, American Psychological Society.

Statistically significant difference — It is a simple phrase that is essential to science and that has become common parlance among educated adults. These three words convey a basic understanding of the scientific process, random events, and the laws of probability. The term appears almost everywhere that research is discussed — in newspaper articles, advertisements for “miracle” diets, research publications, and student laboratory reports, to name just a few of the many diverse contexts where the term is used. It is a short hand abstraction for a sequence of events that includes an experiment (or other research design), the specification of a null and alternative hypothesis, (numerical) data collection, statistical analysis, and the probability of an unlikely outcome. That is a lot of science conveyed in a few words.


Fiery Cushman. Post-doctoral fellow, Mind/Brain/Behavior Interfaculty Initiative, Harvard University.

We are shockingly ignorant of the causes of our own behavior. The explanations that we provide are sometimes wholly fabricated, and certainly never complete. Yet, that is not how it feels. Instead it feels like we know exactly what we’re doing and why. This is confabulation: Guessing at plausible explanations for our behavior, and then regarding those guesses as introspective certainties. Every year psychologists use dramatic examples to entertain their undergraduate audiences. Confabulation is funny, but there is a serious side, too. Understanding it can help us act better and think better in everyday life.

We are Lost in Thought
Sam Harris. Neuroscientist; Chairman, The Reason Project; Author, Letter to a Christian Nation.

I invite you to pay attention to anything — the sight of this text, the sensation of breathing, the feeling of your body resting against your chair — for a mere sixty seconds without getting distracted by discursive thought. It sounds simple enough: Just pay attention. The truth, however, is that you will find the task impossible. If the lives of your children depended on it, you could not focus on anything — even the feeling of a knife at your throat — for more than a few seconds, before your awareness would be submerged again by the flow of thought. This forced plunge into unreality is a problem. In fact, it is the problem from which every other problem in human life appears to be made.
I am by no means denying the importance of thinking. Linguistic thought is indispensable to us. It is the basis for planning, explicit learning, moral reasoning, and many other capacities that make us human. Thinking is the substance of every social relationship and cultural institution we have. It is also the foundation of science. But our habitual identification with the flow of thought — that is, our failure to recognize thoughts as thoughts, as transient appearances in consciousness — is a primary source of human suffering and confusion.

Mark Pagel. Professor of Evolutionary Biology, Reading University, England and The Santa Fe.

The Oracle of Delphi famously pronounced Socrates to be “the most intelligent man in the world because he knew that he knew nothing”. Over 2000 years later the physicist-turned-historian Jacob Bronowski would emphasize — in the last episode of his landmark 1970s television series the “Ascent of Man” — the danger of our all-too-human conceit of thinking we know something. What Socrates knew and what Bronowski had come to appreciate is that knowledge — true knowledge — is difficult, maybe even impossible, to come buy, it is prone to misunderstanding and counterfactuals, and most importantly it can never be acquired with exact precision, there will always be some element of doubt about anything we come to “know”‘ from our observations of the world.

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