Thursday, March 31, 2011

Another trip to the the Edge...

Edge has done it again - asked some of the world's best minds a penetrating question and published their short essay answers.

The subject: What scientific concept would improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit?

Some of my favorite answers [to date, it's a long list] (The extracts are not the whole entry, and there is no way to link to individual answers, just scroll to the name):
  • Martin Seligman: PERMA
Well being is about what individuals and societies choose for its own sake , that which is north of indifference. The elements of well being must be exclusive, measurable independently of each other, and ideally, exhaustive. I believe there are five such elements and they have a handy acronym, PERMA:
P Positive Emotion
E Engagement
R Positive Relationships
M Meaning and Purpose
A Accomplishment
There has been forward movement in the measurement of these over the last decade. Taken together PERMA forms a more comprehensive index of well being than "life satisfaction" and it allows for the combining of objective and subjective indicators. PERMA can index the well being of individuals, of corporations, and of cities. The United Kingdom has now undertaken the measurement of well being for the nation and as one criterion — in addition to Gross Domestic Product — of the success of its public policy.
PERMA is a shorthand abstraction for the enabling conditions of life.
How do the disabling conditions, such as poverty, disease, depression, aggression, and ignorance, relate to PERMA? The disabling conditions of life obstruct PERMA, but they do not obviate it. Importantly the correlation of depression to happiness is not minus 1.00, it is only about minus 0.35, and effect of income on life satisfaction is markedly curvilinear, with increased income producing less and less life satisfaction the further above the safety net you are.
  • Stephen Pinker - Positive sum games
Some examples. Squabbling colleagues or relatives agree to swallow their pride, take their losses, or lump it to enjoy the resulting comity rather than absorbing the costs of continuous bickering in hopes of prevailing in a battle of wills. Two parties in a negotiation split the difference in their initial bargaining positions to "get to yes." A divorcing couple realizes that they can reframe their negotiations from each trying to get the better of the other while enriching their lawyers to trying to keep as much money for the two of them and out of the billable hours of Dewey, Cheatham, and Howe as possible. Populaces recognize that economic middlemen (particularly ethnic minorities who specialize in that niche such as Jews, Armenians, overseas Chinese, and expatriate Indians) are not social parasites whose prosperity comes at the expense of their hosts but positive-sum-game-creators who enrich everyone at once. Countries recognize that international trade doesn't benefit their trading partner to their own detriment but benefits them both, and turn away from beggar-thy-neighbor protectionism to open economies which (as classical economists noted) make everyone richer and which (as political scientists have recently shown) discourage war and genocide. Warring countries lay down their arms and split the peace dividend rather than pursuing Pyrrhic victories.
Granted, some human interactions really are zero-sum — competition for mates is a biologically salient example. And even in positive-sum games a party may pursue an individual advantage at the expense of joint welfare. But a full realization of the risks and costs of the game-theoretic structure of an interaction (particularly if it is repeated, so that the temptation to pursue an advantage in one round may be penalized when roles reverse in the next) can militate against various forms of short-sighted exploitation.
  •  Charles Seife: The Laws of Randomness
The Second Law of Randomness: Some events are impossible to predict.
If you walk into a Las Vegas casino and observe the crowd gathered around the craps table, you'll probably see someone who thinks he's on a lucky streak. Because he's won several rolls in a row, his brain tells him that he's going to keep winning, so he keeps gambling. You'll probably also see someone who's been losing. The loser's brain, like the winner's, tells him to keep gambling. Since he's been losing for so long, he thinks he's due for a stroke of luck; he won't walk away from the table for fear of missing out.
Contrary to what our brains are telling us, there's no mystical force that imbues a winner with a streak of luck, nor is there a cosmic sense of justice that ensures that a loser's luck will turn around. The universe doesn't care one whit whether you've been winning or losing; each roll of the dice is just like every other.
No matter how much effort you put into observing how the dice have been behaving or how meticulously you have been watching for people who seem to have luck on their side, you get absolutely no information about what the next roll of a fair die will be. The outcome of a die roll is entirely independent of its history. And, as a result, any scheme to gain some sort of advantage by observing the table will be doomed to fail. Events like these — independent, purely random events — defy any attempts to find a pattern because there is none to be found.
Randomness provides an absolute block against human ingenuity; it means that our logic, our science, our capacity for reason can only penetrate so far in predicting the behavior of cosmos. Whatever methods you try, whatever theory you create, whatever logic you use to predict the next roll of a fair die, there's always a 5/6 chance you are wrong. Always.
  •  Aubrey De Grey: A Sense Of Proportion About Fear Of The Unknown

One of the foremost challenges that face scientists today is to communicate the management of uncertainty. The public know that experts are, well, expert - that they know more than anyone else about the issue at hand. What is evidently far harder for most people to grasp is that "more than anyone else" does not mean "everything" - and especially that, given the possession of only partial knowledge, experts must also be expert at figuring out what is the best course of action. Moreover, those actions must be well judged whether in the lab, the newsroom or the policy-maker's office.
It must not, of course, be neglected that many experts are decidedly inexpert at communicating their work in lay terms. This remains a major issue largely because virtually all experts are called upon to engage in general-audience communication only very rarely, hence do not see it as a priority to gain such skills. Training and advice are available, often from university press offices, but even when experts take advantage of such opportunities it is generally too little and too late.
However, in my view that is a secondary issue. As a scientist with the luxury of communicating with the general public very frequently, I can report with confidence that experience only helps up to a point. A fundamental obstacle remains: that non-scientists harbour deep-seated instincts concerning the management of uncertainty in their everyday lives, which exist because they generally work, but which profoundly differ from the optimal strategy in science and technology. And of course it is technology that matters here, because technology is where the rubber hits the road - where science and the real world meet and must communicate effectively.
Examples of failure in this regard abound - so much so that they are hardly worthy of enumeration. Whether it be swine flu, bird flu, GM crops, stem cells: the public debate departs so starkly from the scientist's comfort zone that it is hard not to sympathise with the errors that scientists make, such as letting nuclear transfer be called "cloning", which end up holding critical research fields back for years.

 I'll add more as I can. Nominate your favorites

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