Richard Dawkins' “meme” became a meme, known far beyond the scientific conversation in which it was coined. It’s one of a handful of scientific ideas that have entered the general culture, helping to clarify and inspire.
The Edge 20th Anniversary Annual Question
"WHAT SCIENTIFIC TERM OR CONCEPT OUGHT TO BE MORE WIDELY KNOWN?"
Of course, not everyone likes the idea of spreading scientific understanding. Remember what the Bishop of Birmingham’s wife is reputed to have said about Darwin’s claim that human beings are descended from monkeys: "My dear, let us hope it is not true, but, if it is true, let us hope it will not become generally known."
Of all the scientific terms or concepts that ought to be more widely known to help to clarify and inspire science-minded thinking in the general culture, none are more important than “science” itself.
Many people, even many scientists, have traditionally had a narrow view of science as controlled, replicated experiments performed in the laboratory—and as consisting quintessentially of physics, chemistry, and molecular biology. The essence of science is conveyed by its Latin etymology: scientia, meaning knowledge. The scientific method is simply that body of practices best suited for obtaining reliable knowledge. The practices vary among fields: the controlled laboratory experiment is possible in molecular biology, physics, and chemistry, but it is either impossible, immoral, or illegal in many other fields customarily considered sciences, including all of the historical sciences: astronomy, epidemiology, evolutionary biology, most of the earth sciences, and paleontology. If the scientific method can be defined as those practices best suited for obtaining knowledge in a particular field, then science itself is simply the body of knowledge obtained by those practices.
Science—that is, reliable methods for obtaining knowledge—is an essential part of psychology and the social sciences, especially economics, geography, history, and political science. Not just the broad observation-based and statistical methods of the historical sciences but also detailed techniques of the conventional sciences (such as genetics and molecular biology and animal behavior) are proving essential for tackling problems in the social sciences. Science is nothing more nor less than the most reliable way of gaining knowledge about anything, whether it be the human spirit, the role of great figures in history, or the structure of DNA.
It is in this spirit of scientia that Edge, on the occasion of its 20th anniversary, is pleased to present the Edge Annual Question 2017. Happy New Year!
—John Brockman, Editor, January 1, 2017
[206 contributors; 143,000 words:] Scott Aaronson, Anthony Aguirre, Adam Alter, Ross Anderson, Samuel Arbesman, Simon Baron-Cohen, Lisa Feldman Barrett, Thomas Bass, Nicolas Baumard, Gregory Benford, Jeremy Bernstein, Laura Betzig, Susan Blackmore, Giulio Boccaletti, Ian Bogost, Joshua Bongard, Raphael Bousso, Stewart Brand, David M. Buss, Jimena Canales, Nicholas Carr, Sean Carroll, Leo Chalupa, Ashvin Chhabra, Jaeweon Cho, Nicholas A. Christakis, Brian Christian, David Christian, George Church, Andy Clark, Gregory Cochran, Jerry A. Coyne, Helena Cronin, David Dalrymple, Richard Dawkins, Aubrey de Grey, Luca De Biase, Sarah Demers, Daniel C. Dennett, Emanuel Derman, David DeSteno, Diana Deutsch, Keith Devlin, Jared Diamond, Rolf Dobelli, Scott Draves, George Dyson, Nick Enfield, Brian Eno, Juan Enriquez, Nancy Etcoff, Dylan Evans, Daniel Everett, Christine Finn, Stuart Firestein, Helen Fisher, Tecumseh Fitch, Jessica Flack, Steve Fuller, Howard Gardner, Michael Gazzaniga, James Geary, Amanda Gefter, Neil Gershenfeld, Gerd Gigerenzer, Bruno Giussani, Nigel Goldenfeld, Dan Goleman, Beatrice Golomb, Alison Gopnik, Kurt Gray, Tom Griffiths, June Gruber, Hans Halvorson, Sam Harris, Cesar Hidalgo, Roger Highfield, W. Daniel Hillis, Michael Hochberg, Donald Hoffman, Jim Holt, Bruce Hood, Daniel Hook, John Horgan, Sabine Hossenfelder, Nicholas Humphrey, Joichi Ito, Nina Jablonski, Jennifer Jacquet, Matthew O. Jackson, Kate Jeffery, Koo Jeong A, Gordon Kane, Stuart Kauffman, Kevin Kelly, Katherine Kinzler, Gary Klein, Jon Kleinberg, Brian Knutson, Bart Kosko, Stephen Kosslyn, Kai Krause, Lawrence Krauss, Coco Krumme, Robert Kurzban, Peter Lee, Cristine Legare, Martin Lercher, Margaret Levi, Janna Levin, Daniel Lieberman, Matthew Lieberman, Andre Linde, Antony Garrett Lisi, Mario Livio, Seth Lloyd, Tania Lombrozo, Jonathan B. Losos, Ziyad Marar, John Markoff, Chiara Marletto, Barnaby Marsh, Abigail Marsh, Ursula Martin, John C. Mather, Ian McEwan, Hugo Mercier, Yuri Milner, Read Montague, Richard Muller, Priyamvada Natarajan, John Naughton, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, Richard Nisbett, Tor Nørretranders, Michael Norton, Peter Norvig, Hans Ulrich Obrist, James J. O'Donnell, Steve Omohundro, Bruce Parker, Irene Pepperberg, Clifford Pickover, Steven Pinker, David Pizarro, Robert Plomin, Ernst Pöppel, William Poundstone, Robert Provine, Richard Prum, Matthew Putman, Steven Quartz, David Queller, Sheizaf Rafaeli, Lisa Randall, Abbas Raza, Azra Raza, Martin Rees, Diana Reiss, Siobhan Roberts, Daniel Rockmore, Andrés Roemer, Phil Rosenzweig, Carlo Rovelli, David Rowan, Doulgas Rushkoff, Paul Saffo, Eduardo Salcedo-Albarán, Buddhini Samarasinghe, Robert Sapolsky, Roger Schank, Maximilian Schich, Laurence C. Smith, Simone Schnall, Bruce Schneier, Oliver Scott Curry, Gino Segre, Charles Seife, Terrence J. Sejnowski, Eldar Shafir, Michael Shermer, Seth Shostak, Gerald Smallberg, Lee Smolin, Dan Sperber, Paul Steinhardt, Victoria Stodden, Rory Sutherland, Melanie Swan, Tim Taylor, Max Tegmark, Richard Thaler, Frank Tipler, John Tooby, Eric Topol, Barbara Tversky, Athena Vouloumanos, Adam Waytz, Eric Weinstein, Linda Wilbrecht, Frank Wilczek, Jason Wilkes, Elizabeth Wrigley-Field, Victoria Wyatt, Itai Yanai, Dustin Yellin
Scientific Terms For Educated Citizens
Frontiers of Science
by René Scheu 5.1.2017
Major thinkers, researchers, and scientists present twelve concepts that everyone should know and which produce fertile new hypotheses.
The phrase is as apodictic as it is arrogant: "Science does not think." When Martin Heidegger pronounced it in 1951, he had his finger on the pulse of his time. These few words do not only express a fresh self-assurance of philosophy, but also a newly awakened awareness of problems.
The scientific and technological approach, according to Heidegger's findings, transforms the world into an object of human manipulation which ultimately will threaten the very existence of man through the atomic bomb and human genomics. The tone is unmistakably apocalyptic. While science does not know where it is going, philosophy sees it quite clearly: into ruin.
Heidegger's statement resonates to this day. Even in 2017, it is still de rigeur for a certain kind of intellectual from the humanities department to look down on natural sciences, despite all inter- and transdisciplinary efforts. They don’t usually judge on the basis of their own knowledge or of a presumably higher insight like Heidegger—who was, after all, well acquainted with the most recent findings which physics and biochemistry had brought forth in his time. Rather, they do it ignorantly and from a safe distance, cultivating with considerable fuss what hermeneutics calls a "prejudice": Since our mental life is so rich, what should evolutionary theory or microbiology have to teach us about the human being, this insolvable riddle?
All of our lives are changed fundamentally, and with enormous speed, in the wake of contemporary science and technology
Thus we have been taught in our studies: the humanities want to understand the life of the human spirit, while the natural sciences are trying to explain the phenomena of nature. The two areas are completely different in methodology, and their representatives have nothing to say to each other; there can be nothing but misunderstandings. But even sophisticated hommes de lettres experience today how, in the wake of science and technology, our life is changing fundamentally—and with enormous speed.
This also affects their self-understanding. Do philosophers, literati, and intellectuals continue to regard themselves as interpreters of a world which appears to them only as a black box, and therefore, as it were, specialize in the consolation of their peers? Or do they dare to reconsider the great old questions, not evading the friction with new scientific knowledge: What exactly is life? When did it begin? How does man tick? How deep is the universe? Is the universe a computer? Is there intelligence outside the earth? What is consciousness?
We live in one of the most exciting periods of cognitive activity in the history of mankind —John Brockman
The British physicist and writer Charles Percy Snow had outlined the profile of this new kind of intellectual already half a century ago. He spoke of men of the "third culture", equally well-versed in literature as in science. But Snow's concept remained a dead letter until John Brockman adopted it 25 years ago.
Who is this man? Brockman, who was part of the New York avant-garde scene of the 1970s with people like John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol, found his way from the outskirts of experimental art into science, which he regards as a kind of creative practice. The focus of his interest is on cybernetics and evolutionary biology, and his growing certainty that we are "living in one of the most exciting periods of cognitive activity in the history of mankind" compares most closely with the spirit of the Renaissance.
Edge is a cybersalon for extensive scientific debate with a claim to be at the edge of knowledge.
Brockman first saw himself as a homo universalis and man of the third culture, before he set himself up as an "intellectual universal impresario" (David Brooks), putting himself in the service of this culture in order to earn money. In the 1980s, he began to build up a vibrant network of authors working at the interface between natural sciences and humanities. He represents many of them as a literary agent, some of them to this day.
This New York Humanist milieu evokes memories of the productive, adventurous Parisian intellectual scene of the 1960s. Today's thinkers, however, do not see their task in hagiographical interpretation of the texts of founder figures (Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud) in order to prove themselves the only true disciples. Rather, the new authors take up inspiring ideas from Darwin, Neumann, or Maturana, in order to more precisely conceive our living present.
Instead of an exegetic look at the rear-view mirror, then, we find a robustly optimistic will to shape the future. No doubt there is a lot of hubris in the game, but just as much daring and the healthy self-confidence of science-savvy intellectuals who insist on living up to their curiosity.
This is how Edge came into being: a cybersalon designed for wide-ranging and accessible scientific debate with the claim to be at the edge of knowledge. For twenty years, John Brockman has put a question before his community at the end of every year and the responses are published at the stroke of midnight on New Year's Eve on www.edge.org. The 2017 Question is: "What scientific term or concept ought to be more widely known?" You can read a selection of the responses in this Feuilleton. Some of the authors provide science fiction in the best sense of the word—fragments from the workshop of speculative-narrative reason. We intend to cultivate this discipline more consequently in the NZZ Feuilleton. A look into the intellectual laboratory of the future must be an integral part of a discourse oriented towards the true, the good and the beautiful.
Here the twelve posts:
Mysterianism (Nicholas G. Carr), Deliberate Ignorance (Gerd Gigerenzer), The Navier-Stokes Equations (Ian McEwan), Embodied Thinking (Barbara Tversky), The Second Law of Thermodynamics (Steven Pinker), The Anthropocene (Jennifer Jacquet), Naïve Realism (Matthew D. Lieberman), Affordances (Daniel C. Dennett), The Neural Code (John Horgan), Common Sense (Jared Diamond), Effective Theory (Lisa Randall)
The Second Law of Thermodynamics (Steven Pinker), Life History (Alison Gopnik), Positive Illusions (Helen Fisher), Common Sense (Jared Diamond), The Law of Small Numbers (Adam Alter), Complementarity (Frank Wilczek), The Copernican Principle (Mario Livio), Effective Theory (Lisa Randall)
Science: The Seven Ideas for 2017
Theories that will change our everyday life in the year just begun according to 206 great researchers and intellectuals from around the world
by Anna Meldolesi
Imagine taking over 200 international thinkers, including writers, artists and many, many scientists of all disciplines. Place them in front of a challenging question and collect their responses on a web site. It seems difficult to find a better way to greet with understanding the arrival of 2017. To do so we thought the literary agent John Brockman with his Edge Foundation. The ritual is repeated every year and this time the question was the following: “What scientific term or concept ought to be more widely known?” That is, being able to choose freely a bud in the casket of knowledge, which you would show humanity at the beginning of this year. What piece of knowledge do you want to put metaphorically in your pocket, to walk toward the future with a greater awareness of the world? And do it with without pedantry and jargon. According to the novelist Ian McEwan, one of the 206 intellectuals invited to participate, the beauty of this game is that among the rules of engagement there is the invitation to be open-minded, free ranging, intellectually playful, to indulge in the unadorned pleasure in curiosity.
Scientific ideas often remain confined among insiders, but sometimes science goes mainstream, and the most versatile and fortunate intuitions breach into the general culture, enriching it, and changing it in turn.
This happened to the memes of Richard Dawkins, to the paradigm jumps of Thomas Kuhn, to Schrödinger’s Cat, just to name some examples. Among the many ideas suggested this year, and candidates to become viral, a recurring theme is that of the peculiarities of scientific thought that would deserve to be exported to other fields of human knowledge and action is that science is a master of failure, critical spirit, intellectual honesty. Sometimes it delivers uncomfortable truths, as it reminds us of the famous phrase attributed to the wife of the Bishop of Birmingham on Darwin’s theory of evolution. Commenting on the embarrassing kinship between men and monkeys she apparently said: "Hopefully it is not true and, if it is true, that you do not know around".
The 206 responses to the 2017 question will eventually be published in a book. Here we have seven contributions, selected because they are particularly surprising and sometimes even useful in everyday life. Their merit? They warn of prejudices, educate complexity, cultivate wonder.
Confirmation Bias (Brian Eno), The Second Law of Thermodynamics (Steven Pinker), Deliberate Ignorance (Gerd Gigerenzer), Included Middle (Melanie Swan), Effective Theory (Lisa Randall), Multiverse (Martin Rees)
Understanding Evidence-Based Science
Society Needs Reliable Knowledge. Ask Yourself the Right Questions
Science is the most reliable way to generate knowledge. This is the conviction of the Edge community which every year, for the past twenty years, has gathered around its long-time driving force John Brockman to answer a big question through which we can supposedly arrive at the edge of knowledge. In this period, however, knowledge empirically derived by the scientific method reveals an amount of information of varying quality and varied provenance which would seem to question the credibility of any belief and any consensus on the practical experience of reality. So one might ask: do we know enough about scientific knowledge? And, above all, can the scientific method be recognized as the most reliable? This is probably why Brockman asked his community of scientists, researchers, intellectuals, and creative interpreters to answer a seemingly simple question: "What scientific term or concept ought to be more widely known?"
Many contributors decided to respond by citing the latest discoveries that are actually not well known. Joi Ito, Director of the MIT Media Lab, described Neurodiversity, a concept that challenges the definition of "autism" and embraces the diversity of ways of being human. Kevin Kelly, a pioneer in the narrative of technology, highlighted the concept of Premature Optimization to show that a success obtained in the first phase of a project’s development can put a brake on a bigger success: which is a recommendation for not only accepting the mistake but also for maintaining a critical attitude regarding what has already been discovered. And the Futurist Paul Saffo wrote about Haldane's Rule of the Right Size, which shows every organism has an optimum size and a change in size inevitably leads to a change in form, which is applicable not only to organisms, but also to technologies and organizations.
But the Edge community, with its distinguishing humility, thought that it was necessary to also take into account those who don’t know the most basic scientific concepts. An example? A couple of years ago a survey from the National Science Foundation reported that 25% of Americans are convinced that the Sun revolves around the Earth, more Americans than those who voted for the new President of the United States. So, with great sense of reality, astrophysicist and author Mario Livio decided to dedicate his contribution to The Copernican Principle, which states that the Earth is not at the center of the solar system. And Steven Pinker, who does research in a vast territory between cognitive science and language, in turn, has devoted his contribution to The Second Law of Thermodynamics, which states that in an isolated system (one that is not taking in energy), entropy never decreases. It is a basic concept that shows how closed systems not interconnected with the outside tend inexorably to become less structured, less organized, less able to do interesting things, until they fall into a monotonous and uniform situation where they stop. And die. For Pinker, this is instructive for society. Giving up the liaison with the other societies, not accepting energy and information from outside, leads to social death.
In writing about Confirmation Bias, the artist Brian Eno has found a balance between the need to provide information about a new scientific concept and to divulge an element of basic knowledge by dedicating his contribution to the error of perception due to the search for confirmation: “The great promise of the Internet was that more information would automatically yield better decisions. The great disappointment is that more information actually yields more possibilities to confirm what you already believed anyway.” In fact, scientifically, what was wrong was the word "automatically." The internet is not the wisdom machine, but only the information machine. But it was conceived in such a way that it is constantly renewed through innovation. This is what Edge pushed us to do.
Neurodiversity (Joi Ito), Premature Optimization (Kevin Kelly), Haldane's Rule of the Right Size (Paul Saffo), The Copernican Principle (Mario Livio), The Second Law of Thermodynamics (Steven Pinker), Confirmation Bias (Brian Eno)
One cited anecdote—which some say is apocryphal and whose central character varies according to the story—tells us that when, in the last decades of the nineteenth century, Darwin's theory that humans descended from monkeys spread in England, the wife of the bishop of Birmingham responded, shocked: "Dear, let's hope it is not true. And if it is, let's hope it does not spread."
Those words take up the Edge website to present its annual question ( Edge Question ) this year. Every year, writer and publisher John Brockman hosts discussions on innovative ideas from the most diverse fields of science and proposes a provocative question to a number of intellectuals, scientists, artists and writers. Answers vary from small essays to a paragraph, but all have the spirit of those who are thinking about the boundaries of their disciplines or crossing them. "What should we care about?" "What scientific news was the most important this year?" "What do you think about the machines you think?" "What will change everything?" These are some of the questions from previous years, whose answers are then published in the form of books.
This year, the question was: "What term or scientific concept should be most widely known?" More than 200 scientists from the most varied fields, essayists and artists responded, and their texts—like all previous editions—can be freely read on the website.
"The Genetic Book of the Dead," "Reciprocal Altruism," "Neurodiversity," "The Second Law of Thermodynamics," "Common Sense," "Scientific Realism," and "The Copernican Principle," are some of the answers this year, which mostly propose reflections on the status of knowledge in the contemporary world, the ways in which science advances, and the role of uncertainty and chance in that movement.
It is not uncommon for that to be the approach. "Of all the scientific terms that should be better known to help clarify and inspire scientific thinking in general culture, none is more important than 'science' itself," Brockman wrote in presenting this year's Edge question. "Science is nothing more nor less than the most reliable way of gaining knowledge about anything, whether it be the human spirit, the role of great figures in history, or the structure of DNA." Here, we reproduce excerpts from some of the essays.
Confirmation Bias (Brian Eno), The Anthropocene (Jennifer Jacquet), The Navier-Stokes Equations (Ian McEwan), Mysterianism (Nicholas G. Carr), Epsilon (Victoria Stodden), Intellectual Honesty (Sam Harris)
Pre-order. Release date: February 7, 2017
140,000 words • 584 pages