Each year, the director of the website edge.org, John Brockman, asks a question to a group of intellectual collaborators, many of them belonging to the world of science but also personalities from the world of art, technology and of the music. The question he asked on January 1, 2017 was: Which term or scientific concept should be better known? According to psychologist and linguist Steven Pinker the second law of thermodynamics should be better known.
One of the most quietly unsettling findings in psychology, for my money, is “verbal overshadowing” – a weird fact about memory that’s liable to make you wonder if anything you believe about your life is really true. The finding is this: putting your experiences into words – talking about them with others or writing them down – makes you less likely to recall them accurately.
On closer inspection, this psychological oddity starts to look less strange. Language, as the linguist Nick Enfield points out, pretty much exists in order to categorise things – to sift the chaos of reality into the pigeonholes provided by our pre-agreed words. (He chose verbal overshadowing as his answer to the Edge website’s annual question this year: “What scientific term or concept ought to be more widely known?”) And putting something in a pigeonhole means not putting it into others, by definition. To describe someone as having three dogs is to focus on what the animals share – they’re dogs – and to disregard the fact that they’re a great dane, a sheepdog, and a yorkshire terrier; or old or young, excitable or placid. The research on verbal overshadowing, Enfield writes, suggests this pigeonholing overwrites the previous memory: “When words render experience, specific information is not just left out, it is deleted.” Even the best writer must unavoidably misrepresent the world – we couldn’t communicate otherwise . . .
We should turn our gaze from the leather-ruffled mammoths, says the evolutionary biologist Alison Gopnik. Grandmothers and children—they are the true bearers of civilization.
If we want to understand the reality, Mr Petry, we shoot anything with our intuition. Then we need figures, research, understanding, interpretation, knowledge. Not infrequently state of scientific knowledge even totally at odds with human intuition - just think of the theory of evolution, which few understand really, or the quantum theory, which even dizzy connoisseurs start. But you probably know all of them, because you have thoroughly read the exponents of the third culture. Yet? Yes? May I ask why you are still infatuated with psychoanalysis? Steven Pinker and others you should have learned that Sigmund Freud was a pitiful quack, who kept his intuition for the truth. A bit like you, sometimes.
We are in a particularly tribal moment in American politics in which “the enemy of my enemy is my ally” is the most powerful argument around.
John Tooby, the evolutionary psychologist, recently wrote that if he could explain one scientific concept to the public it would be the “coalitional instinct.” In our natural habitat, to be alone was to be vulnerable. If “you had no coalition, you were nakedly at the mercy of everyone else, so the instinct to belong to a coalition has urgency, pre-existing and superseding any policy-driven basis for membership,” Tooby wrote on Edge.org. “This is why group beliefs are free to be so weird.”
We overlook the hypocrisies and shortcomings within our coalition out of a desire to protect ourselves from our enemies.
Today, the right sees the left as enemies — and, I should say, vice versa. ...
. . . AI doomsday scenarios are often predicated on a false analogy between natural intelligence and artificial intelligence. As Harvard University experimental psychologist Steven Pinker elucidated in his answer to the 2015 Edge.org Annual Question “What Do You Think about Machines That Think?”: “AI dystopias project a parochial alpha-male psychology onto the concept of intelligence. They assume that superhumanly intelligent robots would develop goals like deposing their masters or taking over the world.” It is equally possible, Pinker suggests, that “artificial intelligence will naturally develop along female lines: fully capable of solving problems, but with no desire to annihilate innocents or dominate the civilization.”
Three people are standing in front of a painting in the museum, each one taking a picture of it. The art student copies it with brush and paint; The professional photographer bans it on the film in its analog camera; The tourist presses on the button of her smartphone. Which of these images is different from the other two?
The art student has to spend more work on her copy; But in a sense the tourist is with the smartphone of cross-country skiers. Color on canvas, just like the bit of exposed film, is a purely physical representation; A chemical flower on a susceptible medium. The image can not exist independently of this physical embodiment. In contrast, the image stored in the smartphone is essentially numeric. In an approximate way, the camera divides its field of view into a grid of tiny cells in the smartphone and stores a set of numerical values which represent the intensity of the colors in each of these cells; These numbers are the ones that are transmitted - in compressed form - when the picture is sent to friends or placed on the Internet.
This January, the question was: "What scientific term or concept should be better known? " On the menu, 206 answers covering both physics and biology or the social sciences. There is no question of mentioning all of them, but many contributions revolve around psychology and the cognitive sciences, exploring in particular the notion of bias.
Try to build a tower by stacking irregularly shaped blocks. That is possible; Sometimes you reach a height of eight, nine, ten stones. Such man-made "Zen-Steintürme" or "Steinmannli" can be found along river banks and mountain peaks. They hold for a while, then the wind blows them over, or a bird lands on it and breaks the stone towers into the knee.
What is the relationship between skill and height? Take some round stones from a river bank. A two-year-old child will be able to build two stones; A three-year with advanced hand-eye coordination creates three. It takes experience to get up to eight rocks. And only with tremendous dexterity and a lot of Trial-and-Error attempts is it to be more than ten. Dexterity, patience, and experience are at times boundaries.
"You can never understand a language—unless you understand at least two languages."
Edge.org also launched the 2017 annual issue—what are the most noteworthy scientific terms or concepts? Dr. Peter Lee, Senior Vice President of Microsoft Worldwide, was invited to give a briefing on the past and present of this scientific term transfer learning.