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sychologist & Computer Scientist; Engines for Education Inc.; Author, Making Minds Less Well Educated Than Our Own


Some scientific concepts have been so ruined by our education system that it is necessary to explain about the ones that everyone thinks they know about when they really don't.

We learn about experimentation in school. What we learn is that scientists conduct experiments and if we copy exactly what they did in our high school labs we will get the results they got. We learn about the experiments that scientists do, usually about about the physical and chemical properties of things and we learn that they report their results in scientific journals. So, in effect we learn that experimentation is boring, is something done by scientists and has nothing to do with our daily lives.

And, this is a problem. Experimentation is something done by everyone all the time. Babies experiment with what might be good to put in their mouths. Toddlers experiment with various behaviors to see what they can get away with. Teenagers experiment with sex, drugs, and rock and roll. But because people don't really see these things as experiments nor as ways of collecting evidence in support or refutation of hypotheses, they don't learn to think about experimentation as something they constantly do and thus will need to learn to do better.

Every time we take a prescription drug we are conducting an experiment. But, we don't carefully record the results after each dose, and we don't run controls, and we mix up the variables by not changing only one behavior at a time, so that when we suffer from side effects we can't figure out what might have been the true cause. We do the same thing with personal relationships. When they go wrong, we can't figure out why because the conditions are different in each one.

Now, while it is difficult if not impossible to conduct controlled experiments in most aspects of our own lives, it is possible to come to understand that we are indeed conducting an experiment when we take a new job, or try a new tactic in a game we are playing, or when we pick a school to attend, or when we try and figure out how someone is feeling, or when we wonder why we ourselves feel the way we do.

Every aspect of life is an experiment that can be better understood if it is perceived in that way. But because we don't recognize this we fail to understand that we need to reason logically from evidence we gather, and that we need to carefully consider the conditions under which our experiments have been conducted, and that we need to decide when and how we might run the experiment again with better results.

In other words, the scientific activity that surrounds experimentation is about thinking clearly in the face of evidence obtained as the result of an experiment. But people who don't see their actions as experiments, and those who don't know how to reason carefully from data, will continue to learn less well from their own experiences than those who do.

Since most of us have learned the word "experiment" in the context of a boring ninth grade science class, most people have long since learned to discount science and experimentation as being relevant to their lives.

If school taught basic cognitive concepts such as experimentation in the context of everyday experience, and taught people how to carefully conduct experiments in their own lives instead of concentrating on using algebra as a way of teaching people how to reason, then people would be much more effective at thinking about politics, child raising, personal relationships, business, and every other aspect of daily life.

Psychologist and Neuroscientist, University of Maryland; Author, Laughter


TANSTAAFL is the acronym for "There ain't no such thing as a free lunch," a universal truth having broad and deep explanatory power in science and daily life.

The expression originated from the practice of saloons offering "free lunch" if you buy their overpriced drinks. Science fiction master Robert Heinlein introduced me to TANSTAAFL in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, his 1966 classic, in which a character warns of the hidden cost of a free lunch.

The universality of the fact that you can't get something for nothing has found application in sciences as diverse as physics (Laws of Thermodynamics) and economics, where Milton Friedman used a grammatically upgraded variant as title of his 1975 book There's No Such Thing as a Free Lunch. Physicists are clearly on board with TANSTAAFL, less so many political economists in their smoke and mirrors world.

My students hear a lot about TANSTAAFL, from the biological costs of the peacock's tail, to our nervous system that distorts physical reality to emphasize changes in time and space. When the final tally is made, peahens cast their ballot for the sexually exquisite plumage of the peacock and its associated vigor, and it is more adaptive for humans to detect critical sensory events than to be high fidelity light and sound meters. In such cases, lunch is not free but comes at reasonable cost as determined by the grim but honest accounting of natural selection, a process without hand-waving and incantation.

Mallinckrodt Professor of Physics and Professor of the History of Science, Emeritus, at Harvard University; Coeditor, Einstein for the 21st Century: His Legacy in Science, Art, and Modern Culture

Skeptical Empiricism

In politics and society at large, important decision are all too often based on deeply held presuppositions,ideology or dogma — or, on the other hand, on headlong pragmatism without study of long-range consequences.

Therefore I suggest the adoption of Skeptical Empiricism, the kind that is exemplified by the carefully thought-out and tested research in science at its best. It differs from plain empiricism on the sort that characterized the writings of the scientist/philosopher Ernst Mach, who refused to believe in the existence of atoms because one could not "see" them.

To be sure, in politics and daily life, on some topics decisions have to be made very rapidly, on few or conflicting data. Yet, precisely for that reason it will be wise also to launch a more considerate program of skeptical empiricism on the same topic, if only to be better prepared for the consequences, intended or not, that followed from the quick decision.

Zellerbach Family Professor of Psychology; Director of the Positive Psychology Center, University of Pennylvaniai; Author, Flourish


Is global well being possible?

Scientists commonly predict dystopias: nuclear war, overpopulation, energy shortage, dysgenic selection, widespread soundbyte mentality, and the like. You don't get much attention predicting that the human future will work out. I am not, however, going to predict that a positive human future will in fact occur, but it becomes more likely if we think about it systematically. We can begin by laying out the measurable elements of well being and then asking how those elements might be achieved. I address only measurement.

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.

Science and public policy have traditionally been focused solely on remediating the disabling conditions, but PERMA suggests that this is insufficient. If we want global well being, we should also measure and try to build PERMA. The very same principal seems to be true in your own life: if you wish to flourish personally, getting rid of depression, anxiety, and anger and getting rich is not enough, you also need to build PERMA directly.

What is known about how PERMA can be built?

Perhaps the Edge Question for 2012 will be "How Can Science Contribute To Building Global Well Being"?

Johnstone Family Professor, Department of Psychology; Harvard University; Author, The Stuff of Thought

Positive-Sum Games

A zero-sum game is an interaction in which one party's gain equals the other party's loss — the sum of their gains and losses is zero. (More accurately, it is constant across all combinations of their courses of action.) Sports matches are quintessential examples of zero-sum games: winning isn't everything, it's the only thing, and nice guys finish last. A nonzero-sum game is an interaction in which some combinations of actions provide a net gain (positive-sum) or loss (negative sum) to the two of them. The trading of surpluses, as when herders and farmers exchange wool and milk for grain and fruit, is a quintessential example, as is the trading of favors, as when people take turns baby-sitting each others' children.

In a zero-sum game, a rational actor seeking the greatest gain for himself or herself will necessarily be seeking the maximum loss for the other actor. In a positive-sum game, a rational, self-interested actor may benefit the other guy with the same choice that benefits himself or herself. More colloquially, positive-sum games are called win-win situations, and are capture in the cliché "Everybody wins."

This family of concepts (zero-sum, nonzero-sum, positive-sum, negative-sum, constant-sum, and variable-sum games) was introduced by John von Neumann and Oskar Morgenstern when they invented the mathematical theory of games in 1944. The Google Books Ngram tool shows that the terms saw a steady increase in popularity beginning in the 1950s, and its colloquial relative "win-win" began a similar ascent in the 1970s.

[click to enlarge]

Once people are thrown together in an interaction, their choices don't determine whether they are in a zero- or nonzero-sum game; the game is a part of the world they live in. But people, by neglecting some of the options on the table, may perceive that they are in a zero-sum game when in fact they are in a nonzero-sum game. Moreover, they can change the world to make their interaction nonzero-sum. For these reasons, when people become consciously aware of the game-theoretic structure of their interaction (that is, whether it is positive-, negative-, or zero-sum), they can make choices that bring them valuable outcomes — like safety, harmony, and prosperity — without their having to become more virtuous, noble, or pure.

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.

Has an increasing awareness of the zero- or nonzero-sumness of interactions in the decades since 1950 (whether referred to in those terms or not) actually led to increased peace and prosperity in the world? It's not implausible. International trade and membership in international organizations has soared in the decades that game-theoretic thinking has infiltrated popular discourse. And perhaps not coincidentally, the developed world has seen both spectacular economic growth and a historically unprecedented decline in several forms of institutionalized violence, such as war between great powers, war between wealthy states, genocides, and deadly ethnic riots. Since the 1990s these gifts have started to accrue to the developing world as well, in part because they have switched their foundational ideologies from ones that glorify zero-sum class and national struggle to ones that glorify positive-sum market cooperation. (All these claims can be documented from the literature in international studies.)

The enriching and pacifying effects of participation in positive-sum games long antedate the contemporary awareness of the concept. The biologists John Maynard Smith and Eörs Szathmáry have argued that an evolutionary dynamic which creates positive-sum games drove the major transitions in the history of life: the emergence of genes, chromosomes, bacteria, cells with nuclei, organisms, sexually reproducing organisms, and animal societies. In each transition, biological agents entered into larger wholes in which they specialized, exchanged benefits, and developed safeguards to prevent one from exploiting the rest to the detriment of the whole. The journalist Robert Wright sketched a similar arc in his book Nonzero and extended it to the deep history of human societies. An explicit recognition among literate people of the shorthand abstraction "positive-sum game" and its relatives may be extending a process in the world of human choices that has been operating in the natural world for billions of years.

Lecturer in Behavioral Science, University College Cork; Author, Introducing Evolutionary Psychology: A Graphic Guide 

The Law of Comparative Advantage

It is not hard to identify the discipline in which to look for the scientific concept that would most improve everybody's cognitive toolkit; it has to be economics. No other field of study contains so many ideas ignored by so many people at such great cost to themselves and the world. The hard task is picking just one of the many such ideas that economists have developed.

On reflection, I plumped for the law of comparative advantage, which explains how trade can be beneficial for both parties even when one of them is more productive than the other in every way. At a time of growing protectionism, it is more important than ever to reassert the value of free trade. Since trade in labor is roughly the same as trade in goods, the law of comparative advantage also explains why immigration is almost always a good thing — a point which also needs emphasizing at a time when xenophobia is on the rise.

In the face of well-meaning but ultimately misguided opposition to globalization, we must celebrate the remarkable benefits which international trade has brought us, and fight for a more integrated world.

Journalist; Personal Finance Columnist, The Wall Street Journal; Author, Your Money and Your Brain

Structured Serendipity

Creativity is a fragile flower, but perhaps it can be fertilized with systematic doses of serendipity. Sarnoff Mednick showed decades ago that some people are better than others at detecting the associations that connect seemingly random concepts: Asked to name a fourth idea that links "wheel," "electric," and "high," people who score high on other measures of creativity will promptly answer "chair."

More recently, research in Mark Jung-Beeman's lab at Northwestern has found that sudden bursts of insight — the Aha! or Eureka! moment — comes when brain activity abruptly shifts its focus. The almost ecstatic sense that makes us cry "I see!" appears to come when the brain is able to shunt aside immediate or familiar visual inputs.

That may explain why so many of us close our eyes (often unwittingly) just before we exclaim "I see!" It also suggests, at least to me, that creativity can be enhanced deliberately through environmental variation. Two techniques seem promising: varying what you learn and varying where you learn it. I try each week to read a scientific paper in a field that is new to me — and to read it in a different place.

New associations often leap out of the air at me this way; more intriguingly, others seem to form covertly and then to lie in wait for the opportune moment when they can click into place. I do not try to force these associations out into the open; they are like shrinking mimosa plants that crumple if you touch them but bloom if you leave them alone.

Robert Merton argued that many of the greatest discoveries of science have sprung from serendipity. As a layman and an amateur, all I hope to accomplish by throwing myself in serendipity's path is to pick up new ideas, and combine old ones, in ways that haven't quite occurred to other people yet. So I let my curiosity lead me wherever it seems to want to go, like that heart-shaped piece of wood that floats across a Ouija board.

I do this remote-reading exercise on my own time, since it would be hard to justify to newspaper editors during the work day. But my happiest moments this autumn came as I reported an investigative article on how elderly investors are increasingly being scammed by elderly con artists. I later realized, to my secret delight, that the article had been enriched by a series of papers I had been reading on altruistic behavior among fish (Lambroides dimidiatus).

If I do my job right, my regular readers will never realize that I spend a fair amount of my leisure time reading Current Biology, the Journal of Neuroscience, and Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes. If that reading helps me find new ways to understand the financial world, as I suspect it does, my readers will indirectly be smarter for it. If not, the only harm done is my own spare time wasted.

In my view, we should each invest a few hours a week in reading research that ostensibly has nothing to do with our day jobs, in a setting that has nothing in common with our regular workspaces. This kind of structured serendipity just might help us become more creative, and I doubt that it can hurt.

Professor of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Pennsylvania; Author, Ordinary Geniuses


The notion of gedankenexperiment, or thought experiment, has been integral to theoretical physics' toolkit ever since the discipline came into existence. It involves setting up an imagined piece of apparatus and then running a simple experiment with it in your mind for the purpose of proving or disproving a hypothesis. In many cases a gedankenexperiment is the only approach. An actual experiment to examine retrieval of information falling into a black hole cannot be carried out.

The notion was particularly important during the development of quantum mechanics when legendary gedankenexperiments were conducted by the likes of Bohr and Einstein to test such novel ideas as the Uncertainty Principle and wave-particle duality. Examples, like that of Schrodinger's Cat, have even come into the popular lexicon. Is the cat simultaneously dead and alive? Others, particularly the classic double slit through which a particle/wave passes, were part of the first attempt to understand quantum mechanics and have remained as tools for understanding its meaning.

However, the subject need not be an esoteric one for a gedankenexperiment  to be fruitful. My own favorite is Galileo's proof that, contrary to Aristotle's view, more and less massive objects fall in a vacuum with the same acceleration. One might think that a real experiment needs to be conducted to test the hypothesis. But Galileo simply said: consider a large and a small stone tied together by a very light string. If Aristotle was right, he large stone should drag the smaller one and the smaller one retard the larger one if they fell at different rates. However, if you let the string length approach zero, you have a single object with a mass equal to the sum of their masses and hence it should fall at a higher rate than either. This is nonsensical. The conclusion is that all objects fall in vacuum at the same rate.

Consciously or unconsciously we carry out gedankenexperiments of one sort or another in our everyday life and are even trained to do perform them in a variety of disciplines, but I do think it would be useful to have a greater awareness of how they are conducted and how they could be positively applied. We could ask, when confronted with a puzzling situation, how can I set up a gedankenexperiment to resolve the issue? Perhaps our financial, political and military experts would benefit from following such a tactic and arrive at happier outcomes.

Theoretical Physicist, Caltech; Author, From Eternity to Here: The Quest for the Ultimate Theory of Time

The Pointless Universe

The world consists of things, which obey rules.  If you keep asking "why" questions about what happens in the universe, you ultimately reach the answer "because of the state of the universe and the laws of nature."

This isn't an obvious way for people to think.  Looking at the universe through our anthropocentric eyes, we can't help but view things in terms of causes, purposes, and natural ways of being.  In ancient Greece, Plato and Aristotle saw the world teleologically — rain falls because water wants to be lower than air, animals (and slaves) are naturally subservient to human citizens.

From the start, there were skeptics.  Democritus and Lucretius were early naturalists, who urged us to think in terms of matter obeying rules rather than chasing final causes and serving underlying purposes.  But it wasn't until our understanding of physics was advanced by thinkers such as Avicenna, Galileo, and Newton that it became reasonable to conceive of the universe evolving under its own power, free of guidance and support from anything beyond itself.

Theologians sometimes invoke "sustaining the world" as a function of God.  But we know better; the world doesn't need to be sustained, it can simply be.  Pierre-Simon Laplace articulated the very specific kind of rule that the world obeys:  if we specify the complete state of the universe (or any isolated part of it) at some particular instant, the laws of physics tell us what its state will be at the very next moment.  Applying those laws again, we can figure out what it will be a moment later.  And so on, until (in principle, obviously) we can build up a complete history of the universe.  This is not a universe that is advancing toward a goal; it is one that is caught in the iron grip of an unbreakable pattern.

This view of the processes at the heart of the physical world has important consequences for how we come to terms with the social world. Human beings like to insist that there are reasons why things happen. The death of a child, the crash of an airplane, or a random shooting must be explained in terms of the workings of a hidden plan.  When Pat Robertson suggested that Hurricane Katrina was caused in part by God's anger at America's failing morals, he was attempting to provide an explanatory context for a seemingly inexplicable event.

Nature teaches us otherwise.  Things happen because the laws of nature say they will — because they are the consequences of the state of the universe and the path of its evolution.  Life on Earth doesn't arise in fulfillment of a grand scheme, but rather as a byproduct of the increase of entropy in an environment very far from equilibrium.  Our impressive brains don't develop because life is guided toward greater levels of complexity and intelligence, but from the mechanical interactions between genes, organisms, and their surroundings.

None of which is to say that life is devoid of purpose and meaning. Only that these are things we create, not things we discover out there in the fundamental architecture of the world. The world keeps happening, in accordance with its rules; it's up to us to make sense of it and give it value.

Mathematician, Computer Scientist; CyberPunk Pioneer; Novelist; Author, Lifebox, the Seashell, and the Soul

The World is Unpredictable

The media cast about for the proximate causes of life's windfalls and disasters. The public demands blocks against the bad and pipelines to the good. Legislators propose new regulations, fruitlessly dousing last year's fires, forever betting on yesterday's winning horses.

A little-known truth: Every aspect of the world is fundamentally unpredictable. Computer scientists have long since proved this.

How so? To predict an event is to know a shortcut for foreseeing the outcome in advance. A simple counting argument shows there aren't enough shortcuts to go around. Therefore most processes aren't predictable. A deeper argument plays on the fact that, if you could predict your actions, you could deliberately violate your predictions which means the predictions were wrong after all.

We often suppose that unpredictability is caused by random inputs from higher spirits or from low-down quantum foam. But chaos theory and computer science tell us that non-random systems produce surprises on their own. The unexpected tornado, the cartoon safe that lands on Uncle George, the winning pull on a slot machine odd things pop out of a computation. The world can simultaneously be deterministic and unpredictable.

In the physical world, the only way to learn tomorrow's weather in detail is to wait twenty-four hours and see even if nothing is random at all. The universe is computing tomorrow's weather as rapidly and as efficiently as possible any smaller model is inaccurate, and the smallest error is amplified into large effects.

At a personal level, even if the world is as deterministic as a computer program, you still can't predict what you're going to do. This is because your prediction method would involve a mental simulation of you that produces its results slower than you. You can't think faster than you think. You can't stand on your own shoulders.

It's a waste to chase the pipedream of a magical tiny theory that allows us to make quick and detailed calculations about the future. We can't predict and we can't control. To accept this can be a source of liberation and inner peace. We're part of the unfolding world, surfing the chaotic waves.

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