Edge.org on scientific concepts that should be more widely known

Edge.org did a fun survey of notable scientists, asking them “What scientific term or concept should be more widely known?”  There are a lot of interesting responses.  I recommend you take a look.

Overall, the results are more reaction-friendly than one might have expected.  Steve Omohundro suggests Costly Signaling, a subject dear to the neoreactionaries.  He suggests that technology may alleviate costly signaling inefficiencies by providing less expensive ways to reliably communicate hidden traits.  Now if only someone could make a cheap holiness sensor…

Speaking of forbidden topics, Gregory Cochran uses IQ heritability and regression to the mean to illustrate The Breeder’s Equation.

Steven Pinker suggests The Second Law of Thermodynamics.  One can’t help but think of the Left’s scapegoating tactics when he points out

To start with, the Second Law implies that misfortune may be no one’s fault. The biggest breakthrough of the scientific revolution was to nullify the intuition that the universe is saturated with purpose: that everything happens for a reason. In this primitive understanding, when bad things happen—accidents, disease, famine—someone or something must have wanted them to happen. This in turn impels people to find a defendant, demon, scapegoat, or witch to punish…

Poverty, too, needs no explanation. In a world governed by entropy and evolution, it is the default state of humankind. Matter does not just arrange itself into shelter or clothing, and living things do everything they can not to become our food. What needs to be explained is wealth. Yet most discussions of poverty consist of arguments about whom to blame for it

Helena Cronin makes the shockingly un-PC suggestion Sex.  That is, sex differences are real, and trying to make every job 50/50 is foolish.

Here’s why the sexes differ. A sexual organism must divide its total reproductive investment into two—competing for mates and caring for offspring. Almost from the dawn of sexual reproduction, one sex specialized slightly more in competing for mates and the other slightly more in caring for offspring. This was because only one sex was able to inherit the mitochondria (the powerhouse of cells); so that sex started out with sex cells larger and more resource-rich than the other sex. And thus began the great divide into fat, resource-laden eggs, already investing in “caring”—providing for offspring—and slim, streamlined sperm, already competing for that vital investment. Over evolutionary time, this divergence widened, proliferating and amplifying, in every sexually reproducing species that has ever existed. So the differences go far beyond reproductive plumbing. They are distinctive adaptations for the different life-strategies of competers and carers. Wherever ancestral males and females faced different adaptive problems, we should expect sex differences—encompassing bodies, brains and behaviour.

Paul Saffo suggests Haldane’s Rule of the Right Size, in what concludes as a general argument for subsidiarity.

Frank Tipler suggests the Parallel Universes of Quantum Mechanics as a solution to the problem of evil.  Readers interested in theodicy should take note.

Jerry Coyne struggles mightily to convince people of what thinks are the consequences of Determinism:

I find it harder to convince atheists that they don’t have free will than to convince religious believers that God doesn’t exist.

Just because they’re atheists doesn’t mean they’re crazy.  Does our being physical beings evolving deterministically necessarily invalidate personal descriptions of human behavior?  This is implicitly critiqued in Franck Wilczek’s contribution, Complementarity.  Also relevant is Antony Lisi’s suggestion, Emergence, which is how scientists like to talk about hylomorphism.

Seth Shostak suggests Fermi Problems, i.e. order of magnitude estimates, as a pedagogic tool for helping people appreciate science / reason quantitatively.  Tried that in my introductory astronomy classes.  Very hard to pull off successfully.

My old statistical mechanics professor, Nigel Goldenfeld, suggests The Scientific Method.  Forget the postmodernist bullshit; science gives us truth.

And there are many other worthy contributions.

6 Responses

  1. “Does our being physical beings evolving deterministically necessarily invalidate personal descriptions of human behavior?”

    No. As Miss Anscombe pointed out to C S Lewis, “The naturalistic hypothesis is that causal laws could be discovered which could be successfully applied to all human behaviour, including thought. If such laws were discovered they would not show that a man’s reasons were not his reasons; for a man who is explaining his reasons is not giving a causal account at all. “Causes,” in the scientific sense in which this word is used when we speak of causal laws, is to be explained in terms of observed regularities: but the declaration of one’s reasons or motives is not founded on observation of regularities. ‘Reasons’ and ‘motives’ are what is elicited from someone whom we ask to explain himself.”

    Likewise, “When we are giving a causal account of this thought, e.g. an account of the physiological processes which issue in the utterance of his reasoning, we are not considering his utterances from the point of view of evidence, reasoning, valid argument, truth, at all; we are considering them merely as events. Just because that is how we are considering them, our description has in itself no bearing on the question of “valid”, invalid”, “rational”, “irrational”, and so on.”

    The confusion between “grounds” and “causes” arises because we use the word “because” of both, but the relation of ground to consequence is a logical, not a causal relationship.

  2. Honestly it seems in large part to be composed of people looking for a way to deny the fundamentals of reality while still acknowledging some of its more obvious aspects (e.g. crediting “evolution” for sex differences).


    “Everett’s insight is the greatest expansion of reality since . . .”

    Since LSD probably. They both seem to “expand reality” in similar ways. Really Dr. Kipler seems to be the most retarded and unreflective of all of the people linked.

  3. That human acts have causes (people act a given way because something caused them to) neither serves to argue against free will nor to support mechanism. Free will simply mean that our intellects command our wills without external coercion. This doesn’t mean that the judgments of our intellects are not caused by particular factors. Moreover, the laws of causation applies just as well* to an immaterial mind as to a mechanical system, so that is also a non-starter.

    *Obviously, the existence of causality doesn’t mean we understand the details.

  4. Could anything be more obvious than the idea that behavioral differences between the sexes Is related to the reason that there are different sexes in the first place?

  5. Tipler: “The German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz argued that we are actually in the best of all possible worlds, but this seems unlikely.”

    Oh dear…

  6. Coyne is really pointing to the fact that without free will there is no “moral responsibility”; this practices such as “retributive punishment” must be abandoned.

    The man gets a lot right, but he is either totally blind, or doesn’t want to look that his politics and preferences are illogical and unscientific. I think this fair since he harps constantly about religion; yet he does not realise he is every bit as religious and deluded.

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