What Scientific Concept Would Improve Everybody’s Cognitive Toolkit?

Every year on Edge.org, an annual question is posed to the scientists, artists, philosopher, technologists, and entrepreneurs who are at the center of today’s intellectual, technological, and scientific landscape. With a panoply of contributors such as Daniel Dennett, Lawrence Krauss, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, and Nassim Taleb – you’ll waste no time finding valuable and interesting stimuli.

Lately, I have been reading through 2011’s question “What Scientific Concept Would Improve Everybody’s Cognitive Toolkit” and though I hope you all find some enlightening responses I will share one of mine in case you are not yet convinced to check the site out.

Charles Seife, professor of Journalism at New York University, answered 2011’s question with a concise explanation of a mind-numbing concept: randomness. Seife states that “without an understanding of randomness, we are stuck in a perfectly predictable universe that simply doesn’t exist outside of our own heads”. Indeed, as useful as our pattern seeking behavior has been—in discovery of pathologies, best practices, and the like— such reliance also leads us to the kinds of numerous cognitive biases described in Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking Fast and Slow”.

Now, where Kahneman and others have sought to provide clarity in our thinking by identifying cognitive bias and the mental tools we use to understand the universe, Seife takes an opposite approach. Instead, he encourages a sobering appreciation for the daunting influence of randomness in the world to give us pause before committing hubris by prematurely assuming a pattern exists or explains what we think it does. Seife’s reminder is a good one, though it is unclear as to whether “random” is just a word Seife uses to describe non-obvious patterns that are yet to be discovered or a True randomness without rules or patterns at all.


Previous questions from Edge.org include: “What Scientific Idea is Ready for Retirement?”, “How is the Internet Changing the Way You Think?”, and “What Have You Changed Your Mind About and Why?”

I should note: I would be doing a great disservice to suggest that these annual questions constitute the full extent of what intellectual treasures Edge.org has to offer. Please explore the site.



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