Today I’ll introduce you to Edge.org. Its mission: “To arrive at the edge of the world’s knowledge, seek out the most complex and sophisticated minds, put them in a room together, and have them ask each other the questions they are asking themselves.”
Each year Edge poses a question to scientists, philosophers and other thinkers, and the responses can make some very thought provoking reading. I found last year’s question and many of the responses particularly interesting: “What scientific concept would improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit?”
Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins suggested that a widespread lack of critical thinking or awareness of mindset/bias was a problem in society, and that people would benefit from attaching more weight to evidence based conclusions, equipping them to exercise sound judgement throughout their lives.
How would we do this? Schools should educate students in the principles of the double-blind control experiment and the reasons it is important, which include understanding the difficulty of eliminating subjective bias, and the problems of generalising from anecdotes.
For Social & Technology Network Topology Researcher Clay Shirky, an essential tool in our cognitive toolkit is understanding the Pareto Principle (also known by other names including the 80/20 rule) which originated from Vilfredo Pareto’s observation that 80% of the land in Italy was owned by 20% of the population. It’s not really a rule because the proportions can be quite a bit more extreme than 80/20 when we look at other areas of the real world, and the areas in which it applies are far more common than many believe. Yet, when we hear these figures reported in the media, they are often treated as shocking, unexpected and unpredictable.
The problem is that we are taught that the paradigmatic distribution of large systems is the Gaussian distribution (bell curve) and that examples which display Pareto characteristics are anomalies, which prevents us from seeing the world and probability of events clearly. If you’re interested in the impact of the highly improbable I recommend a book called The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb (no, not Natalie Portman’s movie).
The questions posed by Edge go back to 1998 and the responses are well worth a read.