Monday, January 27, 2014

The 2014 Edge Question: What Scientific Idea should be Retired?

This year's Edge question is not as interesting as some earlier questions, but I guess they can't win every time. I found a few answers interesting; except as noted, all the text is quoted from these authors' replies:

Altruism (Tor Nørretranders)
This concept is rooted in the notion that human beings (and animals) are really dominated by selfishness and egoism so that you need a concept to explain why they sometimes behave unselfish and kind to others. But the reality is different: Humans are deeply bound to other humans and most actions are really reciprocal and in the interest of both parties (or, in he case of hatred, in the disinterest of both). The starting point is neither selfishness nor altruism, but the state of being bound together. It is an illusion to believe that you can be happy when no one else is. Or that other people will not be affected by your unhappiness.
Knowing is Half the Battle (Laurie R. Santos and Tamar Gendler)
Children of the 1980's may fondly remember a TV cartoon called G. I. Joe . . . Following each of these moralizing pronouncements came the show's famous epithet: "Now you know. And knowing is half the battle."

While there may be some domains where knowing is half the battle, there are many more where it is not. Recent work in cognitive science has demonstrated that knowing is a shockingly tiny portion of the battle for most real world decisions. . . . The lesson of much contemporary research in judgment and decision-making is that knowledge— at least in the form of our consciously accessible representation of a situation—is rarely the central factor controlling our behavior.

Me: this horrible idea goes back at least to Socrates, and despite 2400 years of contrary experience I still see versions of it all the time, e.g., if only people had more information about nutrition they would eat better.
Information Overload (Jay Rosen)
There's no such thing as information overload. There's only filter failure.
Large Randomized Controlled Trials (Dean Ornish)
It is a commonly held but erroneous belief that a larger study is always more rigorous or definitive than a smaller one, and a randomized controlled trial is always the gold standard . However, there is a growing awareness that size does not always matter and a randomized controlled trial may introduce its own biases. We need more creative experimental designs.
The Uncertainty Principle (Kai Krause)

Mental Illness is Nothing But Brain Illness (Ian Gold and Joel Gold)
That a theory of mental illness should make reference to the world outside the brain is no more surprising than that the theory of cancer has to make reference to cigarette smoke. And yet what is commonplace in cancer research is radical in psychiatry. The time has come to expand the biological model of psychiatric disorder to include the context in which the brain functions. In understanding, preventing and treating mental illness, we will rightly continue to look into the neurons and DNA of the afflicted and unafflicted. To ignore the world around them would be not only bad medicine but bad science.
Habitable Zone (Dimitar D. Sasselov)
Me: amen to this. The notion of a "habitable zone" assumes all life in the universe will be like earth's, which is a dreary failure of imagination.
Rational Actor Models (Susan Fiske)
The idea that people operate mainly in the service of narrow self-interest is already moribund, as social psychology and behavioral economics have shown. We now know that people are not rational actors, instead often operating on automatic, based on bias, or happy with hunches.
Sadness is Always Bad, Happiness is Always Good (June Gruber)

Left-Brain/Right-Brain (Sarah-Jayne Blakemore)
This is pseudo-science and is not based on knowledge of how the brain works.
The Self (Bruce Hood)
It seems almost redundant to call for the retirement of the free willing self as the idea is neither scientific nor is this the first time that the concept has been dismissed for lacking empirical support. . . . . Yet, the self, like a conceptual zombie, refuses to die.
String Theory (Frank Tipler)
Me: The anti-string theory forces are sensing blood these days.
Common Sense (Robert Provine)
We fancy ourselves intelligent, conscious and alert, and thinking our way through life. This is an illusion. We are deluded by our brain's generation of a sketchy, rational narrative of subconscious, sometimes irrational or fictitious events that we accept as reality. These narratives are so compelling that they become common sense and we use them to guide our lives. In cases of brain damage, neurologists use the term confabulation to describe a patient's game but flawed attempt to produce an accurate narrative of life events. I suggest we be equally wary of everyday, non-pathological confabulation and retire the common sense hypothesis that we are rational beings in full conscious control of our lives. Indeed, we may be passengers in our body, just going along for the ride, and privy only to second-hand knowledge of our status, course and destination.
The Universe (Seth Lloyd)

Science is Self-Correcting (Alex Holcombe)

Cause and Effect (W. Daniel Hillis)
The cause-and-effect paradigm does not just fail at the quantum scale. It also falls apart when we try to use causation to explain complex dynamical systems like the biochemical pathways of a living organism, the transactions of an economy, or the operation of the human mind. These systems all have patterns of information flow that defy our tools of storytelling. A gene does not "cause" the trait like height, or a disease like cancer. The stock market did not go up "because" the bond market went down. These are just our feeble attempts to force a storytelling framework onto systems that do not work like stories. For such complex systems, science will need more powerful explanatory tools, and we will learn to accept the limits of our old methods of storytelling.
Mouse Models (Azra Raza)
A recent scientific paper showed that all 150 drugs tested at the cost of billions of dollars in human trials of sepsis failed because the drugs had been developed using mice.
Statistical Significance (Charles Seife)

Simplicity (A.C. Grayling)

Collapse of the Wave Function (Freeman Dyson)
According to the rules of quantum mechanics, the motions of objects are unpredictable. The wave-function tells us only the probabilities of the possible motions. When an object is observed, the observer sees where it is, and the uncertainty of the motion disappears. Knowledge removes uncertainty. There is no mystery here.

Me: This seems remarkably clear and straightforward, so much so that I am wondering how this got to be the subject of raging debate. Is Dyson leaving something important out? Anyone out there know?
Certainty (Richard Saul Wurman)

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