Scientific concepts you should know about

Every year Edge.org asks a bunch of smart people a question. This year they asked “what scientific term or concept ought to be more widely known?”. This year there were 206 responses; these are my favourites.

The Premortem, suggested by Richard Thaler

Assume we are at some time in the future when the plan has been implemented, and the outcome was a disaster. Write a brief history of that disaster.

Affordances, suggested by Daniel Dennett

The concept of Affordances was developed by JJ Gibson in the 1970s and popularised in design by Donald Norman in the late 80s. Dennett says:

The basic idea is that the perceptual systems of any organism are designed to “pick up” the information that is relevant to its survival and ignore the rest. The relevant information is about opportunities  “afforded” by the furnishings of the world: holes afford hiding in, cups afford drinking out of, trees afford climbing (if you’re a child or a monkey or a bear, but not a lion or a rabbit), and so forth.

But Dennet goes further, suggesting that the concept of Affordances helps us try to figure out what consciousness is. I’m still thinking about this one.

The Law of Small Numbers, suggested by Adam Alter

Alter tells a good story about what happens when you try to think about outcomes based on limited information.

The solution is to pay attention not just to the pattern of data, but also to how much data you have. Small samples aren’t just limited in value; they can be counterproductive because the stories they tell are often misleading.

Case-Based Reasoning, suggested by Roger Schank

Reminding, based on the examination of a internal library of cases, is what enables learning and is the basis of intelligence. In order to get reminded of relevant prior cases, we create those cases subconsciously by thinking about them and telling someone about them. Then, again subconsciously, we label the previously experienced cases in some way.

The task for the motivated reader is obviously to find a way to have a single coherent concept that encompasses both cased-based reasoning and the need for a lot of data presupposed by the law of small numbers.

Embodied Thinking, suggested by Barbara Tversky

We are bodies moving in space. You approach a circle of friends, the circle widens to embrace you. I smile or wince and you feel my joy or my pain, perhaps smiling or wincing with me. Our most noble aspirations and emotions, and our most base, crave embodiment, actions of bodies in space, close or distant.

Decentering, suggested by Gary Klein

Decentering is not about empathy—intuiting how others might be feeling. Rather, it is about intuiting what others are thinking. It is about imagining what is going through another person’s mind. It is about getting inside someone else’s head.

Class Breaks, suggested by Bruce Schneier

Something about Class Breaks seems relevant to both case-based reasoning and the law of small numbers. But I haven’t figured it out yet.

Picking a mechanical door lock requires both skill and time. Each lock is a new job, and success at one lock doesn’t guarantee success with another of the same design. Electronic door locks, like the ones you now find in hotel rooms, have different vulnerabilities. An attacker can find a flaw in the design that allows him to create a key card that opens every door. If he publishes his attack software, not just the attacker, but anyone can now open every lock. And if those locks are connected to the Internet, attackers could potentially open door locks remotely—they could open every door lock remotely at the same time. That’s a class break.

Epistemology

My pick is “epistemology”, which tends to get defined as “theory of knowledge”. But I would tend to use it more to think about what counts as knowlege. For example, if your epistemology favours lots of data you probably wouldn’t be persuaded by an example based on case-based reasoning.

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