11 under-appreciated scientific concepts


The intellectual forum Edge.com recently asked a bunch of big thinkers what scientific concept ought to be more widely known. Among 206 responses, here are some highlights:


The Genetic Book of the Dead - "Natural selection equips every living creature with the genes that enabled its ancestors - a literally unbroken line of them-to survive in their environments …. If only we could read the genome in the appropriate way, it would be a kind of negative imprint of ancient worlds, a description of the ancestral environments of the species: the genetic book of the dead." - Richard Dawkins, evolutionary biologist

Neurodiversity - "Humans have diversity in neurological conditions. While some, such as autism, are considered disabilities, many argue that they are the result of normal variations in the human genome … that autism shouldn't be 'cured' and that it is an authentic form of human diversity that should be protected …. [Some even say that] Albert Einstein, Wolfgang Mozart, and Nikola Tesla would have been diagnosed on the 'autistic spectrum' if they had been alive today." - Joichi Ito, Director of MIT Media Lab

The Second Law of Thermodynamics -"[This law] states that in an isolated system (one that is not taking in energy), entropy never decreases …. Closed systems inexorably become less structured, less organized, less able to accomplish interesting and useful outcomes, until they slide into an equilibrium of gray, tepid, homogenous monotony and stay there …. The Second Law define the ultimate purpose of life, mind, and human striving: to deploy energy and information to fight back the tide of entropy and carve out refuges of beneficial order." - Steven Pinker, psychologist

Confirmation Bias - "The great promise of the internet was that more information would automatically yield better decisions. The great disappointment is that more information actually yields more possibilities to confirm what you already believed anyway." - Brian Eno, artist


Naive realism -"[A]lthough most people take their perceptions of the world at face value, this is a profound error that regularly causes virtually unresolvable conflicts between people …. When it comes to perceiving the physical world, we appear to mostly see things the same way … [b]ut when we move to the social domain of understanding people and their interactions, our 'seeing' is driven less by external input and more by expectation and motivation …. In short, we are just as confident in our assessment of Donald Trump's temperament and Hillary Clinton's dishonesty as we are in our assessment of trees, shoes, and gummy bears." - Matthew D. Lieberman, psychologist

Regression to the Mean -"It's a concept from the discipline of statistics, but in real life it means that anomalies are anomalies, coincidences happen (all the time, with stunning frequency), and the main thing they tell us is that the next thing to happen is very likely to be a lot more boring, ordinary, and predictable …. [I]t teaches us not to be so excitable, not to be so worried, not to be so excited: life really will be, for the most part, boring and predictable." - James J. O'Donnell, classics scholar

Negativity bias - "[A]cross almost all domains of life, we seem almost preternaturally pessimistic …. Why [?] Evolution. In the environment of our evolutionary ancestry there was an asymmetry of payoffs in which the fitness cost of overreacting to a threat was less than the fitness cost of under-reacting, so we err on the side of overreaction to negative events." - Michael Shermer, publisher of Skeptic magazine

Parallel Universes of Quantum Mechanics - "In 1957, a Princeton physics graduate student named Hugh Everett showed that the consistency of quantum mechanics required the existence of an infinity of universes parallel to our universe. That is, there has to be a person identical to you reading this identical article right now in a universe identical to ours …. Most physicists, at least most physicists who apply quantum mechanics to cosmology, accept Evertt's argument … [y]et few people have even heard of the parallel universes." - Frank Tipler, mathematical physicist

The Illusion of Explanatory Depth -"If you asked one hundred people on the street if they understand how a refrigerator works, most would respond, yes, they do. But ask them to then produce a detailed, step-by-step explanation of how exactly a refrigerator works and you would likely hear silence or stammering. This powerful but inaccurate feeling of knowing is what Leonid Rozenblit and Frank Keil in 2002 termed, the illusion of explanatory depth, stating, 'Most people feel they understand the world with far greater detail, coherence, and depth than they really do." - Adam Waytz, psychologist


Herd Immunity -"To be effective, vaccination strategies for contagious diseases rely on a scientific concept known as herd immunity. Herd immunity can be considered a protective shield that prevents un-vaccinated people from coming into contact with the disease, thus stopping its spread. Herd immunity is particularly important for people who cannot be vaccinated, including infants, pregnant women, or immunocompromised individuals." - Buddhini Samarasinghe, molecular biologist

Sleeper Sensitive Periods - "The juvenile brain is, in general, more plastic than the adult brain. However, the often glossed over details show that the younger brain is not always more sensitive to experience than the older brain. When the biology can be studied in carefully controlled laboratory experiments, we find that periods of greater sensitivity are often delayed, perhaps even timed, until the incoming experience is appropriate to sculpt the brain …. What this means for the big pictures is that it is likely that human development involves a staggered sequence of undiscovered sensitive periods stretching late into the second or even third decade of life." - Linda Wilbrecht, neuroscientist

See the full list over at Edge.com »

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