Exceptionalism, Exposed


Photo credit: Joe Bonomo from No Such Thing as Was

For years I have been a fan of The Edge, John Brockman‘s website/movement/salon writ large/community. Feel like you need a lift, something to perk up your day? You can stop in and wander that site and invariably leave with ideas that are new, provocative and thought-altering. It is cross disciplined, highly interconnected and holistic thinking at its best.

Every year a question is posed that then gets answered by a wide variety of thinkers. Earlier this year Brockman published a book of the answers to the question for 2011: “What scientific concepts would improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit?” In this question a “scientific concept” can come from any discipline—philosophy, logic, economics, jurisprudence—as long as it is a rigorous tool that has broad applications and can be summed up succinctly.

This Will Make You Smarter is full of gems. I’ll share a few favorites here and going forward. An early entry to start it off:

Because so many scientific theories from bygone eras have turned out to be wrong, we must assume that most of today’s theories will eventually prove incorrect as well. And what goes for science goes in general. Politics, economics, technology, law, religion, medicine, child-rearing, education: no matter the domain of life, one generation’s verities so often become the next generation’s falsehoods that we might as well have a Pessimistic Meta-Induction from the History of Everything.

Good scientists understand this. They recognize that they are part of a long process of approximation. They know that they are constructing models rather than revealing reality…

The rest of us, by contrast, often engage in a kind of tacit chronological exceptionalism. Unlike all those suckers who fell for the flat earth or the geocentric universe or cold fusion or the cosmological constant, we ourselves have the great good luck to be alive during the very apex of accurate human thought. The literary critic Harry Levin put this nicely: “The habit of equating one’s age with the apogee of civilization, one’s town with the hub of the universe, one’s horizons with the limits of human awareness, is paradoxically widespread.” At best, we nurture the fantasy that knowledge is always cumulative, and therefore concede that future eras will know more than we do. But we ignore or resist the fact that knowledge collapses as often as it accretes, that our own most cherished beliefs might appear patently false to posterity.

Kathryn Shulz, from her Edge answer, “The Pessimistic Meta-Induction from the History of Science”

Kathryn Shulz is the author of Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error

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