The tool that would improve everybody’s toolkit

Edge, which every year1   invites scientists, philosophers, writers, thinkers and artists to opine on a major question of the moment, asked this year: “What scientific concept would improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit?”

The questions are designed to provoke fascinating, yet inspiring answers, and are typically open-ended, such as:  “What will change everything” (2008), “What are you optimistic about?” (2007), and “How is the internet changing the way you think?” (Last’s years question). Often these questions2  are turned into paperback books.

This year many of the 151 contributors pointed to Risk and Uncertainty in their answers. In the following we bring excerpt from some of the answers. We will however advice the interested reader to look up the complete answers:

A Probability Distribution

The notion of a probability distribution would, I think, be a most useful addition to the intellectual toolkit of most people.

Most quantities of interest, most projections, most numerical assessments are not point estimates. Rather they are rough distributions — not always normal, sometimes bi-modal, sometimes exponential, sometimes something else.

Related ideas of mean, median, and variance are also important, of course, but the simple notion of a distribution implicitly suggests these and weans people from the illusion that certainty and precise numerical answers are always attainable.

JOHN ALLEN PAULOS, Professor of Mathematics, Temple University, Philadelphia.


The First Law of Randomness: There is such a thing as randomness.
The Second Law of Randomness: Some events are impossible to predict.
The Third Law of Randomness: Random events behave predictably in aggregate even if they’re not predictable individually

CHARLES SEIFE, Professor of Journalism, New York University; formerly journalist, Science magazine; Author, Proofiness: The Dark Arts of Mathematical Deception.

The Uselessness of Certainty

Every knowledge, even the most solid, carries a margin of uncertainty. (I am very sure about my own name … but what if I just hit my head and got momentarily confused?) Knowledge itself is probabilistic in nature, a notion emphasized by some currents of philosophical pragmatism. Better understanding of the meaning of probability, and especially realizing that we never have, nor need, ‘scientifically proven’ facts, but only a sufficiently high degree of probability, in order to take decisions and act, would improve everybody’ conceptual toolkit.

CARLO ROVELLI, Physicist, University of Aix-Marseille, France; Author, The First Scientist: Anaximander and the Nature of Science.


Until we can quantify the uncertainty in our statements and our predictions, we have little idea of their power or significance. So too in the public sphere. Public policy performed in the absence of understanding quantitative uncertainties, or even understanding the difficulty of obtaining reliable estimates of uncertainties usually means bad public policy.

LAWRENCE KRAUSS, Physicist, Foundation Professor & Director, Origins Project, Arizona State University; Author, A Universe from Nothing; Quantum Man: Richard Feynman’s Life in Science.

Risk Literacy

Literacy — the ability to read and write — is the precondition for an informed citizenship in a participatory democracy. But knowing how to read and write is no longer enough. The breakneck speed of technological innovation has made risk literacy as indispensable in the 21st century as reading and writing were in the 20th century. Risk literacy is the ability to deal with uncertainties in an informed way.

GERD GIGERENZER, Psychologist; Director of the Center for Adaptive Behavior and Cognition at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin; Author, Gut Feelings.

Living is fatal

The ability to reason clearly in the face of uncertainty. If everybody could learn to deal better with the unknown, then it would improve not only their individual cognitive toolkit (to be placed in a slot right next to the ability to operate a remote control, perhaps), but the chances for humanity as a whole.

SETH LLOYD, Quantum Mechanical Engineer, MIT; Author, Programming the Universe.

Uncalculated Risk

We humans are terrible at dealing with probability. We are not merely bad at it, but seem hardwired to be incompetent, in spite of the fact that we encounter innumerable circumstances every day which depend on accurate probabilistic calculations for our wellbeing. This incompetence is reflected in our language, in which the common words used to convey likelihood are “probably” and “usually” — vaguely implying a 50% to 100% chance. Going beyond crude expression requires awkwardly geeky phrasing, such as “with 70% certainty,” likely only to raise the eyebrow of a casual listener bemused by the unexpected precision. This blind spot in our collective consciousness — the inability to deal with probability — may seem insignificant, but it has dire practical consequences. We are afraid of the wrong things, and we are making bad decisions.

GARRETT LISI, Independent Theoretical Physicist

And there is more … much more at the Edge site

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About the Author

S@R develops models for support of decision making under uncertainty. Taking advantage of recognized financial and economic theory, we customize simulation models to fit specific industries, situations and needs.

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  1. hockeyfan says:

    ich finde diesen artikel wirklich interessant. kannst du nicht einen “gefällt-mir” button von facebook einbauen?

  2. S@R says:

    Thank you for your interest, I will certainly try to install a button like that.

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