[ Tue. Mar. 29. 2011 ]

This interesting David Brooks column in today'sNew York Times alerted me to the's latest World Question: What Scientific Concept Would Improve Everybody's Cognitive Toolkit? What particularly caught my attention was 2002 Economics Nobelist Daniel Kahneman's entry on the "focusing illusion" which he summarizes as: "Nothing In Life Is As Important As You Think It Is, While You Are Thinking About It." Kahneman asserts:

Education is an important determinant of income — one of the most important — but it is less important than most people think. If everyone had the same education, the inequality of income would be reduced by less than 10%. When you focus on education you neglect the myriad other factors that determine income. The differences of income among people who have the same education are huge.

Kahneman is reminding us that we all know lots of people who did really well in their elite (and not-so-elite) universities and who are now not making extraordinary amounts of money.

...I've only just begun to dip into the various answers to the question, but another answer that I strongly agree with is from the Economist's digital editor Tom Standage who points out that "you can show something is definitely dangerous, but not definitely safe." As he correctly notes:

A wider understanding of the fact that you can't prove a negative would, in my view, do a great deal to upgrade the public debate around science and technology....Scientists are often accused of logic-chopping when they point this out. But it would be immensely helpful to public discourse if there was a wider understanding that you can show something is definitely dangerous, but you cannot show it is definitely safe. ...