Jared Diamond on Common Sense

About the Edge Foundation, I take this from Wikipedia:

The Foundation is an association of science and technology intellectuals created in 1988 as an outgrowth of The Reality Club, and that currently, its main activity is contributing to the Edge website, edited by  John Brockman, who among other things is the author of The Third Culture, a growing movement towards (re)integration of literary and scientific thinking, a nod toward British scientist C. P. Snow‘s concept of the two cultures, of science and the humanities. On the Edge website scientists and others are invited to contribute their thoughts in a manner readily accessible to non-specialist readers.

In recent years Edge has posed its members an annual question, for example in:

  • 2006: “What is your dangerous idea”? The responses formed the book What Is Your Dangerous Idea?, which was published with an introduction by Steven Pinker and an afterword by Richard Dawkins.
  • 2009: “What Will Change Everything? What game-changing scientific ideas and developments do you expect to live to see?”
  • 2014: “What scientific idea is ready for retirement?”

This year’s Edge Question is:

WHAT SCIENTIFIC TERM OR CONCEPT OUGHT TO BE MORE WIDELY KNOWN?

Edge founder and editor John Brockman himself has this to say about this year’s question:

Of course, not everyone likes the idea of spreading scientific understanding. Remember what the Bishop of Birmingham’s wife is reputed to have said about Darwin’s claim that human beings are descended from monkeys: “My dear, let us hope it is not true, but, if it is true, let us hope it will not become generally known.”

And he continues with his own answer to the question:

Of all the scientific terms or concepts that ought to be more widely known to help to clarify and inspire science-minded thinking in the general culture, none are more important than “science” itself.

Many people, even many scientists, have traditionally had a narrow view of science as controlled, replicated experiments performed in the laboratory—and as consisting quintessentially of physics, chemistry, and molecular biology. The essence of science is conveyed by its Latin etymology: scientia, meaning knowledge….

…. Science is nothing more nor less than the most reliable way of gaining knowledge about anything, whether it be the human spirit, the role of great figures in history, or the structure of DNA.

It is in this spirit of Scientia that Edge, on the occasion of its 20th anniversary, is pleased to present the Edge Annual Question 2017. Happy New Year!

John Brockman, January 1, 2017


You can read all 206 answers to this year’s question on the EDGE website. Below I quote just one of these answers, that of Jared Diamond, a professor of geography at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the author of “The World Until Yesterday.” I particularly liked what he had to say in his answer that it is “common sense” that ought to be more widely known.


Beware of getting caught up in the details of an argument

You are much more likely to hear common sense invoked as a concept at a cocktail party than at a scientific discussion—but it should play a bigger role in such discussions, where it is sometimes deficient and scorned. This is especially problematic when scientists get caught up in the details of an argument and follow it to an implausible conclusion.

Consider an example from the field of archaeology. Throughout most of human prehistory, human evolution was confined to the Old World, and the Americas were uninhabited. During the last Ice Age, humans finally crossed from Siberia into Alaska over the Bering Strait land bridge. For thousands of years thereafter, they were prevented from spreading further south by the ice sheet that stretched, without interruption, across Canada, from the Pacific to the Atlantic.

The first well-attested settlement of the Americas south of today’s Canada-U.S. border occurred around 13,000 years ago, as the ice sheets were melting. We see the sudden appearance of stone tools of the Clovis culture, named after the town of Clovis, N.M., where they were first recognized. Clovis tools have now been found all over the lower U.S. and south into Mexico. That sudden appearance of a culture abundantly filling up the entire landscape is what one expects and observes whenever humans first colonize fertile, empty lands.

But any claim by an archaeologist to have discovered “the first X” is taken as a challenge by other archaeologists to discover an earlier X. In this case, archaeologists feel challenged to discover sites with different stone tools that date from before the Clovis culture. Every year now, new claims of pre-Clovis sites in the U.S. and Latin America are advanced and subjected to detailed scrutiny. Most of these claims have eventually been invalidated.

Still, a handful of pre-Clovis claims have not yet been discredited. The most widely discussed are for sites at Monte Verde in Chile, Meadowcroft in Pennsylvania, and one site each in Texas and in Oregon. As a result, most American archaeologists currently support the thesis of pre-Clovis settlement.

But this seems to me an implausible view, defying common sense. It would require that the first human settlers south of the Canada-U.S. border were somehow airlifted by nonstop flights to Chile, Pennsylvania, Oregon and Texas, leaving no unequivocal signs of their presence at intermediate sites. If there really had been pre-Clovis settlement, we would already know it and would no longer be arguing about it. That is because there would be hundreds of undisputed pre-Clovis sites distributed everywhere across the Americas.

Just like everyone else, scientists need common sense.



If you want to know more about the Clovis people, go to

The Clovis Point and the Discovery of America’s First C ulture

to read the article by Charles C. Mann in the Smithsonian Magazine, from November 2013


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