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    What Is The Most Important Field Of Science For The Public?
    By Adam Retchless | April 13th 2010 01:55 PM | 31 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Adam

    I get paid to study microbial evolution. These writings are for my non-scientist friends and family (hi guys!) and anyone else who sees any value...

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    A while ago, I read an argument that understanding economics is more important than understanding evolution. The author's point is that evolutionary theory does not provide the layman with particularly useful information, whereas economic theory has many applications, particularly in public policy. Therefore, as concerned citizens interested in promoting good public policy, we should give priority to learning about and discussing economic theory.

    As much as it hurts my ego as an evolution researcher, the argument has a point. Evolutionary theories can seem pretty far removed from the general concerns of humanity (but see below). However, I'm not convinced that economics should take the top spot either, so I want to open up this issue for discussion. Before commenting on the value of different fields, I have the following general thoughts:

    1) It's possible that we should not focus on scientific knowledge in itself. Perhaps the most important issue should be for people to know how to find and interpret scientific knowledge. If that's the case, then what matters is developing the skills of reading, math, and critical thinking.

    2) It's possible that all sciences are connected such that it would make no sense to give precedence to one or another. Maybe the study of any field of science facilitates the study of every other field of science, either by providing background knowledge or by honing  reading, math, and critical thinking skills. If that is the case, then perhaps a broad scientific education is best, supplemented by each person focusing on whatever interests them at the moment.

    3) Aside from any qualites inherent to evolutionary theory, I think that evolution is worth emphasizing because it is the front-line of an assault on science. The topic obviously catches people's attention, and there is such a strong case for evolution that it provides a good opportunity to teach about science.* For another opinion on this issue, along with some discussion of general scientific literacy, see There's More to Science Than Evolution.

    With that being said, here are some contestants. Nominate your own below:

    Economics: Ideally, it can help you decide who to vote for, and how to run your business or financial investments. The thing I worry about is whether macroeconomic theories are really solid, and how applicable the theories are to one's own actions. At the least, it provides some understanding of the major economic institutions in our society.

    Evolution: It provides some framework to all studies of biology (particularly, how model organisms are related to humans and other organisms of interest). It also provides practical understanding of phenomena like the spread of antibiotic-resistant pathogens.

    Ecology: Invasive species, response to climate change, and all that.

    Climatology: Well, there's the whole climate change issue, and I see no reason that it will ever go away.

    Human physiology: This is my leading candidate for the most important field of scientific knowledge. This will inform all sorts of personal decisions, ranging from diet and exercise to decisions about medical interventions.

    Electricity and Magnetism: It's everywhere in both nature and our technologies, but how much does the layman need to understand it?

    Mechanics: F = MA. This may help people to build simple machines, as needed, and understand the machines that surround us.

    Computer science: Programming is a useful skill, and computers are useful tools that can aid in thought about other topics. I'd almost classify this as a branch of math, rather than a proper science.

    Chemistry: It's nice to be able to read the ingredients list. This may improve our understanding of water quality issues, and generally what it means to be "drenched in chemicals". Of course, it is also a pre-requisite for understanding biochemistry, including pharmacology.

    Psychology: Can knowledge of psychology holp you to avoid common cognitive errors? Can it help you to raise you kids?

    Sociology:This has all the strengths and weaknesses of Economics, though I suspect that the theories are even less well established.

    That's all I can come up with off the top of my head. Human physiology seems to be the best to me, perhaps with psychology as a supplement. Any more thoughts?


    *This is why I discussed evolution in my entry for the writing contest (vote once a day!)

    Comments

    Ahh... remember in undergrad, when every professor believed that his/her field was THE MOST IMPORTANT FIELD IN THE WORLD? I mean, of course it is; at least, it is to them. And an argument could be made for any of them, as well as fields that aren't traditionally considered "college classes."

    You make a number of good points here. I think that I agree most with what you labeled as #1 - "[T]he most important issue should be for people to know how to find and interpret scientific knowledge." As you've shown, one could make an argument for the preeminent importance of just about any field of study. In my mind, what matters for an individual isn't so much that he understands the details of each, but rather that he has a means of approaching them.

    People need a basic understanding and appreciation of the scientific method, of statistics, and - quite frankly - of bullshit. People need to know how to recongize BS, even when it's couched in scientific terms; this knowledge will be relevant to them in areas from climate change to fad diets. Put simply, people need to be critical thinkers, particularly with regard to the scientific method.

    AdamRetchless
    " People need to know how to recongize BS"

    Did I inadvertently make an argument for the importance of studying philosophy (particularly, Rhetoric)
    Perhaps. But you need to know logic and epistemology before you're able to tell if the "rhetoric" is BS.
    I agree with your argument, however you forgot one very important science field, Anthropology. It includes many of the other sciences.

    Hank
    Well, it uses science techniques but it makes conclusions that are not based on science - it looks at ancient civilizations or modern primates but what that can really tell us is not the same as what we learn from biology, physics, geology, etc.
    Gerhard Adam
    If I had to choose a single topic, it would be philosophy since it deals with logic, critical thinking, and the issues surrounding how we view ourselves in the context of the world around us. 

    As for economics ... it's not even in the running.  Economics is little more than a fairy tale, since it offers nothing but unbridled optimism or pessimism (depending on who's doing the analysis), with little scientific credibility regarding the ability to predict events.  The simple reality of economics is that it operates as it does, despite whatever experts think or say.  They have no control over it, and they are clueless as to how it will behave. 

    After talking about it long enough, the economy invariably does something different and then everyone claims that they predicted such a change.  Well here's my prediction.  Sometime within the next five years, the economy is going to grow with periodic slowdowns but, in general it will continue to extend upwards.  The market will see higher and higher values, with an occasional downturn, but it should be nothing too serious.  However, there is always the possibility that our financial markets may over-extend themselves in which case the artificial price protections in place may cause another collapse.

    How's that?

    Mundus vult decipi
    AdamRetchless
    If philosophy is indeed the most important subject, then I think we're in a tough spot because the general public tends to know less about philosophy than about science. I wonder how much these "philosophical" skills can be learned simply by studying philosophy, and how much they need to be practiced on a particular empirical problem.
    Gerhard Adam
    It's an approachable subject since it doesn't necessarily require a high degree of formalism to get people to begin thinking more critically.  Even slight improvements in how one manages ideas and approaches problems pave the way for a less gullible public. 

    It isn't as if people have to solve major philosophical problems, but rather that they simply be aware that they are there and worth discussing.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Hank
    I think evolutionary biology is not essential to most people, sure - explaining how we arrived here according to natural laws has value but it is not a value for every day life.    But the life sciences overall are probably most important and I would argue something like epidemiology (not in the list, but maybe you were including that in human physiology) would be most immediate.

    Second would be an earth science or a physical one (depending on who you ask), energy.  With 'better' energy we solve three crucial problems; greenhouse gases and water and, therefore, food.
    AdamRetchless
    I would have placed immunology inside of human physiology, but I think that epidemiology is a bit broader (including the population dynamics of pathogens, the ecological components of disease, and all of the other risk factors).

    I think epidemiology is a really good contender.

    I think it also would provide good case studies to illustrate scientific reasoning. We start with a bunch of sick people, then we identify if any of the illnesses are connected, then we look for the cause, and finally experiment with treatments.
    adaptivecomplexity
    I'm 100% behind your point #1 - learning scientific facts isn't the most important thing; learning habits of scientific thinking is. If you understand how science works, then you can have a reasonable chance of following debates on scientific issues relevant to public policy.

    I don't see how this is an argument for studying philosophy.  You learn habits of scientific thinking much better in the context of a specific scientific field, not by reading David Hume or Karl Popper, as much as I enjoy reading Hume and Popper. We don't need people to learn the discipline of philosophy - we need them to practice thinking through scientific problems. 

    Feynman's lectures 'The Character of Physical Law' are a great illustration of this - read that book, and, although you'll probably forget the specific bits about gravity or the uncertainty principle, you will come away with a deeper understanding of how scientific thinking works.

    Mike
    AdamRetchless
    Thanks for mentioning those lectures. I've heard that they are really good, and I should get around to reading them sometime.

    I just searched the web for more info on the lectures (wondering if I should buy the book, or could download a PDF), and found that there are video recordings of the lectures!

    Via Wikipedia:
    adaptivecomplexity
    The videos are great, but it's also worth reading the book carefully. It's one of my favorite science books.
    Feynman is great at teaching how to think scientifically at the same time he's teaching about some scientific result.
    Mike
    logicman
    My priority would be critical thinking, first applied to language.

    Human language is anthropocentric to the core1.  That is why propaganda works.  Words can tug at heartstrings or yank chains.  You can teach this to young kids by showing them the same story in different newspapers.  Why does one paper say 'that Blahsworthy fellow', another, 'Blahsworthy', another 'Mr. Blahsworthy' and yet another 'the Prime Minister'?

    Teach kids to spot agendist terms and they will know when to switch on their bovex2 filters.

    After that, teach them that food and clothing doesn't magic itself onto store shelves.  Teach them that the trash they put out doesn't magic itself away.  Teach them agronomy and ecology.

    As to economics, it is a flawed sub-set of psychology - the study of human behaviours from a flawed idea that we can modify human behaviours to match whatever ideas of normality are currently in vogue.  Economics should be the scientific study of the conflict between group and individual human acquisitive and cooperative behaviours.  Rational consumer?  There's an oxymoron if ever there was one.


    1 - it's only borderline tautology.
    2 - bovex - bovine excrement; BS.  ;-)
    AdamRetchless
    Rational consumer?  There's an oxymoron if ever there was one.

    I don't know how economists think of simplistic models such as "rational actor" and "perfect market", but my sense is that they should be treated as null models. They have some value in that they capture some part of human behavior (and market behavior), but they obviously are not the whole story. The way to identify the other parts of the story is to make explicit predictions based on the simple model, and then see how they fail to to explain reality.

    If you begin your research using a complex model that attempts to account for everything, then you'll just end up with an over-parametrized mess that can be fit to any data set without providing any real insight into what's going on.

    If consumer's aren't rational (i.e. comparing the value of different alternatives), then what would be a better description of their behavior? Pure spontaneity (i.e. they just go along with whatever slightly pleasant opportunity is placed before them)? Both rationality and spontaneity obviously play a role in economic behaviors, which is why economists formalized the idea of bounded rationality decades ago.
    Gerhard Adam
    If consumer's aren't rational (i.e. comparing the value of different alternatives), then what would be a better description of their behavior?
    Part of the problem is the definition of rational, which presumes that the only "rational" action is one that is self-serving or manifestly self-interested.  Consequently there is absolutely no sense of how charities might work, or how people might intentionally sacrifice resources, since that isn't considered "rational" behavior.

    In addition, it also seems that no one wants to treat economics (at least consumer spending) as a zero-sum game (at least to a degree).  A perfect example is the difference between a bookstore and something like Amazon.  The models presume that both enterprises can be successful, because they don't consider that money spent at one will likely result in no money spent at the other.  Therefore these two business models will tend to dilute the available revenue rather than increase it for both. 

    However the whole rationality model doesn't work when one considers businesses that are as large as many are today.  Under normal circumstances, behaviors will determine return business, so that customer service becomes an important element of that behavior.  However, many businesses have effectively monopolized their share of the market to the point of where there aren't many viable competitors and given the size and influence of many of these companies, it is little wonder that customer service is viewed as an unnecessary expense.  This becomes especially true when one considers most company's behavior around returns and complaints.  It is better to simply let the customer to be angry, knowing they have few alternatives than it is to address the problem.  This is one reason why one usually gets significantly different treatment between small local businesses and large chains.

    In many ways, such large companies are able to gain an advantage that is analogous to that of the casinos to the gamblers.  Given their vast resources they will always win or be able to hold out against the few that may oppose them.  As a result, they dictate the terms of the consumer transaction, so to talk about consumer "rationality" would have to account for this.
    Mundus vult decipi
    AdamRetchless
    Part of the problem is the definition of rational, which presumes that
    the only "rational" action is one that is self-serving or manifestly
    self-interested. 
    I don't think that is exactly how the term "rational" is used in economics. As I understand it, rational simply means that the actor places different values on different goods/services, and then acts to maximize the total value that they attain given their resources.
     
    Classical economic theory (with rational actors) says nothing about where the preferences come from. A person could want to have a big hole in the ground, and that would be treated the same as if they wanted food in their stomach or food in someone else's stomach.

    I suspect that many economists have at least played with models that incorporate altruism (i.e. one person wants something to be because another person wants it to be). I'm not familiar enough with the field to point out examples, but a quick Google search for "Altruism economics" shows that Nobel laureate Herb Simon had a paper by that name. (This is the same guy who popularized "bounded rationality").

    update (additional note): Science magazine had a nice review about a year ago in which the author discussed how financial incentives can be counterproductive because they undermine altruistic motivations to accomplish the same task. For example, if parents are fined if they fail to pick up their kids form daycare on time, then many of them will just decide to pay the fine if it is inconvenient to get there on time, whereas without the fine they feel ashamed if they don't fulfill their obligations.


    In addition, it also seems that no one wants to treat economics (at
    least consumer spending) as a zero-sum game (at least to a degree).  A
    perfect example is the difference between a bookstore and something like
    Amazon.  The models presume that both enterprises can be successful,
    because they don't consider that money spent at one will likely result
    in no money spent at the other.  Therefore these two business models
    will tend to dilute the available revenue rather than increase it for
    both. 
    I don't understand what you are saying has been overlooked. The idea of competition between firms has been a part of economic theory since the beginning (I'd bet that Smith discussed it). Also, the idea that firms enter or leave markets in response to competition is a core part of economic theory.


    However, many businesses have effectively monopolized their share of the
    market...

    Monopolies and market power are also a major focus of economic research.
    Gerhard Adam
    I don't think that is exactly how the term "rational" is used in economics.

    "At the heart of modern economics, even apparently contrarian economics such as Freakonomics,
    is the idea the consumer is rational; that the consumer can be relied on to act in their own best interests. If that’s not true, much of economic theory comes tumbling down. In fact, economists are so incredibly convinced of this dictate that when they observe apparently irrational behavior, they expend volumes attempting to justify and rationalize it, and prove that consumers are indeed acting in their own best interests."
    http://www.elharo.com/blog/economics/2007/06/25/the-myth-of-the-rational-consumer/

    "Economics, you see, is founded on the idea that individuals perceive their own self-interests clearly, and pursue those interests rationally."
    http://dymaxionworld.blogspot.com/2007/06/myth-of-rational-consumer.html

    "The behavioral assumption of consumer theory is that all consumers are rational decision makers who seek to maximize utility.[1] More specifically all consumers seek to maximize a utility function subject to a budgetary constraint."
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Consumer_theory
    NOTE:  This definition is so vague that almost any decision a consumer makes can be made to fit.

    I don't understand what you are saying has been overlooked. The idea of
    competition between firms has been a part of economic theory since the
    beginning...
    The point isn't about competition since that has been well understood.  The problem is that too many economists behave as if consumption can occur at multiple levels in the market even when a particular mode is already saturated.  I'm not suggesting that this is something new or novel, but rather that economists behave as if it is.  It makes no sense for people to wonder why a particular company may be losing money when there is a clear competitor that is taking away customers.  In particular, the point is that the internet was viewed as creating a new range of business opportunities, instead of recognizing that these weren't new, but merely replacements of existing business modes.  There was nothing new created, it was a shift.   Amazon isn't something new, it is the same old book store with a different model for responding to consumer demand.  It behave as if this is some sort of new revolutionary business model is ridiculous.  It's simply a shift that a competitor employed to improve their own position against other book sellers.  There's nothing new here.  Revenue will go to one or the other, but not both (based on what they have available to sell).

    In a nutshell, this type of competitive activity cannot be considered economic growth since they can't both succeed at the same levels.
    Monopolies and market power are also a major focus of economic research.
    No they aren't.  What is almost exclusively discussed is the economic perspective of the companies.  There is little or no interest in the consumer side of this beyond their "demand".  It is routinely ignored that "demand" can only occur by those consumers obtaining their money from the "supply" side.  Instead supply and demand are treated as independent variables that somehow have their own independent resources with which they interact. 

    Similarly the interest in monopolies is only discussed with respect to its impact on competition between companies.   There is little discussion regarding the overwhelming effect that large institutions can have on controlling and determining the mode by which consumers can interact.  In other words, if you as a consumer have no ability to influence how you are treated by a supplier, then they effectively have a market monopoly on the consumption patterns.  Basically, you don't matter to them.  This is precisely what is responsible for the state of the airlines today.  While everything is focused on improving their revenue streams, they don't particularly care if you're comfortable, on time, or cramped in a seat designed for a 6 year old.  They know you don't really have any choice, so they can do as they like.

    Consider this quote from a LiveScience article: "Economists Study How to Improve China's Food Safety"
    Many economists have called China's emergence a "positive economic
    shock," unleashing a consumer base and workforce of nearly 1.2 billion
    people into the global market.
    This perspective behaves as if the resources of all these "consumers" are independent.  After all, who is the addition of 1.2 billion people a "positive" force for?  Competition for jobs?  Improvement in standards of living?  The only consideration is that it represents 1.2 billion people from whom companies may benefit.  It is impossible for the introduction of competitors to ever be a positive force for those competing, but this angle is completely ignored.

    This can also be routinely observed when one considers how China will compete for natural resources.  While it may be great for the oil companies (or others that provide resources), how can it be a positive influence by constraining resources and forcing up prices?

    As I said before, the basic problem treats the "demand" side as if it holds independent resources from those on the "supply" side.  What consider that the only way you can be a consumer is because you are getting money from the "supply" side.  If those organizations could eliminate or reduce all their expenses, then they would get rid of their employees.  Of course, it doesn't occur to anyone that they are also getting rid of their future customers, but that's economics for you.
    Mundus vult decipi
    AdamRetchless
    As I said before, the basic problem treats the "demand" side as if it
    holds independent resources from those on the "supply" side.

    This is the crux of macroeconomics, from Keynes on.

    Other than that, you're telling me that things don't exist even though I've seen them with my own eyes. I've read a fair amount of economics literature for a layman, and all I can say is that the authors of those first three links are not authorities, and they are mistaken. I can't really respond in any more depth in a comment thread. I think I'll write up a blog post about economics...but it may take me a while, because there are a lot of complicated issues here.

    I don't think that Economics is the most important science, but it is a science and it seems to get ignored around here.
    Gerhard Adam
    Other than that, you're telling me that things don't exist even though I've seen them with my own eyes.
    What have I suggested doesn't exist, but that you've seen? 

    However, regarding the point that economics is a science, I would like to know one thing that economics ever predicted beyond the obvious? 
    Mundus vult decipi
    AdamRetchless
    Prediction:

    This isn't all that detailed, but it shows the basic relationship between theory, field research, and laboratory research in economics.

    http://kuznets.harvard.edu/~aroth/econsci.html

    It sounds like evolutionary biology.
    Gerhard Adam
    It sounds like evolutionary biology.
    Actually it sounds far more like evolutionary psychology.  I agree that it wasn't very detailed, so there's no way to determine what was being examined and what was being predicted.  To date, I haven't seen anything substantive regarding predictions coming from economics, although they are quite adept at explaining things after the fact, and questioning how they could've missed the obvious.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Yes, things like basic math and logical thinking are important to people trying to live in the world, but they are not science as such. They are tools used by scientists, and people in general, to accoomplish what they do. In my opinion the most important science to know and understand is basic environmental biology. Nature gives us our food (yes, farms work using the same principles as used in the natural environment), our water, our air, our energy and the resources that we use to make things we need (or as is often the case, things we don't need but want). If you don't understand environmental biology then you mess up the way that nature works and then all those things that we get from nature stop being given to us to use. If somebody can describe a way to live without food, air, water, energy or resources please feel free to tell the rest of the world, but right now those things are manditory to life. If you don't understand that, and destroy nature because you don't understand how the environment works, then we all die.

    Physics is the answer. It teaches that work is a 100% guaranteed result, that wishing is folly, that there is truth, and one's acheivements will be proportional to one's efforts. It fosters improvements in all areas of our lives, including vocabulary and communications.

    AdamRetchless
    The above three posts seem to make an argument for teaching about biogeochemical/nutrient cycles. Some of the important points may include:

    1) Mass and energy are conserved (though energy dissipates).
    2) Materials can be chemically converted into different forms, but there are basic elements that cannot be converted into each other.
    3) Life uses these chemicals. Some forms are more accessible to life than others.
    logicman
    As an important aspect of your item 1 - thermodynamics.

    If you link a motor to a dynamo you can get even small children to understand intuitively that perpetual motion is impossible.  If only we could get politicians and economists to understand it as well, the world would be the better for it.
    AdamRetchless
    Yes, the basics of thermodynamics are definitely essential. Everything else depends on it...from physiology, to economics, ecology, and evolution.  I can't believe that I overlooked that.
    logicman
    I can't believe that I overlooked that.
    I can. ;-)

    AdamRetchless
    Apparently, the pros forget about it also. If you look at the questions used in the survey of public understanding of science (slide 4), none of them touch on themodynamics, and a few of them seem like little more than trivia.
    logicman
    Now that, I really can believe.  :-)
    Chemistry: the central science, since it connects the physical sciences with the life sciences. Chemistry is everything, it is the science of matter and the art of change.