This interesting David Brooks column in today's New York Times alerted me to the Edge.org'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.
My own answer would be that people's thinking would strongly benefit from a greater understanding of economics. Happily, it turns out that behavioral scientist Dylan Evans agrees:
It is not hard to identify the discipline in which to look for the scientific concept that would most improve everybody's cognitive toolkit; it has to be economics. No other field of study contains so many ideas ignored by so many people at such great cost to themselves and the world. The hard task is picking just one of the many such ideas that economists have developed.
On reflection, I plumped for the law of comparative advantage, which explains how trade can be beneficial for both parties even when one of them is more productive than the other in every way. At a time of growing protectionism, it is more important than ever to reassert the value of free trade. Since trade in labor is roughly the same as trade in goods, the law of comparative advantage also explains why immigration is almost always a good thing — a point which also needs emphasizing at a time when xenophobia is on the rise.
In the face of well-meaning but ultimately misguided opposition to globalization, we must celebrate the remarkable benefits which international trade has brought us, and fight for a more integrated world.
I've only just begun to dip into the various answers to the Edge.org 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.
The result of the public's failure to understand this is the continuing rise of the most pernicious idea of the 21st century so far, the precautionary principle.