DiscoverTED Radio HourThe Spirit Of Inquiry

The Spirit Of Inquiry

Update: 2017-02-244


The force behind scientific progress is the simple act of asking questions. This episode, TED speakers explore how a deeper and more humble style of inquiry may help achieve the next big breakthrough.

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support for this podcast and the following message come from T I A whether it's investing advice banking or retirements the IAEA believes smart financial decisions should enable life not define it C I A calls this the new success story learn more at EIA dot org this the is the Head Radio Hour each week groundbreaking Ted talks Technology Design at Stanford delivered and Ted conferences around the world gift of the human had to believe in impossible the true nature of reality beckons just beyond those talks those ideas adapted for radio NPR guy rise and I should tape idea is about questions so to get us started here's a question What if everyone jumped once the the that is what if everyone on the planet jumped in the same place on earth what would happen could be like shake the planet well it's the kind of question you can't really answer without asking more questions but first Michael quick question for you which is can you can introduce itself is Michael Stephens and the creator of the sauce Educational Network on YouTube and the host of one of its channels the Sox won the game where we get together in one location all just thirty centimeters into the exact same time earth would only move away from us about one hundred of the wit of a single hydrogen atom this is Michael Stephens answering this very question on his YouTube channel where he basically devotes all his time and energy to asking all kinds of questions what the five second rule is that true the five second rule may be true if we rename it the one damn toe SEC investigated that one sometimes the questions are really funny but actually very profound like why'd we call it our bottom it's in the middle of our body the question what's going on here is probably a combination of or so centric thinking and euphemism the bottom is a nice word for a sometimes thirty part and now the thing about Michael Stephens is he's not a scientist he's kind of are professional Inquirer and really good at explaining complicated ideas I am a rabbit hole chase scene kind of person yeah I was never a genius to know and I am even further from the genius today the more I've learned and read the more I realize that I don't know what I'm talking about but at the most I can just say that I'm curious and I love sharing things that fascinate me and hopefully are contagious Lee fascinating and each time he starts to go down that rabbit hole when Michael on life another question and then another and another thing about this from the not that long ago the ability to ask and answer big questions wasn't something everyone could do right you need is access to lots and lots of information training to find we were looking for but in a very short span of time most humans the planet have witnessed this giant technological leap that spread that access everywhere I mean what your smartphone in your hand you can connect to an infinite reservoir of knowledge means that anyone with a sense of curiosity can tap into it which is why Michael Stephens can do what he does as he demonstrated on the Ted stage here's a question this beach is Live I'm actually here in front of you guys were all here together but this speech is being recorded and it will become a video that people can access all over the world on computers mobile devices televisions I weigh about one hundred and ninety pounds How much will the video way when you stream a video onto your computer that information is temporarily stored using electrons and the number of electrons on your device won't actually increase or decrease but it takes energy to store them in one place and we know thanks to our friend Albert Einstein energy and mass are related assuming a typical bit rate we can figure that eighty minute of YouTube video is going to need to involve about ten million electrons on your device plugged in all of those electrons in the energy takes hold them in the correct place for you to see the video into that formula we can figure out that one minute of YouTube video increases the mass of your computer by about ten to the negative nineteen grams that's you could call that nothing he would really get in trouble because the best scales we've ever invented that we could try to use to actually detect that change are only accurate to attend to the negative ninety grams so we can't measure it but we can like we just did calculated and that's really cool because with numbers that small I can fit thousands of books on my own little personal electronic reader I can stream hours and hours and days and days of YouTube video without my computer ever getting miserably have figure as information becomes that white becomes a lot more democratic meaning that more teachers and presenters and creators and viewers than ever before can be involved the the I mean that's the thing about technology right like it's empowered anyone wants to to to tap into their natural human curiosity yeah I think that many animals are curious clearly it is served humans very well one of my favorite observations from human history is that Neanderthals travel the land but they would stop if they reached the coast they would stop if they reached difficult terrain like mountains but homo sapiens didn't in the face of what would seem like a totally stupid challenge homo sapiens were like yeah maybe there is something cool over there homo sapiens discovered whole whiny with simple boats humans just sail out into the Pacific or just like lets go and see what we found yet or tolls didn't do that and guess what they're not here anymore so basically we got to this point as a species because we asked questions no down from the camera showed the spirit of inquiry ideas about what happens when questions lead to more questions and then to unexpected answers and whether question is often more important than the answer humans aren't just about asking questions that are about finding answers and there's always a push and pull between the should we keep asking or is it better life with what we know today seems like the answer is obvious that we have to keep back the doubt I think that it doesn't even matter what answer we come up with today because we will keep asking we are just going to gain more and more and more knowledge a broader the width of that circle of knowledge but at all times even greater circumference beyond that is the unknown the the you can trigger Michael Stevens Ted talk at Ted dot com and all of his videos of the Science Education Network and YouTube that's the letter he sucks hate may make you just quickly introduce self i fail me or ask as I'm the professor of the history of science and affiliated professor of earth and plant re Sciences at Harvard University The Associates for say the U study pretty big question thing is I history of science is the history of the development of knowledge about the natural world I study scientists study the processes by which they collect evidence which means Naomi gets to ask the Metta questions about how we know what we know the in and say science is evidence based but whatever that's how we judge whether some evidence is good or bad the end lately Naomi's been trying to answer one very big question which is why should we trust in science at all the tell us that the world is scientists tell us that vaccines are safe the oft awry why should we believe the science here's Naomi arrest this on the Ted stage the many of us actually don't believe the science public opinion polls consistently show that significant proportion of the American people don't believe the climate is warming due to human activities don't think that there's evolution by natural selection and aren't persuaded by the safety of vaccines so why should we believe the science was this don't like talking about science as a matter of belief in fact they would contact science with faith they would say belief is the domain of faith now the fact is though for most of us most scientific claims are leap of faith we can't really judge scientific claims for ourselves in most cases and indeed this is actually true for most scientists as well outside of their own specialties so you think about it geologists can tell you where the vaccine is safe most chemists are not expert in evolutionary theory physicists cannot tell you whether or not tobacco causes cancer so it is scientists themselves have to make a leap of faith outside their own fields then why do they accept the claims of other scientists and should we believe those claims so what I like to argue is yes we should but not for the reason that most of us think most of us were taught in school and the reason we should believe in science is because of the scientific method we were taught that scientists follow a mess is that this method guarantees the truth of their claims the is the scientific method you have a hypothesis is CD some experimental scene make some observations if the observations were critics parent were to say a hypothesis is confirmed in Uganda the next thing but Mammy says the scientific method is just the starting point the scientist can't just say ok confirm my hypothesis now I go do the next thing that by itself is not sufficient so if that's not sufficient what is How do scientists decide what's right and wrong consensus consensus and this is really I think the most important part of science that many people don't understand that isn't in the high school textbook consensus is the key in building consensus takes a long time somebody comes up with the scientific conclusion those conclusions are then vetted by other scientists if they check out their published and then even more scientists review those results and ask their own questions if it turns out that when they tried to use my data or my idea and it doesn't work then they will publish paper same woeful the second so my claim could end up being discredited sometimes critics of signs will point to papers in the journal that that were subsequently disproved in the OC Look you can't trust science because that paper that got published but then we realized that was nonsense well that's not evidence of what's wrong with science that's actually evidence of what's right with science because the claim that disproved and then we know OK you know now he's on his person was a good idea we try it but it didn't work so we now rejected a move on to have you know when you reach consensus so imagine now I've published my paper my colleagues have picked up on my idea my days in the views and they worked with and say yes our data are consistent with this and now other people do the same and eventually we all conclude that my claim was right and that's what scientific knowledge is it's that moment when we all say yes this appears to be right and then we stop discussing it the whole reason why science can progress the is because there are points in which we all agree the day's secure the data is sufficient it settled we have a consensus and we move on to the next question the the in just a moment when we come back Mammy rest his son why scientists revisit old questions even ones you thought were settled in and show ideas about the spirit of inquiry and Guy rise near listening to the Ted Radio Hour from NPR the O Haven one just a quick thanks to two of our sponsors who help make this podcast possible first I stamped the com You can use damp dot com to automatically calculate and print the correct amount of postage for every letter or package you send all the services of the U S Postal Service right at your fingertips buy and print official US postage for any letter or package using your own computer setup for staff dot com for a special offer to our listeners a four week trial plus postage and a digital scale a stamp stuck on click on the microphone and enter radio our steps to calm ever go to the post office again thanks also to some best get some best to make it easy to cook nutritionist approved meals in your own kitchen with organic non GMO ingredients sourced from farms and fishermen sent directly to your door choose from Paley open free vegetarian and even breakfast options with pre measured ingredients and easy to follow directions you can prepare each meal and just thirty minutes and your listeners get their first three meals for free at some basket dot com slash Radio Hour The The The it's that Ted Radio Hour from NPR the guy Rush the Show today the spirit of inquiry How questions lead to new ones and the unexpected answers and we're just hearing from science historian Naomi restless the recent years she's been talking a lot about science and the trust and she argues it's the very process of inquiry that should make us trust science the kids Naomi had stage five fifty am I judging evidence and a half the subject to scrutiny I miss the sociologist Robert Merton to focus on this question of how scientists scrutinize data and evidence and he said they do it in a way he called organized skepticism by the organized because they do it collectively they do it as a group and skepticism because they do it from a position of distrust that is to say the burden of proof is on the person with a novel claim and in this and science is intrinsically conservative it's quite hard to persuade the scientific community to say yes we know something this is true when we find attached the really major changes in scientific thinking are relatively rare in the history of science at the end of the day what science is what scientific knowledge is is the consensus of the scientific experts who through this process of organized scrutiny collective scrutiny have judge the evidence and come to a conclusion about it either yea or nay so we can think of scientific knowledge as a consensus of experts we can also think of Sciences being a kind of a jury except it's a very special kind of jury it's not a jury of your peers it's a jury of geeks is the joy with pH these but this leads us to one final problem if silence is what scientists say as fact just an appeal to authority and we all taught in school the appeal to authority is a logical fallacy well here's the paradox of modern science actually scientists is the appeal to authority knew the end it by the authority of the individual no matter how smart that individual is like Plato or Socrates or Einstein it's the authority of the collective community you can think of it as a kind of the crowd but a very special kind of out the collective knowledge the collective work of all of the scientists who worked on a particular problem the the in the Is there an example of one the consensus change like something that we pretty much believe was truly can make an article of faith that we liked we at a later re think well nothing in science is an article of faith because we're always aware of the possibly that there could be new information that could make us rethink a question in the opener old issue and that's what scientific discoveries all about so who take gravity may be a pretty stupid thing to jump out of window thinking well maybe the idea of gravity will be revisited a future of the everyday move right unless I went into a pool filled with marshmallow fluff I got ready to come up with some extremely implausible scenarios for how our understanding might somehow not apply in this particular case but here's the interesting thing about gravity our understanding of gravity Tay is different than our understanding of what it was in the late nineteenth century the late nineteenth century we had a vision of gravity that we have been passed down since Newton we thought of gravity as a force that prevailed in the presence of a massive body in the mathematics of that was correct people could use Newton's laws of motions to predict how an object would fall through space but then in the early twentieth century Albert Einstein comes along and he says well there's a different way to look at this thing that we call gravity I think that gravity is actually the bending of space time in the presence of massive bodies to so now we have a different conceptual understanding of gravity and its radically different there's no downplaying the fact that this is a radically different vision of the world how it operates but if you jump out of window from a ten story building you will still get killed because that the outcomes the empirical outcomes actually for most purposes are the same there's a certain kind of mathematical structure to the universe that both Newnan Einstein correctly perceived they gave different accounts of it but if you had to calculate what the impact would be of jumping out of a window in terms of whether you would live or die it doesn't actually change even though the conceptual is a sian of the universe is very different but I mean if is u say nothing in science is an article of faith I'm assuming that most scientists do what they do they ask me questions with the goal of seeking out a truth well we are seeking the truth I think any scientists will tell you that that's our goal but we also know the truth is a kind of receding idea we can never be sure we're there because we have no independent means of knowing that where they're like We don't know when we've arrived is the problem so yes we seek the truth but we're also mindful and I would say a good scientist is humble that we understand that it is a receding goal The purposes of all these processes of interrogation is to transform claims from individual subjective claim that I thinks is true to claim that has been sufficiently examined and scrutinized by enough different people that we can say this isn't just Naomi's opinion anymore this is a claim that we all agree is supported by the evidence and appears to be true ok so I think my final point the trust our cars so why is that one of Carr's work so well not because of the genius of Henry Ford or Karl Benz or even the land mass is because the automobile is the product of more than a hundred of war by hundreds and thousands and tens of thousands of people the modern automobile is the product of the collective work and wisdom and experience of every man who ever worked on a car and the reliability of the technology is the result of that accumulated efforts we benefit not just from the genius of Benson Ford and mask but from the collective intelligence and hard work of all of the people who have worked on the modern car and the same is true of science only science is even older our basis for trust in science is actually the same as our basis interest in technology and the same as the hour basis for trust in anything namely experience but it should be blind trust anymore than we would have blind trust in anything our trust in science life science itself should be based on evidence and that means that scientists have to become better communicators they have to explain to us not just what they know but how they know it means that we have to become better listeners thank you very much in the anime and the rest this is a professor at Harvard the work focuses on the history of science you can see her entire talk the dot com The The The The Show today the spirit of inquiry by the question is often more important than the answer and what happens when one question leads to another that's how every medical interview that I have with the patient begins questions they have questions I have for them trying to put the pieces together and understand what's happening says Kevin Jones he's a surgeon who specializes in a rare group of cancers called comers he says doctors no matter how many questions they ask definitely don't have all the answers there's been a fairly paternalistic view of medicine where we just kind of take care of patients you know we we manage all this uncertainty and things for them and I I just I react unhappily that is because I think there is an element of of certainly not talent and but there's an element of dishonesty when we presume to know more than we know that somebody in your position is it's out of answers rarely patients come to they say that Jones had died in and your always have the answers absolutely neither Amy we especially when it comes down to predictions made at dislike the weathermen were terrible making predictions and yet we have two pairs Kevin Jones on the Ted stage the medicine is science medicine is knowledge in process sometimes the media and even more rarely but sometimes even scientists will say that something or other has been scientifically proven but I hope that you understand that science never proves anything definitively forever I am a surgeon and I would tell you that every one of my patience is an outlier is an exception people talk about thinking outside the box but we don't have a box in sarcoma what we do have is we take a bath in the uncertainty and unknowns in exceptions in outliers that surround us in sarcoma is easy access to what I think are those two most important values for any science humility and curiosity because if I am humble and curious when a patient asked me a question and I don't know the answer I'll ask a colleague who may have a similar albeit distinct patients are common even established international collaboration zz those patients will start to talk to each other through chat rooms and support groups it through this kind of humbly curious communication that we began to try and learn new things hopefully science remains curious enough to look for and humble enough to recognize when we have found the next outlier the next exception which teaches us what we don't actually know a colleague of mine removed a tumor from a patient's limb he was concerned about this tumor but his conversations with the patient were exactly what a patient might want he said I got it all and you're good to go she her husband were thrilled they went out celebrated fancy dinner open a bottle of champagne only problem was a few weeks later she started to notice another notch on the same area turned out he hadn't gotten it all and she wasn't ago my colleague came to me and said Kevin would you mind looking after this patient for me I said Why you know the right thing to do as well as I do you haven't done anything wrong he said please just look after the station for me he was in Paris not know what he'd done by the conversation that he had by the over confidence so I performed a much more invasive surgery and had a very different conversation with a patient afterwards I said most likely got it all in your most likely good to go but this is the experiment that we're doing we're going to work together to find out if this surgery will work to get rid of your cancer the the basically you just told her like she would always need to be little uncertain yet we never know completely we have to be careful about coming across is as overly confident I mean patients respond very well to physicians who are brimming with confidence but if it doesn't work you know they're taking whatever pill and and whatever was is not getting better they're kind of banging their head against a wall and they say either I did something wrong or my physicians in eighty eight for the The Star to have incredible distrust of the process system and you're saying like acknowledge the room for error right for uncertainty with with patients absolutely absolutely you could either have a physician who's used car salesman or something who says don't pay attention to all these holes that are in our our abilities in our Our Knowledge Or you can have a physician that basically functions as a teacher as as a mentor in the process of going to this experience and an answer to standing next the patient and pointing out the holes this is what we don't know this is what we're yet to find out and I still think that we can acknowledge look I don't have a black and white answer for you because it doesn't exist the anybody who gives you a black and white answer is either bluffing or is making up some part of it the the almost twenty billion times each year a person walks into the doctor's office and that person becomes a patient you or someone you love will be that patient sometime very soon how you talk your doctors what will they tell you I have conversations with these patients with rare and deadly diseases conversations are terribly fraught fraught with horrible phrases like have bad news or there's nothing more we can do sometimes these conversations turn on a single word terminal silence can also be rather uncomfortable where the blanks are in medicine can be just as important as the words that we use these conversations what are the unknowns one of the experiments that are being done never forget the night I walked into one of my patients' rooms he was a boy diagnosed with a bone cancer a few days before it was almost midnight when I got to his room he was asleep but I found his mother reading by flashlight next to his bed turned out 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