Big Think's Top 25 +1 Videos


Mama, Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up To Deny Evolution

If adults want to deny evolution, sure. That’s fine. Whatever. But those adults better not make their kids follow in step because we as society need them to be better. Bill Nye, everyone's favorite Science Guy, explains the importance of promoting evolution education for America's future voters and lawmakers.

My Man, Sir Isaac Newton

Are you at least 26 years-old? If so, you are older than Isaac Newton was when he invented calculus... on a dare! (If you're younger than 26, better hurry up.) Big Think expert and overall cool guy Neil deGrasse Tyson explains why Newton is the greatest physicist who ever and likely will ever live.

Will Mankind Destroy Itself?

Theoretical physicist Michio Kaku sees two major trends today. One eventually leads to a multicultural, scientific, tolerant society that will expand beyond Earth in the name of human progress. The other trend leads to fundamentalism, monoculturalism, and -- eventually -- civilizational ruin. Whichever of these two trends wins out will determine the fate of mankind. No pressure, everyone.

Ricky Gervais on the Principles of Comedy

Comedy isn't just about making people laugh, says actor Ricky Gervais. It's about making people think. And while different forms of comedy require different approaches, the crux of any good performance will always be rhythm.

Reading the Bible (Or the Koran, Or the Torah) Will Make You an Atheist

Author and magician Penn Jillette was asked to leave his Christian youth group by a pastor who told his parents: "He's no longer learning about the Bible from me. He is now converting everyone in the class to atheism." The reason? Jillette did his homework and was turned off by the hostilities of the text. It can be intimidating to come out as an atheist, especially in a religious community. Jillette found that having "out" atheist role models helped him feel unalone.

Henry Rollins: The One Decision that Changed My Life Forever

Punk legend Henry Rollins describes the biggest turning point in his life: the moment he decided to leave his job as manager of a Häagen-Dazs store and eventually become the lead singer of Black Flag. It was the courage to take a risk, plus a whole lot of luck, that got Rollins to where he is today.

5 Programming Languages Everyone Should Know

Java is "heavyweight, verbose, and everyone loves to hate it," but programmer Larry Wall still thinks you should know it. In this video, he offers suggestions for people interested in learning languages, as well as suggestions for those significantly less invested in computer programming.

The Importance of Unbelief

If you assume there’s no afterlife, Stephen Fry says, you’ll likely have a fuller, more interesting "now" life. The actor and comedian details the positive influence philosophers have had on his life, as well as his journey of understanding both what he believes and why he believes it.

Why be happy when you could be interesting?

We don't really want what we think we desire, says philosopher Slavoj Žižek.

James Gleick on the Common Character Traits of Geniuses

This video is part of a series on female genius, in proud collaboration with 92Y's 7 Days of Genius Festival.


The personalities of Isaac Newton and Richard Feynman were, on one level, extremely different. Biographer and former New York Times reporter James Gleick says Newton was argumentative, had few friends, and likely died a virgin. Feynman, on the other hand, loved dancing and going to parties, and had many friends in the scientific community. But in regards to their working habits, both men were solitary and had the ability to concentrate with a sort of intensity that is hard for mortals to grasp. At bottom, Gleick says geniuses tend to have a yearning for solitude which, though fruitful for their professional work, made the task of daily living more burdensome.

The Importance of Doing Useless Things

From poetry and ballet to mathematics and being clever, life is laden with frivolous pursuits that hold no bearing on our ability to survive. Yet, insists Richard Dawkins, if it weren’t for the development of these impractical activities, we wouldn’t be here.

Why monogamy is ridiculous

Dan Savage: the idea that one instance of infidelity should ruin a relationship is a new—and misguided—notion.

Dan Harris: Hack Your Brain's Default Mode With Meditation

Dan Harris explains the neuroscience behind meditation, but reminds us that the ancient practice isn't magic and likely won't send one floating into the cosmic ooze. He predicts that the exercise will soon become regularly scheduled maintenance, as commonplace as brushing your teeth or eating your veggies. Harris, an ABC News correspondent, was turned on to mediation after a live, on-air panic attack. His latest book is 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works--A True Story.

How Intellectuals Betrayed the Poor

For 40 years academics were duped into idolizing the idea of unfettered markets, says Cornel West, and now our society is paying a terrible price.

Why Some Races Outperform Others

A psychologist explains the latest research into education disparity.

Why It's So Hard for Scientists to Believe in God

Some scientists see religion as a threat to the scientific method that should be resisted. But faith "is really asking a different set of questions," says Collins.

Why Facebook Isn't Free

Internet pioneer Jaron Lanier argues that free technologies like Facebook come with a hidden and heavy cost – the livelihoods of their consumers.

How to Tell if You’re a Writer

For John Irving, the need for a daily ration of solitude was his strongest "pre-writing" moment as a child.

Your Behavior Creates Your Gender

Nobody is born one gender or the other, says the philosopher. "We act and walk and speak and talk in ways that consolidate an impression of being a man or being a woman."

Are You a Liberal Snob? Take The Quiz

Charles Mrray designed this quiz to have a salutary effect on bringing to people’s attention the degree to which they live in a bubble that seals them off from an awful lot of their fellow American citizens.

Why You Should Watch Filth

John Waters defends the creation and consumption of obscene films, and recommends some of his personal favorites.

What Are You Worth? Getting Past Status Anxiety.

Writer Alain De Botton says that status anxiety is more pernicious and destructive than most of us can imagine, and recommends getting out of the game altogether.

Sheila Heen on the Psychology of Happiness and Feedback

Sheila Heen, a Partner at Triad Consulting Group and a lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School, explains the psychology behind feedback and criticism. Heen is co-author of "Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well."

Are You a Psychopath? Take the Test.

Psychologist Kevin Dutton presents the classic psychological test known as "the trolley problem" with a variation. Take the test and measure you response on the psychopathic spectrum.

Here's How to Catch a Liar, If You Really Want To

It’s very complex as to whether or not we really want to catch a liar. We think we do. What if we find out that both of our presidential candidates are lying? Then what do we do? I’m not saying they are; I never comment on anyone in office or running for office. Only after they’re out that they’re fair game. . . . Clinton said, "I didn’t have sex with that woman" and then gave her name. "That woman" is putting her at a distance from himself.

Why I Came Out at Age 81

As a teenager in the '40s, James Randi "would have gotten stoned" for being gay. But when he outed himself to the world in 2010, the reaction was "wonderful."

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  • A recently published study suggests that some welfare programs more than pay for themselves.
  • It is one of the first major reviews of welfare programs to measure so many by a single metric.
  • The findings will likely inform future welfare reform and encourage debate on how to grade success.

How do you decide if a government program is doing well? Do you look at how many people it helps? Do you consider its efficiency? Perhaps it has a particular gauge limited to its focus area that can be used? If you use that unique gauge, then how do you compare it to other programs?

The problem of how to properly review government programs and compare their outcomes has bedeviled analysts for years. In many cases, they'll consider a handful of programs with a particular metric while another person will review different programs using another one. One comprehensive review using a single, widely applicable, and easily compared benchmark was lacking.

That is exactly what one group out of Harvard aimed to create when they reviewed more than 100 major welfare programs with a single metric.

Welfare as an investment

The study, carried out by Nathaniel Hendren and Ben Sprung-Keyser of Harvard University, reviews 133 welfare programs through a single lens. The authors measured these programs' "Marginal Value of Public Funds" (MVPF), which is defined as the ratio of the recipients' willingness to pay for a program over its cost.

A program with an MVPF of one provides precisely as much in net benefits as it costs to deliver those benefits. For an illustration, imagine a program that hands someone a dollar. If getting that dollar doesn't alter their behavior, then the MVPF of that program is one. If it discourages them from working, then the program's cost goes up, as the program causes government tax revenues to fall in addition to costing money upfront. The MVPF goes below one in this case.

Lastly, it is possible that getting the dollar causes the recipient to further their education and get a job that pays more taxes in the future, lowering the cost of the program in the long run and raising the MVPF. The value ratio can even hit infinity when a program fully "pays for itself."

While these are only a few examples, many others exist, and they do work to show you that a high MVPF means that a program "pays for itself," a value of one indicates a program "breaks even," and a value below one shows a program costs more money than the direct cost of the benefits would suggest.

After determining the programs' costs using existing literature and the willingness to pay through statistical analysis, 133 programs focusing on social insurance, education and job training, tax and cash transfers, and in-kind transfers were analyzed. The results show that some programs turn a "profit" for the government, mainly when they are focused on children:
MVPF chart (by age of beneficiaries)

This figure shows the MVPF for a variety of polices alongside the typical age of the beneficiaries. Clearly, programs targeted at children have a higher payoff.

Nathaniel Hendren and Ben Sprung-Keyser

Programs like child health services and K-12 education spending have infinite MVPF values. The authors argue this is because the programs allow children to live healthier, more productive lives and earn more money, which enables them to pay more taxes later. Programs like the preschool initiatives examined don't manage to do this as well and have a lower "profit" rate despite having decent MVPF ratios.

On the other hand, things like tuition deductions for older adults don't make back the money they cost. This is likely for several reasons, not the least of which is that there is less time for the benefactor to pay the government back in taxes. Disability insurance was likewise "unprofitable," as those collecting it have a reduced need to work and pay less back in taxes.

What are the implications of all this?

Firstly, it shows that direct investments in children in a variety of areas generate very high MVPFs. Likewise, the above chart shows that a large number of the programs considered pay for themselves, particularly ones that "invest in human capital" by promoting education, health, or similar things. While programs that focus on adults tend to have lower MVPF values, this isn't a hard and fast rule.

It also shows us that very many programs don't "pay for themselves" or even go below an MVPF of one. However, this study and its authors do not suggest that we abolish programs like disability payments just because they don't turn a profit.

Different motivations exist behind various programs, and just because something doesn't pay for itself isn't a definitive reason to abolish it. The returns on investment for a welfare program are diverse and often challenging to reckon in terms of money gained or lost. The point of this study was merely to provide a comprehensive review of a wide range of programs from a single perspective, one of dollars and cents.

The authors suggest that this study can be used as a starting point for further analysis of other programs not necessarily related to welfare.

It can be difficult to measure the success or failure of a government program with how many metrics you have to choose from and how many different stakeholders there are fighting for their metric to be used. This study provides us a comprehensive look through one possible lens at how some of our largest welfare programs are doing.

As America debates whether we should expand or contract our welfare state, the findings of this study offer an essential insight into how much we spend and how much we gain from these programs.

  • When most of your life is spent doing one thing, it matters if that thing is unfulfilling or if it makes you unhappy. According to research, most people are not thrilled with their jobs. However, there are ways to find purpose in your work and to reduce the negative impact that the daily grind has on your mental health.
  • "The evidence is that about 70 percent of people are not engaged in what they do all day long, and about 18 percent of people are repulsed," London Business School professor Dan Cable says, calling the current state of work unhappiness an epidemic. In this video, he and other big thinkers consider what it means to find meaning in your work, discuss the parts of the brain that fuel creativity, and share strategies for reassessing your relationship to your job.
  • Author James Citrin offers a career triangle model that sees work as a balance of three forces: job satisfaction, money, and lifestyle. While it is possible to have all three, Citrin says that they are not always possible at the same time, especially not early on in your career.
  • A team of researchers found that Earth's vibrations were down 50 percent between March and May.
  • This is the quietest period of human-generated seismic noise in recorded history.
  • The researchers believe this helps distinguish between natural vibrations and human-created vibrations.

The planet's vibes are down.

That's the consensus from a team of researchers at six European institutions; the study was based at the Royal Observatory of Belgium. Their research, published in Science, found that human-linked vibrations around the planet dropped by 50 percent between March and May 2020—the quietest period of seismic noise since scientists began monitoring the Earth.

Seismometers were invented in China during the 2nd century, though today's version dates to the 1880s, when a team of British and Scottish engineers worked as foreign-government advisors in Japan. Today, we generally discuss seismic waves in terms of bombs, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions, though human activity, such as travel and industry, also produce such waves.

As the world slowed down during the pandemic—the researchers call it an "Anthropause"—travel and industry ground to a standstill. For the first time in recorded history, researchers were able to differentiate between natural seismic waves and those caused by humans. The drop was most noticeable in densely-populated urban areas, though even seismometers buried deep in remote areas, such as the Auckland Volcanic Field in New Zealand, picked up on the change.

Dr Stephen Hicks, a co-author from Imperial College London, comments on the importance of this research:

"Our study uniquely highlights just how much human activities impact the solid Earth, and could let us see more clearly than ever what differentiates human and natural noise."

Earth is quieter as coronavirus lockdowns reduce seismic vibration

The team investigated seismic data from a global network of 268 stations spread out across 117 countries. As lockdown measures in different regions began, they tracked the drop in vibrations. Singapore and New York City recorded some of the biggest drops, though even Germany's Black Forest—famous for its association with the Brothers Grimm fairy tales—went quieter than usual.

The researchers also relied on citizen-owned seismometers in Cornwall and Boston, which recorded a 20 percent reduction from relatively quiet stretches in these college towns, such as during school holidays.

The environmental impact of lockdown has been dramatic. Indian skylines are notoriously grey. This collection of photos shows how quickly nature recovers when humans limit travel and industry. Such photographs also make you wonder why we cannot control emissions to begin with, now that we know the stakes.

Lead author, Dr Thomas Lecocq, says their research could help seismologists suss out the difference between human-created vibrations and natural vibrations, potentially resulting in longer lead times when natural disasters are set to strike.

"With increasing urbanisation and growing global populations, more people will be living in geologically hazardous areas. It will therefore become more important than ever to differentiate between natural and human-caused noise so that we can 'listen in' and better monitor the ground movements beneath our feet. This study could help to kick-start this new field of study."

stray puppies

Stray puppies play in an abandoned, partially-completed cooling tower inside the exclusion zone at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant on August 18, 2017 near Chornobyl, Ukraine.

Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images

The Earth is much stronger than us; humans are its products. In his 2007 book, "The World Without Us," Alan Weisman details just how quickly nature recovers from our insults. Chernobyl offers a real-world example, while earthquakes caused by fracking-related wastewater injection in Oklahoma are evidence of how much damage human "vibrations" cause.

Weisman's poetic homage imagines a symbiotic relationship with nature. This relationship depends on our cooperation, however. Weisman knows we aren't long for this world, nor is this world long for this universe: in just five billion years, give or take, Earth will implode. We all live on borrowed time. How we live during that time defines our character.

While he strikes a hopeful tone, Weisman knows nature will eventually have her way with us.

"After we're gone, nature's revenge for our smug, mechanized superiority arrives waterborne. It starts with wood-frame construction, the most widely used residential building technique in the developed world. It begins on the roof, probably asphalt, or slate shingle, warranted to last two or three decades—but that warranty doesn't count around the chimney, where the first leak occurs."

The play-by-play of our demise continues, though Weisman offers plenty of proactive advice. The question is, will we be able to live up to it? Sadly, nothing in modern society hints at the possibility.

The only way we seem willing to pause our relentless pursuit of "progress" is when we're forced to do so, as in the current pandemic. The results, as the team in Belgium shows, are measurable. Whether or not we heed the call to slow our impact remains to be seen. Given precedent, it's unlikely, though as Weisman concludes, one can always dream.

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Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter, Facebook and Substack. His next book is "Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."

  • The fibula was originally discovered in 1989, though at the time scientists believed the damaged bone had been fractured.
  • After reanalyzing the bone, and comparing it with fibulas from a human and another dinosaur, a team of scientists confirmed that the dinosaur suffered from the bone cancer osteosarcoma.
  • The study shows how modern techniques can help scientists learn about the ancient origins of diseases.

An interdisciplinary team of scientists has confirmed for the first time that dinosaurs suffered from cancer.

The team made the discovery after reanalyzing a 76-million-year-old fibula, or lower leg bone, that belonged to a Centrosaurus apertus, a four-legged dinosaur that was as tall as a human and about 18 feet long. Paleontologists first discovered the fossilized fibula in 1989, in Alberta, Canada. They observed that the bone was damaged, but assumed it was due to a healing fracture.

After seeing the fossil at the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology in Alberta in 2017, David Evans, the James and Louise Temerty endowed chair of vertebrate paleontology at the Royal Ontario Museum, and his colleagues suspected the damage was caused by a malignant tumor.

"The cancerous bone is severely malformed, with a massive gnarly tumor larger than an apple in the middle of the bone," Evans told Gizmodo. "In fact, the top half of the bone is missing, and it may have broken in life due [to] the progress of the cancer."

Dinosaur fossil

Centrosaurus apertus fibula

Royal Ontario Museum

In the recent study, the team used a combination of techniques to analyze the fibula, including taking CT scans, casting the bone and studying thin slices of it under a microscope. The analysis suggested that the dinosaur likely suffered from osteosarcoma, a type of bone cancer that affects modern humans, typically young adults.

For further evidence, the team compared the damaged fibula to a healthy fibula from a dinosaur of the same species, and also to a fibula that belonged to a 19-year-old human who suffered from osteosarcoma. Both comparisons supported the osteosarcoma diagnosis.

Evans et al.

"The shin bone shows aggressive cancer at an advanced stage," Evans said in a press release. "The cancer would have had crippling effects on the individual and made it very vulnerable to the formidable tyrannosaur predators of the time."

"The fact that this plant-eating dinosaur lived in a large, protective herd may have allowed it to survive longer than it normally would have with such a devastating disease."

The fossilized fibula was originally unearthed in a bonebed alongside the remains of dozens of other Centrosaurus apertus, suggesting the dinosaur didn't die from cancer, but from a flood that swept it away with its herd.

Dinosaur fossil

Dinosaur fibula; the tumor mass is depicted in yellow.

Royal Ontario Museum/McMaster University

The new study highlights how modern techniques can help scientists learn more about the evolutionary origins of modern diseases, like cancer. It also shows that dinosaurs suffered through some of the same terrestrial afflictions humans face today.

"Dinosaurs can seem like mythical creatures, but they were living, breathing animals that suffered through horrible injuries and diseases," Evans said, "and this discovery certainly makes them more real and helps bring them to life in that respect."

UPDATE: Unfortunately, Malcolm Gladwell was not able to make the live stream due to scheduling issues. Fortunately, David Epstein was able to jump in at a moment's notice. We hope you enjoy this great yet unexpected episode of Big Think Live. Our thanks to David and Maria for helping us deliver a show, it is much appreciated.




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In this Big Think Live session, Malcolm Gladwell and host Maria Konnikova will explore the quirks of the human mind, the ins and outs of writing about psychology, and the nature of storytelling through the framework of Gladwell's podcast series Revisionist History and his latest book Talking to Strangers.

Ask your questions for Malcolm Gladwell during the audience Q&A!

Join the stream at 12 pm EDT on Tuesday, August 4.

STREAMING LINKS

Big Think Edge | YouTube | Facebook

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Malcolm Gladwell is the author of five New York Times bestsellers: The Tipping Point, Blink, Outliers, What the Dog Saw, and David and Goliath. His newest book, Talking to Strangers (2019), is a darker-than-usual look at the miscommunications and assumptions that occur when we interact with people we don't know, told through historical case studies like Sandra Bland, Bernie Madoff, and Adolf Hitler. Gladwell is also the co-founder of Pushkin Industries, an audio content company that produces the podcasts Revisionist History, which reconsiders things both overlooked and misunderstood, and Broken Record, where he, Rick Rubin, and Bruce Headlam interview musicians across a wide range of genres. Gladwell has been included in the TIME 100 Most Influential People list and touted as one of Foreign Policy's Top Global Thinkers.

Maria Konnikova is the author of two New York Times bestsellers: The Confidence Game and Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes. Her new book is The Biggest Bluff (June 2020). While researching The Biggest Bluff, journalist Konnikova became an international poker champion and the winner of over $300,000 in tournament earnings—and inadvertently turned into a professional poker player. She is a regular contributing writer for The New Yorker, and her writing has been featured in Best American Science and Nature Writing and has been translated into over twenty languages. Maria also hosts the podcast The Grift from Panoply Media, a show that explores con artists and the lives they ruin, and is currently a visiting fellow at NYU's School of Journalism. She graduated from Harvard University and received her PhD in psychology from Columbia University.