A few months ago, Steven Pinker of Harvard asked a smart question: What scientific concept would improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit?
The good folks at Edge.org organized a symposium, and 164 thinkers contributed suggestions. John McWhorter, a linguist at Columbia University, wrote that people should be more aware of path dependence. This refers to the notion that often “something that seems normal or inevitable today began with a choice that made sense at a particular time in the past, but survived despite the eclipse of the justification for that choice.”
For instance, typewriters used to jam if people typed too fast, so the manufacturers designed a keyboard that would slow typists. We no longer have typewriters, but we are stuck with the letter arrangements of the qwerty keyboard.
Path dependence explains many linguistic patterns and mental categories, McWhorter continues. Many people worry about the way e-mail seems to degrade writing skills. But there is nothing about e-mail that forbids people from using the literary style of 19th-century letter writers. In the 1960s, language became less formal, and now anybody who uses the old manner is regarded as an eccentric.
Evgeny Morozov, the author of “The Net Delusion,” nominated the Einstellung Effect, the idea that we often try to solve problems by using solutions that worked in the past instead of looking at each situation on its own terms. This effect is especially powerful in foreign affairs, where each new conflict is viewed through the prism of Vietnam or Munich or the cold war or Iraq.
Daniel Kahneman of Princeton University writes about the Focusing Illusion, which holds that “nothing in life is as important as you think it is while you are thinking about it.” He continues: “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 percent. When you focus on education you neglect the myriad of other factors that determine income. The differences of income among people who have the same education are huge.”
Joshua Greene, a philosopher and neuroscientist at Harvard University, has a brilliant entry on Supervenience. Imagine a picture on a computer screen of a dog sitting in a rowboat. It can be described as a picture of a dog, but at a different level it can be described as an arrangement of pixels and colors. The relationship between the two levels is asymmetric. The same image can be displayed at different sizes with different pixels. The high-level properties (dogness) supervene the low-level properties (pixels).
Supervenience, Greene continues, helps explain things like the relationship between science and the humanities. Humanists fear that scientists are taking over their territory and trying to explain everything. But new discoveries about the brain don’t explain Macbeth. The products of the mind supervene the mechanisms of the brain. The humanities can be informed by the cognitive sciences even as they supervene them.
If I were presumptuous enough to nominate a few entries, I’d suggest the Fundamental Attribution Error: Don’t try to explain by character traits behavior that is better explained by context.
I’d also nominate the distinction between emotion and arousal. There’s a general assumption that emotional people are always flying off the handle. That’s not true. We would also say that Emily Dickinson was emotionally astute. As far as I know, she did not go around screaming all the time. It would be useful if we could distinguish between the emotionality of Dickinson and the arousal of the talk-show jock.
Public life would be vastly improved if people relied more on the concept of emergence. Many contributors to the Edge symposium hit on this point.
We often try to understand problems by taking apart and studying their constituent parts. But emergent problems can’t be understood this way. Emergent systems are ones in which many different elements interact. The pattern of interaction then produces a new element that is greater than the sum of the parts, which then exercises a top-down influence on the constituent elements.
Culture is an emergent system. A group of people establishes a pattern of interaction. And once that culture exists, it influences how the individuals in it behave. An economy is an emergent system. So is political polarization, rising health care costs and a bad marriage.
Emergent systems are bottom-up and top-down simultaneously. They have to be studied differently, as wholes and as nested networks of relationships. We still try to address problems like poverty and Islamic extremism by trying to tease out individual causes. We might make more headway if we thought emergently.
We’d certainly be better off if everyone sampled the fabulous Edge symposium, which, like the best in science, is modest and daring all at once.
This interesting David Brooks column in today'sNew 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 ‚Äî one of the most important ‚Äî 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.
...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. ...
[Google Translation:] ...In Milan on Tuesday, Matt Ridley will inaugurate an exhibition on art and science, a combination that is also a good strategy to try to overcome the old division between the "two cultures", the scientific and the humanistic. "The science is, from my point of view, one of the arts. The creation of knowledge through research that takes place is able to generate some of the most beautiful things, moving and fascinating: the theory of natural selection, the double helix of DNA; relativity. For me a great scientific idea is as exciting as it is a great work of literature or music. Science is not mere cataloging of facts: it is an exploration of what we know and the mystery that is inherent. Yes, I think it is vital to overcome the division between art and science. Both are part of the culture. "
Edge.org the founder of the New York literary agent John Brockman (who also is the author of What Are Your Optimistic About?), in this context refers to a "third culture".Brought together under this sign authors of scientific texts, such as Dawkins, Greene, Pinker, Dyson and many others, who know their views, interesting and deep, directly addressing a very wide audience, fueling debates that do not stop in the narrow circle of scientists, but are able to engage a non-specialist. Matt Ridley, of course, is one of them.
"I'm very lucky — says Ridley. That people want to read my books means that I can be paid time and energy spent in the exploration of ideas and scientific discoveries!I'm just a writer — not a real scientist — but good writing is useful for transferring ideas into life. Richard Dawkins makes him so extraordinary. It changed a whole field of science, that of evolutionary biology, giving it a perspective from the viewpoint of the gene. Dawkins has a talent for understanding what people do not know, and then nell'esporlo and explain it to everyone. Which is rare among scientists, who often fail to enter the mind of man of the street. "
Knowing full well that in Italy — but not only — there are many educated people who even hate science, Ridley I ask what are the best strategies for providing the people the perception that science is an integral part of culture. The answer is very laconic: "Give good science!"
[Google Translation:] During the last decades we have witnessed the emergence of a scientific art, known as the Third Culture, Media and marked nature aroused the interest of intellectuals of various kinds but all of them for science to be judge and jury in decisions of profound social and political depth. A tentatively argue that some of the collaborations and statements sympathetic to the Third Culture in the Spanish context help visualize a complex web of socio-political affinities and Evolutive thinking expansion.
The first manifestations of the Third Culture dating from the late fifties when CP Snow notices the gap between science and literature and the possibility of bridging. To see how this approach would make it was not until the nineties when a group of scientists from such diverse areas as biology, mathematics, physics, paleontology, cognitive science, computer science and psychology, decided to take by assault the land occupied by the letters considered. These initiatives included the editorial work of John Brockman , an artist interested in scientific progress who informative interviews with scientists together leading representatives of these disciplines in the book The Third Culture: Beyond the Scientific Revolution .
One of the background closer to the Third Culture in his attempt to pooling of different branches of knowledge we find in the cyber revolution. The ultimate ambition of cybernetics was to describe and predict the behavior of any system or anything, human or nonhuman. Despite his grandstanding behavior was interested primarily in "things" instead of his deepest nature.
The Third Culture goes beyond when it proposes to unravel the great enigmas of humanity, from the origin of life and the creation of the universe to an accurate and objective understanding of the mind or even the deepest meaning of our life. This self-proclaimed new natural philosophyraises the need to realize the complexity of the evolution of systems, whether organisms, brains, the biosphere or the universe itself. To achieve such an objective seeks to avoid middlemen and ally with the means to express their findings in a direct and accessible to the public.
Such is the importance of the Third Culture means that some science communicators as Javier Sampedro, in an interview granted to the journal Mètode in 2004, reported the error that is left in the hands of science other than science communicators themselves as -according to this regular contributor to the El Pais — hot topics such as human cloning, embryo research or genetically modified organisms "can not be left to scientists, politicians or scientists. Are matters on which society should act, and that needs to be properly informed. Science can not be understood if it is disclosed ".
In addition to the new power they claim for themselves the scientific writer, scientific advances from the Third Culture appear engaged in high dose of sensationalism. Their findings, to specialized and opaque they are, always have something to say about the way we live and behave. In fact the interest of the third culture issues in the general public would be unthinkable outside the growing desire to know who and how we are, why we do this or that, and equally inconceivable apart from the high importance afforded to the world of and how to regulate emotions. ...
John Brockman, a pioneer and tireless curator of the Third Culture, which links the digital world with natural science and social networks, is now 70
[Google Translation:] Brockman celebrates with his celebrity guests and friends in the New York restaurant Le Cirque, including Nobel laureates, Internet millionaires, best-selling authors and thinkers of our time threshold. ...
... As a globally successful book agent got Brockman for his mission, which many science writers such as the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, the neuroscience researcher Steven Pinker, or Internet sociologists Clay Shirky bestsellers and thus made to agenda setters. The critical thinkers organized intellectual salons, where he brings together about the Google and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, CEO of its authors, publishes books and operates edge.org the dominant medium of the digital elite, and the New Enlightenment. ...
...The Third Culture has announced the sovereignty debate, as Brockman wanted taken, but much more. It shapes and renews our reality in politics, economy, and for each individual — Wikileaks and the Twitter revolution in Tunisia and Egypt, the billions of reviews of Google and Facebook and the related debate about transparency and privacy rights, the opportunities for bio-research for cancer therapies or energy supply. Thus it has become the culture of our time and those who create it.John Brockman is its most important agent.