The first three talks this morning have been optimistic. We've heard about the promise of big data, we've heard about advances in emotions, and we've just heard from Fiery, who very cleverly managed to find a way to leave before I gave my remarks about how we're understanding something deep about human nature. There's a risk that my remarks are going to be understood as pessimistic but they're really not. My optimism is embodied in the notion that what we're doing here is important and we can do it better.
I really wanted to take this opportunity to have a chance to speak to the people here about what's been going on in some corners of psychology, mostly in areas like social psychology and decision-making. In fact, Danny Kahneman has chimed in on this discussion, which is really what some people thought about as a crisis in certain parts of psychology, which is that insofar as replication is a hallmark of what science is about, there's not a lot of it and what there is shows that things we thought were true maybe aren't; that's really bad. This is a great setting in which to talk about these things, and I want to talk about it in part from my experience in this because I started to come into contact with this in a way that I'll describe right now.
Robert Kurzban is an Associate Professor, University of Pennsylvania specializing in evolutionary psychology: Author, Why Everyone (Else) Is A Hypocrite.
I want to tell you about a problem that I have because it highlights a deep problem for the field of psychology. The problem is that every time I sit down to try to write a manuscript I end up eating Ben and Jerry's instead. I sit down and I really try to focus on what I'm doing and then a voice comes into my head and it says, "How about Ben and Jerry's? You deserve it. You've been working hard for almost ten minutes now." Before I know it, I'm on the way out the door.
This is a problem for psychology not, regrettably, because I was writing anything terribly important, but rather because it highlights a deep tension in a dual process theory of the mind. From one perspective my desire for Ben and Jerry's is the product of automatic or intuitive responses—literally gut feelings in this case—and then it's a controlled, effortful, deliberative process that tries to focus on the paper and put thoughts of Ben and Jerry's out of mind. On the other hand, it would truly be bizarre to say that when I went to Ben and Jerry's it was an automatic response. I mean, I have to go through a process of goal-oriented planning. I've got my shoes on, I've got to get out the door. There's a mismatch between the willpower perspective and the goal orientation perspective.
What I'm really interested in is the science of human emotion. In particular, what's captivated my field and my interest the most is trying to understand positive emotions. Not only the ways in which perhaps we think they're beneficial for us or confer some sort of adaptive value, but actually the ways in which they may signal dysfunction and may not actually, in all circumstances and in all intensities, be good for us.
Novelist Ian McEwan and theoretical physicist Nima Arkani-Hamed met at the Science Museum in London to mark the opening of the Large Hadron Collider exhibition. This is an edited extract of their conversation.
Nima Arkani-Hamed, Martha Kearney and Ian McEwan at London's Science Museum Photograph: Jennie Hills/Science Museum
DO THE TWO CULTURES STILL EXIST?
IAN McEWAN: That old, two-culture matter is still with us, ever since [CP] Snow promulgated it back in the 50s. It still is possible to be a flourishing, public intellectual with absolutely no reference to science but it's happening less and less. And I think it's less a change of any decision in the culture at large, just a social reality pressing in on us. And it's true that climate change forces us to at least get a smattering of some idea of what it is to predict systems that have more than two or three variables and whether this is even possible. The internet has created sites like John Brockman's wonderful edge.org, where it's possible for laymen to sit in on conversations between scientists. And when scientists have to address each other out of their specialisms they have to speak plain English, they have to abandon their jargons, and we're the beneficiaries of that.
NIMA ARKANI-HAMED: It's an asymmetry that doesn't really need to exist. Certainly many scientists are very appreciative of the arts. The essential gulf is one of language and especially in theoretical physics, the basic difficulty is that most people don't understand our language of mathematics which we use to describe everything we know about the universe. And so while I'm capable of listening to and intensely enjoying a Beethoven sonata or an Ian McEwan novel it can be more difficult for people in the arts to have some appreciation for what we do. But at a deeper level there's a commonality between certain parts of the arts and certain parts of the sciences. ... MORE
I'm going to talk to you today about a project that I've started in the last year or two. This type of thinking, this type of work, is going to be one of the challenges social science faces in the coming three, four, five, ten years. It's work exclusively with Jon Kleinberg. For those of you who don't know him, Jon is a computer scientist, one of the preeminent computer scientists. He's probably the smart one of the two of us, but I'm the pretty one so it's better that I'm being taped.
This is work that starts with the following observation that lots of people have had, so it will be trite to start with but we just have to live with that. The observation is that data sets are getting bigger, and bigger, and bigger in a fundamental way. As the size of data grows, what does this imply for social science? For how we conduct the business of science?
In July, Edge invited a group of social scientists to participate in an experimental project, a dry run for a possible annual Edge event focusing on the state of the art of what the social sciences have to tell us about human nature. For want of something more serious, I called it "The Head Conference" or "HeadCon". This is not a subject that's new to me ...
Out-take from the trailer I made for the 1968 movie "Head" (Columbia Pictures; Directed by Bob Rafelson; Written by Jack Nicholson)
I asked the participants the following:
"What's new in your field of social science in the last year or two, and why should I care? Why do I want or need to know about it? How does it change my view of human nature?"
I asked them to focus broadly and address the major developments in their field (including but not limited to their own research agenda). My goal was to get new, fresh, and original up-to-date field reports on different areas of social science.
HeadCon '13, is the beginning of an experiment in online video designed to capture the dynamic of an Edge event, focusing on the interaction of ideas, and of people. We recruited Film Director Jason Wishnow, Director of Film and Video at TED from 2006- 20012 (co-creator of TED Talks) to help us develop this new iteration of EdgeVideo. Wishnow filmed the ten sessions in split-screen with five cameras, presenting each speaker and the surrounding participants from multiple simultaneous camera perspectives.
We are rolling out the project, consisting of nearly six hours of EdgeVideo and a 58,000-word transcript, one talk at a time, on consecutive Mondays (with a holiday break), beginning Monday, November 11th.
November 11th Sendhil Mullainathan: "What Big Data Means For Social Science"
November 18th June Gruber: "The Scientific Study of Positive Emotion"
November 25th Fiery Cushman: "The Paradox of Automatic Planning"
December 2nd Rob Kurzban: "P-Hacking and the Replication Crisis"
December 9th Nicholas Christakis: "The Science of Social Connections"
December 16th Joshua Greene: "The Role of Brain Imaging In Social Science"
January 20th Laurie Santos: "What Makes Humans Unique"
January 27th Joshua Knobe: "Experimental Philosophy and the Notion of the Self"
February 3rd David Pizarro: "The Failure of Social and Moral Intuitions"
February 10th Daniel C. Dennett: "The De-Darwinizing of Cultural Change"
The great biologist Ernst Mayr (the "Darwin of the 20th Century") once said to me: "Edge is a conversation." And like any conversation, it is evolving. And what a conversation it is!
Interesting news this week from Nature Climate Change which published a study by Jennifer Jacquet (Edge's Roving Editor!) and her colleagues at two Max Planck Institutes, Kristin Hagel, Christoph Hauert, Jochem Marotzke, Torsten Röhl and Manfred Milinski. The study, designed by Jacquet, who is Clinical Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies at NYU sparked global press coverage which included articles in Time, Der Spiegel, and a 5-minute segment on Fareed Zakaria's GPS national news program on CNN on "Why in the world can't the world get consensus on climate change?" Harvard psycholgist Steven Pinker noted that the paper is "an insightful analysis of why it's so hard to come to grips with climate change." Special thanks to Rory Hawlett, Chief Editor of Nature Climate Change for opening the paywall for one month—until the end of November—to allow public access to the paper. And a tip of the hat to Nature Editor-in-Chief and Edge contributor, Philip Campbell for his continued interest and support.
JENNIFER JACQUET is Clinical Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies, NYU, researching shame, cooperation and the tragedy of the commons. She is also Edge's Roving Editor (see interviews with Adam Alter and Joseph Heinrich).
THE REALITY CLUB: Freeman Dyson, Lee Smolin
DELAYED GRATIFICATION HURTS CLIMATE CHANGE COOPERATION
[JENNIFER JACQUET:] My colleagues from UBC, the Max-Planck-Institute for Evolutionary Biology, and the Max-Planck-Institute for Meteorology, and I published a study this week in Nature Climate Change where we show that when the rewards of cooperation are delayed, cooperation significantly declines. We used a 6-player collective risk game—a variant on the threshold public-goods experiment, which requires a minimal investment into the common pool (in our case 120 Euros) for the public good to be provided (in our case, an additional 45 Euros each). No single player is capable of ensuring the group's success, and a majority of players who donate nothing guarantees that the target cannot be met. As an environmental scientist interested in large-scale social dilemmas, like overfishing and climate change, this set-up is perfect to explore some of the nuances of cooperation.
Every year, intellectual impresario and Edge editor John Brockman summons some of our eras greatest thinkers and unleashes them on one provocative question, whether its the single most elegant theory of how the world works or the best way to enhance our cognitive toolkit. This year, he sets out on the most ambitious quest yet, a meta-exploration of thought itself: Thinking: The New Science of Decision-Making, Problem-Solving, and Prediction (public library) collects short essays and lecture adaptations from such celebrated and wide-ranging (though not in gender) minds as Daniel Dennett, Jonathan Haidt, Dan Gilbert, andTimothy Wilson, covering subjects as diverse as morality, essentialism, and the adolescent brain.
Thinking is excellent and mind-expanding in its entirety. Complement it with Brockman's This Will Make You Smarter: New Scientific Concepts to Improve Your Thinking, one of the best psychology books of 2012.
"For ... readers interested in keeping up with what serious thinkers are thinking about thinking, this book offers nourishing food for thought". —Kirkus Reviews
Contributors: Daniel C. Dennett, Philip Tetlock, Gerd Gigerenzer, Daniel Gilbert, Vilayanur Ramacahndran. Timothy D. Wilson, Sarah-Jane Blakemore, Bruce Hood, Simon Baron-Cohen, Gary Klein, Simon Schnall, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Alva Noë, Daniel L. Everett, Jonathan Haidt, Joshua Greene, Sam Harris, Roy Baumeister, Paul Bloo, Daivd Pizarro, Joshua Knobe, Daniel Kahneman