Author Topic: "What scientific concept would improve everyone's cognitive toolkit?"  (Read 2779 times)

ZeaLitY

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This link is so interesting that I'm making its own thread:

http://www.edge.org/q2011/q11_index.html

A ton of scientists were asked this very question, and offered a lot of fascinating ideas. It all starts on page one:

http://www.edge.org/q2011/q11_2.html

tushantin

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Re: "What scientific concept would improve everyone's cognitive toolkit?"
« Reply #1 on: February 08, 2011, 11:10:18 am »
Purtty interestin! *bookmarks*

hiddensquire

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Re: "What scientific concept would improve everyone's cognitive toolkit?"
« Reply #2 on: February 09, 2011, 01:01:14 pm »
Ugh... over 150 authors.  Someone should take one for the team and go through them all, making a list of the authors that are really worth reading.

ZeaLitY

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Re: "What scientific concept would improve everyone's cognitive toolkit?"
« Reply #3 on: February 10, 2011, 07:28:44 pm »
I'm going to collect my favorites and post them here.

ZeaLitY

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Re: "What scientific concept would improve everyone's cognitive toolkit?"
« Reply #4 on: February 14, 2011, 02:42:21 am »
One a day. Discussion welcome and invited. First one:

Quote
DONALD HOFFMAN
Cognitive Scientist, UC, Irvine; Author, Visual Intelligence

Sensory Desktop

Our perceptions are neither true nor false. Instead, our perceptions of space and time and objects, the fragrance of a rose, the tartness of a lemon, are all a part of our "sensory desktop," which functions much like a computer desktop.

Graphical desktops for personal computers have existed for about three decades. Yet they are now such an integral part of daily life that we might easily overlook a useful concept that they embody. A graphical desktop is a guide to adaptive behavior. Computers are notoriously complex devices, more complex than most of us care to learn. The colors, shapes and locations of icons on a desktop shield us from the computer's complexity, and yet they allow us to harness its power by appropriately informing our behaviors, such as mouse movements and button clicks, that open, delete and otherwise manipulate files. In this way, a graphical desktop is a guide to adaptive behavior.

Graphical desktops make it easier to grasp the idea that guiding adaptive behavior is different than reporting truth. A red icon on a desktop does not report the true color of the file it represents. Indeed, a file has no color. Instead, the red color guides adaptive behavior, perhaps by signaling the relative importance or recent updating of the file. The graphical desktop guides useful behavior, and hides what is true but not useful. The complex truth about the computer's logic gates and magnetic fields is, for the purposes of most users, of no use.

Graphical desktops thus make it easier to grasp the nontrivial difference between utility and truth. Utility drives evolution by natural selection. Grasping the distinction between utility and truth is therefore critical to understanding a major force that shapes our bodies, minds and sensory experiences.

Consider, for instance, facial attractiveness. When we glance at a face we get an immediate feeling of its attractiveness, a feeling that usually falls somewhere between hot and not. That feeling can inspire poetry, evoke disgust, or launch a thousand ships. It certainly influences dating and mating. Research in evolutionary psychology suggests that this feeling of attractiveness is a guide to adaptive behavior. The behavior is mating, and the initial feeling of attractiveness towards a person is an adaptive guide because it correlates with the likelihood that mating with that person will lead to successful offspring.

Just as red does not report the true color of a file, so hotness does not report the true feeling of attractiveness of a face: Files have no intrinsic color, faces have no intrinsic feeling of attractiveness. The color of an icon is an artificial convention to represent aspects of the utility of a colorless file. The initial feeling of attractiveness is an artificial convention to represent mate utility.

The phenomenon of synesthesia can help to understand the conventional nature of our sensory experiences. In many cases of synesthesia, a stimulus that is normally experienced in one way, say as a sound, is also automatically experienced in another way, say as a color. Someone with sound-color synesthesia sees colors and simple shapes whenever they hear a sound. The same sound always occurs with the same colors and shapes. Someone with taste-touch synesthesia feels touch sensations in their hands every time they taste something with their mouth. The same taste always occurs with the same feeling of touch in their hands. The particular connections between sound and color that one sound-color synesthete experiences typically differ from the connections experienced by another such synesthete. In this sense, the connections are an arbitrary convention. Now imagine a sound-color synesthete who no longer has sound experiences to acoustic stimuli, and instead has only their synesthetic color experiences. Then this synesthete would only experience as colors what the rest of us experience as sounds. In principle they could get all the acoustic information the rest of us get, only in a color format rather than a sound format.

This leads to the concept of a sensory desktop. Our sensory experiences, such as vision, sound, taste and touch, can all be thought of as sensory desktops that have evolved to guide adaptive behavior, not to report objective truths. As a result, we should take our sensory experiences seriously. If something tastes putrid, we probably shouldn't eat it. If it sounds like a rattlesnake, we probably should avoid it. Our sensory experiences have been shaped by natural selection to guide such adaptive behaviors.

We must take our sensory experiences seriously, but not literally. This is one place where the concept of a sensory desktop is helpful. We take the icons on a graphical desktop seriously; we won't, for instance, carelessly drag an icon to the trash, for fear of losing a valuable file. But we don't take the colors, shapes or locations of the icons literally. They are not there to resemble the truth. They are there to facilitate useful behaviors.

Sensory desktops differ across species. A face that could launch a thousand ships probably has no attraction to a macaque monkey. The rotting carrion that tastes putrid to me might taste like a delicacy to a vulture. My taste experience guides behaviors appropriate for me: Eating rotten carrion could kill me. The vulture's taste experience guides behaviors appropriate to it: Carrion is its primary food source.

Much of evolution by natural selection can be understood as an arms race between competing sensory desktops. Mimicry and camouflage exploit limitations in the sensory desktops of predators and prey. A mutation that alters a sensory desktop to reduce such exploitation conveys a selective advantage. This cycle of exploiting and revising sensory desktops is a creative engine of evolution.

On a personal level, the concept of a sensory desktop can enhance our cognitive toolkit by refining our attitude towards our own perceptions. It is common to assume that the way I see the world is, at least in part, the way it really is. Because, for instance, I experience a world of space and time and objects, it is common to assume that these experiences are, or at least resemble, objective truths. The concept of a sensory desktop reframes all this. It loosens the grip of sensory experiences on the imagination. Space, time and objects might just be aspects of a sensory desktop that is specific to Homo sapiens. They might not be deep insights into objective truths, just convenient conventions that have evolved to allow us to survive in our niche. Our desktop is just a desktop.

hiddensquire

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Re: "What scientific concept would improve everyone's cognitive toolkit?"
« Reply #5 on: February 14, 2011, 05:16:14 pm »
Creating an imaginary distinction between utility and truth goes against everything I believe in.  The fact is, information has no utility if there is no truth to it.  A more accurate distinction would be between truth that is useful and truth that is not.  Other than that, this man is simply stating what is obvious: our senses are not 100% objective.  I like to think that most people are already aware of this and adapt their modes of thinking to compensate for it the best they can.

Thought

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Re: "What scientific concept would improve everyone's cognitive toolkit?"
« Reply #6 on: February 14, 2011, 05:44:25 pm »
Actually, Squire, I think his main point was

Quote
DONALD HOFFMAN
On a personal level, the concept of a sensory desktop can enhance our cognitive toolkit by refining our attitude towards our own perceptions. It is common to assume that the way I see the world is, at least in part, the way it really is.

We see this quite often in the political and religious spheres where individuals cannot imagine that others might legitimately perceive the world differently than they do. Because individuals see their own perception as reflective of truth, opposing perceptions must therefore be not-reflective of truth and therefore vile.

To be fair, Hoffman seems a little taken by his own metaphor and conflates descriptors as truths (computer files aside, to call a red ball red isn't a statement of truth but rather of fact), but there is at least a kernel of usefulness in his statements.

ZeaLitY

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Re: "What scientific concept would improve everyone's cognitive toolkit?"
« Reply #7 on: February 15, 2011, 02:48:31 am »
Quote
DANIEL KAHNEMAN
Psychologist, Princeton; Recipient, 2002 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences

Focusing Illusion

"Nothing In Life Is As Important As You Think It Is, While You Are Thinking About It"

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.

Income is an important determinant of people's satisfaction with their lives, but it is far less important than most people think. If everyone had the same income, the differences among people in life satisfaction would be reduced by less than 5%.

Income is even less important as a determinant of emotional happiness. Winning the lottery is a happy event, but the elation does not last. On average, individuals with high income are in a better mood than people with lower income, but the difference is about 1/3 as large as most people expect. When you think of rich and poor people, your thoughts are inevitably focused on circumstances in which their income is important. But happiness depends on other factors more than it depends on income.

Paraplegics are often unhappy, but they are not unhappy all the time because they spend most of the time experiencing and thinking about other things than their disability. When we think of what it is like to be a paraplegic, or blind, or a lottery winner, or a resident of California we focus on the distinctive aspects of each of these conditions. The mismatch in the allocation of attention between thinking about a life condition and actually living it is the cause of the focusing illusion.

Marketers exploit the focusing illusion. When people are induced to believe that they "must have" a good, they greatly exaggerate the difference that the good will make to the quality of their life. The focusing illusion is greater for some goods than for others, depending on the extent to which the goods attract continued attention over time. The focusing illusion is likely to be more significant for leather car seats than for books on tape.

Politicians are almost as good as marketers in causing people to exaggerate the importance of issues on which their attention is focused. People can be made to believe that school uniforms will significantly improve educational outcomes, or that health care reform will hugely change the quality of life in the United States — either for the better or for the worse. Health care reform will make a difference, but the difference will be smaller than it appears when you focus on it.

hiddensquire

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Re: "What scientific concept would improve everyone's cognitive toolkit?"
« Reply #8 on: February 15, 2011, 11:21:16 am »
Well now, this person makes a few interesting claims that I would love to see backed up with some data.  In particular, the claims that involve a percentage or proportion.  But I don't want to know badly enough to go digging through a bunch of research papers to find it.  I find myself wanting to believe it... which leads me to suspect there may be a bias in the sampling of data.

Syna

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Re: "What scientific concept would improve everyone's cognitive toolkit?"
« Reply #9 on: February 15, 2011, 04:55:52 pm »
This is awesome and quite enlightening! Hurray!

Creating an imaginary distinction between utility and truth goes against everything I believe in.  The fact is, information has no utility if there is no truth to it.  A more accurate distinction would be between truth that is useful and truth that is not.  Other than that, this man is simply stating what is obvious: our senses are not 100% objective.  I like to think that most people are already aware of this and adapt their modes of thinking to compensate for it the best they can.

I would suggest that his major point is more along the lines of well, objectivity is extremely complex and we are experiencing it in certain ways that are useful for us than our senses are faulty, however. The whole notion of a mind/body or mind/world division is outdated; we're not just passive observers who sometimes get it right and sometimes don't. He deliberately avoids framing the question in terms of truth vs untruth.

Quote
Income is even less important as a determinant of emotional happiness. Winning the lottery is a happy event, but the elation does not last. On average, individuals with high income are in a better mood than people with lower income, but the difference is about 1/3 as large as most people expect. When you think of rich and poor people, your thoughts are inevitably focused on circumstances in which their income is important. But happiness depends on other factors more than it depends on income.
 

I've seen a study that dovetails with this conclusion nicely. Basically, it was "money can't bring you happiness, but poverty sure can." The psychologist said that basically for families below 60,000, money did correlate with happiness, but after 60,000, it makes no difference at all. "I've never seen a line that straight," he said.

Interesting. I've seen things that contradict his statement about education, but it's good to hear a balancing opinion to the usual "education is essential" rhetoric.
« Last Edit: February 15, 2011, 05:01:31 pm by Syna »

ZeaLitY

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Re: "What scientific concept would improve everyone's cognitive toolkit?"
« Reply #10 on: February 16, 2011, 12:59:06 am »
Quote
RICHARD THALER
The Father of Behavioral Economics; Director, Center for Decision Research at the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business; Coauthor, Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness

Aether

I recently posted a question in this space asking people to name their favorite example of a wrong scientific belief. One of my favorite answers came from Clay Shirky. Here is an excerpt:

"The existence of ether, the medium through which light (was thought to) travel. It was believed to be true by analogy — waves propagate through water, and sound waves propagate through air, so light must propagate through X, and the name of this particular X was ether."

It's also my favorite because it illustrates how hard it is to accumulate evidence for deciding something doesn't exist. Ether was both required by 19th century theories and undetectable by 19th century apparatus, so it accumulated a raft of negative characteristics: it was odorless, colorless, inert, and so on.

Several other entries (such as the "force of gravity") shared the primary function of ether: they were convenient fictions that were able to "explain" some otherwise ornery facts. Consider this quote from Max Pettenkofer, the German chemist and physician, is disputing the role of bacteria as a cause of the cholera. "Germs are of no account in cholera! The important thing is the disposition of the individual."

So in answer to the current question I am proposing that we now change the usage of the word Aether, using the old spelling, since there is no need for a term that refers to something that does not exist. Instead, I suggest we use that term to describe the role of any free parameter used in a similar way: that is, Aether is the thing that makes my theory work. Replace the word disposition with Aether in Pettenkofer's sentence above to see how it works.

Often Aetherists (theorists who rely on an Aether variable) think that their use of the Aether concept renders the theory untestable. This belief is often justified during their lifetimes, but then along comes clever empiricists such as Michelson and Morley and last year's tautology become this year's example of a wrong theory.

Aether variables are extremely common in my own field of economics. Utility is the thing you must be maximizing in order to render your choice rational.

Both risk and risk aversion are concepts that were once well defined, but are now in danger of becoming Aetherized. Stocks that earn surprisingly high returns are labeled as risky, because in the theory, excess returns must be accompanied by higher risk. If, inconveniently, the traditional measures of risk such as variance or covariance with the market are not high, then the Aetherists tell us there must be some other risk; we just don't know what it is.

Similarly, traditionally the concept of risk aversion was taken to be a primitive; each person had a parameter, gamma, that measured her degree of risk aversion. Now risk aversion is allowed to be time varying, and Aetherists can say with a straight face that the market crashes of 2001 and 2008 were caused by sudden increases in risk aversion. (Note the direction of the causation. Stocks fell because risk aversion spiked, not vice versa.)

So, the next time you are confronted with such a theory, I suggest substituting the word Aether for the offending concept. Personally, I am planning to refer to the time-varying variety of risk aversion as Aether aversion.

hiddensquire

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Re: "What scientific concept would improve everyone's cognitive toolkit?"
« Reply #11 on: February 16, 2011, 11:24:30 am »
I like this one.

I would also hypothesize that all aether variables make for excellent additions to the steampunk genre.

ZeaLitY

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Re: "What scientific concept would improve everyone's cognitive toolkit?"
« Reply #12 on: February 17, 2011, 01:18:21 am »
Quote
BRIAN ENO
Artist; Composer; Recording Producer: U2, Cold Play, Talking Heads, Paul Simon; Recording Artist; Author, A Year With Swollen Appendices

Ecology

That idea, or bundle of ideas, seems to me the most important revolution in general thinking in the last 150 years. It has given us a whole new sense of who we are, where we fit, and how things work. It has made commonplace and intuitive a type of perception that used to be the province of mystics — the sense of wholeness and interconnectedness.

Beginning with Copernicus, our picture of a semi-divine humankind perfectly located at the centre of The Universe began to falter: we discovered that we live on a small planet circling a medium sized star at the edge of an average galaxy. And then, following Darwin, we stopped being able to locate ourselves at the centre of life. Darwin gave us a matrix upon which we could locate life in all its forms: and the shocking news was that we weren't at the centre of that either — just another species in the innumerable panoply of species, inseparably woven into the whole fabric (and not an indispensable part of it either). We have been cut down to size, but at the same time we have discovered ourselves to be part of the most unimaginably vast and beautiful drama called Life.

Before ''ecology'' we understood the world in the metaphor of a pyramid — a heirarchy with God at the top, Man a close second and, sharply separated, a vast mass of life and matter beneath. In that model, information and intelligence flowed in one direction only — from the intelligent top to the ''base'' bottom — and, as masters of the universe, we felt no misgivings exploiting the lower reaches of the pyramid.

The ecological vision has changed that: we now increasingly view life as a profoundly complex weblike system, with information running in all directions, and instead of a single heirarchy we see an infinity of nested-together and co-dependent heirarchies — and the complexity of all this is such to be in and of itself creative. We no longer need the idea of a superior intelligence outside of the system — the dense field of intersecting intelligences is fertile enough to account for all the incredible beauty of ''creation''.

The ''ecological'' view isn't confined to the organic world. Along with it comes a new understanding of how intelligence itself comes into being. The classical picture saw Great Men with Great Ideas...but now we tend to think more in terms of fertile circumstances where uncountable numbers of minds contribute to a river of innovation. It doesn't mean we cease to admire the most conspicuous of these — but that we understand them as effects as much as causes. This has ramifications for the way we think about societal design, about crime and conflict, education, culture and science.

That in turn leads to a re-evaluation of the various actors in the human drama. When we realise that the cleaners and the bus drivers and the primary school teachers are as much a part of the story as the professors and the celebrities, we will start to accord them the respect they deserve.

ZeaLitY

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Re: "What scientific concept would improve everyone's cognitive toolkit?"
« Reply #13 on: February 19, 2011, 04:54:16 pm »
Quote
RICHARD DAWKINS
Evolutionary Zoologist, University of Oxford. Author, The Blind Watchmaker; The Greatest Show on Earth

The Double-Blind Control Experiment

Not all concepts wielded by professional scientists would improve everybody's cognitive toolkit. We are here not looking for tools with which research scientists might benefit their science. We are looking for tools to help non-scientists understand science better, and equip them to make better judgments throughout their lives.

Why do half of all Americans believe in ghosts, three quarters believe in angels, a third believe in astrology, three quarters believe in Hell? Why do a quarter of all Americans and believe that the President of the United States was born outside the country and is therefore ineligible to be President? Why do more than 40 percent of Americans think the universe began after the domestication of the dog?

Let's not give the defeatist answer and blame it all on stupidity. That's probably part of the story, but let's be optimistic and concentrate on something remediable: lack of training in how to think critically, and how to discount personal opinion, prejudice and anecdote, in favour of evidence. I believe that the double-blind control experiment does double duty. It is more than just an excellent research tool. It also has educational, didactic value in teaching people how to think critically. My thesis is that you needn't actually do double-blind control experiments in order to experience an improvement in your cognitive toolkit. You only need to understand the principle, grasp why it is necessary, and revel in its elegance.

If all schools taught their pupils how to do a double-blind control experiment, our cognitive toolkits would be improved in the following ways:

1. We would learn not to generalise from anecdotes.

2. We would learn how to assess the likelihood that an apparently important effect might have happened by chance alone.

3. We would learn how extremely difficult it is to eliminate subjective bias, and that subjective bias does not imply dishonesty or venality of any kind. This lesson goes deeper. It has the salutary effect of undermining respect for authority, and respect for personal opinion.

4. We would learn not to be seduced by homeopaths and other quacks and charlatans, who would consequently be put out of business.

5. We would learn critical and skeptical habits of thought more generally, which not only would improve our cognitive toolkit but might save the world.

ZeaLitY

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Re: "What scientific concept would improve everyone's cognitive toolkit?"
« Reply #14 on: December 17, 2011, 02:17:36 am »
Quote
MARTIN REES
President Emeritus, The Royal Society; Professor of Cosmology & Astrophysics; Master, Trinity College, University of Cambridge; Author, Our Final Century: The 50/50 Threat to Humanity's Survival

"Deep Time" And The Far Future

We need to extend our time-horizons. Especially, we need deeper and wider awareness that far more time lies ahead than has elapsed up till now.

Our present biosphere is the outcome of more than four billion years of evolution; and we can trace cosmic history right back to a "big bang" that happened about 13.7 billion years ago. The stupendous time-spans of the evolutionary past are now part of common culture and understanding — even though the concept may not yet have percolated all parts of Kansas, and Alaska.

But the immense time-horizons that stretch ahead — though familiar to every astronomer — haven't permeated our culture to the same extent. Our Sun is less than half way through its life. It formed 4.5 billion years ago, but it's got 6 billion more before the fuel runs out. It will then flare up, engulfing the inner planets and vaporising any life that might then remain on Earth. But even after the Sun's demise, the expanding universe will continue — perhaps for ever — destined to become ever colder, ever emptier. That, at least, is the best long range forecast that cosmologists can offer, though few would lay firm odds on what may happen beyond a few tens of billions of years.

Awareness of the "deep time" lying ahead is still not pervasive. Indeed, most people — and not only those for whom this view is enshrined in religious beliefs —envisage humans as in some sense the culmination of evolution. But no astronomer could believe this; on the contrary, it would be equally plausible to surmise that we are not even at the halfway stage. There is abundant time for posthuman evolution, here on Earth or far beyond, organic or inorganic, to give rise to far more diversity, and even greater qualitative changes, than those that have led from single-celled organisms to humans. Indeed this conclusion is strengthened when we realise that future evolution will proceed not on the million-year timescale characteristic of Darwinian selection, but at the much accelerated rate allowed by genetic modification and the advance of machine intelligence (and forced by the drastic environmental pressures that would confront any humans who were to construct habitats beyond the Earth.

Darwin himself realised that "No living species will preserve its unaltered likeness into a distant futurity". We now know that "futurity" extends far further, and alterations can occur far faster — than Darwin envisioned. And we know that the cosmos, through which life could spread, is far more extensive and varied than he envisaged. So humans are surely not the terminal branch of an evolutionary tree, but a species that emerged early in cosmic history, with special promise for diverse evolution. But this is not to diminish their status. We humans are entitled to feel uniquely important as the first known species with the power to mould its evolutionary legacy.