What Scientific Concept Would Improve Everyone's Cognitive Toolkit?

Recently The Edge published their annual Question, "What Scientific Concept Would Improve Everyone's Cognitive Toolkit?" which they posed to 164 people.

"The term 'scientific"is to be understood in a broad sense as the most reliable way of gaining knowledge about anything, whether it be the human spirit, the role of great people in history, or the structure of DNA. A "scientific concept" may come from philosophy, logic, economics, jurisprudence, or other analytic enterprises, as long as it is a rigorous conceptual tool that may be summed up succinctly (or "in a phrase") but has broad application to understanding the world."

Here are just a few excerpts that I think you might find interesting:

Sam Harris: We Are Lost In Thought
...Thinking is the substance of every social relationship and cultural institution we have. It is also the foundation of science. But our habitual identification with the flow of thought — that is, our failure to recognize thoughts as thoughts, as transient appearances in consciousness — is a primary source of human suffering and confusion. ...
...Our religions are clearly false, even if certain classically religious experiences are worth having. If we want to actually understand the mind, and overcome some of the most dangerous and enduring sources of conflict in our world, we must begin thinking about the full spectrum of human experience in the context of science.
But we must first realize that we are lost in thought.

P.Z. Myers: The Mediocrity Principle
...The mediocrity principle simply states that you aren't special. The universe does not revolve around you, this planet isn't privileged in any unique way, your country is not the perfect product of divine destiny, your existence isn't the product of directed, intentional fate, and that tuna sandwich you had for lunch was not plotting to give you indigestion. Most of what happens in the world is just a consequence of natural, universal laws — laws that apply everywhere and to everything, with no special exemptions or amplifications for your benefit — given variety by the input of chance.
...Our sun wasn't required to be where it is, with the luminosity it has — it just happens to be there, and our existence follows from this opportunity. Our species itself is partly shaped by the force of our environment through selection, and partly by fluctuations of chance. If humans had gone extinct 100,000 years ago, the world would go on turning, life would go on thriving, and some other species would be prospering in our place — and most likely not by following the same intelligence-driven technological path we did.

And if you understand the mediocrity principle, that's OK.

The reason this is so essential to science is that it's the beginning of understanding how we came to be here and how everything works. We look for general principles that apply to the universe as a whole first, and those explain much of the story; and then we look for the quirks and exceptions that led to the details. It's a strategy that succeeds and is useful in gaining a deeper knowledge. Starting with a presumption that a subject of interest represents a violation of the properties of the universe, that it was poofed uniquely into existence with a specific purpose, and that the conditions of its existence can no longer apply, means that you have leapt to an unfounded and unusual explanation with no legitimate reason. What the mediocrity principle tells us is that our state is not the product of intent, that the universe lacks both malice and benevolence, but that everything does follow rules — and that grasping those rules should be the goal of science.

Richard Dawkins: The Double Blind Control Experiment
...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 sceptical habits of thought more generally, which not only would improve our cognitive toolkit but might save the world.

Susan Blackmore: Correlation is Not A Cause
The phrase "correlation is not a cause" (CINAC) may be familiar to every scientist but has not found its way into everyday language, even though critical thinking and scientific understanding would improve if more people had this simple reminder in their mental toolkit. ...

...The point is that once you greet any new correlation with "CINAC" your imagination is let loose. Once you listen to every new science story Cinacally (which conveniently sounds like "cynically") you find yourself thinking: OK, if A doesn't cause B, could B cause A? Could something else cause them both or could they both be the same thing even though they don't appear to be? What's going on? Can I imagine other possibilities? Could I test them? Could I find out which is true? Then you can be critical of the science stories you hear. Then you are thinking like a scientist. ...

...The fourth possibility is that brain activity and conscious experiences are really the same thing, just as light turned out not to be caused by electromagnetic radiation but to be electromagnetic radiation, or heat turned out to be the movement of molecules in a fluid. At the moment we have no inkling of how consciousness could be brain activity but my guess is that it will turn out that way. Once we clear away some of our delusions about the nature of our own minds, we may finally see why there is no deep mystery and our conscious experiences simply are what is going on inside our brains. If this is right then there are no neural correlates of consciousness. But whether it is or not, remembering CINAC and working slowly from correlations to causes is likely to be how this mystery is finally solved.

Daniel C. Dennett: Cycles
Everybody knows about the familiar large-scale cycles of nature: day follows night follows day summer-fall-winter-spring-summer-fall-winter-spring, the water cycle of evaporation and precipitation that refills our lakes, scours our rivers and restores the water supply of every living thing on the planet. But not everybody appreciates how cycles — every spatial and temporal scale from the atomic to the astronomic — are quite literally the hidden spinning motors that power all the wonderful phenomena of nature. ...

...If we lapse into thinking of the pre-biotic, pre-reproductive world as a sort of featureless chaos of chemicals (like the scattered parts of the notorious jetliner assembled by a windstorm), the problem does look daunting and worse, but if we remind ourselves that the key process in evolution is cyclical repetition (of which genetic replication is just one highly refined and optimized instance), we can begin to see our way to turning the mystery into a puzzle: How did all those seasonal cycles, water cycles, geological cycles, and chemical cycles, spinning for millions of years, gradually accumulate the preconditions for giving birth to the biological cycles? Probably the first thousand "tries" were futile, near misses. But as Cole Porter says in his most sensual song, see what happens if you "do it again, and again, and again."

A good rule of thumb, then, when confronting the apparent magic of the world of life and mind is: look for the cycles that are doing all the hard work.

Rob Kurzban: Externalities
When I go about doing what I do, frequently I affect you as an incidental side effect. In many such cases, I don't have to pay you to compensate for any inadvertent harm done; symmetrically, you frequently don't have to pay me for any inadvertent benefits I've bestowed upon you. The term — externalities — refers to these cases, and they are pervasive and important because, especially in the modern, interconnected world, when I go about pursuing my own goals, I wind up affecting you in any number of different ways.

Externalities can be small or large, negative and positive. ...

...The key point is that the notion of externalities forces us to think about unintended (positive and negative) effects of actions, an issue that looms larger as the world gets smaller. It highlights the need to balance not only the intended costs and benefits of a given candidate policy, but also the unintended effects of the policy. Further, it helps focus attention on one type of solution to the problems of unintended harms, which is to think about using prices to provide incentives for people and firms to produce more positive externalities and fewer negative ones.
Considering externalities in our daily lives directs our attention to ways in which we harm, albeit inadvertently, the other people around us, and can be used to guide our own decision making, including waiting until after the credits have rolled to check our messages.

Steven Pinker: Positive-Sum Games
A zero-sum game is an interaction in which one party's gain equals the other party's loss — the sum of their gains and losses is zero. (More accurately, it is constant across all combinations of their courses of action.) Sports matches are quintessential examples of zero-sum games: winning isn't everything, it's the only thing, and nice guys finish last. A nonzero-sum game is an interaction in which some combinations of actions provide a net gain (positive-sum) or loss (negative sum) to the two of them. The trading of surpluses, as when herders and farmers exchange wool and milk for grain and fruit, is a quintessential example, as is the trading of favors, as when people take turns baby-sitting each others' children.

In a zero-sum game, a rational actor seeking the greatest gain for himself or herself will necessarily be seeking the maximum loss for the other actor. In a positive-sum game, a rational, self-interested actor may benefit the other guy with the same choice that benefits himself or herself. More colloquially, positive-sum games are called win-win situations, and are capture in the cliché "Everybody wins."

Once people are thrown together in an interaction, their choices don't determine whether they are in a zero- or nonzero-sum game; the game is a part of the world they live in. But people, by neglecting some of the options on the table, may perceive that they are in a zero-sum game when in fact they are in a nonzero-sum game. Moreover, they can change the world to make their interaction nonzero-sum. For these reasons, when people become consciously aware of the game-theoretic structure of their interaction (that is, whether it is positive-, negative-, or zero-sum), they can make choices that bring them valuable outcomes — like safety, harmony, and prosperity — without their having to become more virtuous, noble, or pure.

Granted, some human interactions really are zero-sum — competition for mates is a biologically salient example. And even in positive-sum games a party may pursue an individual advantage at the expense of joint welfare. But a full realization of the risks and costs of the game-theoretic structure of an interaction (particularly if it is repeated, so that the temptation to pursue an advantage in one round may be penalized when roles reverse in the next) can militate against various forms of short-sighted exploitation.

Has an increasing awareness of the zero- or nonzero-sumness of interactions in the decades since 1950 (whether referred to in those terms or not) actually led to increased peace and prosperity in the world? It's not implausible. International trade and membership in international organizations has soared in the decades that game-theoretic thinking has infiltrated popular discourse. And perhaps not coincidentally, the developed world has seen both spectacular economic growth and a historically unprecedented decline in several forms of institutionalized violence, such as war between great powers, war between wealthy states, genocides, and deadly ethnic riots. Since the 1990s these gifts have started to accrue to the developing world as well, in part because they have switched their foundational ideologies from ones that glorify zero-sum class and national struggle to ones that glorify positive-sum market cooperation. (All these claims can be documented from the literature in international studies.)

The enriching and pacifying effects of participation in positive-sum games long antedate the contemporary awareness of the concept. The biologists John Maynard Smith and Eörs Szathmáry have argued that an evolutionary dynamic which creates positive-sum games drove the major transitions in the history of life: the emergence of genes, chromosomes, bacteria, cells with nuclei, organisms, sexually reproducing organisms, and animal societies. In each transition, biological agents entered into larger wholes in which they specialized, exchanged benefits, and developed safeguards to prevent one from exploiting the rest to the detriment of the whole. The journalist Robert Wright sketched a similar arc in his book Nonzero and extended it to the deep history of human societies. An explicit recognition among literate people of the shorthand abstraction "positive-sum game" and its relatives may be extending a process in the world of human choices that has been operating in the natural world for billions of years.

Howard Gardner: "How Would You Disprove Your Viewpoint?!"
Thanks to Karl Popper, we have a simple and powerful tool: the phrase "How Would You Disprove Your Viewpoint?!"

In a democratic and demotic society like ours, the biggest challenge to scientific thinking is the tendency to embrace views on the basis of faith or of ideology. A majority of Americans doubt evolution because it goes against their religious teachings; and at least a sizeable minority are skeptical about global warming — or more precisely, the human contributions to global change — because efforts to counter climate change would tamper with the 'free market'.

Popper popularized the notion that a claim is scientific only to the extent that it can be disproved — and that science works through perpetual efforts to disprove claims.

If American citizens, or, for that matter, citizens anywhere were motivated to decribe the conditions under which they would relinquish their beliefs, they would begin to think scientifically. And if they admitted that empirical evidence would not change their minds, then at least they'd have indicated that their views have a religious or an ideological, rather than a scientific basis.

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