Improving our cognitive toolkit – The Edge Question 2011

Edge Question of the Year

Since 1999 the Edge Foundation, a think tank for science, society and technology, has been posing an annual question to its members who always return stunning answers. I already wanted to write about the Edge Foundation and its “third culture” movement in February when its founder John Brockman turned 70 (belated happy birthday) but I got distracted by the pretty images of the Wellcome Image Awards, so I am very happy to write about the answers to the Edge question of the year now (And hope to get back to the third culture in the future). True, the answers were published already in January but they still are a highlight of intellectual thoughts a few months later. This year’s question was:

What scientific concept would improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit?

brain image by [Marco…], toolkit image  by Neil T

Scientific concept

To first clarify the question, scientific is used in a very broad sense and means most reliable way of gaining knowledge about anything. A scientific concept thus may come from most any field and not just the natural sciences. The only condition it has to fulfill is that it has to be a “rigorous conceptual tool that may be summed up succinctly but has broad application to understanding the world”.

I simply loved reading through all these concepts and ideas, there are so many great thoughts combined on these pages that I just have to recommend them to everyone interested. Unfortunately I haven’t yet had the time to read all of them, but let me highlight some of my favourite responses. Already though, the list is too long to fit in a single post and I will split it over the next entries. Without further delay… here we go:

1 Einstein’s Blade in Ockham’s Razor

This science classic of course had to be mentioned by someone and indeed Kai Krause did. Simplified (no pun intended), Ockham’s Razor states that among equally strong competing hypotheses the one that makes fewer assumptions is generally the better one. Einstein on the other hand allegedly once said that “things should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler”. Important words in the razor are “simple” and “generally”: defining what is simpler is often very hard and  requires looking at things from different angles. And “generally” obviously says that the simpler hypothesis is of course not always the correct one. There are also examples (redundancy in biology) where Ockham’s razor (at least at first sight) does not apply and simplicity is sacrificed for robustness for example. Understanding Ockham’s Razor is a very useful tool in analytical thinking but as Einstein pointed out it needs to have its limits. The combination of both and to know to what extent to use them constitutes Krause’s answer.

2 A scientist’s daily tools

Many people suggested ways of experiment design that a good scientist works with every day but that do not find their way into everyday life, for example double blind controls (Richard Dawkins) or randomized control trials (Mark Henderson). Double blind experiments are experiments conducted while neither the experimenter nor the participants know what experimental group they belong to and the researcher team only finds out after all the data is collected. This is meant to eliminate placebo effects, observer bias and experimenter bias. A randomized control trial is a usually clinical trial in which participants are allocated to the different conditions tested in a random fashion and it is meant to eliminate allocation bias. Applying these two approaches to other studies might improve some of them considerably. Henderson also mentions that the self-critical culture of science would shine in other areas of life as well. Similarly, Howard Gardner mentioned Karl Popper and falsifiabilty. He reasons that everyone’s cognitive toolkit would improve by asking “How can I disprove my idea?” much more often. This is undeniably a great way of analyzing one’s own thoughts and is right at the heart of good science. Terrance Sejnowski is convinced that a better understanding of the powers of 10 would go a long way.

3 Shifting Baseline Syndrome

This is one everyone can relate to as it affects so many areas in life. Thinking long enough everyone can come up with one. Paul Kedrosky introduces it with the collapse of the Newfoundland fishing industry; a great one everyone has heard is the example of winters always having been this warm/cold. The shifting baseline syndrome says that different generations measure any significant change against what they are used to as being normal, which in turn may be a significant change against what previous generations deemed normal. And so on and so forth… Most natural sciences often have extensive records of observations dating back many years, many ecological sciences have not! Understanding the shifting baseline syndrome would lead to asking yourself “what is normal? How do we know it is normal?” much more often and hopefully to a stop in shifting the baselines continually and speaking on an ecological level: before it may be too late.

4 The Einstellung Effect

The Einstellung Effect, suggested by Evgeny Morozov, suggests that we often try to solve problems by comparing them to already known similar problems. We try to use approaches that have been successful in the past however there may be more appropriate methods to solve the problem at hand. This approach might be the best one when two problems are exactly alike, but how often does that happen in real life? This is a hard one to battle, after all switching to autopilot has worked so many times before, right? In addition, the more you know the more you feel you should be able to use all that knowledge for something, no? Forcing yourself to not fall into familiar and convenient patterns when being faced with something that looks similar to what you know can be very hard.  Morozov’s example for the Einstellung Effect is a chess player who tries to tackle similar problems with approaches that have worked before, but it is much wider applicable. In fact to almost anything, from tests in school over situations in sports to scenarios with more severe consequences like police crime fighting or international conflicts.

5 Path dependence

Similar to the previous two concepts this one also has to do with things from the past.  Path dependence in social and economical science explains how things that today seem absolutely normal happened because of a decision taken that made sense at that time. It is irrelevant whether this decision would still make sense today. Path dependence also says that the choices we have today are limited by the choices we made in our past. On the one hand it simply says that history matters. But it also implies that the here and now cannot be seen out of the context of the past and the future and that small decisions now can have a big influence in the future. Ever wondered why we are typing on a QWERTY keyboard for example? Find out in John McWhorter’s answer here. Being aware of path dependence and having a grasp of how much it affects our daily life would certainly enhance everyone’s cognitive toolkit. McWhorter would want to teach that to kids as early as possible.

This ends the first entry in the series about the Edge Question 2011. If you liked it, come back for more soon. It will be about things like open ideas, superorganisms and professional wrestling from people as illustrious as Jonah Lehrer or Daniel Kahnemann…



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