Cognitive toolbox


Each year the Edge foundation has a question. This years has been more interesting than most. I’ve been asking people about this for some time, hence the need to blog about it.
“What scientific concept would improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit?” Or, to paraphrase, how might people alter the way they interpret the information they take in about the world, to better comprehend it?
Dylan Evans of UCC answers the question with the fact that it has to be Economics 101. comparative advantage While I’m skeptical of some of the things that economists or what one author termed ‘policy entrepreneurs’ say in regards Economics. I do feel that learning some things about trade and how the world works would be beneficial to a number of people. For instance in recessions we do hear (sometimes from Family members or friends) an anti-immigration stance. Despite the fact that Immigration is generally good for an economy, i.e. it creates jobs, as opposed to something like off-shoring that decreases jobs. Tyler Cowen is one of my favorite writers on Economics issues. In the NYT he made the case for immigration: How immigrants create jobs
Returning to the question posed for ‘what should everybody add to their cognitive toolkit’ there is some ambiguity. Dawkins for instance replies the ‘double blind case study’. Dawkins clearly is replying to the fact that a sizable number of people believe in Angels and Ghosts.
Some of the answers are aimed at a philosophical level. In conversations with some of my friends one answer I got was similar to Gerard Holtons call for Skeptical Empiricism. A healthy dose of Skepticism is important in reacting to politicians, snake oil salesmen and the complexity of the world.
So what about the deeper answers, for those of us who understand the merits of experiments, proof in Mathematics, Statistics and free trade. Well the most head scratching answer I encountered was Nassim Talebs Anti-fragility comment. I’m still trying to work that one out….

The ‘short hand abstractions’ was coined by the great intelligence researcher James Flynn, and it is mentioned in the introduction to this fascinating article. Richard Nisbett a Cognitive Scientist refers to some graceful SHA’s . I’ve often wondered if the admonition that people should learn formal logic to improve reasoning is actually true. It seems to me that Probability and Statistics (long derided as boring subjects by A Level Maths students) is some of the best things you can add to your Cognitive Toolkit.

Garrett Lisi the surfer dude physicist, who works on Loop Quantum Gravity refers to Un-Calculated Risk referring to just how horrible we as human beings are at dealing with probability. I’m not sure what I feel about prediction markets, and Bayesian SHA’s though. However it is a thought provoking idea and perhaps then people would understand that certain things will kill them – for instance Heart Disease, Cancer whereas SARS won’t. Perhaps they also wouldn’t waste money on the Lottery which seems like me to be a ‘tax on stupidity’ or at the very least a lack of appreciation of probability theory.

As a Mathematician and Physicist, I’ve not got a lot of training in Biology, Neuroscience and such related subjects. However that doesn’t stop me wanting to learn more about them, and I was pleased to see the great Robert Sapolsky talk about things like genetic vulnerability, synergy (a dreadful word) but he ultimately talks about Anecdotal-ism or the lure of a great story. I believe this is related to our atrocious ability to handle probability. We hear of smoker who smokes to the age of 110 and then we think that the scientific consensus must be wrong. The public confusion over climate change (which I think is a pressing issue) and MMR vaccinations is definitely connected to the lure of a good story.
These are the collection of my favorite answers, and its exceedingly difficult to handle all of these cognitive tools all the time. We do after all have to get on with our lives.