Edge 342 — May 3, 2011
The Third Culture
Last July, opening the Edge Seminar, "The New Science of Morality", Jonathan Haidt digressed to talk about two recently-published papers in Behavioral and Brain Sciences which he believed were "so important that the abstracts from them should be posted in psychology departments all over the country."
One of the papers "Why Do Humans Reason? Arguments for an Argumentative Theory," published by Behavioral and Brain Sciences, was by Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber.
"The article,” Haidt said, "is a review of a puzzle that has bedeviled researchers in cognitive psychology and social cognition for a long time. The puzzle is, why are humans so amazingly bad at reasoning in some contexts, and so amazingly good in others?"
"Reasoning was not designed to pursue the truth. Reasoning was designed by evolution to help us win arguments. That's why they call it The Argumentative Theory of Reasoning. So, as they put it, "The evidence reviewed here shows not only that reasoning falls quite short of reliably delivering rational beliefs and rational decisions. It may even be, in a variety of cases, detrimental to rationality. Reasoning can lead to poor outcomes, not because humans are bad at it, but because they systematically strive for arguments that justify their beliefs or their actions. This explains the confirmation bias, motivated reasoning, and reason-based choice, among other things."
"Now, the authors point out that we can and do re-use our reasoning abilities. We're sitting here at a conference. We're reasoning together. We can re-use our argumentative reasoning for other purposes. But even there, it shows the marks of its heritage. Even there, our thought processes tend towards confirmation of our own ideas. Science works very well as a social process, when we can come together and find flaws in each other's reasoning. We can't find the problems in our own reasoning very well. But, that's what other people are for, is to criticize us. And together, we hope the truth comes out."
Dan Sperber, an influential French social and cognitive scientist, is widely recognized as being among the most brilliant cognitive scientists writing about reason, language, culture, and human evolution. Hugo Mercier, his former student, is a post-doc at University of Pennsylvania and coauthor with Sperber of a number of papers.
Their Argumentative Theory has already generated much excitement in the academic community. Reaction — from heated rejection to enthusiastic acceptation — have never been indifferent. The paper has created a storm of interest and controversy and has has attracted attention well beyond academic circles. Sharon Begley (Newsweek) and Jonah Lehrer (Wired) were among the many journalists who wrote stories. In addition, many leading thinkers have taken note.
Gerd Gigerenzer finds this view on reasoning is most provocative as "reasoning is not about truth but about convincing others when trust alone is not enough. Doing so may seem irrational, but it is in fact social intelligence at its best." Steven Pinker notes that "The Argumentative Theory is original and provocative, has a large degree of support, and is strikingly relevant to contemporary affairs, including political discourse, higher education, and the nature of reason and rationality. It is likely to have a big impact on our understanding of ourselves and current affairs."
And Jonathan Haidt says the “the article is one of my favorite papers of the last ten years. I believe that they have solved one of the most important and longstanding puzzles in psychology: why are we so good at reasoning in some cases, but so hopelessly biased in others? Once I read their paper, I saw the argumentative function" of reasoning everywhere — particularly in the reasoning of people I disagreed with, but also occasionally even in myself. They're on to a very powerful idea with many social and educational ramifications."
THE ARGUMENTATIVE THEORY
[Mercier:] Dan Sperber came up with the argumentative theory because he was taking stock of what was happening in the world of psychology at large. A lot of people in psychology were accumulating evidence that the mind, and reasoning in particular, doesn't work so well. Reasoning produces a lot of mistakes. We are not very good in statistics, and we can't understand very basic logical problems.
We do all these irrational things, and despite mounting results, people are not really changing their basic assumption. They are not challenging the basic idea that reasoning is for individual purposes. The premise is that reasoning should help us make better decisions, get at better beliefs. And if you start from this premise, then it follows that reasoning should help us deal with logical problems and it should help us understand statistics. But reasoning doesn't do all these things, or it does all these things very, very poorly.
People have noticed that it's difficult to teach kids abstract topics like mathematics or physics. One method, the method that has maybe been the most effective at teaching kids these difficult topics has been corroborative learning. Over the last 30 years, education researchers have noticed that the best way to teach kids difficult or abstract problems is to put them in groups and to have them reason together about the topic. If you take a group of kids and you give them a problem to solve together, and you give them certain constraints, then you obtain a much, much deeper understanding than you would ever obtain if the kids were on their own. That is the first important practical consequence of our theory.
The theory fits in very well with the idea of deliberative democracy. In deliberative democracy, the idea is that people should argue with one another more often, and that instead of simply using voting as a way of aggregating opinion, people should instead be deliberating with one another, they should be discussing their ideas, they should be sharing their points of views and criticizing each other's point of view.
Dan took this idea further, in the direction of massive modularity, and he applied it quite successfully in a variety of domains. The basic idea of evolutionary psychology is to take the power of natural selection and evolutionary theory and apply it to the human mind. It has encountered a lot of resistance in the past, partly for political reasons, because people thought evolutionary psychology necessarily had to be on the right of the political spectrum and that there was a danger that by saying that too many things were innate, that you could, for instance, say that one race was inferior to another — or those sort of things.
But even if we discount these political attacks that might have been founded at some point (but are probably not anymore) there is one main attack against evolutionary psychology that remains— which is that evolutionary psychologists are mostly telling 'just-so' stories. The idea here is that they are just coming up with evolutionary theories of why something evolved, and you can't falsify them, and so they're not scientific.
That's what we did. We predicted that reasoning would work rather poorly when people reason on their own, and that is the case. We predicted that people would reason better when they reason in groups of people who disagree, and that is the case. We predicted that reasoning would have a confirmation bias, and that is the case.
And they never challenge that intuition. It's something that evolutionary psychology could have done a long time ago, and if people had perhaps taken more time and had taken evolutionary psychology more seriously, they might have been able to revise this likely faulty premise a while ago.
I already cited two of the many consequences for the argumentative theory — one for education and one for politics. But even in our personal lives it's quite important to keep in mind that when we're reasoning on our own, it's quite possible that we're going to arrive at false conclusions and misleading decisions. If you take a very intuitive example, let's say you have a quarrel with your partner and you go to brood over what happened in your room. And you keep thinking about why it was all his or her fault, and why you did everything that was possible to make things right, and you know it really has nothing to do with you. You find many, many reasons why you didn't do anything wrong, and it's all the other person's fault.
In our theory, what's important to keep in mind is that reasoning is used in a very technical sense. And sometimes not only laymen, but philosophers, and sometimes psychologists tend to use "reasoning" in an overly broad way, in which basically reasoning can mean anything you do with your mind.
By contrast, the way we use the term "reasoning" is very specific. And we're only referring to what reasoning is supposed to mean in the first place, when you're actually processing reasons. Most of the decisions we make, most of the inferences we make, we make without processing reasons. For instance, if you are going to cross the street and you see a car coming towards you, you don't have to reason and say well, because the car is coming towards me and because it's coming quite fast, maybe I had better not cross now. It comes up fairly spontaneously.
Or to take another example, when you're shopping for cereals at the supermarket, and you just grab a box of cereal not because you've reasoned through all the alternatives, but just because it's the one you always buy. And you're just doing the same thing. There is no reasoning involved in that decision.
By contrast, you can reason about the same choices. For instance, if once again you're back in the supermarket aisles, and you have to make the same choice, but this time you have to buy some chocolate spread and you never bought chocolate spread before, you're going to look at the different brands, you're going to look at the prices, you're going to look at their calorie content, and then you're going to reason through the tradeoffs, etc. And in that case, you're considering reasons why you should buy one chocolate spread and not the other.
And here you're using reasoning. It's only when you're considering reasons, reasons to do something, reasons to believe, that you're reasoning. If you're just coming up with ideas without reasons for these ideas, then you're using your intuitions.
We have been lucky enough that the main paper describing the theory was published in Behavioral and Brain Sciences, the main journal in cognitive science. The journal is perfect for presenting the theory, because it claims that people reason better when they reason together. And the journal 's format is such that the published paper is followed by commentaries by leading figures in the field, after which the authors have the opportunity to reply. We've had these very interesting exchanges with several important figures in the field, and it was very useful and satisfying.
And we've published other papers. We hope to make our ideas known to a wider audience, not only in academia, which it already has done to a large extent, but also beyond academia as well. Given the practical consequences, we see it being integrated into decision-making in areas as disparate as building organizations, education, and politics, etc.
In the MOMA exhibit ACCESS TO TOOLS: Publications from theWhole Earth Catalog 1968-1974, David Senior, Bibliographer of the MoMA Library gives due credit to Stewart Brand's early years as member of the USCO ("US" company), an anonymous group of artists whose installations and events combined multiple audio and visual inputs, including film, slides, video, lighting, music, and random sounds. That's where I first met Stewart Brand in 1965. We hit it off immediately and have been in touch consistently for the past forty-six years, and from the outset, he has been one of the key advisors and contributors to Edge.
Edge is pleased to point its readers to the online MOMA exhibit about Brand's influential early work. For background about those years, check out the introduction to the the Edge excerpt of "Stewart Brand Meets the Cybernetic Counterculture" from Fred Turner's book From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism.
STEWART BRAND is the founder and original editor of the Whole Earth Catalog, (Winner of the National Book Award). He is cofounder and co-chairman of The Long Now Foundation.
April 18–July 26, 2011
11 West 53 Street New York, NY 10019
Mezzanine, The Lewis B. and Dorothy Cullman Education and Research Building
Whole Earth Catalog, spring 1969
In 1968, Stewart Brand founded the Whole Earth Catalog. Brand’s goals were to make a variety of tools accessible to newly dispersed counterculture communities, back-to-the-land households, and innovators in the fields of technology, design, and architecture, and to create a community meeting-place in print. The catalogue quickly developed into a wide-ranging reference for new living spaces, sustainable design, and experimental media and community practices. After only a few years of publication it exploded in popularity, becoming a formidable cultural phenomenon.
Function, from Whole Earth Catalog
Books, selected and described by the editorial staff and organized in sections titled Understanding Whole Systems, Shelter and Land Use, Communication, and Community, were the primary resources the Whole Earth Catalog offered. This exhibition of printed matter in the collection of The Museum of Modern Art Library surveys these publications and summarizes the history of the catalogue project. The selection does not represent all the subjects the catalogue featured, but it reflects the publication’s focus on experimental ideas in design and technology and the dialogue between theorists and practitioners these ideas raised.
Advertisement for Whole Earth Catalog in Whole Earth Catalog
This exhibition is organized by David Senior, Bibliographer, MoMA Library.
Introducing the Whole Earth
Tulane Drama Review, fall 1966
Prior to publishing the Whole Earth Catalog, Stewart Brand was a member of the art collective USCO, known primarily for its experimental light and sound environments and film projections mounted in museums, dance clubs, theaters, and universities. This feature about USCO includes an image of a pinback button by Brand reading, “Why haven’t we seen a photograph of the whole Earth yet?” He distributed the button widely as part of a campaign for public access to images taken during United States space missions. He believed that a picture of the entire planet would be a unifying force in the management of global ecological challenges.
The release of photographs taken during early space missions coincided with the first issues of the Whole Earth Catalog. Brand pioneered the publication and dissemination of the images, putting them on the covers of the first catalogue, in fall 1968, and all successive issues. Throughout its run, the catalogue consistently advertised the pictures and provided instructions for ordering them from the government.
Thomas Albright and Charles Perry. The Last Twelve Hours of the Whole Earth Catalog, in Rolling Stone,no. 86 (July 8, 1971).
While walking through MOMA en route to the Exhibit of Stewart Brand's Whole Earth publications, I recalled another USCO collaboration in which USCO artist Judi Stern and I collaborated on the silk-screen on metalized mylar version of the poster I created for the Monkee's movie, HEAD. The poster is part of MOMA's permanent collection and is usually on display.
The original b&w poster, the basis of a national ad campagn by Columbia Pictures, had nothing to do with my own head. (But then, neither did the movie). It was based on the cropped photograph of the screen of a television set in the Columbia studios in Burbank on which the one-minute version of the silent movie trailer of my head was playing. In the mylar version, the viewer sees his or her own head reflected while looking at the silk-screened image. Same also on the record album cover I designed using mylar. The press missed the point; but the art world certainly got it.
While I searched the MOMA site for a link to the poster (to no avail), I came across a rather strange Website called "Some of the Corpses Are Amusing", in which somebody put in an extraordinary amount of time presenting a very detailed report on a somewhat obscure movie made 43 years ago. It's more than anyone can possibly ever want to know about the movie HEAD or my role in it.
HEAD, by the way, was the first of six movies produced by Bob Rafelson, Bert Schneider, and Steve Blauner (BBS Productions), a company that was also a community that also included Jack Nicholson, Dennis Hopper, and Peter Fonda. Even me. Their second movie, Easy Rider changed Hollywood forever. Other films included Five Easy Pieces and The Last Picture Show. (The entire collection along with a documentary was just issued in a boxed set.)
"There was a lot of work put into the HEAD piece on their website," wrote one of the Hollywood people involved in making the movie, "not flattering or accurate sometimes, but detailed. Stuff I either didn't know or forgot (hard to distinguish these days).
As regards their reporting on my role, detailed as it is, it's not what happened. And don't even try to guess. Only a handful of people know the real story and no one is about to tell it ... yet. Toward the late 60s, the Monkees, through their TV show, records, merchandise, were the biggest act in show business. At the time I was told they were bigger than The Beatles and Elvis combined. The story behind my involvement in HEAD is not about celebrity culture, music or art. It is an interesting story about business. As Gregory Bateson used to point out, the map is not the territory, the thing is not the thing, and in this case, my head is not ...
But give the Corpse crowd credit for effort, and and also applause for pointing to the seminal role USCO played in the set of ideas Stewart Brand and I have been talking about for years. Brand's main USCO connection was the engaging and charismatiic artist Steve Durkee, who left USCO around 1968 and today is known as Shaykh Abdullah Nooruddeen Durkee, a Muslim scholar, thinker, author, and translator. I frequently collaborated with the Beat poet Gerd Stern. Below are photos of the Shaykh (May 2007) and Stern (1980).
For more on this scene, download Gerd Stern's oral history, compiled and archived by UC-Berkeley: "From Beat Scene Poet to Psychedelic Multimedia Artist in San Francisco and Beyond, 1948-1978"
Channeling the Microbiome
This year, Edge.org’s annual question asked scientists “What scientific concept would improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit?” Stewart Brand’s wonderfully articulate response begins by recalling Carl Woese’s estimate that bacteria make up 80 percent of Earth’s biomass:
Microbes run our atmosphere. They also run much of our body. The human microbiome in our gut, mouth, skin, and elsewhere, harbors 3,000 kinds of bacteria with 3 million distinct genes. (Our own cells struggle by on only 18,000 genes or so.)…This biotech century will be microbe enhanced and maybe microbe inspired….Confronting a difficult problem we might fruitfully ask, “What would a microbe do?”
No surprise that the originator of the Whole Earth Catalog and cofounder of one of the Internet’s first robust communities, “The WELL” (Whole Earth ’Lectronic Link), would invoke the emerging field of “sociomicrobiology.” Pioneered by my one of my doctoral advisors at Cornell, E. Peter Greenberg (now at the University of Washington), this discipline uses the term quorum sensing—broadly defined as a decision-making process used by decentralized groups to coordinate behavior—to describe the biochemistry and molecular biology of environmental sensing and communication in bacteria. Of particular interest are the mechanisms by which bacteria switch from a nomadic existence to life in a biofilm, where living en masse helps them survive the action of antibiotics.
Channeling the Microbiome [google translation]
Creates new media technologies are now happy or not? A new breed of e-philosophers brings the head racing. We picked the best thinkers on: people with the most extreme views on your Internet, games or smartphone use.
Games are not just games, friendly people. No, his "happiness machines'. A brutal ramming game God of War is not a stupid escapism, but a way of "positive emotions" to call, strengthen relationships, "to achieve something in life." Games have an intrinsic value: you can really be a better person along.
Signed: Jane McGonigal, author of the bestselling American Reality is Broken. Why Games Make Us Better And How They Can Change The World. After years of having worked in game design, she is by her book guru of the moment the game has become. Last month, at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, she was one of the main speakers. Game developers and journalists hanging on her every word, clapping their hands part towards this new star in the circuit of lectures on technology.
And why? Because they are games (and by extension new media) will benefit. In the three or four decades that the medium is video games, the general idea about escapism that gaming is hollow, something that humanity at its best is less sociable, and at worst sadistic, amoral and violent. Is it any wonder that an average game developer sees the sun shining in a speech in which the 'exodus to virtual life and salvation of man is seen, not as a threat?
Diane Halpern is a professor of psychology at Claremont McKenna College; she is the former president of the American Psychological Association and former president of the Western Psychological Association. Halpern has won many awards for her teaching and research, including the 2002 Outstanding Professor Award from the Western Psychological Association, the 1999 American Psychological Foundation Award for Distinguished Teaching, and the Silver Medal Award from the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education. She has also authored a variety of books.
Here are some of Halpern’s views on the thinking process.
What is the goal of critical thinking? Is critical thinking rational thinking?
Critical thinking is good thinking or clear thinking—it involves analyzing the thinking process as well as the outcome. People who think well (use the skills of critical thinking) make better decisions across all areas of their lives. It is reasoned thinking—supporting beliefs and actions with good reasons.
Internet and modern parenting
LAST week, I started reading the book “Is the Internet Changing the Way You Think?,” which has a compilation of insights from several thinkers and edited by John Brockman.
I am not yet finished with the book but the insights I gained have brought about interesting questions and I’m sure if you read the book, it will also make you ponder.
The Brain Is No longer Alone
To think of how the Internet has changed our way of thinking. What can be more difficult than that? More woolly? The only thing that is certain is that an answer with two lines below do not exist. But let's try. Try to think, as we think today, the new way.
The enormous impact of technology Internet users in the narrative, the political coordination, day to day organization, individual action has occurred so quickly that the questions about its cultural consequences are still unanswered. What becomes of the memory in the era of the Internet? What happens to research, to philosophy, to the astonishment? How to change the thinking of those who dive into the network? To answer these questions, I met some years ago Bodei Remo, Professor of the History of Philosophy at the University of Pisa. The architecture of the university invited to tune in to the long duration of culture, furniture denounced the limited resources devoted to philosophical research by the University, the computer on the desk reminded of the urgency of the questions....
This interesting David Brooks column in today's New York Times alerted me to the Edge.org's latest World Question: What Scientific Concept Would Improve Everybody's Cognitive Toolkit? What particularly caught my attention was 2002 Economics Nobelist Daniel Kahneman's entry on the "focusing illusion" which he summarizes as: "Nothing In Life Is As Important As You Think It Is, While You Are Thinking About It." Kahneman asserts:
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.
Kahneman is reminding us that we all know lots of people who did really well in their elite (and not-so-elite) universities and who are now not making extraordinary amounts of money.
My own answer would be that people's thinking would strongly benefit from a greater understanding of economics. Happily, it turns out that behavioral scientist Dylan Evans agrees:
It is not hard to identify the discipline in which to look for the scientific concept that would most improve everybody's cognitive toolkit; it has to be economics. No other field of study contains so many ideas ignored by so many people at such great cost to themselves and the world. The hard task is picking just one of the many such ideas that economists have developed.
On reflection, I plumped for the law of comparative advantage, which explains how trade can be beneficial for both parties even when one of them is more productive than the other in every way. At a time of growing protectionism, it is more important than ever to reassert the value of free trade. Since trade in labor is roughly the same as trade in goods, the law of comparative advantage also explains why immigration is almost always a good thing — a point which also needs emphasizing at a time when xenophobia is on the rise.
In the face of well-meaning but ultimately misguided opposition to globalization, we must celebrate the remarkable benefits which international trade has brought us, and fight for a more integrated world.
I've only just begun to dip into the various answers to the Edge.org question, but another answer that I strongly agree with is from the Economist's digital editor Tom Standage who points out that "you can show something is definitely dangerous, but not definitely safe." As he correctly notes:
A wider understanding of the fact that you can't prove a negative would, in my view, do a great deal to upgrade the public debate around science and technology....Scientists are often accused of logic-chopping when they point this out. But it would be immensely helpful to public discourse if there was a wider understanding that you can show something is definitely dangerous, but you cannot show it is definitely safe.
The result of the public's failure to understand this is the continuing rise of the most pernicious idea of the 21st century so far, the precautionary principle.
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