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2011

WHAT SCIENTIFIC CONCEPT WOULD IMPROVE EVERYBODY'S COGNITIVE TOOLKIT?

DAVE WINER
Visiting Scholar in Journalism, NYU; Pioneer Software Developer (Blogging, Podcasting, RSS, Outliners, Web Content Management)

While We Are Social Creatures, It's Often Best Not To Admit It

New York City, my new home, teaches you, that while we are social creatures, it's often best not to admit it.

As you weave among the obstacles on the sidewalks of Manhattan, it's easy to get distracted from your thoughts and pay attention to the people you're encountering. It's okay to do that if you're at a stop, but if you're in motion, if your eyes engage with another, that signals that you would like to negotiate.

Not good. A sign of weakness. Whether the oncoming traffic is aware or not, he or she will take advantage of this weakness and charge right into your path, all the while not making eye contact. There is no appeal. All you can do is shift out of their path, but even this won't avoid a collision because your adversary will unconsciously shift closer to you. Your weakness is attractive. Your space is up for grabs. At this point you have no choice but to collide, and in the etiquette of New York street walking you're responsible.

That's why the people who check their smartphones for text messages or emails while walking so totally command the sidewalks. They are heat-seeking missiles, and it's your heat they seek.

I don't think this is just New York, it's a feature of the human species. We seek companionship.

For a while in 2005 I lived on the beach in northeast Florida outside St Augustine. The beach is so long and relatively empty, they let you drive on the beach to find the perfect spot to bathe, and if you're willing to drive a bit you can be alone. So I would drive to a secluded spot, park my car and go out into the surf. When I came back, more often than not, there was a car parked right next to mine. They could have parked anywhere in a mile in either direction and had it all to themselves.

Add that to your cognitive toolkit!


MARCO IACOBONI
Neuroscientist, UCLA Brain Mapping Center; Author, Mirroring People

Entanglement

Entanglement is "spooky action at a distance", as Einstein liked to say (he actually did not like it at all, but at some point he had to admit that it exists.) In quantum physics, two particles are entangled when a change in one particle is immediately associated with a change in the other particle. Here comes the spooky part: we can separate our "entangled buddies" as far as we can, they will still remain entangled. A change in one of them is instantly reflected in the other one, even though they are physically far apart (and I mean different countries!)

Entanglement feels like magic. It is really difficult to wrap our heads around it. And yet, entanglement is a real phenomenon, measurable and reproducible in the lab. And there is more. While for many years entanglement was thought to be a very delicate phenomenon, only observable in the infinitesimally small world of quantum physics ("oh good, our world is immune from that weird stuff") and quite volatile, recent evidence suggests that entanglement may be much more robust and even much more widespread than we initially thought. Photosynthesis may happen through entanglement, and recent brain data suggest that entanglement may play a role in coherent electrical activity of distant groups of neurons in the brain.

Entanglement is a good cognitive chunk because it challenges our cognitive intuitions. Our minds seem built to prefer relatively mechanic cause-and-effect stories as explanations of natural phenomena. And when we can't come up with one of those stories, then we tend to resort to irrational thinking, the kind of magic we feel when we think about entanglement. Entangled particles teach us that our beliefs of how the world works can seriously interfere with our understanding of it. But they also teach us that if we stick with the principles of good scientific practice, of observing, measuring, and then reproducing phenomena that we can frame in a theory (or that are predicted by a scientific theory), we can make sense of things. Even very weird things like entanglement.

Entanglement is also a good cognitive chunk because with its existence it implicitly whispers to us that seemingly self-evident cause-and-effect phenomena may not be cause-and-effect at all. The timetable of modern vaccination, probably the biggest accomplishment in modern medicine, coincides with the onset of symptoms of autism in children. This temporal correspondence may mislead us to think that the vaccination may have produced the symptoms, hence the condition of autism. At the same time, that temporal correspondence should make us suspicious of straightforward cause-and-effect associations, inviting us to have a second look, and to make controlled experiments to find out whether or not there is really a link between vaccines and autism. We now know there is no such link. Unfortunately though, this belief is very hard to eradicate and is producing in some parents the potentially disastrous decision of not vaccinating their children.

The story of entanglement is a great example of the capacity of the human mind of reaching out almost beyond itself. The key word here is "almost." Because we "got there", it is self-evident that we could "get there." But it didn't feel like it, did it? Until we managed to observe, measure, and reproduce that phenomenon predicted by quantum theory, it just felt a little "spooky." (It still feels a bit spooky, doesn't it?) Humans are naturally inclined to reject facts that do not fit their beliefs, and indeed when confronted with those facts, they tend to automatically reinforce their beliefs and brush those facts under the carpet. The beautiful story of entanglement reminds us that we can go "beyond ourselves," that we don't have to desperately cling to our beliefs, and that we can make sense of things. Even spooky ones.


JONAH LEHRER
Contributing Editor, Wired; Author, How We Decide

Control Your Spotlight

In the late 1960s, the psychologist Walter Mischel began a simple experiment with four-year old children. He invited the kids into a tiny room, containing a desk and a chair, and asked them to pick a treat from a tray of marshmallows, cookies, and pretzel sticks. Mischel then made the four-year olds an offer: they could either eat one treat right away or, if they were willing to wait while he stepped out for a few minutes, they could have two treats when he returned. Not surprisingly, nearly every kid chose to wait.

At the time, psychologists assumed that the ability to delay gratification — to get that second marshmallow or cookie — depended on willpower. Some people simply had more willpower than others, which allowed them to resist tempting sweets and save money for retirement.

However, after watching hundreds of kids participate in the marshmallow experiment, Mischel concluded that this standard model was wrong. He came to realize that willpower was inherently weak, and that children that tried to outlast the treat — gritting their teeth in the face of temptation — soon lost the battle, often within thirty seconds.

Instead, Mischel discovered something interesting when he studied the tiny percentage of kids who could successfully wait for the second treat. Without exception, these "high delayers" all relied on the same mental strategy: they found a way to keep themselves from thinking about the treat, directing their gaze away from the yummy marshmallow. Some covered their eyes or played hide-and-seek underneath the desk. Others sang songs from "Sesame Street," or repeatedly tied their shoelaces, or pretended to take a nap. Their desire wasn't defeated — it was merely forgotten.

Mischel refers to this skill as the "strategic allocation of attention," and he argues that it's the skill underlying self-control. Too often, we assume that willpower is about having strong moral fiber. But that's wrong — willpower is really about properly directing the spotlight of attention, learning how to control that short list of thoughts in working memory. It's about realizing that if we're thinking about the marshmallow we're going to eat it, which is why we need to look away.

What's interesting is that this cognitive skill isn't just a useful skill for dieters. Instead, it seems to be a core part of success in the real world. For instance, when Mischel followed up with the initial subjects 13 years later — they were now high school seniors — he realized that performance on the marshmallow task was highly predictive on a vast range of metrics. Those kids who struggled to wait at the age of four were also more likely to have behavioral problems, both in school and at home. They struggled in stressful situations, often had trouble paying attention, and found it difficult to maintain friendships. Most impressive, perhaps, were the academic numbers: The little kid who could wait fifteen minutes for their marshmallow had an S.A.T. score that was, on average, two hundred and ten points higher than that of the kid who could wait only thirty seconds.

These correlations demonstrate the importance of learning to strategically allocate our attention. When we properly control the spotlight, we can resist negative thoughts and dangerous temptations. We can walk away from fights and improve our odds against addiction. Our decisions are driven by the facts and feelings bouncing around the brain — the allocation of attention allows us to direct this haphazard process, as we consciously select the thoughts we want to think about.

Furthermore, this mental skill is only getting more valuable. We live, after all, in the age of information, which makes the ability to focus on the important information incredibly important. (Herbert Simon said it best: "A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.") The brain is a bounded machine and the world is a confusing place, full of data and distractions — intelligence is the ability to parse the data so that it makes just a little bit more sense. Like willpower, this ability requires the strategic allocation of attention.

One final thought: In recent decades, psychology and neuroscience have severely eroded classical notions of free will. The unconscious mind, it turns out, is most of the mind. And yet, we can still control the spotlight of attention, focusing on those ideas that will help us succeed. In the end, this may be the only thing we can control. We don't have to look at the marshmallow.


TIMOTHY TAYLOR
Archaeologist, University of Bradford; Author, The Artificial Ape

Technology Came Before Humanity And, Evolutionarily, Paved The Way For It

The very idea of a "cognitive toolkit" is one of the most important items in our cognitive toolkit. It is far more than just a metaphor, for the relationship between actual physical tools and the way we think is profound and of immense antiquity.

Ideas such as evolution and a deep prehistory for humanity are as factually well-established as the idea of a round earth, or gravity as a force pulling apples from trees. Only bigots and the misled can doubt them. But the idea that the first chipped stone tool pre-dates, by at least half a million years, the expansion of mind that is so characteristic of humans, should also be knowable by all.

The idea that technology came before humanity and, evolutionarily, paved the way for it, is the scientific concept that I believe should be part of everybody's cognitive toolkit. We could then see that thinking through things and with things, and manipulating virtual things in our minds, is an essential part of critical self-consciousness. The ability to internalize our own creations, by abstracting them, and converting "out-there" tools into mental mechanisms, is what allows the entire scientific project.


JAY ROSEN
Associate Professor of Journalism, New York University; Author, What Are Journalists For?; PressThink.org

Wicked Problems

There is a problem that anyone who has lived in New York City must wonder about: you can't get a cab from 4 to 5 pm. The reason for this is not a mystery: at a moment of peak demand, taxi drivers tend to change shifts. Too many cabs are headed to garages in Queens because when a taxi is operated by two drivers 24 hours a day, a fair division of shifts is to switch over at 5 pm. Now this is a problem for the city's Taxi and Limousine Commission, it may even be a hard one to solve, but it is not a wicked problem. For one thing, it's easy to describe, as I just showed you. That right there boots it from the category.

Among some social scientists, there is this term of art: wicked problems. We would be vastly better off if we understood what wicked problems are, and learned to distinguish between them and regular (or "tame") problems.

Wicked problems have these features: It is hard to say what the problem is, to define it clearly or to tell where it stops and starts. There is no "right" way to view the problem, no definitive formulation. The way it's framed will change what the solution appears to be. Someone can always say that the problem is just a symptom of another problem and that someone will not be wrong. There are many stakeholders, all with their own frames, which they tend to see as exclusively correct. Ask what the problem is and you will get a different answer from each. The problem is inter-connected to a lot of other problems; pulling them apart is almost impossible.

It gets worse. Every wicked problem is unique, so in a sense there is no prior art and solving one won't help you with the others. No one has "the right to be wrong," meaning enough legitimacy and stakeholder support to try stuff that will almost certainly fail, at first. Instead failure is savaged, and the trier is deemed unsuitable for another try. The problem keeps changing on us. It is never definitely resolved. Instead, we just run out of patience, or time, or money. It's not possible to understand the problem first, then solve it. Rather, attempts to solve it reveal further dimensions of the problem. (Which is the secret of success for people who are "good" at wicked problems.)

Know any problems like that? Sure you do. Probably the best example in our time is climate change. What could be more inter-connected than it? Someone can always say that climate change is just a symptom of another problem--our entire way of life, perhaps — and he or she would not be wrong. We've certainly never solved anything like it before. Stakeholders: everyone on the planet, every nation, every company.

When General Motors was about go bankrupt and throw tends of thousands of people out of work that was a big, honking problem, which rightly landed on the president's desk, but it was not a wicked one. Barack Obama's advisors could present him with a limited range of options; if he decided to take the political risk and save General Motors from collapse he could be reasonably certain that the recommended actions would work. If they didn't, he could try more drastic measures.

But health care reform wasn't like that at all. In the United States, rising health care costs are a classic case of a wicked problem. No "right" way to view it. Every solution comes with its own contestable frame. Multiple stakeholders who don't define the problem the same way. If the uninsured go down but costs go up, is that progress? We don't even know.

Wicked!

Still, we would be better off if we knew when we were dealing with a wicked problem, as opposed to the regular kind. If we could designate some problems as wicked we might realize that "normal" approaches to problem-solving don't work. We can't define the problem, evaluate possible solutions, pick the best one, hire the experts and implement. No matter how much we may want to follow a routine like that, it won't succeed. Institutions may require it, habit may favor it, the boss may order it, but wicked problems don't care.

Presidential debates that divided wicked from tame problems would be very different debates. Better, I think. Journalists who covered wicked problems differently than they covered normal problems would be smarter journalists. Institutions that knew when how to distinguish wicked problems from the other kind would eventually learn the limits of command and control.

Wicked problems demand people who are creative, pragmatic, flexible and collaborative. They never invest too much in their ideas because they know they are going to have to alter them. They know there's no right place to start so they simply start somewhere and see what happens. They accept the fact that they're more likely to understand the problem after its "solved" than before. They don't expect to get a good solution; they keep working until they've found something that's good enough. They're never convinced that they know enough to solve the problem, so they are constantly testing their ideas on different stakeholders.

Know any people like that? Maybe we can get them interested in health care...


PAUL SAFFO
Technology Forecaster; Consulting Associate Professor, Stanford University

Time Span of Discretion

Half a century ago, while advising a UK Metals company, Elliott Jaques had a deep and controversial insight. He noticed that workers at different levels of the company had very different time horizons. Line workers focused on tasks that could be completed in a single shift, while managers devoted their energies to tasks requiring six months or more to complete. Meanwhile, their CEO was pursuing goals realizable only over the span of several years.

After several decades of empirical study, Jaques concluded that just as humans differ in intelligence, we differ in our ability to handle time-dependent complexity. We all have a natural time horizon we are comfortable with, what Jaques called "Time span of discretion," or the length of the longest task an individual can successfully undertake. Jaques observed that organizations implicitly recognize this fact in everything from titles to salary: line workers are paid hourly, managers annually, and senior executives compensated with longer-term incentives such as stock options.

Jaques also noted that effective organizations were comprised of workers of differing time spans of discretion, each working at a level of natural comfort. If a worker's job was beyond their natural time span of discretion, they would fail. If it was less, they would be insufficiently challenged, and thus unhappy.

Time span of discretion is about achieving intents that have explicit time frames. And in Jaques model, one can rank discretionary capacity in a tiered system. Level 1 encompasses jobs such as sales associates or line workers handling routine tasks with a time horizon of up to three months. Levels 2 to 4 encompass various managerial positions with time horizons between one to five years. Level 5 crosses over to five to 10 years and is the domain of small company CEOs and large company executive vice presidents. Beyond Level 5, one enters the realm of statesmen and legendary business leaders comfortable with innate time horizons of 20 years (Level 6), 50 years (Level 7) or beyond. Level 8 is the realm of 100 year thinkers like Henry Ford, while Level 9 is the domain of the Einsteins, Gandhis, and Galileos, individuals capable of setting grand tasks into motion that continue centuries into the future.

Jaques' ideas enjoyed currency into the 1970s and then fell into eclipse, assailed as unfair stereotyping or worse, a totalitarian stratification evocative of Huxley's Brave New World. It is now time to reexamine Jaques theories and revive time span of discretion as a tool for understanding our social structures and matching them to the overwhelming challenges facing global society. Perhaps problems like climate change are intractable because we have a political system that elects Level 2 thinkers to Congress when we really need Level 5s in office. As such, Jaques ideas might help us realize that the old saying, "he who thinks longest wins" is only half the story, and that the society in which everyone explicitly thinks about tasks in the context of time will be the most effective.


TANIA LOMBROZO
Cognitive Psychologist, UC, Berkeley

Defeasibility

On its face, defeasibility is a modest concept with roots in logic and epistemology. An inference is defeasible if it can potentially be "defeated" in light of additional information. Unlike deductively sound conclusions, the products of defeasible reasoning remain subject to revision, held tentatively no matter how firmly.

All scientific claims — whether textbook pronouncements or haphazard speculations — are held defeasibly. It is a hallmark of the scientific process that claims are forever vulnerable to refinement and rejection, hostage to what the future could bring. Far from being a weakness, this is a source of science's greatness. Because scientific inferences are defeasible, they remain responsive to a world that can reveal itself gradually, change over time, and deviate from our dearest assumptions.

The concept of defeasibilility has proven valuable in characterizing artificial and natural intelligence. Everyday inferences, no less than scientific inferences, are vetted by the harsh judge of novel data: additional information that can potentially defeat current beliefs. On further inspection, the antique may turn out to be a fake and the alleged culprit an innocent victim. Dealing with an uncertain world forces cognitive systems to abandon the comforts of deduction and engage in defeasible reasoning.

Defeasibility is a powerful concept when we recognize it not as a modest term of art, but as the proper attitude towards all belief. Between blind faith and radical skepticism is a vast but sparsely populated space where defeasibility finds its home. Irreversible commitments would be foolish; boundless doubt paralyzing. Defeasible beliefs provide the provisional certainty necessary to navigate an uncertain world.

Recognizing the potential revisability of our beliefs is a prerequisite to rational discourse and progress, be it in science, politics, religion, or the mundane negotiations of daily life. Consider the world we could live in if all of our local and global leaders, if all of our personal and professional friends and foes, recognized the defeasibility of their beliefs and acted accordingly. That sure sounds like progress to me. But of course, I could be wrong.


ERNST PÖPPEL
Neuroscientist, Chairman, Human Science Center and Department of Medical Psychology, Munich University; Author, Mindworks

A Cognitive Toolkit Full Of Garbage

To get rid of garbage is essential, also of mental garbage. Cognitive toolkits are filled with such garbage, simply because we are victims of ourselves. We should regularly empty this garbage can, or in case we enjoy to sit in garbage, we better check how "shorthand abstractions" (SHA's) limit our creativity (certainly an SHA). Why is the cognitive toolkit filled with garbage?

Let us look back in history (SHA): Modern science (SHA) can be said to have started in 1620 with "Novum Organum" ("New Instrument") by Francis Bacon. It should impress us today that his analysis (SHA) begins with a description (SHA) of four mistakes we run into when we do science. Unfortunately, we usually forget these warnings. Francis Bacon argued that we are — first — victims of evolution (SHA), i.e. that our genes (SHA), define constraints that necessarily limit insight (SHA). Second — we suffer from the constraints of imprinting (SHA); the culture (SHA) we live in provides a frame for epigenetic programs (SHA) that ultimately define the structure (SHA) of neuronal processing (SHA). Third — we are corrupted by language (SHA) as thoughts (SHA) cannot be easily transformed into verbal expressions . Fourth — we are guided or even controlled by theories (SHA), may they be explicit or implicit.

What are the implications for a cognitive toolkit? We are caught for instance in a language trap. On the basis of our evolutionary heritage we have the power of abstraction (SHA), but this has inspite of some advantages we brag about (to make us superior to other creatures) a disastrous consequence: Abstractions are usually represented in words; apparently we cannot do otherwise; we have to "ontologize"; we invent nouns to extract knowledge (SHA) from processes (SHA). ( I do not refer to the powerful pictorial shorthand abstractions). Abstraction is obviously complexity reduction (SHA). We make it simple. Why do we do this? Evolutionary heritage dictates to be fast. However, speed may give an advantage for a "survival toolkit", but not for a "cognitive toolkit". It is a categorical error (SHA) to confuse speed in action with speed in thinking. The selection pressure for speed invites to neglect the richness of facts. This pressure allows the invention (SHA) of a simple, clear, easy to understand, easy to refer to, easy to communicate shorthand abstraction. Thus, because we are a victim of our biological past and as a consequence a victim of ourselves we end up with shabby SHA's having left behind reality. If there is one disease all humans share, it is "monocausalitis", i.e. the motivation (SHA) to explain everything on the basis of just one cause. This may be a nice intellectual exercise but it is simply misleading.

Of course we depend on communication (SHA), and this requires verbal references usually tagged with language. But if we do not understand within the communicative frame or reference system (SHA) that we are a victim of ourselves by "ontologizing" and continuously creating "practical" SHA's, we simply use a cognitive toolkit of mental garbage. Is there a pragmatic way out other than to radically get rid of mental garbage? Yes, perhaps: Simply not using the the key SHA's explicitly in one's toolkit. Working on "consciousness", don't use (at least for one year) the SHA consciousness; if you work on the "self", never refer explicitly to self. Going through the own garbage one discovers many misleading SHA's, like just a few in my focus of attention (SHA): the brain as a net, localization of function, representation, inhibition, threshold, decision, the present, .... An easy way out is of course to refer to some of these SHA's as metaphors (SHA), but this again is evaiding the problem (SHA). I am aware of the fact (SHA) that I am also a victim of evolution, and to suggest "garbage" as a SHA also suffers from the same problem; even the concept of garbage required a discovery (SHA). But we cannot do otherwise than simply being aware of this challenge (SHA) that the content of the cognitive toolkit is characterized by self–referentiality (SHA), i.e. by the fact that the SHA's define themselves by their unreflected use.


KATHRYN SCHULZ
Author, Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error

The Pessimistic Meta-Induction from the History of Science

Okay, okay: it's a terrible phrase. (In my defense, I didn't coin it. Philosophers of science have been kicking it around for a while.) But if "The Pessimistic Meta-Induction from the History of Science" is cumbersome to say and difficult to remember, it is also a great idea. In fact, as the "meta" part suggests, it's the kind of idea that puts all other ideas into perspective.

Here's the gist: because so many scientific theories from bygone eras have turned out to be wrong, we must assume that most of today's theories will eventually prove incorrect as well. And what goes for science goes in general. Politics, economics, technology, law, religion, medicine, child-rearing, education: no matter the domain of life, one generation's verities so often become the next generation's falsehoods that we might as well have a Pessimistic Meta-Induction from the History of Everything.

Good scientists understand this. They recognize that they are part of a long process of approximation. They know that they are constructing models rather than revealing reality. They are comfortable working under conditions of uncertainty — not just the local uncertainty of "Will this data bear out my hypothesis?", but the sweeping uncertainty of simultaneously pursuing and being cut off from absolute truth.

The rest of us, by contrast, often engage in a kind of tacit chronological exceptionalism. Unlike all those suckers who fell for the flat earth or the geocentric universe or cold fusion or the cosmological constant, we ourselves have the great good luck to be alive during the very apex of accurate human thought. The literary critic Harry Levin put this nicely: "The habit of equating one's age with the apogee of civilization, one's town with the hub of the universe, one's horizons with the limits of human awareness, is paradoxically widespread." At best, we nurture the fantasy that knowledge is always cumulative, and therefore concede that future eras will know more than we do. But we ignore or resist the fact that knowledge collapses as often as it accretes, that our own most cherished beliefs might appear patently false to posterity.

That fact is the essence of the meta-induction — and yet, despite its name, this idea is not pessimistic. Or rather, it is only pessimistic if you hate being wrong. If, by contrast, you think that uncovering your mistakes is one of the best ways to revise and improve your understanding of the world, then this is actually a highly optimistic insight.

The idea behind the meta-induction is that all of our theories are fundamentally provisional and quite possibly wrong. If we can add that idea to our cognitive toolkit, we will be better able to listen with curiosity and empathy to those whose theories contradict our own. We will be better able to pay attention to counterevidencethose anomalous bits of data that make our picture of the world a little weirder, more mysterious, less clean, less done. And we will be able to hold our own beliefs a bit more humbly, in the happy knowledge that better ideas are almost certainly on the way.


MARK PAGEL
Evolutionary Biologist, University of Reading; External Professor, The Santa Fe Institute; Author, The Oxford Encyclopedia of Evolution

Knowledge

The Oracle of Delphi famously pronounced Socrates to be "the most intelligent man in the world because he knew that he knew nothing". Over 2000 years later the physicist-turned-historian Jacob Bronowski would emphasize — in the last episode of his landmark 1970s television series the "Ascent of Man" — the danger of our all-too-human conceit of thinking we know something. What Socrates knew and what Bronowski had come to appreciate is that knowledge — true knowledge — is difficult, maybe even impossible, to come buy, it is prone to misunderstanding and counterfactuals, and most importantly it can never be acquired with exact precision, there will always be some element of doubt about anything we come to "know"' from our observations of the world.

What is it that adds doubt to our knowledge? It is not just the complexity of life: uncertainty is built in to anything we measure. No matter how well you can measure something, you might be wrong by up to ½ of the smallest unit you can discern.

If you tell me I am 6 feet tall, and you can measure to the nearest inch, I might actually be 5' 11 and ½" or 6' and ½" and you (and I) won't know the difference. If something is really small you won't even be able to measure it, and if it is really really small a light microscope (and thus your eye, both of which can only see objects larger than the shortest wavelength of visible light) won't even know it is there. What if you measure something repeatedly?

This helps, but consider the plight of those charged with international standards of weights and measures. There is a lump of metal stored under a glass case in Sèvres, France. It is, by the decree of Le Système International d'Unités, the definition a kilogram. How much does it weigh? Well, by definition whatever it weighs is a kilogram. But the fascinating thing is that it has never weighed exactly the same twice. On those days it weighs less than a kilogram you are not getting such a good deal at the grocery store. On other days you are.

The often blithe way in which scientific "findings" are reported by the popular press can mask just how difficult it is to acquire reliable knowledge. Height and weight are — as far as we know — single dimensions. Consider then how much more difficult it is to measure something like intelligence, the risk of getting cancer from eating too much meat, whether cannibas should be legalized, whether the climate is warming and why, what a "shorthand abstraction" or even "science" is, the risk of developing psychosis from drug abuse, the best way to lose weight, whether it is better to force people receiving state benefits to work, whether prisons work, how to quit smoking, whether a glass of wine every day is good for you, whether it will hurt your children's eyes to use 3D glasses, or even just the best way to brush your teeth. In each case, what was actually measured, or who was measured, who were they compared to, for how long, are they like you and me, were there other factors that could explain the outcome?

The elusive nature of knowledge should remind us to be humble when interpreting it and acting on it, and this should grant us both a tolerance and skepticism towards others and their interpretations: knowledge should always be treated as a hypothesis.

It has only just recently emerged that Bronowski himself was involved in the Second World War project to design nuclear weapons — vicious projectiles of death that don't discriminate between good guys and bad guys. Maybe Bronowski's later humility was borne of this realization — that our views can be wrong and they can have consequences for others' lives.

Eager detractors of science as a way of understanding the world will jump on these ideas with glee, waving them about as proof that "nothing is real" and that science and its outputs are as much a human construct as art or religion. This is facile, ignorant and naïve.

Measurement and the "science" or theories it spawns must be treated with humility precisely because they are powerful ways of understanding and manipulating the world. Their observations can be replicated — even if imperfectly — and others can agree on how to make the measurements on which they depend, be they of intelligence, the mass of the Higgs boson, poverty, the speed at which proteins can fold into their three dimensional structures, or how big gorillas are.

No other system for acquiring knowledge even comes close to science, but this is precisely why we must treat its conclusions with humility. Einstein knew this when he said "all our science measured against reality is primitive and childlike" and yet he added "it is the most precious thing we have".


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