The Lure Of A Good Story

Various concepts come to mind for inclusion in that cognitive toolkit. "Emergence," or related to that, "the failure of reductionism" — mistrust the idea that if you want to understand a complex phenomenon, the only tool of science to use is to break it into its component parts, study them individually in isolation, and then glue the itty-bitty little pieces back together. This often doesn't work and, increasingly, it seems like it doesn't work for the most interesting and important phenomena out there. To wit — you have a watch that doesn't run correctly and often, indeed, you can fix it by breaking it down to its component parts and finding the gear that has had a tooth break (actually, I haven't a clue if there is any clock on earth that still works this way). But if you have a cloud that doesn't rain, you don't break it down to its component parts. Ditto for a person whose mind doesn't work right. Or for going about understanding the problems of a society or ecosystem. So that was a scientific concept that was tempting to cite.

Related to that are terms like "synergy" and "interdisciplinary," but heaven save us from having to hear more about those words. There are now whole areas of science where you can't get a faculty position unless you work one of those words into the title of your job talk and have it tattooed on the small of your back.

Another useful scientific concept is "genetic vulnerability." This would be great if it found its way into everyone's cognitive toolkit because its evil cousins of genetic inevitability and genetic determinism are already deeply entrenched there, and with long long legacies of bad consequences. Everyone should be taught about work like that of Avshalom Caspi and colleagues, who looked at genetic polymorphisms related to various neurotransmitter systems that are associated with psychiatric disorders and anti-social behaviors. Ah ha, far too many people will say, drawing on that nearly useless, misshapen tool of genetic determinism, have one of those polymorphisms and you're hosed by inevitability. And instead, what those studies beautifully demonstrate is how these polymorphisms carry essentially zero increased risk of those disorders…..unless you grow up in particularly malign environments. Genetic determinism, my tuches.

But the scientific concept that I've chosen is one that is useful simply because it isn't a scientific concept, can be the antithesis of — "anecdotalism." Every good journalist knows its power — start an article with statistics about foreclosure rates or feature a family victimized by some bank? No brainer. Display maps showing the magnitudes of refugees flowing out of Darfur or the face of one starving orphan in a camp? Obvious choice. Galvanize the readership.

But anecdotalism is potentially a domain of distortion as well. Absorb the lessons of science and cut saturated fats from your diet, or cite the uncle of the spouse of a friend who eats nothing but pork rinds and is still pumping iron at age 110? Depend on one of the foundations of the 20th century's extension of life span and vaccinate your child, or obsess over a National Enquirer-esque horror story of one vaccination disaster and don't immunize? I shudder at the current potential for another case of anecdotalism — I write four days after the Arizona shooting of Gabby Giffords and 19 other people by Jared Loughner. As of this writing, experts such as the esteemed psychiatrist Fuller Torrey are guessing that Loughner is a paranoid schizophrenic. And if this is true, this anecdotalism will give new legs to the tragic misconception that the mentally ill are more dangerous than the rest of us.

So maybe when I say argue for "anecdotalism" going into everyone's cognitive toolkit, I am really arguing for two things to be incorporated — a) appreciation of how distortive it can be, and b) recognition, in a salute to the work of people like Tversky and Kahnemann, of its magnetic pull, its cognitive satisfaction. As a social primate complete with a region of the cortex specialized for face recognition, the individual face — whether literal or metaphorical — has a special power. But unappealing, unintuitive patterns of statistics and variation generally teach us much more.