Archive for August, 2015

Behavioral Economics

August 29, 2015

A number of previous healthy memory blog posts have been on the topic of behavioral economics. Mainstream economics is based on the idea of the rational man.  In 1978 the psychologist Herbert Simon was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economic Science for his research showing that human beings do not, and often cannot, evaluate all available information before making a decision.  He found that people satisfice, that is, use only enough information they think they need to make a decision.  In 2002, the psychologist Daniel Kahneman shared the Nobel Prize in Economic Science for his work with Amos Tversky showing the relevance of psychological research on human judgment and decision making under uncertainty to economics.  Kahneman and Tversky formulated Prospect Theory that showed how human behavior deviated from the economic norm.  Unfortunately, Tversky had passed away, so he was ineligible to receive the Nobel Prize.

Misbehaving:  The Making of Behavioral Economics by Richard H. Thaler provides a well-written and informative discussion of the development of behavioral economics.  Although he is an economist he had the good fortune to be able to work with Kahneman and Tversky early in his career.  So he was an early, perhaps the earliest, economist to come into the behavioral economics fold.  The book unfolds in chronological order so you are able to follow the development of Thaler’s career along with the development of behavioral economics.  His writing is quite entertaining.

Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioral Economics covers the course of the development of behavioral economics up until current times, so the coverage of material is quite large. The book begins with the discussion of SIFs (supposedly irrelevant factors).  These are factors that classical economics wave off as being irrelevant, but which are most certainly not irrelevant.  Early in his career Thaler began making his list of phenomena which were relevant to economics, but which were waved off as being irrelevant.  There are two types of theories:  normative and descriptive.  Normative theories inform us the right way to think about some problem.  Right here refers logical consistency.  Descriptive theories explain how problems are handled.  That is, what people actually do.  This differences is central to the difference between classical and behavioral economics.  Classical economics explains how logically people should be  behave, and behavioral economics explains how people actually do behave.

Perhaps the most dramatic example of this distinction can be found in the recent economic crash.  According to the rational model of man, this crisis should not have happened.  And, indeed, it was predicted by very few economists.   The crisis was due to the irrational, emotional nature of human beings.  The economics Alan Greenspan had a sign reading “Greed is Good” on his door.  Greed is also one of the Seven Deadly Sins.  I remember thinking that adjustable rate mortgages were a big mistake.  People tend to be overly optimistic and often overlook misfortune in their future.  This combined with increases in interests rates could cause many too default on their mortgages.  I had no idea of the extent of shenanigans  that were taking place.  Optimism regarding the never ending increase in real estate values precluded any rationality or safeguards.  Unfortunately, the changes in financial regulation were woefully inadequate, and another market crash looms in the future.  That is unless more attention is paid to behavioral economics and appropriate legislation is passed.  Unfortunately, although the influence of behavioral economics has grown, I was pleased to learn that Thaler had been elected President of the American Economics Association, it has yet to become mainstream.  Until it does, we remain at risk as the rational model of humanity is flawed.  Economics needs to be based on what humans do, not on a theoretical model based on rationality.

Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioral Economics is a real gem.  Unfortunately it presents me with a real dilemma.  I could easily spend several months writing posts based on this book.  However, I fear that some readers would not appreciate the emphasis being placed on economics and become bored.  Moreover, focusing on Thaler’s book would force me to neglect some needed topics.  So, what I shall do is to occasionally reach back to this book for posts that seem especially relevant.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

The Wellbeing of Nations: Meaning, Motive and Measurement

August 26, 2015

This excellent text is by two researchers in England, Paul Allin and David J. Hand.  It is written in the spirit of Adam Smith’s An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, which is usually abbreviated as The Wealth of Nations.  Smith is commonly regarded as the father of capitalism.  Although this is true, he is misrepresented by many politicians.  Smith was concerned with increasing the wellbeing of nations and their inhabitants.  Smith wrote an earlier book titled The Theory of Moral Sentiments.  He argued that moral sense was based on mutual sympathy, a term best captured today with the concept of empathy.   Smith advocated progressive taxation, in which the wealthier paid a higher percentage of their income to taxes than the poor.  Often politicians argue for a “flat tax”  for simplifying the tax code.  Progressive taxation is not responsible for the complexity of the tax code, but the many specific benefits and costs written into the tax code are.  The Gini coefficient is an index of the spread of wealth in an economy.  And healthier economies require that wealth be distributed among the citizens of a country.  As one Texan put it, “Money is like manure; it’s no good unless it is spread around.”

The authors note, “It looks as if the capitalist business model has evolved over the centuries into one that relies on population growth and expects economic growth.”  Clearly, this is a model for ultimate disaster.  There is no doubt that capitalism has been a success, but it is time for fine-tuning.  There have been several healthy memory blog posts wondering what has become of all the leisure time that was promised to be available today.  When I was a child few mothers worked.  Today, everybody works, and for longer hours.  Why?  John Maynard Keynes envisaged a time in which increased leisure time would enhance the quality of life for all.  Why has that time not arrived?

I believe that if Adam Smith were alive today he would have joined Allin and Hand in authoring The Wellbeing of Nations, or would have written his own complementary volume.  The starting point for this  volume is that Gross Domestic Product (GDP), although important, should not be the primary metric for economies.  Previous healthy memory blog posts had described the metric of Gross National Happiness (GNH).  Although this is a promising start, the problem is quite complicated.  It requires a variety of disciplines such as the social sciences and statistics that had either not yet developed or were still in the early stages of development when Adam Smith lived.

Although I am praising this work, I am not recommending that you read it.  It is technical and complicated.  For most of us understanding that this is a problem that needs to be addressed and is being addressed is enough.  However, if you are interested in the topic and are willing to expend the effort, this is an excellent text that cites many references and resources.

I do not mean to imply that a the solution to this problem will be easy.  One must always be aware of the dangers of unintended consequences.  When a psychologist who won a Nobel Prize in Economics, Daniel Kahneman, was asked about the speed of research and progress in this area, his advice was that it be slow and reversible.  That is, provisions should be made so that any mistakes could be easily reversed.
As the immediately preceding blog post, the Automation of Journalism suggested, many skilled jobs might disappear.  Now the disappearance of jobs could be good, if they resulted in increased leisure time where people could enjoy themselves and pursue their interests.  However, if significant proportions of the population become alienated, there will be trouble indeed.  As was mentioned at the outset, capitalism is in need of fine tuning.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Psychology is a STEM Discipline

August 22, 2015

STEM is an acronym referring to the academic discipline of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.  It  is significant in that it recognizes the importance of these disciplines to economic competitiveness and, accordingly, stresses their importance to educational  policy,  Psychology is recognized as a STEM discipline by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).  These STEM disciplines affect immigration policy.

Unfortunately, there are people who confuse psychology with psychiatry, a medical specialty.  Although clinical psychology does deal with mental illness, and clinical psychologists do work with psychiatrists, it is but one branch of psychology, as is counseling psychology.  Psychology is concerned with how humans and animals behave.  This interest extends beyond just behavior and is heavily involved with cognitive processes and neuroscience.  This includes the behavior and interactions of groups of people.  There is a branch known as industrial and organizational psychology that deals with businesses and organizations.  One of the divisions of the American Psychological Association (APA) is the Division of Applied Experimental and Engineering Psychology.  I have had the honor of serving as president of this division.

Although psychology is an important discipline and deserves recognition as a STEM discipline, I had long thought that it was best to postpone psychology courses until college.  However, my thinking has changed.  I have long advocated that statistics and experimental design be taught in high school.  The reason for this is that it is difficult to be a responsible citizen, or to make informed decisions about medical care, without a fundamental understanding of statistics.   However, I think all adults should have some understanding about how human cognition works, and the information processing shortcomings and biases we are all prey to.  People need to learn how we understand and come into contact with our environment and our fellow human beings.   People need to understand that we are conscious of only a small percentage of our cognitive processes.  And we all need to learn about mindfulness so we can deal better not only with our own cognitive processes, but also with our interactions with our fellow human beings.

I have also found that psychology, that is scientifically based psychology, provides an expert platform for learning about science.  Psychology involves more than neuroimaging.  There are psychologists who use biological assays in their research.  Cognitive psychology is concerned with how cognition works to include memory, perception, concept formation, problem solving, language, and creativity.  Educational psychology studies the best ways to learn including teaching and computer assisted instruction.  Social psychology is concerned with how groups of humans act, how opinions are formed, and the best ways to persuade.  Industrial organizational psychology is concerned with how organizations work, and how their functioning can be performed.  This includes the performance of teams.  Different areas of research require different techniques, so a wide variety of experimental methods and statistical approaches are used.

It has been my experience that many, certainly not all, but many, from the physical sciences, mathematics, and engineering, know well the methods and techniques needed for their disciplines.  But they still lack a general ability to apply the scientific method.  The function more as technicians in their disciplines, rather than as broadly trained scientists.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Let Me Think It Over

August 19, 2015

“Let me think it over”  is something we should say to any proposition other than the most trivial.  Included here are conversations with ourselves.  If we have an idea we should think it over before acting on it.  Whenever we read, hear. or think of something we are only accessing an extremely small portion of our memory.  Our conscious awareness is quite limited and the vast majority of cognition occurs below our level of awareness (See the healthy memory blog post, “Strangers to Ourselves”).  Moreover, the amount of information we are able to access at any given time is quite limited.  Trying to recall something or thinking about something at a different time should yield some new information.

Think of your brain as a large corporation.  You are the CEO at its executive headquarters.  Most of this corporation is below your level of consciousness.  So not only is information stored, but information is also processed at this nonconsciousness level.  After you have finished your initial consideration of a topic, other parts of this corporation will continuing processing.  Allowing time to think something over allows this nonconscious processing to occur.  Perhaps the best example of this nonconscious processing occurs after you have tried, but failed, to remember something.  Some time later, perhaps the next day even, what you were trying to remember pops into your conscious awareness.

Memory theorists speak of accessible memory, which is information we can easily remember.  Then there is information which we cannot access at a particular time, which is nevertheless available in memory.  It might become accessible during another recall attempt, or after detailed search and processing by your unconscious memory.   This is called available memory.

Then there is also transactive memory.  Transactive memory is memory that is not stored in our own brains, but exists in the brains of fellow humans or technology.  So we can speak of accessible transactive memory which is information we cannot recall but we know how to look it up or whom to ask.  Available  transactive  memory is information that we know exists, but that we need to conduct some research to find it.

I have lost money because I failed to think something over.  Had I just done some quick research on the internet i would not have spent money on unnecessary repairs.  I fear this has happened more than once.  I have suffered undesirable consequences from failing to ask someone making a proposal, or from failing to adequately think over my own ideas.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

The Value of Personal Time

August 15, 2015

The value of personal time is something that should not be overlooked.  I had been planning on continuing to work in lieu of retiring.  I knew that there was an inverse relationship between the age of retirement and the onset of dementia.  However, I did not find my work to be fulfilling.  On the contrary, it was aggravating.  As there was no financial need to continue working, I retired.

Since retiring my personal time has significantly increased and I’m finding that this personal time is not only enjoyable, but is also providing opportunities for personal growth.  As long as I grow cognitively, exercise, and eat a reasonable diet, there is no reason to think that my probability for dementia is increasing.  Indeed I believe that the probability of cognitive decline is not only decreasing, but it is also turning into a period of cognitive growth.

I encourage readers to value personal time.  Are you working unnecessarily?  Are you spending personal time so that it is enjoyable and is providing for personal growth?
Planning for retirement is something that should be done early in life.  Always save a portion of earnings and take advantage of plans offered by your employer to the maximum.  And never carry credit card debt.  Starting early is essential.  I get a kick out of commercials offering plans of investing for exorbitant retirements.  None of these plans can provide magic.  The most important point is to start early.  Believe me, age sneaks up on you faster than you can imagine.

Savings provide both security and control over you personal time.  Do not underestimate the value of personal time.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

How Accurately Can We Predict Our Future Feelings?

August 12, 2015

This is an important question to ask as it affects the decisions we make.   This question was addressed in an article titled, “Wouldn’t It Be Nice?  Predicting Future Feelings” by George Loewenstein and David Schkade in the book, Well-Being:  The Foundations of Hedonic Psychology edited by Daniel Kahneman, Ed Diener, and Norbert Schwarz.

The chapter begins by stating three principles:
1.   People often hold incorrect intuitive theories about the determinants of happiness, which in turn lead to errors when predictions are based on them.
2.  Different considerations might be salient when predicting future feelings than those that actually influence experienced feelings.
3.  When in a “cold” state people often have difficulty imagining how they would fel or what they might do if they were in a “hot” state—for example, angry, hungry, in pain, or sexually excited.  It may also be the case that, when in a hot state, people frequently have difficulty imagining that they will inevitably cool off eventually.    Such “hot/cold” empathy gaps can lead to errors in predicting both feelings and behavior.

The authors also offer ideas as to why we typically fail to learn from experience.  “Learning from experience does not seem to offer a broad cure for prediction errors because intuitive theories are often resistant to change, memories of experiences are often themselves biased or incomplete, and experiences rarely repeat themselves often enough to make diagnostic patterns noticeable.”

Take the lottery, for example.  Many think that all their problems will be over if only they win the lottery.  Here are the results from winners of lotteries varying between $50k and $100k.  The average rating of their happiness was 4.0 on a 5.0 scale.   A control group of comparable individuals rated their average happiness as 3.82, suggesting that the lottery boozed their happiness by about 0.18.  Consider also the rated happiness of people who had experienced a disability from an accident, which was 2.96.  This result is typical.  We tend to overestimate the happiness that good things bring, and overestimate the sadness that bad things bring.  We tend to adapt to our conditions be they good or bad.

We also tend to over predict how fearful we shall be in potentially threatening situations.  For example, military trains undergoing parachute training over predicted they level of fear they experience on the first and most difficult jump.

Forty-four dental patients were interviewed both before and after dental a dental appointment.  On average, patients over predicted the degree of pain they would experience.  The mean expected level of pain was 16.5 and the reported actual level of experienced pain was 9.0.  The correlation between expected and experienced pain was 0.16, which is quite small.

We can also under predict pain.  A majority if expectant mothers stated a desire and intention not to use anesthesia  during childbirth, but reversed their prior decision when they went into labor.  This reversal of preference occurred among not only women giving birth for the first time, but also for those who had previously experienced the pain of childbirth.

There are also differences between healthy and sick people’s attitudes toward “heroic measures”  to extend the lives of the terminally ill.  Many healthy Americans, this healthy American included, state that we don’t want to die in a nursing home or hospital or, worse yet, an intensive-care unit, but 90 percent of dying patients, most of whom die in acute-care hospital, view the care they receive favorably.

In another study, different groups of respondents were asked whether they would accept a grueling course of chemotherapy if it would extend their lives by three months.  No radiotherapists said they would accept the chemotherapy, only 6 percent of the oncologists, and 10 percent of healthy people, but 42 percent of current cancer patients said that they would.   Another study found that 58 percent of patients with serious illnesses said that when death was near they would want treatment, even if it prolonged life by just a week.

The experienced quality of life of sick persons also appears to be underestimated.  In a study of 126 elderly outpatients with five common chronic diseases (arthritis, ischemic heart disease, chronic pulmonary disease, diabetes mellitus, and cancer) found that these patients generally rated their quality of life to be slightly worse than, “good, no major complaints.:

We are especially prone to mis-predict our behavior under temptation or duress.  See the health memory blog post “Good vs. Evil.”  We tend to overestimate the strength of our own willpower and to underestimate the influence of being in a hot state.  Included here are matters of sexual desire, drug craving, curiosity, the urge to spend, and hunger.

It would be good to conclude by presenting the results of the mean rang of different items with respect to producing happiness.

The importance of family life is most important, followed by friends, a satisfying job, and a high income.  It is noteworthy that income comes in last.  Obviously a certain amount of income is required for a satisfactory family life, but once a particular level of income has been reached, we do not become much happier.  $75k is the figure commonly cited and that will likely increase over time and be a function of circumstances.  However, beyond providing security and the basic comforts of life, it does not add much happiness.  I would argue that the pursuit of wealth is primarily a matter of ego and prestige, rather than living a satisfying life, per se.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

More on Revising Beliefs

August 10, 2015

This is the third post in a series of posts on Nilsson’s book, Understanding Beliefs.  Nils J. Nilsson, a true genius who is one of the founders of artificial intelligence, recommends the scientific method, as the scientific method is the primary reason underlying the progress humans have made in the past several centuries.  We know from previous healthy memory blog posts that beliefs are difficult to change.  Yet we inhabit an environment in which there is ongoing dynamic change.  Moreover, modern technology accelerates the amount of information that is being processed and the amount of change that occurs.

The immediately preceding healthy memory post, “Revising Beliefs,” expressed extreme skepticism that there was sufficient sophistication among the public to implement the scientific method on a large scale in the political arena. Suppose this is indeed the case.  Suppose the world will be characterized by increasing polarization so that little or no progress can be made.  What is a possible remedy?

Here I wish that Nils J. Nilsson would write a second book on how technology, in the lingo of the healthy memory blog transitive memory, might be used to address this problem.  During the Cold War there was a movie, Collosus:  The Forbin Project.  At this time there was a realistic fear that a nuclear exchange could occur between the United States and the Soviet Union that would obliterate life on earth.  In the movie the United States has built a complex sophisticated computer, the Collosus to manage the country’s defenses in the event of a nuclear war.  Shortly after Collosus becomes operational it establishes contact with a similar computer built by the Soviet Union.  These two systems agree that humans are not intelligent enough to manage their own affairs, so they eventually take control of the world.

Perhaps we are not intelligent enough to govern and we need to turn the job over to computers.  Kurzweil has us becoming one with silicon in his Singularity, so we would be as intelligent as computers.  Suppose, however, that computers were infected with human frailties.  In Bill Joy’s the World Without Us, we are eliminated by intelligent machines.  But perhaps he is projecting human desires on computers.  Perhaps they would be motivated to dominate, but rather to assist.  Or perhaps this feature would be incorporated by AI developers offering this solution to a country or the world, locked in gridlock.

So here is my plea to AI researchers and Sci-fi authors.  Please take this concept and run with it.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Revising Beliefs

August 7, 2015

We know from the immediately preceding post, “Understanding Beliefs,” as well as from earlier healthymemory blog posts, that beliefs are difficult to change.  Yet we inhabit an environment in which there is ongoing dynamic change.  Moreover, modern technology accelerates the amount of information that is being processed and the amount of change that occurs.

Nils J. Nilsson, a true genius who is one of the founders of artificial intelligence, recommends the scientific method, as the scientific method is the primary reason underlying the progress humans have made in the past several centuries.

I would like to see a survey of what people believe about beliefs.  I fear that most would fall short of what Nilsson describes in Understanding Beliefs.  I fear that the idea that we do not have direct knowledge of the external world, but rather develop models of the external world based on experience would be alien to most.  I fear that even among scientists, engineers, and educators there are those to whom this concept is alien.  Moreover, probabilities are likely absent regarding many beliefs being replaced by absolute belief and absolute doubt.  People still refuse to believe even given scientific consensus regarding such topics as evolution and global warming.  Moreover an understanding of statistics and experimental design by the general public would be necessary.  So this lack of sophistication or primitive modes of thinking constitute a considerable obstacle to employing the scientific method.

Nevertheless, just for fun, let’s consider how a country might work were it governed according to the scientific method.  Let’s take the United States for example.  Americans would need to accept scientific results even if they conflicted with their personal beliefs.  Sometimes scientific results  are counterintuitive.  For example, research in the arena of public housing has found that it is less expensive to provide public housing initially, rather than having the homeless work their way up in terms of eligibility by freeing themselves from abuse, finding employment, and so forth.  The savings that accrue are due to the decrease in emergency room visits, ambulance and related costs that are spent on the homeless.  In addition there is also the pride of having a residence that fosters personal development.  Of course, there is the option of completely ignoring the homeless and not providing medical services, but instead just sweeping up the bodies and incinerating them.  In lieu of this radical option, using data to pursue policies that control costs is the preferred option

A similar option exists with respect to medical costs.  The United States has had the highest medical costs in the world that result in third world medical statistics for a long time.  The uninsured have gone to emergency rooms for costly care that is passed on to hospital bills.  The Affordable Care Act is a first attempt to remedy this problem.  Yet it still is receiving stiff resistance from those who think it is wrong to consider medical costs as being a citizen’s right.  Government involvement is a way of providing better medical services while controlling these costs.  Another problem is that the most common means of payment is a fee for service.  It is much more rational to compensate physicians for results, normalized by the condition of the patient, as is done in England.

As the United States is divided into states, it would be possible to design experiments in which different policies were followed in different groups of states and then analyze the results in terms of results and costs.  Although questionnaires would be one component of the evaluation, the primary measure would be the success of the different programs in terms of objective medical results.  Now, in the case of studies regarding health, these results would be normalized with respect to the initial health of the patient.  It should be realized  that the survey data might conflict with the medical results.  That is, people might think that care had deteriorated even thought their health had improved.  These people might have been disappointed and felt annoyed because they did not receive treatments that they wanted, even though they would have been ineffective (given an antibiotic for a virus, for example), or had not been given unnecessary medical tests.

This same paradigm could be followed for other issues.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Understanding Beliefs

August 3, 2015

Understanding Beliefs is a book by Nils J. Nilsson in The MIT Press Essential Knowledge Series.  Perhaps a better title for the book would be “How We Should Believe,”  the reason for this should become clear by the end of this post.  Nilsson is one of the founders of artificial intelligence, and putting the concept of belief into computer science is quite valuable.

He does not work entirely  in the domain of artificial intelligence as he notes contributions from psychologists and neuroscientists.  He invokes Kahneman’s concepts of System One and System Two processes that have been discussed previously in the healthy memory blog.  System One processes run off more or less automatically.  System Two processes are more in the vein of what is regarded as thinking and require mental effort.  Our beliefs are processed automatically through System One and there is little evidence of additional brain activity..  When information contradicts our beliefs, the brain becomes active and if not immediately revoked, System 2 and effortful processing is engaged to deal with the conflicting belief.

Nilsson discusses his own beliefs.  He does not believe that we ever have contact with an external world.  Rather we form concepts or beliefs based on the sensory inputs from an external world and the subsequent cognitive activity.  Moreover, these beliefs are weighted in terms of probabilities.  Nothing is certain.  That is, there are no beliefs with values of 0.0 or 1.0, regardless of how strongly the belief or disbelief is felt.   My views are identical.  These views are common among scientists and philosophers.  Here are some exemplary quotes:

“Objects” do not exist independently of conceptual schemes  We cut up the world into objects when we introduce one of another scheme of description.”  Hilary Putnam, philosopher.

“There was no way to hook up ideas with things…because ideas—mental representations—do not refer to things; they refer to other mental representations.”  Louis Menand, author, referring to thoughts of the philosopher C.S. Pierce.

“There is no quantum world.  There is only an abstract physical  description.  It is wrong to think that the task of physics is to found out how nature is.  Physics concerns what we can say about nature.”  Niels Bohr, physicist.

“The physicist constructs what he terms the physical world, a concept which arises from a peculiar combination of certain observed facts and the reasoning provoked by their perception.”  Robert Lindsay and Henry Margenau, physicists.

Nilsson advocates the scientific method as being the gold standard for confirming or rejecting beliefs.   When beliefs are modified, probabilities are adjusted, but beliefs are no entirely confirmed or discounted.  Near the beginning of the eleventh century, al_Haytham, an Islamic scholar who lived in Basra and Cairo, wrote the Book of Optics,which included a theory of vision and a theory of sight.  According to one authority, “Ibn al-Haytham was the pioneer of the modern scientific method.  His book changed the meaning of the term “optics” and established experiments as the norm of proof in the field.  His investigations were not based on abstract theories, but on experimental evidence, and his experiments were systematic and repeatable.  Unlike the Greeks, in his theory of vision rays of light came from the objects seen rather than from the eyes that see them.

Some of the European contributors to the development of the scientific method are Robert Grosseteste (c. 1125-1253), Roger Bacon (c. 1214-1294), Galileo (1564-1642), Francis Bacon (1561-1626), Rene Descartes (1596-1650), and, of course, Isaac Newton(1643-1727).

Problems arise when the problem is how to change erroneous beliefs.  The default for people is what they already believe, and much effort is involved in changing beliefs.  Moreover, we tend to seek out information that confirms rather than disconfirm our beliefs.  The internet has exacerbated this problem.  Different sites cater to different beliefs and we tend to search for information that confirms our beliefs.

The psychologist Daniel T. Gilbert describes two separate mental activities for processing a new piece of information, comprehension and assessment.  Assessment involves comparing  what is comprehended with other information.  It is much easier to reject than to accept information that does not correspond with existing beliefs.  Moreover, people do not like to suspend judgment.  Closure is preferred.  However, doubt us a valuable defense against belief traps.

Great minds can embrace doubt  The physicist Richard Feynman said, “I can live with doubt and uncertainty and not knowing—I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing that to have answers that might be wrong.  I have approximate answers and possible beliefs and different degrees of certainty about different things but I’m not absolutely sure of anything and there are many things I don’t know anything about.”

I fear that if we contrasted what  Feynman said with the typical individual on the street, we would find that most people have definite opinions about many things the know nothing about.  And many of these beliefs fly in the face of accepted scientific opinion—evolution for example.

Nilsson believes that the scientific method offers the best way discovered so far to invent  and evaluation beliefs.  And he believes that the best antidote to belief traps is to express our belies to the reasoned criticisms of others.  But as you should remember from the previous healthy memory blog post on belief, that beliefs are extremely difficult to change.  The viability of Nilsson’s  remedies will be discussed in the next healthy memory blog post.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.