Posts Tagged ‘Cognitive science’

The Law is Medieval

October 25, 2017

This post is based on an article by Oliver Roeder on the FiveThirtyEight website on 17 Oct 2017 titled “The Supreme Court is Allergic to Math.”

In 1897, before he took his seat on the Supreme Court, Oliver Wendell Holmes delivered a famous speech at Boston University, advocating for empiricism over traditionalism: “For the rational study of the law…the man of the future is the man of statistics and the master of economics. It is revolting to have no better reason for a rule of law than that so it was laid down in the time of Henry IV.” HM believes that if Oliver Wendel Holmes were alive today, he would also argue for an understanding of psychology and cognitive science. Much has been learned about how and why we humans perceive, think, and act. Unfortunately there is a poor fit between this knowledge and the law because the law is medieval.

The article notes that this problem was on full display this month, when the Supreme Court heard arguments in a case that will determine the future of partisan gerrymandering. The issue here is how to measure a map’s partisan bias and to create a standard for when a gerrymandered map infringes on voters’ rights. A proposed measure is called the efficiency gap. To calculate it, you take the difference between each party’s waster votes for winning candidates beyond what the candidate needed to win—and divide that by the total number of votes case. The aim here is to measure the extent of partisan gerrymandering. Now a threshold needs to be established for deciding when gerrymandering is agreed upon, and that is a reasonable basis for argument. And other metrics can be proposed for measuring gerrymandering. But the only intelligent way of assessing gerrymandering is through a statistic. But apparently, this is too much for some justices mental capacities. HM is asking himself why the term feebleminded was recalled while reading this. This is no esoteric statistical technique. And, indeed, statistical measures provide the only supportable means of addressing this problem. Chief Justice John Roberts dismissed attempts to quantify partisan gerrymandering: “It may be simply my educational background, but I can only describe i as sociological gobbledygook.” To be fair to Chief Justice Roberts, the fault may well lie in the educational system. Previous healthy memory blog posts have argued for teaching some basic statistics before graduating from high school. One cannot be a responsible citizen without some basic understanding of statistics, much less someone deciding questions on the Supreme Court.

Another instance of judicial innumeracy was the Supreme Court’s decision on a Fourth Amendment case about federal searches and seizures. In his opinion Justice Potter Stewart discussed how no data existed showing that people in states that had stricter rules regarding admission of evidence obtained in an unlawful search were less likely to be subjected to these searches. He wrote, “Since as a practical matter, it is never easy to prove a negative, it is hardly likely that conclusive factual data could ever be assembled.

But as the author’s article, Oliver Roeder, wrote “This, however, is silly. It conflates two meanings of the word “negative.” Philosophically, sure, it’s difficult to prove that something does not exist: No matter how prevalent gray elephants are, their number alone can’t prove the nonexistence of polka-dotted elephants. Arithmetically, though, scientists, social and otherwise, demonstrate negatives—as in a decrease, or a difference in rate—all the time. There’s nothing special about these kinds of negatives. Some drug tends to lower blood pressure. The average lottery player will lose money. A certain voting requirement depresses turnout.

Ryan Enos, a political scientist at Harvard, calls this the “negative effect fallacy. This is just one example of an empirical misunderstanding that has proliferated like a tsunami through decades of judges’ thinking, affecting cases concerning “free speech, voting rights, and campaign finance.

Some are suspicious that this allergy to statistical evidence is really a more of a screen—a convenient way to make a decision based on ideology while couching it in terms of practicality. Daniel Hemel, who teaches law at the University of Chicago said: [Roberts] is very smart and so are the judges who would be adjudicating partisan gerrymandering claims—I’m sure he and they could wrap their minds around the math. The ‘gobbledygook’ argument seems to be masking whatever his real objection might be.’

Reluctantly, one comes to the conclusion that there is no objective truth in the law. The corpus of law can be regarded as a gigantic projective test, analogous to the Rorschach Test. Judges can look into the law and see in it what they want to see. Rarely is a decision unanimous. And frequently decisions break down along the strict constructionist philosophy. But the Constitution should be viewed as a changing and growing document as democracy advances. Strict constructionists feel compelled to project themselves back in time and interpret the words literally as written. HM wonders why they would want to go back to a time when slavery existed, women could not vote, and blacks were counted as fraction of a human being. As long as time travel is involved, why not try to think of what they would have been written in light of today’s knowledge. After all, today’s high school science student knows more science than Benjamin Franklin did, who was the most distinguished scientist of his day. And the disciplines of psychology, cognitive science, and inferential statistics did not exist.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2017. 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.

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The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone (Unabridged)

July 1, 2017

“The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone” is an important book by Steven Sloman and Phillip Fernbach. An earlier healthy memory blog post with the same title as the book has already been written. That post was based on a summary of the book done by Elizabeth Kolbert for the New Yorker. Having now read the entire book, HM feels that this volume deserves more detailed attention.

Drs. Sloman and Fernbach are cognitive scientists. Cognitive science emerged in the 1950s to understand the workings of the human mind. It asks questions such as “how is thinking possible?” What goes on inside the brain that allows sentient beings to do math, understand their mortality, act virtuously and (sometimes) selflessly, and still do simple things, like eat with a knife and fork? Currently no machine, and probably no other animal, is capable of these acts.

The authors write, “The human mind is not like a desktop computer, designed to hold reams of information. The mind is a flexible problem solver that evolved to extract only the most useful information to guide decisions in new situations. As a consequence, we individuals store very little detailed information about the world in our heads. In that sense people are like bees and society a beehive: Our intelligence resides not in individual brains, but in the collective mind. To function, individuals rely not only on knowledge stored within our skulls, but also on knowledge stored elsewhere: in our bodies, in the environment, and especially in other people.” In the lingo of the healthy memory blog, information not held within our individual brains, is stored in transactive memory. The authors conclude, “When you put it all together, human thought thought is incredibly impressive, but it is a product of a community, not of any individual alone.”

The authors make a compelling argument that we all suffer, to a greater or lesser extent, from an illusion of understanding, an illusion that we understand how things work when in fact our understanding is meager. Unfortunately, we are not adequately aware of the shortcomings in our understanding. We think we understand much much more than we actually do. Readers of the healthy memory blog should be aware of the risks of having absolute beliefs, that all beliefs should be hedged with some reasonable degree of doubt.

The authors note that history is full of events that seem familiar, that elicit a sense of mild to deep understanding, but whose true historical context is different that we imagine. The complex details get lost in the mist of time while myths emerge that simplify and make stories digestible in part to service one interest group or another. There is a very interesting book by James W. Lowen titled “Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook got wrong”. He argues that history as taught in the public schools is basically propaganda advanced by the school board selecting texts. HM found this book most instructive. People should be recalled for a defective education, but reading this book is more practical.

It is also important to remember that the study of history is dynamic. New research yields new interpretations of history.

The authors write, “Thought is for action. Thinking evolved as an extension of the ability to act effectively; it evolved to make us better at doing what’s necessary to achieve our goals. Thought allows us to select from among a set of possible actions by predicting the effects of each action and by imagining how the world would be if we had taken different actions in the past.”

It is unlikely that we would have survived had we been dependent on only the limited knowledge stored in our individual brains. The authors write,”The secret to our success is that we live in a world in which knowledge is all around us. It is in the things we make, in our bodies and workspaces, and another people. We live in a community of knowledge.”

But not all of this is knowledge is accurate, meaning that there are degrees of belief and some knowledge is faux. Understanding that our knowledge is not golden can offer us improved ways of approaching our most complex problems. Recognizing the limits of our understanding should make us more humble, and open our minds to other people’s ideas and ways of thinking. The authors note that It offers lessons about how to avoid things like bad financial decisions, and can enable us to improve our political system and help us assess how much reliance we should have on experts versus how much decision-making power should be given to individual voters.

The authors write, “This book is being written at a time of immense polarization on the American political scene. Liberals and conservative find each other’s views repugnant, and as a result, Democrats and Republicans cannot find common ground or compromise.” The authors note, “One reason for this gridlock is that both politicians and voters don’t realize how little they understand. Whenever an issue is important enough for public debate, it is also complicated enough to be difficult to understand.” They conclude, “Complexity abounds. If everybody understood this, our society would likely be less polarized.”

Neuroscience is much in the news as there have been many exciting developments in the field. Little is currently being written about cognitive science, although there are exciting and relevant new findings in cognitive science. The following is directly quoted from “The Knowledge Illusion: ”Our skulls may delimit the frontier of our brains, but they do not limit the frontier of our knowledge. The mind stretches beyond to include the body, the environment, and people other than one’s-self, so the study of the mind cannot be reduced to the study of the brain. Cognitive science is not the same as neuroscience.”

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2017. 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.

Mindsight

December 14, 2013

When I was in high school I wanted to be a psychiatrist. I read Freud and learned about the id, the ego, and the superego. I read Carl Gustav Jung and learned about individuation, extroversion, introversion, and archetypes as well as the collective unconscious. I read Alfred Adler and learned about individual psychology and the inferiority complex. The patients in case histories were identified with mysterious initials. But when I attended psychology and started taking psychology courses I became obsessed with learning how memory works, how we perceive, and how we form concepts and make decisions. So I studied in the area of human experimental psychology and earned a Ph.D. In the working world, I addressed applications and worked in the area of applied experimental and engineering psychology. I became a cognitive psychologist studying cognitive science. Psychology had been divided into half. One half, consisting of what most people think of as psychology, clinical and counseling psychology. And the other half, consisting of people with more of a scientific bent interested in basic and applied psychology. Historically, there has been little interaction between these two halves of the field of psychology.

So when I read Mindsight by Daniel Siegel, M.D, and saw him addressing clinical problems using the language of cognitive science and relating clinical problems to brain structures, I was overwhelmed. Moreover, in his case histories he uses first names, rather than cryptic initials. Daniel Siegel is a clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine and co-director of the UCLA Mindfulness Awareness Research Center. Mindsight refers to gaining insights not only in to how our own minds work, but also in the ways the minds of our fellow human beings work. I believe that mindsight is central not only to a healthy memory and our own mental functioning, but also is key to effective relationships. I could go on and further argue that this is important to government policies, but I shall not belabor that here.

I strongly recommend Mindsight to everyone, especially healthymemory blog post readers. I think it would make a great and valuable Christmas Gift.

Obviously mindsight involves mindfulness. Many healthymemory blog posts on mindfulness can be found by entering mindfulness into the healthymemory search block.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2013. 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.

Consciousness

September 1, 2010

This blog post is another in the series inspired by the book, The Scientific American Brave New Brain.1 That book presents a table contrasting the way the brain once was regarded, the way it is presently regarded, and some conjectures about what tomorrow might hold. According to Brave New Brain in the past, consciousness was regarded as a mystery. Today, consciousness is regarded as a mystery. And in the future, consciousness will still be regarded as a mystery. I strongly agree with the assessment and with the prediction. The most that can be said about consciousness is that it is an emergent phenomenon. That is, it is a byproduct that emerges from the complex operations of our brain. But this is not an explanation. All it says it that it just happens.

There is also the question as to what is the role of consciousness. Some would argue that consciousness is epiphenomenal, that it does not play a causal role, that causation occurs below the level of consciousness, and that we are just along for the ride. Although one can make this argument, it does not provide a pragmatic view. If you live your life simply taking what comes along and not playing an active role, the results will likely be disappointing. To the extent possible, you want to use your consciousness to some end, to achieve outcomes that are desirable.

We know that effective learning requires conscious attention. Although there are accounts of scientific discoveries apparently occurring out of thin air when the individual was sleeping or musing about something else, it has always been the case that the scientist had spent countless hours working on the problem previously. I’m sure there are similar accounts in other cognitive endeavors. I frequently have the experience of after having failed to remember an item, that I will recall it at some later time when I was not thinking of it. However, in all cases I had spent considerable conscious effort trying to recall the item earlier. Presumably my unconscious mind continued to try to recall the information after I abandoned my consciousness effort. Nevertheless, it was the previous conscious activity that apparently initiated this unconscious effort.

Predictions have been made that in the future we shall be able to download information directly from computers and the internet into our brains. First of all, before this information could be transformed into a format usable by our brains, enormous advances would need to be made in brain science. But suppose this problem is solved, what would that mean? Unfortunately I purchase many publications that I never get around to reading. In the lingo of the Healthymemory Blog, this is information in potential transactive memory that I have made available. What is the difference between this and information that might be downloaded directly into my brain. I need to read the material consciously before I can understand the information and relate it to other information I have processed.

So the big question for the future is whether consciousness can be expanded. Can we learn how to expand our short term and working memory capacity? To do so, we need to have a thorough understanding of consciousness. And the prospects for such an understanding developing are dim.

1Horstman, J. (2010). San Francisco” Jossey-Bass.

 © Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2010. 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.