From the Edge: What Scientific Concept Would Improve Everybody's Cognitive Toolkit?

This interesting David Brooks column in today's New York Times alerted me to the Edge.org's latest World Question: What Scientific Concept Would Improve Everybody's Cognitive Toolkit? What particularly caught my attention was 2002 Economics Nobelist Daniel Kahneman's entry on the "focusing illusion" which he summarizes as: "Nothing In Life Is As Important As You Think It Is, While You Are Thinking About It." Kahneman asserts:

Education is an important determinant of income — one of the most important — but it is less important than most people think. If everyone had the same education, the inequality of income would be reduced by less than 10%. When you focus on education you neglect the myriad other factors that determine income. The differences of income among people who have the same education are huge.

Kahneman is reminding us that we all know lots of people who did really well in their elite (and not-so-elite) universities and who are now not making extraordinary amounts of money.

My own answer would be that people's thinking would strongly benefit from a greater understanding of economics. Happily, it turns out that behavioral scientist Dylan Evans agrees:

It is not hard to identify the discipline in which to look for the scientific concept that would most improve everybody's cognitive toolkit; it has to be economics. No other field of study contains so many ideas ignored by so many people at such great cost to themselves and the world. The hard task is picking just one of the many such ideas that economists have developed.

On reflection, I plumped for the law of comparative advantage, which explains how trade can be beneficial for both parties even when one of them is more productive than the other in every way. At a time of growing protectionism, it is more important than ever to reassert the value of free trade. Since trade in labor is roughly the same as trade in goods, the law of comparative advantage also explains why immigration is almost always a good thing — a point which also needs emphasizing at a time when xenophobia is on the rise.

In the face of well-meaning but ultimately misguided opposition to globalization, we must celebrate the remarkable benefits which international trade has brought us, and fight for a more integrated world.

I've only just begun to dip into the various answers to the Edge.org question, but another answer that I strongly agree with is from the Economist's digital editor Tom Standage who points out that "you can show something is definitely dangerous, but not definitely safe." As he correctly notes:

A wider understanding of the fact that you can't prove a negative would, in my view, do a great deal to upgrade the public debate around science and technology....Scientists are often accused of logic-chopping when they point this out. But it would be immensely helpful to public discourse if there was a wider understanding that you can show something is definitely dangerous, but you cannot show it is definitely safe.

The result of the public's failure to understand this is the continuing rise of the most pernicious idea of the 21st century so far, the precautionary principle.

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  • ||

    This interesting David Brooks column in today's New York Times

    Dude, April Fool's isn't until Friday.

  • Franklin Harris||

    +1

  • ||

    What is maddening about David Brooks is that on very rare occasions he gets it right. Which only serves to lend credibility to the nonsense he spews the rest of the time.

  • Barely Suppressed Rage||

    What Scientific Concept Would Improve Everybody's Cognitive Toolkit?

    1. Fuck you, third-party spam filter. What the fuck?

    2. Answer to the above question: Skepticism.

  • ||

    Lack of proof is not a form of proof.

  • ||

    Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence

    I don't care who said it, I like this version.

  • ||

    I'm not sure that they are perfectly equivalent ideas. Absence argues that not finding anything shouldn't lead you to thinking that there is still something more to find. Proof is about not assuming that the nature of truth is willfully obscuring itself as a signalling method.

  • ||

    Perfectly equivalent, no, but close, and it sings better my way.

    Lack of evidence proof is not a form of evidence proof.

    Lack=absence and you get to use it twice. "Lack of evidence is not evidence of lack(ing?)" just doesn't work.

  • ||

    I accept your argument on syntactical aesthetics.

  • Zeb||

    But evidence and proof are quite different things.

  • ||

    A huge Wang is not proof of a huge wang.

  • Old Mexican||

    If everyone had the same education, the inequality of income would be reduced by less than 10%.


    Ha ha ha ha! That's funny.

    Oh, my God, he's being serious....

    HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA!!!!!!!!!!

  • Old Mexican||

    I am laughing because this moron [2002 Economics Nobelist Daniel Kahneman] is relying on the debunked (and beaten and left for dead) Labor Theory of Value.

    MORON!!!!

  • ||

    OM: Kahneman relies on the labor theory of value?

  • Jersey Patriot||

    Ron, you'd have a more productive conversation if you taught calculus to a fish.

  • Old Mexican||

    Re: Jersey Patriot,

    Ron, you'd have a more productive conversation if you taught calculus to a fish.


    Thank you for the warning. Should I begin your calculus lesson, JP?

  • Old Mexican||

    Re: Ron Bailey,

    Kahneman relies on the labor theory of value?


    WHAT ELSE, Ron? What else is he relying on? Education is a PERSONAL CHOICE. Just because you fed the same info to 10 fools and one brilliant individual you're NOT going to make the fools any more productive.

    So, either he's GUESSING (which is bad in itself) or he's relying on some perceived ADDED VALUE just by virtue of receiving the same education, how much effort went into teaching the 11 guys - i.e. THAT'S Labor Theory of Value.

  • yonemoto||

    I think he's just making a statistical observation, and what he does is precisely debunk the labor theory of value (i.e. that strictly time put into education is what creates its "value")

  • Old Mexican||

    Re: yonemoto,

    I think he's just making a statistical observation, and what he does is precisely debunk the labor theory of value[.]


    I thought the same and even made an analysis because I could not get my head to wrap around what he was implying, but found no compelling case for his argument.

    You see, just increasing the features offered by all flat-screen televisions is not going to make those TVs more expensive (i.e. achieve more income.) The same happens with people: Just because you increase the features, does not mean all people will suddenly become more valuable. This can be seen by a supply/demand analysis.

    So what is it? Well, I believe Kahneman simply takes for granted that more education = increased income, a quantitative effect (i.e. Labor Theory of Value,) and made his analysis based on that assumption, unfortunately being CARELESS enough not to notice real world evidence that shows that when you raise the education requirement for new employees, the VALUE of education DECREASES - you can see this yourself just by the increased number of job openings asking for MBAs, pretty soon it will be PhDs.

  • ||

    Old Mexican,

    I think he is saying the same thing that you are.

    It is common knowledge that the more education you give to people, the wealthier people will be. But whether it it is because someone will always have to sweep the floors or because education is more a signal of innate earning capital than a creator of new earning capital, the empirical truth is that the common knowledge is wrong.

  • Old Mexican||

    Re: MikeP,

    It is common knowledge that the more education you give to people, the wealthier people will be.


    But there is a causation issue when it comes to education->more pay, Mike, mainly: How much is pay related to education vs intelligence? A better educated person may be better EDUCATED because he or she is SMART, not necessarly because information was showered upon him or her.

    It is possible Kahneman does not want to go that route because he would then have to consider bell curves and other non-PC no-no's.

  • ||

    Old Mexican,

    You're still missing it. Neither he nor I nor you is arguing that more education means more pay. Kahneman is arguing that people believe that more education means more pay. Then he goes on to argue that that belief simply isn't true and that people who take that position are trapped in a focusing illusion.

    That is, as I finished my last comment, ...

    ...the empirical truth is that the common knowledge is wrong.

  • yonemoto||

    Are you sure it's not an even if argument? Sometimes, you have to meet people on their own terms.

  • ||

    He's got a point.

    It's not exactly the LTOV, but the idea is kind of the same.

    Education is not necessarily a good measure of merit or skill.

    What I think is that while income is correlated with income, this has a lot to do with professional class jobs and the structured pay rates that the larger corporations (and government!) award in response to degree levels. But the professional class doesn't extend across the whole economic spectrum, and doesn't even really contain the highest income levels.

    Plus you have to stay in your field to make money. Having a law degree doesn't mean you'll make an awesome software developer.

  • ||

    Er ... while income is correlated with education

  • ||

    Rightly, it should be said as the Theory of Labor Value.

    Moronic laborites and other socialist dolts say "Labor Theory of Value."

    Either way, it's false belief and not true theory.

    Labor is the source of production and nothing more.

    Labor has nothing to do with value. Today, an ounce of gold sells for $1,418.

    A man could find an ounce of gold while walking and sell it for the same price as all those labored deep in a mine to get gold.

    At once, all should see that labor does not cause value.

    Value arises when one thing exchanges for another. When one of two things in exchange is money, we give value another name -- price.

    Value results from the expression of a ratio of importance between two commodities and arises from exchange with a winning bidder.

  • UneasyRider||

    Maybe, I'm missing the point, but I don't follow your argument. From LTOV, the value of gold would be based on the average amount of labor required to mine and refine gold. You seem to be saying that since it is possible to find gold without labor, the price of gold is not equal to the labor required. In your specific case, this is true, but on average, the rule would still hold. I'm not an economist. I know nothing more of the LTOV than what a cursory reading of Wikipedia tells me, but your example doesn't settle the argument for me.

  • Barely Suppressed Rage||

    Note that it does not say that the inequality of income would be reduced TO less than 10%; it says it would be reduced BY less than 10%. In other words, even if everyone got the same, high-quality education, that wouldn't have all that much of an impact on "income inequality" (which I think is a bogus, bullshit concept to begin with).

  • Zeb||

    You don't think that uniformity of education would have any effect on income distributions? I don't see how this observation depends on the (yes, stupid and wrong) labor theory of value.

  • Old Mexican||

    Re: Zeb,

    You don't think that uniformity of education would have any effect on income distributions?


    Let me ask you this: Do you think that dressing everybody in Armani suits will make everybody equally talented?

    Education is a PERSONAL CHOICE. YOU choose to be educated, so no matter how much info they feed to YOU, that will not matter unless YOU choose to take that information and do something with it.

    I don't see how this observation depends on the (yes, stupid and wrong) labor theory of value.


    I don't see how it does not, considering that this man is basing his conclusion on the basis of a presumed ADDED VALUE just by virtue of an EFFORT applied to a PRODUCT - that's LToV. Forget about if the person is ugly or handsome, tall or short, well spoken or a stutter, intelligent or a FOOL. Nah, if you make them all A, you have then B+10%.

  • sarcasmic||

    A wider understanding of the fact that you can't prove a negative would, in my view, do a great deal to upgrade the public debate around science and technology

    But then the progressive left would have one of their favorite tools taken away: shifting the burden of proof.

    They would have to prove that their ideas have merit, instead of demanding that their opposition prove a negative.

    Without logical fallacies the progressive left has nothing.

  • ||

    As I mentioned in a previous thread, they like to have plausible imbecility. So, for that matter, does the right.

  • ||

    Would it have killed the men for one guy to wear a different color suit?
    Red would have been nice.

  • ||

    Dark gray and dark blue. Any other colors are prohibited.

  • Old Mexican||

    My own answer would be that people's thinking would strongly benefit from a greater understanding of economics.


    It would certainly make them less prone to have wooly thoughts.

  • cyto||

    And women, they do get wooly...

  • ||

    My own answer would be that people's thinking would strongly benefit from a greater understanding of economics.

    Depends. Economics is not objective truth, just observable results that still must be interpreted. The history of economics is riddled with just as much magical thinking as any of the other soft sciences.

  • ||

    The wife hates it when I tell her "Everything has a price." Somehow the trade-off of time vs opportunity costs is a dirty idea to her.

    I use the gas line at Costco as an example for my kids. Sitting in line for 20 minutes to save $.10/gallon shows you that an hour of your time is only worth about $4-5.

  • ||

    My wife is coming around on the subject. She finally let me hire someone to mow the yard for her.

  • ||

    Gutter cleaning was the last straw for me. How much of my income is it worth to you for me to be out of work for 6 months to a year, all because you want me to climb up on the roof and end up I falling off?

    Are you sure it doesn't make more sense to pay someone $100 or so to do it for me a couple times?

  • yonemoto||

    Come on, what are the odds that you fall off, plus, unless you're living in a typical libertoid mansion (tophat and monocle not included), it's not like an 8 foot fall is going to kill ya? Attach yourself to a harness if you're paranoid.

    You fail to consider the plus side of the equation - you get some alone time up there. Could have some value to it.

  • yonemoto||

    isn't that what kids are for? Or is that not allowed in the hyper protective nanny state.

  • ||

    Your calculus seems right, JW, but if you're going to a no-wait filling station and paying a higher price and --this is the key not taking that extra time and selling either your labor (poor man's capital) or a mix of labor and capital of others embodied in a product at a rate higher than the rate you spent for the higher priced gasoline, then all you're doing is paying more for the same product while bamboozling your wife.

  • ||

    Or you could enjoy the time you are saving at the filling station as leisure, which at the margin is worth more to you than selling your labor. If it wasn't worth more, you would already have a second job.

  • Brett L||

    Look how much it helps Paul Krugman!

  • Old Mexican||

    Re: SugarFree,

    Depends. Economics is not objective truth, just observable results that still must be interpreted.


    That's a lie. Economics is an a prioristic discipline, deductive, not inductive, same as mathematics.

    The history of economics is riddled with just as much magical thinking as any of the other soft sciences.
    There's a lot of crackpottery, to be sure, but the physical sciences and, especially, the MEDICAL sciences, are not immune to this either, which makes this argument moot.

  • yonemoto||

    "The history of economics is riddled with just as much magical thinking as any of the other soft sciences."

    Not to mention the hard sciences! Zing!

  • yonemoto||

    aw crap, OM beat me to it.

  • ||

    SugarFree says:

    Economics is not objective truth, just observable results that still must be interpreted. The history of economics is riddled with just as much magical thinking as any of the other soft sciences.

    In a scant 32 words, SugarFree manages to express numerous false beliefs.

    [1] Economics is not a science, although there is a Science of Economics.

    Science means recorded knowing. That's all science means. All too often, dummies confuse the word science with the word 'truth' or with the word 'academia'.

    Economics means matters relevant to man regarding wealth. That's all it means.

    Economics is not the "science of scarcity" or any other claimed b.s. from academia.

    [2] The basis of economics is the one great, invariant law -- an objective truth -- the Law of Price.

    The Law of Price holds that the winning bids of demand in the face of supply sets the price.

    The Law of Price holds even when regulation and meddling interfere in economic relationships.

    Statistics is the method by which men interpret "observable results."

  • Mango Punch||

    I had a very interesting discussion with a counterpart of mine (who is a Pakistani immigrant) about how the US allowing skilled workers into the country - while good for the nation as a whole - is bad for me because it increases competition for the types of jobs I seek and lowers my wage. Whereas letting in more unskilled workers and laborers is an unambiguous positive is for me (and the rest of the white collar).

    Why so many skilled and higher class people are against greater numbers of unskilled immigrants is a mystery to me. I suppose social welfare and other externalities (crime?) explain a lot of it.

  • Trespassers W||

    The result of the public's failure to understand this is the continuing rise of the most pernicious idea of the 21st century so far, the precautionary principle.

    The potential risks from adhering to the precautionary principle are too great. To be on the safe side, we should ignore it.

  • ||

    Trespassers W: Very nice observation. Thanks.

  • ||

    You mean, as a precaution, we should ignore it?

  • ||

    My own answer would be that people's thinking would strongly benefit from a greater understanding of economics.

    Hear, hear.

    Every fucking day, I am subjected to a barrage of Union Hall Talking Points. Since I do not possess the teacher gene, I cannot be bothered to teach these jabbering morons even the simplest of economic concepts.

    Of course, the government school economics curriculum apparently still includes such antiquated nonsense as the natural monopoly (like telephones). They certainly do not cover the difference between "investment" and "expense".

  • ||

    Lord knows we could all use some improvement in that area.

    www.privacy-online.it.tc

  • ||

    And, of course, that oldie-but-goody:

    CORRELATION IS NOT CAUSATION

  • Really?||

    Recognizing that you cannot prove a negative is the most valuable one. Followed by the notion that the moral and the practical are inseparable.

    Finally, contradictory thinking is not acceptable in a rational society.

  • Irresponsible Hater||

    Here's a scientific concept I think about every time I find myself trying to decrypt the edge.org's mindnumbingly, disorientingly, poorly designed website: simple, clear formatting makes things easy to read and therefore easier to understand.

    They've been using that shit site design forever. It makes no sense, and makes it difficult to tell who's writing on what topic, what the fucking question even is, and who's responding to whom.

    Why does the edge.org hate its readers?

    Bailey, get on that, stat!

  • JD the elder||

    IH: I was going to suggest Readability, but it appears that the geniuses at Edge have managed to make a site that even breaks Readability, which is impressive.

    Anyway, I liked Gloria Origgi's piece on "kakonomics", which immediately follows Standage's. It could be better-thought-out and IMO would benefit from more of a cultural-anthropological approach, but it's an interesting opening on why some people and cultures seem to prefer low-value exchanges.

  • ||

    What Scientific Concept Would Improve Everybody's Cognitive Toolkit?

    Internal consistency. The fact that we best model the real world based on application of natural laws or principles logically and consistently applied. In short, you don’t get to argue “A” in one case and “not A” in another. “A” either holds or it is not a principle or law.

    Interestingly, it strikes me that adherence to this is a large portion of what makes one tend towards libertarian thought. I see the divide in types of thinking as libertarian(scientific) vs progressive(rhetorical)

  • sarcasmic||

    Principles are for ideologues.

    Decisions should be based upon how you feel, not what you think.

    Ideas should be judged by the source, not by the idea itself.

    This way you can be inconstant and not be a hypocrite, because it's not hypocritical to violate principles you do not have.

  • yonemoto||

    But if inconstancy is your guiding principle is that no hypocritical in itself?

  • Jersey Patriot||

    If everyone had the same education, the inequality of income would be reduced by less than 10%. When you focus on education you neglect the myriad other factors that determine income.

    Put another way, getting good grades is good preparation for getting additional good grades...and not much else.

  • Dan||

    My own answer would be that people's thinking would strongly benefit from a greater understanding of economics.

    Mine would be Boolean Algebra (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elementary_Boolean_algebra). All children should be introduced to this in grade school. It will inherently promote logical thought. Something often found missing in the world today.

  • Jersey Patriot||

    ObTopic: I think the concept that would help the most is this: an ordered outcome does not mean a designed outcome. Libertarians are familiar with this through the works of Hayek and Mises. Scientists are familiar with it through evolution.

    Not understanding this principle underlies a lot of bad thinking. Nearly every conspiracy theory is based on this fallacy. Most fundamentalist religion is, too. So is most political thinking (ODS, BDS, CDS, etc.).

  • Zeb||

    That's a good one (and one that David Brooks would probably never think of). I might add that an ordered outcome does not require a design.

  • ||

    I think the concept that would help the most is this: an ordered outcome does not mean a designed outcome.

    The negation of the Statist Fallacy would be most beneficial, yes.

  • ||

    Many people with above average intelligence are unaware that they do not posses one tenth of the knowledge of the average people combined. The intelligentsia imposing their notions upon average people is the imposition of ignorance upon knowledge. Thomas Sowell

    I think that the knowledge or information problem would be excellent for the public at large. Central planning largely fails for this very reason. It doesn't matter how many Top Men you have, there is simply too much information to be beneficially correlated by a small group.

  • yonemoto||

    But then how else are you going to throw smart people under the bus? The cost of sivilization is scapegoats!

  • ||

    Speaking of economic illiterates, Jennifer Granholm is on Bloomberg right now, yammering about "green energy" and how we desperately need a national industrial policy.

    What a maroon.

  • ||

    Jennifer Granholm is on Bloomberg right now, yammering about "green energy" and how we desperately need a national industrial policy.

    I thought we closed Michigan and gave it back to the Chippewa?

  • T||

    Upon further reflection, they decided running the casinos was a better gig than trying to clean up Michigan. And really, can you blame them?

  • ||

    What Scientific Concept Would Improve Everybody's Cognitive Toolkit?

    Variance

  • yonemoto||

    I vote standard deviation.

  • ||

    I am not spam...I am a human being!
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v.....r_embedded

  • ||

    Now, where was I. Oh yes
    What Scientific Concept Would Improve Everybody's Cognitive Toolkit?

    Variance.

  • ||

    "The result of the public's failure to understand this is the continuing rise of the most pernicious idea of the 21st century so far, the precautionary principle.

    "

    Hmm, usually when I hear the precatuinary principle applied it's only to situations that could result where you could get very bad/catestrphic results, not just to every little thing.

    For example, I wish it had been applied a bit more to the nuke plants they built in CA on fault lines.

  • jasno||

    Competitive advantage... something that has crossed my mind a lot this past week as I reduce my hours at my high paying job to stay home and rebuild a bathroom. As much as I'm aware of it, I just can't seem to put it into practice.

  • Irresponsible Hater||

    Ceterus Paribus: taking the variable at hand in isolation. It takes a little bit of discipline, but it is the only way to take thought experiments (or real experiments) seriously.

    Counterfactuals: what would the world look like if your theory was wrong? No different, you say? Then your theory's crap.

  • ||

    The most important thing we could use is the very thing that this question lacks - the statement of a concrete goal. That is, we should ask the question: What Scientific Concept Would Improve Everybody's Cognitive Toolkit for Accomplishing XXX?

    Without inclusion of a goal, we really have no way of knowing whether any particular "cognitive tool" will help us - for no single tool is useful for all tasks.

    Think about it, people!

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