The edge question

There is an organization called Edge (here) and one of their great events is a question that is answered by many famous people in science and the arts. This year the question is from Richard Thaler. The flat earth and geocentric world are examples of wrong scientific beliefs that were held for long periods. Can you name your favorite example and for extra credit why it was believed to be true? There are a few answers to do with thought and brains. I am sure you will find these and some of the other replies interesting and recommend reading the collection. Below are some excerpts that fit with this blog’s subject matter.

Alun Anderson, author of After the Ice: Life, Death, and Geopolitics in the New Arctic, remembered when the Great Chain of Being was discarded. “The Great Chain of Being is another great example of a long-held, still not fully displaced, false view and also stems from the same kind of “wrongly centered” thinking. … Essentially the view is that humans stand at the pinnacle of creation (or just below God) and all other life forms are less perfect to a varying degree. Evolutionary theory teaches that all creatures are equally adapted to the niches in which they live; every branch of the tree is thus in a sense equally perfect.”

Irene Pepperberg, author of Alex and Me pointed out how birds were wrongly considered very stupid. “A corollary: That parrots were not only stupid, but also could never learn to do anything more than mimic human speech. It was believed to be true because the training techniques initially used in laboratories were not appropriate for teaching heterospecific communication.”

Christian Keysers, a neuroscientist from Groningen, felt that Artificial Intelligence attitudes were misleading. “For a long time the brain was thought to contain separate parts designed for motor control and visual perception. … I believe that this wrong belief was so deeply engrained because of AI, … I call this the computer fallacy: thinking of the brain as a computer turned out to harm our understanding of the brain.”

Howard Gardner, author of Changing Minds, complains about how difficult it is to get changes in education methods. “Among cognitive psychologists, there is widespread agreement that people learn best when they are actively engaged with a topic, have to actively problem solve, as we would put it ‘construct meaning.’ Yet, among individuals young and old, all over the world, there is a view that is incredibly difficult to dislodge. To wit: Education involves a transmission of knowledge/information from someone who is bigger and older (often called ‘the sage on the stage’) to someone who is shorter, younger, and lacks that knowledge/information.”

Roger Schank, author of The Future of Decision-Making, tells about different ways of learning. “The obvious candidate for failed theory in the world of learning is the stimulus-response theory (called behaviorism) that dominated psychology for many years. Yes, my dog gets excited when I make coffee because that is when he knows he will get a treat, but that kind of learned behavior is hardly all there is to learning.”

Jonathan Haidt, author of The Happiness Hypothesis, points of that childhood influences have been over valued. “The closest thing to a persistent flat earth belief in psychology is probably the view that experiences in the first five years of life largely shape the personality of the adult. … Personality is shaped by the interaction of genes with experience; psychologists and lay people alike long underestimated the power of genes, and they spent too much time looking at the wrong phase of childhood (early childhood), instead of at the developmental phases that matter more (i.e., the prenatal period, and adolescence).”

Scott Atran, author of Talking to the Enemy, explains how political ideas (left and right) have interfered with neuroscience. “That is why, after centuries of science, study of the mind is still in a foetal stage, and actual progress has been limited to fundamental discoveries that can be counted on one hand (for example, that human linguistic competence — and thus perhaps other fundamental cognitive structures — is universally and innately fairly well-structured; or that human beings do not think like markov processors, logic machines, or as rational economic and political actors ought to).”

Jordan Pollack from Brandeis complains that the processes of thought are not treated as biological processes. “A persistent belief is that human symbolic intelligence is the highest form of intelligence around. This leads directly to both creationism and good old-fashioned AI which seeks to model cognition using Lisp programs. … The mind, like the weather, envelopes the brain like a planet and requires dynamical and integrated explanations rather than just-so stories.”

Sue Blackmore, author of Consciousness: An Introduction, seeing evidence that believe in a life force is still around. “Human beings are natural dualists. From an early age children begin thinking of themselves not as a physical body but as something that inhabits a physical body or brain. We feel as though we are an entity that has consciousness and free will even though this is all delusion. I suggest that this delusion of duality is also the underlying cause of the hopeless hunt for the life force.”

Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows, traces metaphors for the brain over time. “Contemporary models of the brain’s functioning draw on the popular metaphorical connection between the brain and the digital computer. My sense is that many scientific misconceptions have their roots in the dominant metaphors of the time. Metaphors are powerful explanatory tools, but they also tend to mislead by oversimplifying.”

Marti Hearst from Berkeley gives information on the repeated underestimation of the complexity of the brain. “In the early days of the field of Artificial Intelligence, researchers thought that it would not be terribly difficult to implement a vision recognition or language understanding program. … a July 1966 memo announced a summer project whose goal was to construct “a significant portion of the vision system.” Other early leaders of AI were also optimistic, including Herbert Simon who was quoted saying in 1965 that “machines will be capable, within twenty years, of doing any work a man can do,” and Marvin Minsky, who is attributed with saying “within a generation … the problem of creating ‘artificial intelligence’ will substantially be solved.”

George Lakoff, author of The Political Mind, believes that real human reason is not the same as enlightenment reason and classical rationality. “Enlightenment Reason and Classical Rationality have been shown over and over in the cognitive and brain sciences to be false in just about every respect. Yet they are still being taught and used throughout the academic world and in progressive policy circles. Real human reason is very different. … Given the massive failures of enlightenment reason, widely documented in the brain and cognitive sciences, why is it still taught and widely assumed?”

There may be more answers at the site later.

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