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December 31, 2007 11:56 PM   Subscribe

What have you changed your mind about? Why? - the latest installment of The Edge Annual Question

[FPPs for 2007, 2006, 2005, 2004, 2003, 2002]
posted by Gyan (27 comments total) 42 users marked this as a favorite

 
A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.

The Edge questions are always fun. Helena Cronin's was interesting: More dumbbells but more Nobels: Why men are at the top. So is David Buss' on Female Sexual Psychology.

Personally, I've changed my mind about anthropogenic environmental hazards like pesticides and plastics -- I was quite skeptical that there was a substantial risk from these things, especially compared to something like overfishing -- but now I think it is a case of death by a thousand cuts, and environmental diseases are probably very real, very insidious.
posted by Rumple at 12:42 AM on January 1, 2008 [1 favorite]


Thanks for posting this. Every year I forget, and every year I like these.
posted by dhammond at 1:51 AM on January 1, 2008


Of note -

(p2 #3)
Freeman Dyson: I changed my mind about an important historical question: did the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki bring World War Two to an end? Until this year I used to say, perhaps. Now, because of new facts, I say no.

(p4 #1)
Keith Devlin: What is the nature of mathematics? Becoming a mathematician in the 1960s, I swallowed hook, line, and sinker the Platonistic philosophy dominant at the time... I now see mathematics as something entirely different, as the creation of the (collective) human mind.

(p4 #8)
Helen Fisher: Among these hundreds of millions of people from vastly different cultures, three patterns kept emerging. Divorces regularly peaked during and around the fourth year after wedding. Divorces peaked among couples in their late twenties. And the more children a couple had, the less likely they were to divorce: some 39% of worldwide divorces occurred among couples with no dependent children; 26% occurred among those with one child; 19% occurred among couples with two children; and 7% of divorces occurred among couples with three young... Then suddenly I got that "ah-ha" moment: Women in hunting and gathering societies breastfeed around the clock, eat a low-fat diet and get a lot of exercise — habits that tend to inhibit ovulation. As a result, they regularly space their children about four years apart. Thus, the modern duration of many marriages—about four years—conforms to the traditional period of human birth spacing, four years.

(p10 #1)
Linda Stone: In observing others — in their offices, their homes, at cafes — the vast majority of people hold their breath especially when they first begin responding to email. On cell phones, especially when talking and walking, people tend to hyper-ventilate or over-breathe. Either of these breathing patterns disturbs oxygen and CO2 balance.
Research conducted by two NIH scientists, Margaret Chesney and David Anderson, demonstrates that breath holding can contribute significantly to stress-related diseases. The body becomes acidic, the kidneys begin to re-absorb sodium, and as the oxygen and CO2 balance is undermined, our biochemistry is thrown off...
I've changed my mind about how much attention to pay to my breathing patterns and how important it is to remember to breathe when I'm using a computer, PDA or cell phone.
I've discovered that the more consistently I tune in to healthy breathing patterns, the clearer it is to me when I'm hungry or not, the more easily I fall asleep and rest peacefully at night, and the more my outlook is consistently positive.
I've come to believe that, within the next 5-7 years, breathing exercises will be a significant part of any fitness regime.


(p10 #2)
Stanislas Deheane: Very recently, however, Karl Friston, from UCL in London, has presented two extraordinarily ambitious and demanding papers in which he presents "a theory of cortical responses". Friston's theory rests on a single, amazingly compact premise: the brain optimizes a free energy function. This function measures how closely the brain's internal representation of the world approximates the true state of the real world. From this simple postulate, Friston spins off an enormous variety of predictions: the multiple layers of cortex, the hierarchical organization of cortical areas, their reciprocal connection with distinct feedforward and feedback properties, the existence of adaptation and repetition suppression… even the type of learning rule — Hebb's rule, or the more sophisticated spike-timing dependent plasticity — can be deduced, no longer postulated, from this single overarching law.

(p10 #8)
Nicholas Carr: It seemed so obvious that the Internet stood in opposition to the kind of centralized power symbolized by China's regime. A vast array of autonomous nodes, not just decentralized but centerless, the Net was a technology of personal liberation, a force for freedom... It's not hard to understand how the Net promotes centralization. For one thing, its prevailing navigational aids, such as search engine algorithms, form feedback loops. By directing people to the most popular sites, they make those sites even more popular. On the web as elsewhere, people stream down the paths of least resistance.

(off to Tea)
posted by Gyan at 1:55 AM on January 1, 2008 [4 favorites]


Of note, part deux -

(p13 #3)
Gerd Gigerenzer: In a 2007 radio advertisement, former NYC mayor Rudy Giuliani said, "I had prostate cancer, five, six years ago. My chances of surviving prostate cancer — and thank God I was cured of it — in the United States: 82 percent. My chances of surviving prostate cancer in England: only 44 percent under socialized medicine." Giuliani was lucky to be living in New York, and not in York — true?... Is it true that his chances of surviving cancer are about twice as high in what Giuliani believes is the best health care system in the world? Not at all. Survival rates are not the same as mortality rates. The U.S. has in fact about the same prostate cancer mortality rate as the U.K. But far more Americans participate in PSA screening (although its effect on mortality reduction has not been proven). As a consequence, more Americans are diagnosed of prostate cancer, which skyrockets the 5-year survival rate to more than 80%, although no life is saved. Screening detects many "silent" prostate cancers that the patient would have never noticed during his lifetime...
Giuliani is not an exception to the prevailing confusion about how to evaluate health statistics. For instance, my research shows that 80% to 90% of German physicians do not understand what a positive screening test means — such as PSA, HIV, or mammography — and most do not know how to explain the patient the potential benefits and harms. Patients however falsely assume that their doctors know and understand the relevant medical research. In most medical schools, education in understanding health statistics is currently lacking or ineffective.


(p16 #2)
Lera Boroditsky: I was so sure of the fact that language couldn't shape perception that I went ahead and designed a set of experiments to demonstrate this. In my lab we jokingly referred to this line of work as "Operation Perceptual Freedom." Our mission: to free perception from the corrupting influences of language.
We did one experiment after another, and each time to my surprise and annoyance, we found consistent cross-linguistic differences. They were there even when people could see all the colors at the same time when making their decisions. They were there even when people had to make objective perceptual judgments. They were there when no language was involved or necessary in the task at all. They were there when people had to reply very quickly. We just kept seeing them over and over again, and the only way to get the cross-linguistic differences to go away was to disrupt the language system. If we stopped people from being able to fluently access their language, then the cross-linguistic differences in perception went away.


(p16 #11)
Daniel Kahneman: About ten years ago I had an idea that seemed to solve these difficulties: perhaps people’s satisfaction with their life is not the right measure of well-being. The idea took shape in discussions with my wife Anne Treisman, who was (and remains) convinced that people are happier in California (or at least Northern California) than in most other places. The evidence showed that Californians are not particularly satisfied with their life, but Anne was unimpressed. She argued that Californians are accustomed to a pleasant life and come to expect more pleasure than the unfortunate residents of other states. Because they have a high standard for what life should be, Californians are not more satisfied than others, although they are actually happier. This idea included a treadmill, but it was not hedonic – it was an aspiration treadmill: happy people have high aspirations... Over several years we asked substantial samples of women to reconstruct a day of their life in detail. They indicated the feelings they had experienced during each episode, and we computed a measure of experienced happiness: the average quality of affective experience during the day. Our hypothesis was that differences in life circumstances would have more impact on this measure than on life satisfaction. We were so convinced that when we got our first batch of data, comparing teachers in top-rated schools to teachers in inferior schools, we actually misread the results as confirming our hypothesis. In fact, they showed the opposite: the groups of teachers differed more in their work satisfaction than in their affective experience at work. This was the first of many such findings: income, marital status and education all influence experienced happiness less than satisfaction, and we could show that the difference is not a statistical artifact. Measuring experienced happiness turned out to be interesting and useful, but not in the way we had expected. We had simply been wrong.
Experienced happiness, we learned, depends mainly on personality and on the hedonic value of the activities to which people allocate their time. Life circumstances influence the allocation of time, and the hedonic outcome is often mixed: high-income women have more enjoyable activities than the poor, but they also spend more time engaged in work that they do not enjoy; married women spend less time alone, but more time doing tedious chores. Conditions that make people satisfied with their life do not necessarily make them happy.


-----

The website incorrectly provides links for pages 17 onwards. Page 16, is in fact, the last page.
posted by Gyan at 2:42 AM on January 1, 2008 [3 favorites]


There is some density here, more than will be digestible in a couple hours reading. Thanks for the hearty provisions, Gyan.
posted by telstar at 4:53 AM on January 1, 2008


Ah, now that's a good question! The questions from the last couple of years -- "What is your dangerous idea?" and "What are you optimistic about?" -- have been big disappointments. "What have you changed your mind about?" is a great question to ask pretty much anyone in any interview.
posted by painquale at 5:28 AM on January 1, 2008 [1 favorite]


I thought I would hate this. I was wrong.
Thank you.
posted by dangerousdan at 6:23 AM on January 1, 2008


Thanks, Gyan—both for the post and for the snippets (because there's no way I'm going to trawl through all the responses). I'll contribute my bit by excerpting from the response by Daniel Dennett (who changed his mind about "how to handle the homunculus temptation: the almost irresistible urge to install a 'little man in the brain'"):

What could a neuron "want"? The energy and raw materials it needs to thrive—just like its unicellular eukaryote ancestors and more distant cousins, the bacteria and archaea. Neurons are robots; they are certainly not conscious in any rich sense—remember, they are eukaryotic cells, akin to yeast cells or fungi. If individual neurons are conscious then so is athlete’s foot. But neurons are, like these mindless but intentional cousins, highly competent agents in a life-or-death struggle, not in the environment between your toes, but in the demanding environment of the brain, where the victories go to those cells that can network more effectively, contribute to more influential trends at the virtual machine levels where large-scale human purposes and urges are discernible.
posted by languagehat at 6:23 AM on January 1, 2008


Thank you for this link! It has provided provocative reading for a New Year's otherwise lazy morning. Esp the links toward language and perception and the one about perceived happiness.
One interesting quote from the study on happiness (obvious when I thought about it):
"While walking in Pittsburgh one afternoon, Loewenstein tells me that he doesn't see how anybody could study happiness and not find himself leaning left politically; the data make it all too clear that boosting the living standards of those already comfortable, such as through lower taxes, does little to improve their levels of well-being, whereas raising the living standards of the impoverished makes an enormous difference. Nevertheless, he and Gilbert (who once declared in an academic paper, ''Windfalls are better than pratfalls, A's are better than C's, December 25 is better than April 15, and everything is better than a Republican administration'')"
http://healthandenergy.com/pursuit_of_happiness.htm
posted by hardyd at 8:29 AM on January 1, 2008


I have for most of my adult life removed turkey from my diet, because I was under the impression that since turkey has tryptophan in it, it made me sleepy and I didn't like that. This kinda made me dread Thanksgiving and Christmas cuz everyone insists on turkey dinners. I'd look for ham instead, and have a lion's share of stuffing.

I learned this year, in fact just around October, that though there is tryptophan in turkey, it's not enough compared to everything else in a turkey dinner to affect one's physiology that dramatically. It's more likely that a turkey dinner makes you sleepy cuz overeating taxes the digestive system, which makes your body work harder to digest it, which uses up energy, and therefore makes you tired. Any food can do that: not just turkey.

And pretty much every episode of MythBusters changes my mind about something. Recently I saw the episode about the water heater rocket. I have paid zero attention to the water heater in my house. Now I'm thinking maybe I should have someone check it cuz I'm pretty sure nothing's been done to it since I moved in to this joint over a decade ago. The key word Jamie and Adam used throughout that episode was neglect.

I like this. I think it bares repeating.

When thinking changes your mind, that's philosophy.
When God changes your mind, that's faith.
When facts change your mind, that's science.


I wanna hang that on a wall somewhere. That's a nice combo of words in one place.

Very cool link, Gyan. Very cool thread. =) Happy new year everybody!
posted by ZachsMind at 9:02 AM on January 1, 2008 [3 favorites]


Interestingly, Helena Cronin said almost exactly what Larry Summers said, in the meeting that got him fired from Harvard.
posted by Burger-Eating Invasion Monkey at 9:05 AM on January 1, 2008


Great read!
posted by Laugh_track at 10:22 AM on January 1, 2008


Pinker and Buss have a lot more mind changing to do before they rise above laughable.
posted by birdie birdington at 11:00 AM on January 1, 2008


Here's a happy example of me being wrong.

Oh, Jaron Lanier, I'm surprised you couldn't find a way to make yourself wrong about more things that you really felt you were right about but sort of wrong about but no, definitely right about.
posted by birdie birdington at 11:09 AM on January 1, 2008


Not enough mathematicians! Contrary to popular belief, we do change our minds.
posted by escabeche at 11:11 AM on January 1, 2008 [1 favorite]


Interestingly, Helena Cronin said almost exactly what Larry Summers said, in the meeting that got him fired from Harvard.

I was linked to this talk a while ago which I found very interesting if you want to delve a bit deeper into the evolutionary reasons for what Helena is talking about. It talks a bit about Larry Summers as well.
posted by phyle at 11:33 AM on January 1, 2008


Interestingly, Helena Cronin said almost exactly what Larry Summers said, in the meeting that got him fired from Harvard.

Yeah, but Larry Summers was a jackass.
posted by delmoi at 12:58 PM on January 1, 2008


Am I missing something? Where is the complete article on that link? Sorry if it's obvious, and I'm just being a bit stupid.
posted by taff at 2:25 PM on January 1, 2008


Gyan: (p2 #3)
Freeman Dyson: I changed my mind about an important historical question: did the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki bring World War Two to an end? Until this year I used to say, perhaps. Now, because of new facts, I say no.

I also picked up on this and followed it a bit: I'm not sure this changes my mind on the topic, though.
posted by A-Train at 3:02 PM on January 1, 2008 [3 favorites]


There are a few gems here (like Irene Pepperberg) but are overshadowed by self-promotion like Pinker and Buss. Lanier is wrong about so many things it is hard to believe he could narrow it to one. Oh - and why so few women especially when those that happened to be authored by women seemed more thoughtful?
posted by testcase at 6:15 PM on January 1, 2008


taff: http://www.edge.org/q2008/q08_1.html
posted by Anything at 6:54 PM on January 1, 2008


Here's what I wonder about The Edge: If these guys are so smart, why is their website so hard to navigate? There seems to be no subject hierarchy, no way to differentiate the site's self promotion from its content without a whole lot of digging and going down blind alleys. That said, This year's question and answers seem to be less God-obsessed than previous years. Maybe the answerers got tired of shooting religious fish in a barrel. Good. Now they can get back to figuring out what dark energy is...
posted by Faze at 7:28 PM on January 1, 2008


There is lots of great stuff here, but I have to comment on one really out of date entry:

From Page 7 "Computational Analysis of Language Requires Understanding Language" by Marti Hearst:

The lesson we see over and over again is that simple statistics computed over very large text collections can do better at difficult language processing tasks than more complex, elaborate algorithms.

There is nothing new about this stance, in fact statistical methods for language processing has been around for decades and it's been ages since any serious NLP has relied on rule based over statistical methods. However, with Google Research in the game it has become clear just how much can be done with billions and billions of words of natural language data, and it's clear that there is a lot that can't be done. As a result, the trend towards purely statistical data is slowly reversing and some systems are starting to take advantage of linguistic information, for example, the machine translation stumbling blocks of word order and morphology.

In summary, this one is old news.
posted by Alison at 8:16 PM on January 1, 2008


There's lots of enjoyable reading here.

David Bliss:
Scientists have documented at least 34 distinct tactics for promoting short-term sexual encounters and nearly double that for attracting a long-term romantic partner. Researchers discovered 28 tactics women use to derogate sexual competitors... Women's sexual strategies include at least 19 tactics of mate retention, ranging from vigilance to violence, and 29 tactics of ridding themselves of unwanted mates, When a woman wants a man who is already in a relationship, she can use at least 19 tactics of mate poaching to lure him away.

Reads like a Cosmopolitan teaser. What are these tactics? Buy Cosmo and find out!

Sam Harris:
Mother Nature is not now, nor has she ever been, looking out for us.
posted by eye of newt at 9:27 PM on January 1, 2008


MetaFilter: If you're so smart why is your web site so hard to navigate?
posted by XMLicious at 4:14 AM on January 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


By the way, am I the only one still reading these and intending to comment here while I'm done? The Givewell debacle has eaten most of my spare attention recently, but I'm now coming back to the huge link in this thread.
posted by Anything at 2:14 PM on January 4, 2008


hey, just got around to this and was about to do a big huge F(a)PP on it, but then i did a (prudential) search and saw the post! oh well :P well anyway, for posterior sake...

---
The Edge Annual Question — 2008
What have you changed your mind about? Why? This year there's your usual physics stuff -- the nature of time, giving up on quantum gravity, physics as information theory (and vice versa) etc. -- and your various theories/flavors of consciousness (approaching solipsism ;) -- e.g. cognition as imagination & language shapes perception -- but what stood out to me this year were the responses about human evolution, that it is ongoing and determined and may in fact be directed, cf. globales Gehirn & superhuman intelligence. [more below]

Steven Pinker lays it out in Have Humans Stopped Evolving?
New results from the labs of Jonathan Pritchard, Robert Moyzis, Pardis Sabeti, and others have suggested that thousands of genes, perhaps as much as ten percent of the human genome, have been under strong recent selection, and the selection may even have accelerated during the past several thousand years. The numbers are comparable to those for maize, which has been artificially selected beyond recognition during the past few millennia.

If these results hold up, and apply to psychologically relevant brain function (as opposed to disease resistance, skin color, and digestion, which we already know have evolved in recent millennia), then the field of evolutionary psychology might have to reconsider the simplifying assumption that biological evolution was pretty much over and done with 10-000 — 50,000 years ago.

And if so, the result could be evolutionary psychology on steroids. Humans might have evolutionary adaptations not just to the conditions that prevailed for hundreds of thousands of years, but also to some of the conditions that have prevailed only for millennia or even centuries. Currently, evolutionary psychology assumes that any adaptation to post-agricultural ways of life are 100% cultural.
while Martin Rees sez We Should Take the 'Posthuman' Era Seriously - "Humanity will soon itself be malleable, to an extent that's qualitatively new in the history of our species."

also notable:and Richard Dawkins on a related note:
...some individuals act as 'sentinels', sitting conspicuously in a high tree and not feeding, watching for hawks and warning the rest of the flock who are therefore able to get on with feeding. Again eschewing kin selection and other manifestations of conventional selfish genery, Zahavi's explanation followed his own paradoxical logic: "Look what a great bird I am, I can afford to risk my life sitting high in a tree watching out for hawks, saving your miserable skins for you and allowing you to feed while I don't." What the sentinel pays out in personal cost he gains in social prestige, which translates into reproductive success. Natural selection favours conspicuous and costly generosity.

You can see why I was sceptical... Or, to be more precise, Maynard Smith couldn't find a mathematical model that led to the conclusion that Zahavi's theory might work. He left open the possibility that somebody else might come along later with a better model. That is exactly what Alan Grafen did, and now we all have to change our minds... In one sentence, Grafen found an evolutionarily stable combination of male advertising strategy and female credulity strategy that turned out to be unmistakeably Zahavian.
btw Tim O'RLY on The Social Graph:
[T]hat's computer-science-speak for the mathematical structure that maps the relationships between people... only one instance of a class of data structure that will prove increasingly important as we build applications powered by data at internet scale. You can think of the mapping of people, businesses, and events to places as the "location graph", or the relationship of search queries to results and advertisements as the "question-answer graph" ...extending the ability of groups to self-organize... if facts change our mind, that's science. But when ideas change our minds, we see those facts afresh, and that's history, culture, science, and philosophy all in one.
and Daniel Dennet has Competition on the brain:
And what do neurons ‘buy’ with their dopamine, their serotonin or oxytocin, etc.? Greater influence in the networks in which they participate... in the demanding environment of the brain, where the victories go to those cells that can network more effectively, contribute to more influential trends at the virtual machine levels where large-scale human purposes and urges are discernible.
---
there's a lot more interesting stuff, of course, like Cooking Up Bigger Brains - The Human Recipe and the the Bayesian Brain (cf. I Used To Think I Could Change My Mind), so read the whole thing!

---
one last thing; afterall Education Stretches the Mind:
I used to believe that a paramount purpose of a liberal education was threefold:
1) Stretch your mind, reach beyond your preconceptions; learn to think of things in ways you have never thought before.

2) Acquire tools with which to critically examine and evaluate new ideas, including your own cherished ones.

3) Settle eventually on a framework or set of frameworks that organize what you know and believe and that guide your life as an individual and a leader.
I still believe #1 and #2. I have changed my mind about #3. I now believe in a new version of #3, which replaces the above with the following:
a) Learn new frameworks, and be guided by them.

b) But never get so comfortable as to believe that your frameworks are the final word, recognizing the strong psychological tendencies that favor sticking to your worldview. Learn to keep stretching your mind, keep stepping outside your comfort zone, keep venturing beyond the familiar, keep trying to put yourself in the shoes of others whose frameworks or cultures are alien to you, and have an open mind to different ways of parsing the world. Before you critique a new idea, or another culture, master it to the point at which its proponents or members recognize that you get it.
Settling into a framework is easy. The brain is built to perceive the world through structured lenses — cognitive scaffolds on which we hang our knowledge and belief systems.

Stretching your mind is hard. Once we've settled on a worldview that suits us, we tend to hold on. New information is bent to fit, information that doesn't fit is discounted, and new views are resisted.

By 'framework' I mean any one of a range of conceptual or belief systems — either explicitly articulated or implicitly followed. These include narratives, paradigms, theories, models, schemas, frames, scripts, stereotypes, and categories; they include philosophies of life, ideologies, moral systems, ethical codes, worldviews, and political, religious or cultural affiliations. These are all systems that organize human cognition and behavior by parsing, integrating, simplifying or packaging knowledge or belief. They tend to be built on loose configurations of seemingly core features, patterns, beliefs, commitments, preferences or attitudes that have a foundational and unifying quality in one's mind or in the collective behavior of a community. When they involve the perception of people (including oneself), they foster a sense of affiliation that may trump essential features or beliefs.

What changed my mind was the overwhelming evidence of biases in favor of perpetuating prior worldviews. The brain maps information onto a small set of organizing structures, which serve as cognitive lenses, skewing how we process or seek new information. These structures drive a range of phenomena, including the perception of coherent patterns (sometimes where none exists), the perception of causality (sometimes where none exists), and the perception of people in stereotyped ways.

Another family of perceptual biases stems from our being social animals (even scientists!), susceptible to the dynamics of in-group versus out-group affiliation. A well known bias of group membership is the over-attribution effect, according to which we tend to explain the behavior of people from other groups in dispositional terms ("that's just the way they are"), but our own behavior in much more complex ways, including a greater consideration of the circumstances. Group attributions are also asymmetrical with respect to good versus bad behavior. For groups that you like, including your own, positive behaviors reflect inherent traits ("we're basically good people") and negative behaviors are either blamed on circumstances ("I was under a lot of pressure") or discounted ("mistakes were made"). In contrast, for groups that you dislike, negative behaviors reflect inherent traits ("they can't be trusted") and positive behaviors reflect exceptions ("he's different from the rest"). Related to attribution biases is the tendency (perhaps based on having more experience with your own group) to believe that individuals within another group are similar to each other ("they're all alike"), whereas your own group contains a spectrum of different individuals (including "a few bad apples"). When two groups accept bedrock commitments that are fundamentally opposed, the result is conflict — or war.

Fortunately, the brain has other systems that allow us to counteract these tendencies to some extent. This requires conscious effort, the application of critical reasoning tools, and practice. The plasticity of the brain permits change - within limits.

To assess genuine understanding of an idea one is inclined to resist, I propose a version of Turing's Test tailored for this purpose: You understand something you are inclined to resist only if you can fool its proponents into thinking you get it. Few critics can pass this test. I would also propose a cross-cultural Turing Test for would-be cultural critics (a Golden Rule of cross-group understanding): before critiquing a culture or aspect thereof, you should be able to navigate seamlessly within that culture as judged by members of that group.

By rejecting #3, you give up certainty. Certainty feels good and is a powerful force in leadership. The challenge, as Bertrand Russell puts it in The History of Western Philosophy, is "To teach how to live without certainty, and yet without being paralyzed by hesitation".
---
that is all.

cheers :D
posted by kliuless at 7:22 PM on January 6, 2008 [1 favorite]


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