What scientific concept would improve everybody's cognitive toolkit?
January 17, 2011 12:01 PM   Subscribe

What scientific concept would improve everybody's cognitive toolkit? (The Edge.org Question of 2011)

158 CONTRIBUTORS (109,600 words): V.S. Ramachandran, Richard Thaler, Brian Eno, J. Craig Venter, Martin Rees, Mahzarin Banaji, Stefano Boeri, Nigel Goldenfeld, Gary Marcus, Andrew Revkin, Stuart Firestein, Beatrice Golomb, Diane Halpern, Kevin Hand, Barry Smith, Kevin Hand, Garrett Lisi, David Dalrymple, Xeni Jardin, Seth Lloyd, Brian Knutson, Carl Page, Victoria Stodden, David Rowan, Hazel Rose Markus & Alana Conner, Fiery Cushman, David Eagleman, Joan Chiao, Max Tegmark, Tecumseh Fitch, Joshua Greene, Stephon Alexander, Gregory Cochran, Tor Norretranders , Laurence Smith, Carl Zimmer, Roger Highfield, Marcelo Gleiser, Richard Saul Wurman, Anthony Aguirre, Sam Harris, P.Z. Myers, Sue Blackmore, Bart Kosko, David Buss, John Tooby, Eduardo Salcedo-Albaran, Paul Bloom, Evgeny Morozov, Mark Pagel, Kathryn Schulz, Ernst Pöppel, Tania Lombrozo, Paul Saffo, Jay Rosen, Timothy Taylor, Jonah Lehrer, Marco Iacoboni, Dave Winer, George Church, Kai Krause, Gloria Origgi, Tom Standage, Vinod Khosla, Dan Sperber, Geoffrey Miller, Satyajit Das, Alun Anderson, Eric Topol, Amanda Gefter, Scott D. Sampson, John McWhorter, Jon Kleinberg, Christine Finn, Nick Bostrom, Robert Sapolsky, Adam Alter, Ross Anderson, Paul Kedrosky, Mark Henderson, Thomas A. Bass, Gerald Smallberg, James Croak, Greg Paul, Susan Fiske, Marti Hearst, Keith Devlin, Gerd Gigerenzer, Matt Ridley, Andrian Kreye, Don Tapscott, David Gelernter, Linda Stone, Matthew Ritchie, Joel Gold, Helen Fisher, Giulio Boccaletti, Daniel Goleman, Donald Hoffman, Richard Foreman, Lee Smolin, Thomas Metzinger, Lawrence Krauss, William Calvin, Nicholas Christakis, Alison Gopnik, Kevin Kelly, Clay Shirky, Andy Clark, Neil Gershenfeld, Jonathan Haidt, Marcel Kinsbourne, Douglas Rushkoff, Lisa Randall, Frank Wilczek, Jaron Lanier, Jennifer Jacquet, Daniel Dennett, Stephen M. Kosslyn, Carlo Rovelli, Juan Enriquez, Terrence Sejnowski, Irene Pepperberg, Michael Shermer, Samuel Arbesman, Douglas Kenrick, James O'Donnell, David G. Myers, Rob Kurzban, Richard Nisbett, Samuel Barondes, Hans Ulrich Obrist, Nicholas Carr, Emanuel Derman, Aubrey De Grey, Nassim Taleb, Rebecca Goldstein, Clifford Pickover, Charles Seife, Rudy Rucker, Sean Carroll, Gino Segre, Jason Zweig, Dylan Evans, Steven Pinker, Martin Seligman, Gerald Holton, Robert Provine, Roger Schank, George Dyson, Milford Wolpoff, George Lakoff, Nicholas Humphrey, Christian Keysers, Haim Harari, W. Daniel Hillis, John Allen Paulos, Bruce Hood, Howard Gardner
posted by AceRock (67 comments total) 43 users marked this as a favorite
Mods: I've made a terrible mistake. None of the links point to the edge.org domain
posted by AceRock at 12:02 PM on January 17, 2011 [3 favorites]

Mods: I've made a terrible mistake.

I totally read that in Gob's voice.
posted by kmz at 12:03 PM on January 17, 2011 [17 favorites]

@AceRock: Why do you hate our mods?
posted by ZenMasterThis at 12:04 PM on January 17, 2011 [2 favorites]

Preview twice, post once.
posted by Kabanos at 12:05 PM on January 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

Should be fixed. Let me know if any individual links are borked. Do not taunt Happy Fun Relative URL.
posted by cortex at 12:07 PM on January 17, 2011 [5 favorites]

Honestly, one link to the home page for the Question would have been fine - all the contributors have separate links there anyways. That said, the Edge thread on MeFi is always interesting. The Bruce Sterling State of the World MeFi thread is always good too, but I think this year's discussion was unfortunately too weak to garner a FPP.
posted by longdaysjourney at 12:08 PM on January 17, 2011

Thanks, cortex!
posted by AceRock at 12:09 PM on January 17, 2011

posted by Davenhill at 12:17 PM on January 17, 2011 [9 favorites]

posted by crunchland at 12:23 PM on January 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


1) Critical thinking / skepticism.

2) Statistics.

3) Sociobiology and its decendants.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 12:29 PM on January 17, 2011

Interesting question. I vote for Bayesian reasoning, or maybe being aware of the existence of cognitive biases, like Nisbett says.

Some responses in there are bizarre. Haecceity? That's a scientific concept now? And a lot of them don't seem especially important for everyone to know about. (The multiverse, for example.)
posted by painquale at 12:34 PM on January 17, 2011

It's truly astounding how much science has changed the way we think, even when you leave out the physical effects of technology. There are so many scientific words created in the last two or three centuries (mostly in the last hundred years) that have migrated into our common language, and given us new concepts that we use as metaphors to describe the events of everyday life. Four hundred years ago no one could use a phrase like "demographically speaking" or "let us seek equilibrium" because the words just weren't there.
posted by Kevin Street at 12:42 PM on January 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

His idea is that the abstraction is available as a single cognitive chunk which can be used [read: abused] as an element in thinking and debate.
posted by polymodus at 12:44 PM on January 17, 2011

Only partway in, but I like Richard Thaler's idea of using "aether" as shorthand for the woo woo factor needed to make any half baked theory work. "When my computer won't boot, I whack it a few times to settle the aether."
posted by Kevin Street at 1:03 PM on January 17, 2011 [4 favorites]

So many viewpoints, so little time. The one that caught my eye was: The Pointless Universe. I am out of step with most people in not finding the idea of a pointless universe depressing -- but rather the opposite. The universe is what it is, my life (and everyone's life) is of no significance except to myself and my friends. Life is not a popularity contest. I don't have to save the world or leave a legacy (unless I want to). The world's a stage and I am merely an actor with an entrance and an exit. I accept that I will leave the scene and let others take their place in the tragi-comedy, just as many millions did before I entered the world. Death is not scary. I am happy to be here and enjoy my little insignificant allotted life just as my dog does his and the plant outside the widow does its. The Pointless Universe is very liberating. It also frees me from thinking I have to kill people who disagree with me.
posted by binturong at 1:05 PM on January 17, 2011 [46 favorites]

Interesting that John McWhorter, sometimes associated with the political right, makes a point of promoting the profoundly un-conservative idea of path dependence:

"Path dependence refers to the fact that often, something that seems normal or inevitable today began with a choice that made sense at a particular time in the past, but survived despite the eclipse of the justification for that choice, because once established, external factors discouraged going into reverse to try other alternatives."
posted by escabeche at 1:14 PM on January 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

What scientific concept would improve everybody's cognitive toolkit?

posted by blue_beetle at 1:14 PM on January 17, 2011 [2 favorites]


posted by benzenedream at 1:15 PM on January 17, 2011

161 links to the same page? Seriously?
posted by Rhomboid at 1:21 PM on January 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

Shirky, Clark, Dennett, Fisher, McWhorter, Eagleman, Cushman, and Thaler were the ones I found most interesting. (There were other nice ones, as well as plenty that were fairly awful.)
posted by painquale at 1:29 PM on January 17, 2011

When I see loads of long essays like that without any replies or comeback from anyone, I think how much better a web forum is, compared to one sided essays. You need dialogue to tease out the wrinkles or fault-lines in ideas; ideas need to be tested. And a web forum where you can clearly see what everyone said and people can hyperlink in relevant stuff is probably the best medium in the world for debate and testing ideas.

If The Edge really wants to help all these people develop their ideas (or, as they say, "promote inquiry into and discussion of intellectual, philosophical, artistic, and literary issues"), they should have a publically viewable forum (in which only the Edge members get to post, I guess) in which they all get to post and comment on each others stuff. That would be awesome. Imagine the fun of watching top intellectuals call each other out, stuggle to contain flamewars and ragequits, and maybe, just maybe, change a few of each others minds about things.
posted by memebake at 1:35 PM on January 17, 2011 [5 favorites]

Very interesting. Now someone should start a website dedicated to big questions like this.
posted by TedW at 1:41 PM on January 17, 2011

His idea is that the abstraction is available as a single cognitive chunk which can be used [read: abused] as an element in thinking and debate.

Wittgenstein thought Freud was important, not so much for the truth or falsity of his ideas, but for introducing a popular concept called the "unconscious," because that one word replaces what would have otherwise been at least a sentence or two. The game is sped up if those extra moves are skipped.
posted by StickyCarpet at 1:42 PM on January 17, 2011 [3 favorites]

Dave Winer does bring up an interesting point -- whenever I park my car out in the boonies in a parking lot, without a single car around it, invariably when I return to it, there's another car parked right next to it. That said, I'm not sure that the knowledge imparted from that observation adds all that much to a cognitive toolkit.
posted by crunchland at 1:54 PM on January 17, 2011

Follow where the evidence actually leads, not where you would like it to lead.
posted by Decani at 2:01 PM on January 17, 2011

whenever I park my car out in the boonies in a parking lot, without a single car around it, invariably when I return to it, there's another car parked right next to it.
That's just your stalker.
posted by binturong at 2:04 PM on January 17, 2011 [3 favorites]

My nomination:

There is something called a cognitive toolkit. You put things there because they are useful (for whatever meaning of use you choose). You pick the best tool from that kit to fit the job when addressing things that you want to understand.
posted by idiopath at 2:10 PM on January 17, 2011 [2 favorites]

"His idea is that the abstraction is available as a single cognitive chunk which can be used [read: abused] as an element in thinking and debate."

I think the key here is whether one understands the terms one is using. As a self check, you should always be able to explain something to yourself (or an audience), using other words, even if that explanation is much longer and less efficient than the term in question. When people use metaphors (or shorthand abstractions, cognitive chunks, jargon, or whatever else you want to call it) without really understanding (or forgetting) the meanings behind the terms, they produce a lot of self-replicating jargon talk, or those horrible acronyms that pop up in military manuals and corporate memos. At that point understanding gives way to rote repetition and everybody ends up repeating the same weird phrases without knowing what they're actually talking about.
posted by Kevin Street at 2:14 PM on January 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

I like to think small in response to this question, and not immediately jump to the overarching theories of the universe and everything, which are sort of already hashed out and too abstract to boot. I think what is truly universal, and more importantly actually useful, are little meta mind hacks - essentially psychology. Just little tests that demonstrate how the human mind fools itself sometimes.

I liked Control Your Spotlight by Jonah Lehrer, about how to delay gratification.
posted by Nixy at 2:23 PM on January 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

My cognitive toolkit.
posted by Decani at 2:27 PM on January 17, 2011 [6 favorites]

I liked Control Your Spotlight by Jonah Lehrer, about how to delay gratification.

There was an odd contradiction in that text. First, he says "Not surprisingly, nearly every kid chose to wait [for the two treats]." Later, he says "the tiny percentage of kids who could successfully wait for the second treat." I think the first quote got it the wrong way round.

Anyway, when you strip away the jargon of the technique, which he called "strategic allocation of attention," it amounts to giving yourself a distraction to make it easier to ignore something. It's a bit like the advice of how to deal with the pain from a headache. Drop a heavy weight on your foot.
posted by binturong at 3:13 PM on January 17, 2011

"Graphic Design" would certainly improve the Edge.org's toolkit. That site has the readability of a dog's breakfast.
posted by UbuRoivas at 3:29 PM on January 17, 2011 [4 favorites]

Jon Kleinberg on "The Cloud" and distributed systems:
Suppose that an aging Pirate King knows the location of a secret treasure, and before retiring he intends to share the secret among his five shiftless sons. He wants them to be able to recover the treasure if three or more of them work together, but he also wants to prevent a "splinter group" of one or two from being able to get the treasure on their own. To do this, he plans to split the secret of the location into five "shares," giving one to each son, in such a way that he ensures the following condition. If at any point in the future, at least three of the sons pool their shares of the secret, then they will know enough to recover the treasure. But if only one or two pool their shares, they will not have enough information.

How to do this? It's not hard to invent ways of creating five clues so that all of them are necessary for finding the treasure. But this would require unanimity among the five sons before the treasure could be found. How can we do it so that cooperation among any three is enough, and cooperation among any two is insufficient?

Like many deep insights, the answer is easy to understand in retrospect. The Pirate King draws a secret circle on the globe (known only to himself) and tells his sons that he's buried the treasure at the exact southernmost point on this circle. He then tells each son a different point on this circle. Three points are enough to uniquely reconstruct a circle, so any three pirates can pool their information, identify the circle, and find the treasure. But for any two pirates, an infinity of circles pass through their two points, and they cannot know which is the one they need for recovering the secret. It's a powerful trick, and broadly applicable; in fact, versions of this secret-sharing scheme form a basic principle of modern data security, discovered by the cryptographer Adi Shamir, where arbitrary data can be encoded using points on a curve, and reconstructed from knowledge of other points on the same curve.

The literature on distributed systems is rich with ideas in this spirit. More generally, the principles of distributed systems give us a way to reason about the difficulties inherent in complex systems built from many interacting parts. And so to the extent that we sometimes are fortunate enough to get the impression of a unified Web, a unified global banking system, or a unified sensory experience, we should think about the myriad challenges involved in keeping these experiences whole.
posted by AceRock at 3:53 PM on January 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

This is a great question.

It's also interesting, in a trashy academic gossip sort of way, to see who's got the chutzpah to nominate one of their own pet ideas as the most important. Nobody who's spent any time around linguistics or cog sci will be surprised to see that George Lakoff names cognitive metaphor (Lakoff 1980, 1987, 1989, 1996, 2004, 2008) as the biggest and shiniest tool in the box. Whereas Daniel Dennett could plausibly have said "the intentional stance" or "compatibilism about free will," and it makes me respect him a little bit more that he was modest enough not to. Hell, even if it's false modesty, it makes his answer more interesting to read, and "don't be a bore" oughta be the first commandment for a public intellectual like him.
posted by nebulawindphone at 3:56 PM on January 17, 2011 [4 favorites]

Probably the single most important concept that I learned in a college class was the importance of the having the right comparison information when evaluating the importance of a statistic. The question should always be: relative to what?

Example: Someone says 90% of serial killers drink milk. People instinctively think milk somehow causes serial killers. Putting aside the fact that correlation is not necessarily causation, the statistic is only one of four pieces of information you need to evaluate the significance of the claim. What you really need is below:
                                  Serial Killers          Non-Serial Killers
Drink Milk                          90%                         89%
Don't Drink Milk                    10%                         11%
Now the claim is seen for the more or less trivial thing that it is. But so often just one of those numbers is given, and people assume the rest.
posted by shivohum at 4:54 PM on January 17, 2011 [3 favorites]

Wow, a full 21 out of 158 contributors are women. Hmmm.
posted by Maias at 4:57 PM on January 17, 2011 [2 favorites]

As a one-time science major, I'd summarize the sum of the witty, acerbic, tenacious, widely experienced professorial mentoring with this short phrase:

Shut up and look again.
posted by Twang at 5:36 PM on January 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

I liked Scott Sampson's essay about Interbeing.
posted by sneebler at 6:23 PM on January 17, 2011

Worst entry nomination: You see the pattern everywhere: the top 1% of the population control 35% of the wealth ... [such] figures are always reported as shocking, ... a surprise of the highest order.

It's not. Or rather, it shouldn't be.

The Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto undertook a study of market economies a century ago, and discovered that no matter what the country, the richest quintile of the population controlled most of the wealth.


Wealth can disperse and lower levels of aggregation can be maintained, as the history of the US and current wealth distribution in many European countries shows.

1% owning 35% of the wealth *is* appalling. Class warfare in mathematical garb doesn't change that.
posted by airing nerdy laundry at 7:14 PM on January 17, 2011

Nevertheless, the Pareto Principle that Shirky was writing about (aka "the 80-20 rule") is widely applicable, and ought to be part of people's everyday conceptual toolbox.

Criticising it because you don't agree with the ethics of the situation is just confusing the "is" with the "ought". As a mathematical model, it describes the "is" perfectly well in many kinds of situations, way beyond wealth distribution.

For example, I've always used it to work out how long to spend on an essay: if I can get 80% of the marks in 20% of the time, how badly do I really need the extra marks if the marginal rate of return is effectively switched the other way around to get that final 20%?
posted by UbuRoivas at 7:36 PM on January 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm disputing the "is", which anyone ought to be able to do in 3 minutes at the OECD website, not confusing it with "ought".

There's no reason whatsoever that 1% should/would/must own 35% of a country's wealth, whatever tool Clay Shirky finds handy to describe the distribution. It's neither necessary nor desirable.
posted by airing nerdy laundry at 7:42 PM on January 17, 2011

So you're saying it's not true that a tiny proportion of people own a large percentage of the wealth?

(I'm assuming that the 1% & 35% mentioned were just numbers pulled out of his arse for the sake of argument, like the 2% & 60% quoted for Twitter usage).
posted by UbuRoivas at 7:48 PM on January 17, 2011

The top 1% in the US today own between 35-40% of the wealth, they haven't in the recent past, and this distribution varies significantly by country, depending on the marginal rate, etc.

Suppose Shirk pulled the number out of his arse and it accidentally corresponds to real life 2011 in his country of residence.

Well, he illustrates pretty clearly how dumb it is to toss around Pareto's Principle in the service of telling everyone to chill their ignorant selves.
posted by airing nerdy laundry at 8:23 PM on January 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

I don't think he's saying that at all (ie he's not saying people should chill out their ignorant selves).

I read it as more like saying that because people are familiar with bell-curve distributions but not so much with Pareto distributions, they're constantly surprised by facts that shouldn't be surprising, because they're actually the usual state of affairs & not freak occurrences.

If people were more familiar with Pareto distributions, a couple of things should result:

a) they'd stop relying on averages (means) as indicators of anything
b) the disparities in wealth distribution would be more constantly & glaringly obvious.

In other words, I read him as saying that if people understood the Pareto Principle better - that factually, this is the way that many systems currently *are* - then they'd be better equipped to change things, to what they ought to be.
posted by UbuRoivas at 8:37 PM on January 17, 2011

Sorry for no links, but US residents actually don't typically estimate wealth along a Gaussian distribution in the US. They know wealth distribution is unequal.

Nevertheless they are *still* surprised that 1% owns 35-40% of the wealth and that the top 20% owns @85%.

I submit this is more due to the fact that this radical concentration wasn't the case recently in the US (between WWII - 1980 things were very different), and that the 80/20 rule doesn't describe other areas of the world, including especially the continent.

Wealth distribution doesn't necessarily obey Pareto's Principle - that only happens in specific regions at specific times with specific propaganda, of which Clay Shirky is perhaps playing a part.
posted by airing nerdy laundry at 8:56 PM on January 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

Isn't it usually the same kind of distribution, though, only tinkering the numbers one way or the other?

1% owning 35% is effectively the same to me as 20% owning 80%. It's grossly imbalanced either way, and if you look at anything from America today to feudal England to ancient Babylon, it seems to always just be a repeat of the same old story.

Except in Soviet Russia, of course, where wealth redistributes you.
posted by UbuRoivas at 9:29 PM on January 17, 2011

'Tinkering' isn't really accurate.

The top 1% for several decades after WWII in the US had 1/2 the share of income they now have. Similar story with wealth. European countries that haven't adopted the Anglo model have even more stark differences, and it's been this way for nearly a century. Their top 1% owns about 1/3rd the share of the US's.

Hardly niggling details, thus it's not the same old story everywhere.

If you want cognitive tools for more equality, I suggest tossing out "natural laws dictate that wealth distribution will be massively concentrated, more or less along the lines they already are in 2011 US."
posted by airing nerdy laundry at 10:58 PM on January 17, 2011 [2 favorites]

airing nerdy laundry: a friend of mine was known to say "evidence of the status quo, left unqualified, is always an argument in its favor".
posted by idiopath at 12:01 AM on January 18, 2011 [2 favorites]

I completely agree from an ideological point of view, but I still think that you're confusing descriptive statements (the "is") with prescriptive ones (the "ought"). And one of the things about science is that it is concerned with making models that can help describe how things are, whilst completely leaving open the issue of how they should be.

Also, far from being a "natural law that dictates that wealth distribution will be massively concentrated", what Shirky is talking about, again, isn't a natural law, but a conceptual tool that helps in understanding the data that is right in front of us. If & when wealth distribution changes, we may be able to describe the data as linear, or logarithmic, or Gaussian, or two tailed, or something else. It's just a description.

And again, it's a description that's applicable to all kinds of situations that we might think follow a bell curve. Roughly 20% of people in any given population probably account for around 80% of different sexual encounters. 20% of icecream flavours in a store account for 80% of the sales. 20% of B-list celebrities are featured in 80% of glossy magazine stories. 20% of a family's repertoire of dishes account for 80% of the meals they cook.

It's a principle of distribution that shows up time & time again, especially for those inclined towards confirmation bias.
posted by UbuRoivas at 1:14 AM on January 18, 2011

Wow, Pareto distributions exist. Given that, why has α been drifting over the last 20 years in the USA and not among other developed countries?
posted by benzenedream at 1:56 AM on January 18, 2011

Government policies? In particular, increased tax breaks for the wealthy? But the widening gap between rich & poor is, as far as I know, common to many - if not all - developed nations.
posted by UbuRoivas at 2:17 AM on January 18, 2011

He uses an outlier as an example of the effect. It's an easy tactic to disagree with, because it implies that the outlier is more representative of the domain than it is, and that the effect naturally applies to more domains than it does.
posted by Nothing at 2:45 AM on January 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

Metafilter: I've made a terrible mistake.
posted by klausness at 3:04 AM on January 18, 2011

Relevant commencement speech by the late David Foster Wallace.
posted by AceRock at 6:36 AM on January 18, 2011

UboRoivas - Shirky isn't providing a mere snapshot description of 2011 US wealth.

I'm getting from both of you the stronger claim that wealth naturally tends towards a Pareto distribution and that no one should be surprised by that.

Following that logic, should people have been in a 30 yr. shock when wealth distribution moved in the opposite direction in the US post WWII, or a longer period of shock as the 80/20 rule is stubbornly resisted on the Continent?

Relatedly, I think it's facile to attribute people's surprise as Pareto Principle ignorance. Wealth hasn't been this concentrated in the US for over 70 yrs and the story isn't covered adequately by the media. This is more a story of failing to keep up with class warfare vs. an inability to conceptualize non-gaussian distributions.
posted by airing nerdy laundry at 8:06 AM on January 18, 2011

It's amusing that 10% of Shirky's examples have accounted for more than 90% of this derail.

Aside from wealth distribution, he mentioned twitter messaging, health care costs, English word usage, volatile days on the stock market, flickr tagging, book popularity, asteroid size, earthquake magnitude, and social connectedness.
posted by UbuRoivas at 1:05 PM on January 18, 2011

Yeah, but wealth distribution isn't actually a good example because, as others have pointed out above, it has *changed radically* [Table 3 is particularly illustrative] over the last century in the U.S.

Suggesting that there's some kind of natural law favoring a certain level of inequality is deeply problematic—and wrong, because if it did follow that law, we wouldn't have seen those changes. People are surprised by the distribution because it is deeply unfair—not because they don't know math.

And the widening gap is not seen in Europe the way it has been here— the gap is directly due to policy choices made in the U.S.
posted by Maias at 1:53 PM on January 18, 2011

Sure, but changing coefficients don't stop that data from following a Pareto distribution.

There's nothing magical about the 80-20 proportion; it's just a catchy way to describe the concept. Along the lines of what I said above, 1% owning 20% is still an example of that kind of distribution.

Turning to the data itself, the lowest figure in Table 3 shows 1% owning 19.9%, and the highest is 44.2%. If you generate a linear trendline across all the data, it is absolutely flat, at ~32.5%, across almost a century, and the most recent figures are only marginally (2.1%) above that trend.

Personally, for crunching the data I'd remove the 44.2% figure for 1929, as it's clearly an outlier relating to the stock market situation then. And to even things out, when you remove an upper exception, it's best to also remove the lower exception, which in this case happens to be the lower spike of ~20% of 1976-1979, which might relate to the oil shock & stagflation that accompanied it.

With only the upper 44% removed, the trend is a very mild upwards from 30% to 34%, and with both upper & lower spikes removed, it's almost identical: 30% to 35%. While this points towards a widening gap between the top 1% & bottom 99%, over the course of 85 years (including the wars & recessions & booms that have taken place) that's actually a remarkably consistent set of data that I think supports the principle more than it disproves it.
posted by UbuRoivas at 2:33 PM on January 18, 2011

Wow, what a derail.

Here's a concept: The common sense notion of cause and effect is most often a hindrance to understanding the way the world works.

In a prosaic sense, we can see this in the following:

1. Most people think that erotic thoughts cause erections in men. The reverse is most often the case; men experience erections frequently throughout the course of a day, and when they notice it, erotic thoughts follow.

2. The fallacious notion of lift as a cause of making airplanes fly. Airplanes fly because of the attack angle of a plane through a fluid. The pressure differential noted in the "lift" explanation is an effect of this attack angle, not the cause.

If we look at the root of these mistakes, they have in common a simplistic temporal linearity and a deference to established narratives.

It becomes much harder to explain "cause" and "effect" when the temporal positions are more complex and/or the narrative toolkit is lacking familiar touchstones. It might make sense, for example, to call my retirement to be the cause of my savings. Yes we could construct a more traditional temporal causative story for that, but in doing so we'd only be conforming to the very restrictive cause/effect construct I'm getting at.

My point here is that cause/effect isn't as simple as we might think. And we don't know how deep that thinking permeates our lives.
posted by yesster at 9:02 PM on January 18, 2011

yesster: The cyberneticist Heinz Von Foerster talked about that extensively, and related it to Aristotle's varieties of cause, including importantly the "final cause", as a tool for understanding self-regulating systems.
posted by idiopath at 3:27 AM on January 19, 2011 [2 favorites]

idiopath - Von Foerster wasn't in the multitude of links. But thanks. Looking further now. Already familiar with Arisotle's five causes etc.
posted by yesster at 8:05 PM on January 19, 2011

11-23-26 is my new basic lottery number set. Thank you idiopath.
posted by yesster at 8:08 PM on January 19, 2011

I have been playing 10-13-26 for a few years, but hey, I can change. I'm not trivial. Foerster is a beautiful diversion. Talk to you in a few years. {Foerster perhaps is my missing link, whereas I'd already drawn a web amongst Wittenstein, Bakhtin, Dennett, Kivy (Peter), Hearne (vicki), Gopnik (alison), and Neitzsche re: construction of self. Thank you.}
posted by yesster at 8:15 PM on January 19, 2011

Wittgenstein. Dammit.
posted by yesster at 8:18 PM on January 19, 2011

Yeah Von Foerster is a veritable treasure trove of cognitive tools. I did an FPP on cybernetics once, maybe he would be worth one of his own though.
posted by idiopath at 2:56 AM on January 20, 2011

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