Thursday, January 20, 2011

Tools for better thinking

There's a fabulous website (for readers of my kind… whatever that fuzzy expression might mean) known as Edge, which was created by the celebrated literary agent John Brockman. It's truly a place where all the big minds hang out. This year's fundamental question for Edge participants (suggested apparently by Steven Pinker… which doesn't surprise me) is:

What scientific concept would improve
everybody's cognitive toolkit?

In other words, in the case of thinkers who don't seem to hit the nail exactly on the head: What are they missing in the way of paradigms that might enable them to "think different", or at least better?

I remember saying to myself, after my first reading of The Blind Watchmaker by Richard Dawkins: That fellow would write and explain things even more brilliantly if only he knew a bit about object-oriented computer programming! (I still have this impression.)

Today, I was amused and impressed by the answer of this same Dawkins to the 2011 Edge question. The professor suggests that people should master, as a prime necessity, the principles of the double-blind control experiment, as used by countless researchers in the domain of biology and, more particularly, pharmacology. Why not? Testing potential remedies in an objective scientific style prevents us (as Dawkins states) from being "seduced by homeopaths and other quacks and charlatans, who would consequently be put out of business". As I've always said, Dawkins is at his best when he's talking about down-to-earth scientific knowledge. He's the mythical science master whom all of us should have encountered when we were at school.

Another brilliant answer to the 2011 Edge question was supplied by Michael Schermer. He suggested that people should learn to think in a bottom-up rather than a top-down fashion. Now, that kind of advice pleases me immensely, because it uses the everyday talk of computer programmers from back in the last quarter of the 20th century. The only difference is that most of us were emerging, at that time, from an epoch of being fanatically top-down rather than bottom-up. We had been inculcated into thinking that the only way of solving problems is to start at the top and work your way down. In fact, as Michael Schermer points out, Nature (like everything in the Cosmos, so it would seem, ever since the Big Bang) has always started at the bottom and worked its way up…

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