Jun 30, 2017

Education for tools

This is a great lecture by Stephen Pinker, a linguist and cognitive scientist, in which he talks about concepts and reasoning. At the end (1:03:05) he makes some remarks about what kind of education would help in our thinking to be less error prone. He states:

The question is "are these flaws and biases that [are] inborn always with us or with enough rational deliberation and education will we be able to overcome it to the point where... normatively correct answer that would come about with slow thinking become second nature?" So, as a species no. Every baby that's born has to learn to overcome the same fallacies and biases. That is, Lamarck was wrong when he said that if you learn something in your lifetime it somehow gets encoded in the genes and your babies are born with it. So we know that doesn't happen.

On the other hand, I would argue, the reason that we have education is that we are capable of overcoming them, if we have the right education. Every new generation of kids has to be educated. I personally, and there's a growing number of people who believe that top priority in education, especially higher education like college education, should be in identifying the kinds of fallacies that the human mind is naturally prone to and developing the work arounds. Such as logic and probability theory, ideally combined with the kind of psychology that I mentioned that makes us all cognizant of our flaws, so that we know that we should not trust our intuitions and reach for these tools when we have to make a decision.

This is a conclusion that is slow to occur to many people who should know better. [...] I think the world would be a better place if more peole were aware of these fallacies and of the ways of overcoming them.

NCHumanities. "Professor Steven Pinker - Concepts & Reasoning." YouTube. YouTube, 03 Oct. 2014. Web. 30 June 2017.

Logic and probability are not only necessary to understand how our thinking works, but it is also necessary to understand how science and statistics work. Here's a another remark what education should accomplish from Sander Greenland:

I believe other educational omissions besides causal models have been major contributors to the currently lamented "crises". Two topics in dire need of early and continuing education are basic logic and cognitive psychology (Gilovich et al. 2002; Lash 2007). Especially important are the logical and statistical fallacies manifested in routine misinterpretations of basic statistics, and the biases built into current teaching and practice that encourage these fallacies (Box 1990; Greenland 2011, 2012b, c, 2016; Greenland et al. 2016). Their persistence attest to the fact that degrees in statistics and medicine do not require substantial training in or understanding of scientific research or reasoning, but nonetheless serve as credentials licensing expressions of scientific certainty (Greenland 2011, 2012c).

I'm not sure these logical fallacies and cognitive biases are inborn or a product from the culture or education we receive, I tend to think the latter. But the right education should be one in which, as these authors suggest, we receive, among other things, proper training in probability theory, logical fallacies, cognitive biases and how to use them appropriately in everyday and scientific endeavours. I think Daniel Dennett makes a great point about thinking tools in the following quote from his book Intuition pumps:

You can’t do much carpentry with your bare hands and you can’t do much thinking with your bare brain.

Bo Dahlbom

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1. You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.
2. You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
3. You should mention anything you have learned from your target.
4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.
Daniel Dennett, Intuition pumps and other tools for thinking.

Valid criticism is doing you a favor. - Carl Sagan