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What scientific concept would improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit?

That’s the Edge Question of the Year for 2011. Let’s take a look at some of the responses:

Matt Ridley, author of The Rational Optimist, concludes:

That’s why, as Friedrich Hayek observed, central planning never worked: the cleverest person is no match for the collective brain at working out how to distribute consumer goods. The idea of bottom-up collective intelligence, which Adam Smith understood and Charles Darwin echoed, and which Hayek expounded in his remarkable essay “The use of knowledge in society“, is one idea I wish everybody had in their cognitive toolkit.

Sue Blackmore, author of Consciousness: An Introduction , offers:

The phrase “correlation is not a cause” (CINAC) may be familiar to every scientist but has not found its way into everyday language, even though critical thinking and scientific understanding would improve if more people had this simple reminder in their mental toolkit.

Paul Bloom, author of How Pleasure Works: The New Science of Why we Like What We Likehighlights some of the things that this blog tries to flag

We are powerfully influenced by irrational processes such as unconscious priming, conformity, groupthink, and self-serving biases. These affect the most trivial aspects of our lives, such as how quickly we walk down a city street, and the most important, such as who we choose to marry. The political and moral realms are particularly vulnerable to such influences. While many of us would like to think that our views on climate change or torture or foreign policy are the result of rational deliberation, we are more affected than we would like to admit by considerations that have nothing to do with reason.

John Tooby:

..Here are three simple conceptual tools that might help us see in front of our noses: nexus causality, moral warfare, and misattribution arbitrage. Causality itself is an evolved conceptual tool that simplifies, schematizes, and focuses our representation of situations. This cognitive machinery guides us to think in terms of the cause — of an outcome having a single cause. Yet for enlarged understanding, it is more accurate to represent outcomes as caused by an intersection or nexus of factors (including the absence of precluding conditions). In War and Peace, Tolstoy asks “When an apple ripens and falls, why does it fall? Because of its attraction to the earth, because its stem withers, because it is dried by the sun, because it grows heavier, because the wind shakes it….?” — with little effort any modern scientist could extend Tolstoy’s list endlessly. We evolved, however, as cognitively improvisational tool-users, dependent on identifying actions we could take that lead to immediate payoffs. So, our minds evolved to represent situations in a way that highlighted the element in the nexus that we could manipulate to bring about a favored outcome. Elements in the situation that remained stable and that we could not change (like gravity or human nature) were left out of our representation of causes. Similarly, variable factors in the nexus (like the wind blowing) that we could not control, but that predicted an outcome (the apple falling), were also useful to represent as causes, in order to prepare ourselves to exploit opportunities or avoid dangers. So the reality of the causal nexus is cognitively ignored in favor of the cartoon of single causes. While useful for a forager, this machinery impoverishes our scientific understanding, rendering discussions (whether elite, scientific, or public) of the “causes” — of cancer, war, violence, mental disorders, infidelity, unemployment, climate, poverty, and so on — ridiculous.

PZ Myers, before going on to recommend the mediocrity principle (you aren’t special), says what Charlie Munger’s been saying for years:

As someone who just spent a term teaching freshman introductory biology, and will be doing it again in the coming months, I have to say that the first thing that leapt to my mind as an essential skill everyone should have was algebra. And elementary probability and statistics. That sure would make my life easier, anyway — there’s something terribly depressing about seeing bright students tripped up by a basic math skill that they should have mastered in grade school.

Seth Loyd, author of Programming the Universe, offers:

The ability to reason clearly in the face of uncertainty….