Everyday science

David Brooks highlights a discussion “on what scientific concepts everyone’s cognitive toolbox should hold” on Edge.org. Brooks’ first highlight is this:

Clay Shirkey nominates the Pareto Principle. We have the idea in our heads that most distributions fall along a bell curve (most people are in the middle). But this is not how the world is organized in sphere after sphere. The top 1 percent of the population control 35 percent of the wealth. The top two percent of Twitter users send 60 percent of the messages. The top 20 percent of workers in any company will produce a disproportionate share of the value. Shirkey points out that these distributions are regarded as anomalies. They are not.

The full Edge.org symposium is here. I’m not sure these individual insights are science or even scientific concepts, as much as “insights on thinking that some scientists have found useful” — but still interesting. Here’s Richard Dawkins on the Double-Blind Control Experiment (emphasis added):

….Why do half of all Americans believe in ghosts, three quarters believe in angels, a third believe in astrology, three quarters believe in Hell? Why do a quarter of all Americans and believe that the President of the United States was born outside the country and is therefore ineligible to be President? Why do more than 40 percent of Americans think the universe began after the domestication of the dog?

Let’s not give the defeatist answer and blame it all on stupidity. That’s probably part of the story, but let’s be optimistic and concentrate on something remediable: lack of training in how to think critically, and how to discount personal opinion, prejudice and anecdote, in favour of evidence. I believe that the double-blind control experiment does double duty. It is more than just an excellent research tool. It also has educational, didactic value in teaching people how to think critically. My thesis is that you needn’t actually do double-blind control experiments in order to experience an improvement in your cognitive toolkit. You only need to understand the principle, grasp why it is necessary, and revel in its elegance.

If all schools taught their pupils how to do a double-blind control experiment, our cognitive toolkits would be improved in the following ways:

1. We would learn not to generalise from anecdotes.

2. We would learn how to assess the likelihood that an apparently important effect might have happened by chance alone.

3. We would learn how extremely difficult it is to eliminate subjective bias, and that subjective bias does not imply dishonesty or venality of any kind. This lesson goes deeper. It has the salutary effect of undermining respect for authority, and respect for personal opinion….

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04 2011

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