Thursday, July 20, 2017

The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone I

This book, by Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach, delves into areas of cognitive psychology not covered by Daniel Kahneman in Thinking, Fast and Slow. While there is some overlap, and Kahneman is cited, Kahneman emphasizes the error-prone nature of human thinking, particularly with respect to formal reasoning, whereas Sloman and Fernbach emphasize the deficiencies in knowledge apparent in individuals. They provide what I think is a more approving description of the causal reasoning used by humans and explain its origin in biological terms, showing how other species also seem to use generalization models based on empirical evidence, though at a less sophisticated level than we do. The main point, however, is that we know far less than we think we do, and we are adapted to a hive-like mentality in which our survival is ensured by interdependence.

The writing style is more informal and breezy than that of Kahneman, and although some research is cited, the tone is less academic. As with Kahneman, the "research" sometimes seems a little contrived, with hokey questionnaires filled out by volunteer college students. However, I agree with all of their main points, and, as was the case with Kahneman, find them obvious. Sloman and Fernbach seem more sensitive to biological explanations than Kahneman, and I am disappointed that there is no mention of eusociality or of E.O. Wilson, which might have taken the book in a direction that I would have found more interesting. I'm halfway through, and it looks as if it will end in a few platitudes, more of the self-help variety than I would like, in accordance with Kahneman's method.

Because the books both seem circumscribed and cautious, while at the same time suggesting that they contain deep thoughts, I am reminded of the joke that was popular in the late 1960's and 1970's:

"To be is to do" – Socrates.
"To do is to be" – Jean-Paul Sartre.
"Do be do be do" – Frank Sinatra.

(In case you don't know, the joke derives from the lyrics to the song, "Strangers in the Night," which was a hit in 1967.) I'm not sure exactly why it is, but I always get the impression that the findings of psychological research are fairly obvious, and that the only reason that one might have for bringing them up would be to develop some further hypotheses about the human situation – which never occurs. Therefore, I have the feeling that, like Kahneman, Sloman and Fernbach are going nowhere with this despite their portentousness. I may be wrong, and I'll fill you in on my next post.

I am beginning to get a sense of the sociology of psychology. If you look back at the history of psychology, although many of its early practitioners, such as Freud, Jung, and even Skinner, had significant insights, the methodologies that they invented do not hold up well as science according to current standards. Psychology takes on a more serious aura when it is linked to neurology or AI, and that is exactly what cognitive science tries to do. Thus, there remains a nebulousness that has always existed in psychology, but it is no longer possible to succeed in the field without using measurements and throwing in a few scientific-sounding words such as "cognition." Although it does seem that significant advances are being made in the field, my perception is that its practitioners are usually not big thinkers, and their spin on the subject may just be career moves on their part.

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