I recently finished the book Thinking edited by John Brockman. The book is a collection of articles by experts on various subjects all loosely related to the human thought process. As I read the book, I underlined and took notes. This blog posting is a review of my notes and some of my opinions on the articles and topics.
The book has 14 different articles and they are of uneven quality and interest to me. Fortunately none of them are too long - and even the uninteresting ones exposed me to a perspective I would not normally see. Since that is what I was looking for - different perspectives by smart people - I was satisfied with the book and would consider buying more books in the series.
In this posting I will only touch on the first two articles. My reviews are not meant to be objective - and they may not even be accurate portrayals of what the author says. It reflects my thoughts on what I think they said.
Daniel Dennett ( a collection of mini-articles )
Dennett's chapter was the first in the book and was itself a collection of unrelated thought pieces - which I call mini-articles. It felt more like a blog - and each topic was a different blog post.
The Normal Well-Tempered Mind : This was Dennett’s most interesting mini-article. In it he describes the brain/ consciousness as a collection of agents (neurons / specialized areas of the brain etc) that are perpetually in cooperative competition. Each agent is striving to increase its own control and importance and it does so by learning new skills (neuroplasticity), and forming alliances. Consciousness arises out of this blend of competitive/cooperative anarchy/democracy among the many brain agents. This approach to describing consciousness was similar to one I recently read in Neal Stephenson’s book Anathem. In that book, a theory was presented that portrayed the brain/mind as a collection of specialized agents that struggle to survive in the face of a constant stream of information/threats. Consciousness represents the method of communication that these agents developed to survive. And our sense of self is the embodiment of that collective behavior. Our internal narrative is an aspect of this collective. It forms from fundamentally different areas of the brain struggling to form common ground. I found Stepehson’s description of consciousness more compelling. Dennett’s model is similar, but different enough (with his focusing on competition a bit more) to be interesting.
There are a Lot of Cultural Fleas. This article starts with the assumption that language is an inherent human skill. Through language culture is passed from one generation to another and this pattern is one of our greatest evolutionary advantages. It appears that this is all “a given” to Dennett - though I note that a later chapter in the book challenges this thinking about language Dennett’s point to this article is that we normally assume that culture and the evolutionary pattern of thinking is all good - that what survives from generation to generation is the good stuff. But much - if not most of what survives is bad stuff (cultural fleas as in the title to the article).
Naive Science of Free Will. Dennett’s mini-articles start to deteriorate quickly through the rest of his chapter. They turn into opinionated rants. The main point of this particular rant was: Scientists talk a lot about free will - they should shut up and listen to philosophers - who have a lot to say on the subject.. Dennett is of course a philosopher. He must have just had a bad day with a scientist.
A combination of arrogance and cravenness / A pernicious sort of lazy relativism These are actually two mini-articles that make the same point - which is: that religious leaders / pastors stink. They lie and they know they lie all the while pretending they are doing good. People look to them as experts on life and science and they make up stuff and lie. Bad! Bad! Bad!. Really BAD.
My closing remarks on Dennett’s chapter: I was disappointed. I had heard of Dennett and was looking forward to reading some of his work. I came away with the impression that he was a “professional atheist” and an “expert thinker”. To me, these are not good things.
After I finished the entire book and started to reflect back on the individual chapters, I found several chapters related in some unexpected ways. I mentioned already that Dennett’s “givens” about language were challenged in a later chapter. The next chapter in the book discusses “experts” - which is what I described Dennett as being. The most important relationship with other chapters ties into Dennett’s moral indignation about religion/pastors. A writer in a later chapter describes morality as being that system of thinking which supports your particular world view (or view of reality). My own world view is different enough from Dennett’s that when I read his anti-religion rant - I felt it could be equally applied to him.
How to Win at Forecasting by Philip Tetlock
I will admit I have heard of Tetlock’s work at least twice before - and was already favorably disposed to his topic and conclusions. So this is the third time I have heard of the same research - which adds to its credibility - and it agrees with my world view - which gives me moral certainty. Also, Tetlock makes positive references to Popper, Taleb, Kahneman and Bayes. and he makes a negative comment about Tom Friedman. He is batting a thousand. So to me this is no longer an interesting piece of unverified research by someone making a career off of this same research. It is now a TRUTH.
What is this TRUTH? It is simply - Experts stink! They lie and they know they lie all the while pretending they are doing good. They make up stuff and lie. Bad Bad Bad. Really BAD.
Oh wait, I wrote that before - about Dennett’s opinion of religious leaders. And here it is again - but this time more generically applied to all experts.
Ok Tetlock doesn't really say all that. His point is we overrate expert opinion and that in many cases experts do no better than random or naive systems - and in many cases they know they are no better and simply don’t care. Many experts are not held accountable for their predictions of the future. They are paid to make forecasts - not to be right.
Tetlock’s research focused on political experts and their ability to predict the future over a decade or so. He found that they really didn’t do well and that in many (most) cases you are better off with a random or some simplistic decision tool than taking an expert’s advice. One reason you might be better off without the expert is that experts tend to stick with a previous opinion long after the facts change. If you have read Silver’s The Signal and the Noise, this will all seem familiar.
Tetlock also describes people who are willing to engage in this research. Entrenched experts and companies do not want to hear about or engage in this research - because it challenges them and their expert status. He says a lot more on the need for verification and the need of this research. If you want to donate to his cause - I’m sure there is a way.
All in all, I was happy to read this piece - but it didn’t add anything to what I had read/heard elsewhere. It is interesting how this same research is spreading around (a “meme”?). I struggle with an article like this because I agree with its fundamental point - which makes me wonder - what am I missing? When you hear something you really want to believe, you are either misunderstanding what was said or you are fooling yourself. So I tell myself - “perhaps”.