Thursday, March 10, 2011

Improving your cognitive toolkit - VI

Continuation of my abstracting of a few of the answers to the annual question at, "What scientific concept would improve everybody's cognitive toolkit?":

Clay Shirky - The Pareto Principle - "unfairness" is a law.
You see the pattern everywhere: the top 1% of the population control 35% of the wealth. On Twitter, the top 2% of users send 60% of the messages. In the health care system, the treatment for the most expensive fifth of patients create four-fifths of the overall cost...The Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto undertook a study of market economies a century ago, and discovered that no matter what the country, the richest quintile of the population controlled most of the wealth. The effects of this Pareto Distribution go by many names — the 80/20 Rule, Zipfs Law, the Power Law distribution, Winner-Take-All — but the basic shape of the underlying distribution is always the same: the richest or busiest or most connected participants in a system will account for much much more wealth, or activity, or connectedness than average...this pattern is recursive. Within the top 20% of a system that exhibits a Pareto distribution, the top 20% of that slice will also account for disproportionately more of whatever is being measured, and so on.
...The Pareto distribution shows up in a remarkably wide array of complex systems. Together, "the" and "of" account for 10% of all words used in English. The most volatile day in the history of a stock market will typically be twice that of the second-most volatile, and ten times the tenth-most. Tag frequency on Flickr photos obeys a Pareto distribution, as does the magnitude of earthquakes, the popularity of books, the size of asteroids, and the social connectedness of your friends.

And yet, despite a century of scientific familiarity, samples drawn from Pareto distributions are routinely presented to the public as anomalies, which prevents us from thinking clearly about the world. We should stop thinking that average family income and the income of the median family have anything to do with one another, or that enthusiastic and normal users of communications tools are doing similar things, or that extroverts should be only moderately more connected than normal people.

This doesn't mean that such distributions are beyond our ability to affect them. A Pareto curve's decline from head to tail can be more or less dramatic, and in some cases, political or social intervention can affect that slope — tax policy can raise or lower the share of income of the top 1% of a population, just as there are ways to constrain the overall volatility of markets, or to reduce the band in which health care costs can fluctuate.

However, until we assume such systems are Pareto distributions, and will remain so even after any such intervention, we haven't even started thinking about them in the right way; in all likelihood, we're trying to put a Pareto peg in a Gaussian hole.
Daniel Goleman - Anthropocene thinking
Our planet has left the Holocene Age and entered what geologists call the Anthropocene Age, in which human systems erode the natural systems that support life...of all the global life-support systems, the carbon cycle is closest to no-return. While such "inconvenient truths" about the carbon cycle have been the poster child for our species' slow motion suicide, that's just part of a much larger picture, with all the eight global life-support systems under attack by our daily habits.

We approach the Anthropocene threat with brains shaped in evolution to survive the previous geological epoch, the Holocene, when dangers were signaled by growls and rustles in the bushes, and it served one well to reflexively abhor spiders and snakes. Our neural alarm systems still attune to this largely antiquated range of danger.

Add to that misattunement to threats our built-in perceptual blindspot: we have no direct neural register for the dangers of the Anthropocene age, which are too macro or micro for our sensory apparatus. We are oblivious to, say, our body burden, the lifetime build-up of damaging industrial chemicals in our tissues.

The fields that hold keys to solutions include economics, neuroscience, social psychology and cognitive science — and their various hybrids. With a focus on Anthropocene theory and practice they might well contribute species-saving insights. But first they have to engage this challenge, which for the most part has remained off their agenda.

When, for example, will neuroeconomics tackle the brain's perplexing indifference to the news about planetary meltdown, let alone how that neural blindspot might be patched? Might cognitive neuroscience one day offer some insight that might change our collective decision-making away from a lemmings' march to oblivion? Could any of the computer, behavioral or brain sciences come up with an information prosthetic that might reverse our course?

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