Hmmm. Occam’s Razor Seems to be Missing.

Andrew Revkin has a long, thoughtful, and thought-provoking post today, which begins

This is your brain on words:

Lots of words follow. Revkin is riffing on, a site maintained by John Brockman to provide discussion of provocative questions.

This year’s question, proposed by Steven Pinker and shaped with input fromDaniel Kahneman, has been addressed by more than 150 people so far:

What scientific concept would improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit?

What’s Missing From Our ‘Cognitive Toolkit’? –


Revkin offers several toothsome intellectual tidbits to chew on. I would argue for two concepts: The path of least regret, and emergent properties.

The path of least regret.

The path of least regret is a phrase I picked up years ago when writing about hurricanes, and the efforts of the National Hurricane Center to convince people to heed its warnings.

It is a way of deciding when faced with a choice which must be made before all the data is in. The hurricane is headed your way, but all you have is a probability of being hit. Do you stay or do you go?

If you go, there is the cost of leaving, the work you miss, the work you have to do to leave and return.

If you stay, there is the risk of dying, a very high cost indeed.

The choice of least regret says, assume that you make the WRONG choice. Which will you regret the least? That is the path of least regret.

I offer this to the discussion because it offers a line of argument in the debate over global climate disruption. We face a choice of uncertain futures, a choice we must make before the information is in to settle the debate.

I argue that we must argue for the path of least regret.

Emergent properties.

I see this theme emerging on its own more and more often. An emergent property is a property of a whole that cannot be found in its component parts.

Examples abound. Convection cells in simmering water. An image arising from thousands of pixels.

The January 2011 issue of Scientific American offers another: consciousness. Note the language here:

“How our minds emerge from our flock of neurons remains deeply mysterious. … Yet some neuroscientists think it is time to tackle the challenge. They argue that we will never truly understand how the mind emerges from our nervous system if we break the brain down into disconnected pieces. Looking at only the parts would be like trying to figure out how water freezes by looking at only a single water molecule.  ‘Ice’ is a meaningless term on the scale of individual molecules. It emerges only from the interaction of a vast number of molecules….”

100 Trillion Connections: New Efforts Probe and Map the Brain’s Detailed Architecture: Scientific American

They only emerge when you GIVE UP KNOWLEDGE of their component parts. In order to see the convection cell, you must give up tracking the molecules.

Otherwise, you end up like Jack Skelington, crying “What does it mean? What does it mean?”boiling ornaments to find Christmas.

There. Those are my suggestions for the toolkit.

This entry was posted in Behavioral Science, Climate, Disasters, Language, Mathematics, Neuroscience, Science and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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