Tag: Social Science

Using Multidisciplinary Thinking to Approach Problems in a Complex World

Complex outcomes in human systems are a tough nut to crack when it comes to deciding what’s really true. Any phenomena we might try to explain will have a host of competing theories, many of them seemingly plausible.

So how do we know what to go with?

One idea is to take a nod from the best. One of the most successful “explainers” of human behavior has been the cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker. His books have been massively influential, in part because they combine scientific rigor, explanatory power, and plainly excellent writing.

What’s unique about Pinker is the range of sources he draws on. His book The Better Angels of Our Nature, a cogitation on the decline in relative violence in recent human history, draws on ideas from evolutionary psychology, forensic anthropology, statistics, social history, criminology, and a host of other fields. Pinker, like Vaclav Smil and Jared Diamond, is the opposite of the man with a hammer, ranging over much material to come to his conclusions.

In fact, when asked about the progress of social science as an explanatory arena over time, Pinker credited this cross-disciplinary focus:

Because of the unification with the sciences, there are more genuinely explanatory theories, and there’s a sense of progress, with more non-obvious things being discovered that have profound implications.

But, even better, Pinker gives out an outline for how a multidisciplinary thinker should approach problems in a complex world.

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Here’s the issue at stake: When we’re viewing a complex phenomena—say, the decline in certain forms of violence in human history—it can be hard to come with up a rigorous explanation. We can’t just set up repeated lab experiments and vary the conditions of human history to see what pops out, as with physics or chemistry.

So out of necessity, we must approach the problem in a different way.

In the above referenced interview, Pinker gives a wonderful example how to do it: Note how he carefully “cross-checks” from a variety of sources of data, developing a 3D view of the landscape he’s trying to assess:

Pinker: Absolutely, I think most philosophers of science would say that all scientific generalizations are probabilistic rather than logically certain, more so for the social sciences because the systems you are studying are more complex than, say, molecules, and because there are fewer opportunities to intervene experimentally and to control every variable. But the exis­tence of the social sciences, including psychology, to the extent that they have discovered anything, shows that, despite the uncontrollability of human behavior, you can make some progress: you can do your best to control the nuisance variables that are not literally in your control; you can have analogues in a laboratory that simulate what you’re interested in and impose an experimental manipulation.

You can be clever about squeezing the last drop of causal information out of a correlational data set, and you can use converging evi­dence, the qualitative narratives of traditional history in combination with quantitative data sets and regression analyses that try to find patterns in them. But I also go to traditional historical narratives, partly as a sanity check. If you’re just manipulating numbers, you never know whether you’ve wan­dered into some preposterous conclusion by taking numbers too seriously that couldn’t possibly reflect reality. Also, it’s the narrative history that provides hypotheses that can then be tested. Very often a historian comes up with some plausible causal story, and that gives the social scientists something to do in squeezing a story out of the numbers.

Warburton: I wonder if you’ve got an example of just that, where you’ve combined the history and the social science?

Pinker: One example is the hypothesis that the Humanitarian Revolution during the Enlightenment, that is, the abolition of slavery, torture, cruel punishments, religious persecution, and so on, was a product of an expansion of empathy, which in turn was fueled by literacy and the consumption of novels and journalis­tic accounts. People read what life was like in other times and places, and then applied their sense of empathy more broadly, which gave them second thoughts about whether it’s a good idea to disembowel someone as a form of criminal punish­ment. So that’s a historical hypothesis. Lynn Hunt, a historian at the University of California–Berkeley, proposed it, and there are some psychological studies that show that, indeed, if people read a first-person account by someone unlike them, they will become more sympathetic to that individual, and also to the category of people that that individual represents.

So now we have a bit of experimental psychology supporting the historical qualita­tive narrative. And, in addition, one can go to economic histo­rians and see that, indeed, there was first a massive increase in the economic efficiency of manufacturing a book, then there was a massive increase in the number of books pub­lished, and finally there was a massive increase in the rate of literacy. So you’ve got a story that has at least three vertices: the historian’s hypothesis; the economic historians identifying exogenous variables that changed prior to the phenomenon we’re trying to explain, so the putative cause occurs before the putative effect; and then you have the experimental manipulation in a laboratory, showing that the intervening link is indeed plausible.

Pinker is saying, Look we can’t just rely on “plausible narratives” generated by folks like the historians. There are too many possibilities that could be correct.

Nor can we rely purely on correlations (i.e., the rise in literacy statistically tracking the decline in violence) — they don’t necessarily offer us a causative explanation. (Does the rise in literacy cause less violence, or is it vice versa? Or, does a third factor cause both?)

However, if we layer in some other known facts from areas we can experiment on — say, psychology or cognitive neuroscience — we can sometimes establish the causal link we need or, at worst, a better hypothesis of reality.

In this case, it would be the finding from psychology that certain forms of literacy do indeed increase empathy (for logical reasons).

Does this method give us absolute proof? No. However, it does allow us to propose and then test, re-test, alter, and strengthen or ultimately reject a hypothesis. (In other words, rigorous thinking.)

We can’t stop here though. We have to take time to examine competing hypotheses — there may be a better fit. The interviewer continues on asking Pinker about this methodology:

Warburton: And so you conclude that the de-centering that occurs through novel-reading and first-person accounts probably did have a causal impact on the willingness of people to be violent to their peers?

Pinker: That’s right. And, of course, one has to rule out alternative hypotheses. One of them could be the growth of affluence: perhaps it’s simply a question of how pleasant your life is. If you live a longer and healthier and more enjoyable life, maybe you place a higher value on life in general, and, by extension, the lives of others. That would be an alternative hypothesis to the idea that there was an expansion of empathy fueled by greater literacy. But that can be ruled out by data from eco­nomic historians that show there was little increase in afflu­ence during the time of the Humanitarian Revolution. The increase in affluence really came later, in the 19th century, with the advent of the Industrial Revolution.

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Let’s review the process that Pinker has laid out, one that we might think about emulating as we examine the causes of complex phenomena in human systems:

  1. We observe an interesting phenomenon in need of explanation, one we feel capable of exploring.
  2. We propose and examine competing hypotheses that would explain the phenomena (set up in a falsifiable way, in harmony with the divide between science and pseudoscience laid out for us by the great Karl Popper).
  3. We examine a cross-section of: Empirical data relating to the phenomena; sensible qualitative inference (from multiple fields/disciplines, the more fundamental the better), and finally;  “Demonstrable” aspects of nature we are nearly certain about, arising from controlled experiment or other rigorous sources of knowledge ranging from engineering to biology to cognitive neuroscience.

What we end up with is not necessarily a bulletproof explanation, but probably the best we can do if we think carefully. A good cross-disciplinary examination with quantitative and qualitative sources coming into equal play, and a good dose of judgment, can be far more rigorous than the gut instinct or plausible nonsense type stories that many of us lazily spout.

A Word of Caution

Although Pinker’s “multiple vertices” approach to problem solving in complex domains can be powerful, we always have to be on guard for phenomena that we simply cannot explain at our current level of competence: We must have a “too hard” pile when competing explanations come out “too close to call” or we otherwise feel we’re outside of our circle of competence. Always tread carefully and be sure to follow Darwin’s Golden Rule: Contrary facts are more important than confirming ones. Be ready to change your mind, like Darwin, when the facts don’t go your way.

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Still Interested? For some more Pinker goodness check out our prior posts on his work, or check out a few of his books like How the Mind Works or The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature.

Towards a Greater Synthesis: Steven Pinker on How to Apply Science to the Humanities

The fundamental idea behind Farnam Street is to learn to think across disciplines and synthesize, using ideas in combination to solve problems in novel ways.

An easy example would be to take a fundamental idea of psychology like the concept of a near-miss (deprival super-reaction) and use it to help explain the success of a gambling enterprise. Or, similarly, using the idea of the endowment effect to help explain why lotteries are a lot more successful if you allow people to choose their own numbers. Sometimes we take ideas from hard science, like the idea of runaway feedback (think of a nuclear reaction gaining steam), to explain why small problems can become large problems or small advantages can become large ones.

This kind of reductionism and synthesis helps one understand the world at a fundamental level and solve new problems.

We’re sometimes asked about untapped ways that this thinking can be applied. In hearing this, it occasionally seems that people fall into the trap of believing all of the great cross-disciplinary thinking has been done. Or maybe even that all of the great thinking has been done, period.

Steven-Pinker-by-Rebecca-Goldstein

Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker is here to say we have a long way to go.

We’ve written before about Pinker’s ideas on a broad education and on writing, but he’s also got a great essay on Edge.org called Writing in the 21st Century wherein he addresses some of the central concepts of his book on writing — The Sense of Style. While the book’s ideas are wonderful, later in the article he moves to a more general point useful for our purposes: Systematic application of the “harder” sciences to the humanities is a huge untapped source of knowledge.

He provides some examples that are fascinating in their potential:

This combination of science and letters is emblematic of what I hope to be a larger trend we spoke of earlier, namely the application of science, particularly psychology and cognitive science, to the traditional domains of humanities. There’s no aspect of human communication and cultural creation that can’t benefit from a greater application of psychology and the other sciences of mind. We would have an exciting addition to literary studies, for example, if literary critics knew more about linguistics.Poetry analysts could apply phonology (the study of sound structure) and the cognitive psychology of metaphor. An analysis of plot in fiction could benefit from a greater understanding of the conflicts and confluences of ultimate interests in human social relationships. The genre of biography would be deepened by an understanding of the nature of human memory, particularly autobiographical memory. How much of the memory of our childhood is confabulated? Memory scientists have a lot to say about that. How much do we polish our image of ourselves in describing ourselves to others, and more importantly, recollecting our own histories? Do we edit our memories in an Orwellian manner to make ourselves more coherent in retrospect? Syntax and semantics are relevant as well. How does a writer use the tense system of English to convey a sense of immediacy or historical distance?

In music the sciences of auditory and speech perception have much to contribute to understanding how musicians accomplish their effects. The visual arts could revive an old method of analysis going back to Ernst Gombrich and Rudolf Arnheim in collaboration with the psychologist Richard Gregory. Indeed, even the art itself in the 1920s was influenced by psychology, thanks in part to Gertrude Stein, who as an undergraduate student of William James did a wonderful thesis on divided attention, and then went to Paris and brought the psychology of perception to the attention of artists like Picasso and Braque. Gestalt psychology may have influenced Paul Klee and the expressionists. Since then we have lost that wonderful synergy between the science of visual perception and the creation of visual art.

Going beyond the arts, the social sciences, such as political science could benefit from a greater understanding of human moral and social instincts, such as the psychology of dominance, the psychology of revenge and forgiveness, and the psychology of gratitude and social competition. All of them are relevant, for example, to international negotiations. We talk about one country being friendly to another or allying or competing, but countries themselves don’t have feelings. It’s the elites and leaders who do, and a lot of international politics is driven by the psychology of its leaders.

In this short section alone, Pinker offers realistically that we can apply:

  • Linguistics to literature
  • Phonology and psychology to poetry
  • The biology of groups to understand fiction
  • The biology of memory to understand biography
  • Semantics to understand historical writing
  • Psychology and biology to understand art and music
  • Psychology and biology to understand politics

Turns out, there’s a huge amount of thinking left to be done. Effectively, Pinker is asking us to imitate the scientist Linus Pauling, who sought to systematically understand chemistry by using the next most fundamental discipline, physics, an approach which led to great breakthroughs and a consilience of knowledge in the two fields which is taken for granted in modern science.

Towards a Greater Synthesis

Even if we’re not trying to make great scientific advances, think about how we could apply this idea to all of our lives. Fields like basic mathematics, statistics, biology, physics, and psychology provide deep insight into the “higher level” functions of humanity like law, medicine, politics, business, and social groups. Or, as Munger has put it, “When you get down to it, you’ll find worldly wisdom looks pretty darn academic.” And it isn’t as hard as it sounds: We don’t need to understand the deep math of relativity to grasp the idea that two observers can see the same event in a different way depending on perspective. The rest of the world’s models are similar, although having some mathematical fluency is necessary.

Pinker, like Munger, doesn’t stop there. He also believes in what Munger calls the ethos of hard science, which is a way of rigorously considering the problems of the practical world.

Even beyond applying the findings of psychology and cognitive science and social and affective neuroscience, it’s the mindset of science that ought to be exported to cultural and intellectual life as a whole. That consists in increased skepticism and scrutiny about factual conventional wisdom: How much of what you think is true really is true if you go to the numbers? For me this has been a salient issue in analyzing violence, because the conventional wisdom is that we’re living in extraordinarily violent times.

But if you take into account the psychology of risk perception, as pioneered by Daniel Kahneman, Amos Tversky, Paul Slovic, Gerd Gigerenzer, and others, you realize that the conventional wisdom is systematically distorted by the source of our information about the world, namely the news. News is about the stuff that happens; it’s not about the stuff that doesn’t happen. Human risk perception is affected by memorable examples, according to Tversky and Kahneman’s availability heuristic. No matter what the rate of violence is objectively, there are always enough examples to fill the news. And since our perception of risk is influenced by memorable examples, we’ll always think we’re living in violent times. It’s only when you apply the scientific mindset to world events, to political science and history, and try to count how many people are killed now as opposed to ten years ago, a hundred years ago, or a thousand years ago that you get an accurate picture about the state of the world and the direction that it’s going, which is largely downward. That conclusion only came from applying an empirical mindset to the traditional subject matter of history and political science.

Nassim Taleb has been on a similar hunt for a long time (although, amusingly, he doesn’t like Pinker’s book on violence at all). The question is relatively straightforward: How do we know what we know? Traditionally, what we know has simply been based on what we can see, something now called the availability bias. In other words, because we see our grandmother live to 95 years old while eating carrots every day, we think carrots prevent cancer. (A conflation of correlation and causation.)

But Pinker and Taleb call for a higher standard called empiricism, which requires pushing beyond anecdote into an accumulation of sound data to support a theory, with disconfirming examples weighted as heavily as confirming ones. This shift from anecdote to empiricism led humanity to make some of its greatest leaps of understanding, yet we’re still falling into the trap regularly, an outcome which itself can be explained by evolutionary biology and modern psychology. (Hint: It’s in the deep structure of our minds to extrapolate.)

Learning to Ask Why

Pinker continues with a claim that Munger would dearly appreciate: The search for explanations is how we push into new ideas. The deeper we push, the better we understand.

The other aspect of the scientific mindset that ought to be exported to the rest of intellectual life is the search for explanations. That is, not to just say that history is one damn thing after another, that stuff happens, and there’s nothing we can do to explain why, but to relate phenomena to more basic or general phenomena … and to try to explain those phenomena with still more basic phenomena. We’ve repeatedly seen that happen in the sciences, where, for example, biological phenomena were explained in part at the level of molecules, which were explained by chemistry, which was explained by physics.

There’s no reason that that this process of explanation can’t continue. Biology gives us a grasp of the brain, and human nature is a product of the organization of the brain, and societies unfold as they do because they consist of brains interacting with other brains and negotiating arrangements to coordinate their behavior, and so on.

This idea certainly takes heat. The biologist E.O. Wilson calls it Consilience, and has gone as far as saying that all human knowledge can eventually be reduced to extreme fundamentals like mathematics and particle physics. (Leading to something like The Atomic Explanation of the Civil War.)

Whether or not you take it to such an extreme depends on your boldness and your confidence in the mental acuity of human beings. But even if you think Wilson is crazy, you can still learn deeply from the more fundamental knowledge in the world. This push to reduce things to their simplest explanations (but not simpler) is how we array all new knowledge and experience on a latticework of mental models.

For example, instead of taking Warren Buffett’s dictum that markets are irrational on its face, try to understand why. What about human nature and the dynamics of human groups leads to that outcome? What about biology itself leads to human nature? And so on. You’ll eventually hit a wall, that’s a certainty, but the further you push, the more fundamentally you understand the world. Elon Musk calls this first principles thinking and credits it with helping him do things in engineering and business that almost everyone considered impossible.

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From there, Pinker concludes with a thought that hits near and dear to our hearts:

There is no “conflict between the sciences and humanities,” or at least there shouldn’t be. There should be no turf battle as to who gets to speak about what matters. What matters are ideas. We should seek the ideas that give us the deepest, richest, best-informed understanding of the human condition, regardless of which people or what discipline originates them. That has to include the sciences, but it can’t come only from the sciences. The focus should be on ideas, not on people, disciplines, or academic traditions.


Still Interested?
Start building your mental models and read some more Pinker for more goodness.