Quotes Tagged "cognition"
Much of the particularity of a language is extra-lexical, built into the syntax and grammar of the language and virtually invisible to native speakers. English, for example, restricts the use of the present perfect tense (‘has been’, ‘has read’) to subjects who are still alive, marking a sharp grammatical divide between the living and the dead, and, by extension, between life and death. But of course, as an English speaker, you already knew that, at least subconsciously. Language is full of built-in assumptions and prejudices.
The mind is more comfortable in reckoning probabilities in terms of the relative frequency of remembered or imagined events. That can make recent and memorable events - a plane crash, a shark attack, an anthrax infection - loom larger on one's worry list than more frequent and boring events, such as the car crashes and ladder falls that get printed beneath the fold on page B14. And it can lead risk experts to speak one language and ordinary people to hear another. In hearings for a proposed nuclear waste site, an expert might present a fault tree that lays out the conceivable sequences of events by which radioactivity might escape. For example, erosion, cracks in the bedrock, accidental drilling, or improper sealing might cause the release of radioactivity into groundwater. In turn, groundwater movement, volcanic activity, or an impact of a large meteorite might cause the release of radioactive wastes into the biosphere. Each train of events can be assigned a probability, and the aggregate probability of an accident from all the causes can be estimated. When people hear these analyses, however, the are not reassured but become more fearful than ever. They hadn't realized there are so many ways for something to go wrong! They mentally tabulate the number of disaster scenarios, rather than mentally aggregating the probabilities of the disaster scenarios.
The obvious cure for the tragic shortcomings of human intuition in a high-tech world is education. And this offers priorities for educational policy: to provide students with the cognitive tools that are most important for grasping the modern world and that are most unlike the cognitive tools they are born with. The perilous fallacies we have seen in this chapter, for example, would give high priority to economics, evolutionary biology, and probability and statistics in any high school or college curriculum. Unfortunately, most curricula have barely changed since medieval times, and are barely changeable because no one wants to be the philistine who seems to be saying that it is unimportant to learn a foreign language, or English literature, or trigonometry, or the classics. But no matter how valuable a subject may be, there are only twenty-four hours in a day, and a decision to teach one subject is also a decision not to teach another one. The question is not whether trigonometry is important, but whether it is more important than statistics; not whether an educated person should know the classics, but whether it is more important for an educated person to know the classics than to know elementary economics. In a world whose complexities are constantly challenging our intuitions, these trade-offs cannot responsibly be avoided.