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An Insightful Life 

Claude Shannon is one of my intellectual heroes.

His MIT master’s thesis, submitted in 1936, laid the foundation for digital circuit design. (My MIT master’s thesis, submitted 70 years later, has so far proven somewhat less influential.)

His insight was simple. The wires, relays and switches that made up the types of complex circuits he encountered at AT&T could be understand as the terms and operators of logic statements expressed in the boolean algebra he encountered as a math major at the University of Michigan.

Though simple, this insight had huge impact. It meant that circuits could be designed and optimized in the abstract and precise language of mathematics, and then transformed back to soldered wires and finicky magnetic coils only at the last step — enabling staggering leaps in circuit complexity.

But he wasn’t done. A decade later, inspired in part by his wartime research efforts, Shannon developed information theory: a mathematical framework that formalizes both techniques and fundamental limits for reliably transmitting information over noisy channels.

(For a popular treatment of this theory, see this or this; for a technical introduction, I recommend this guide).

Put another way, Shannon’s master’s thesis laid the foundation for digital computers, while his information theory paper laid the foundation for digital communication.

Not a bad legacy.

Decoding Shannon’s Work Habits

This is all to say that I was, quite naturally, excited to learn that my friend Jimmy Soni was co-authoring a big new biography of Shannon.

The resulting book came out earlier this week (I read a review copy — it’s great). As part of the publicity surrounding the release, Soni wrote an epic article on the twelve lessons he learned from the years he spent researching Shannon. The title of the first lesson caught my attention: “cull your inputs.”

To quote Soni:

“[D]istractions are a permanent feature of life, in any era, and Shannon shows us that shutting them out isn’t just a matter of achieving random bursts of focus. It’s about consciously designing one’s life and work habits to minimize them.”

Shannon, we learn, often worked with his door shut at Bell Labs to ward off distraction.

“None of Shannon’s colleagues, to our knowledge, remembered him as rude or unfriendly,” Soni writes, “but they do remember him as someone who valued his privacy and quiet time for thinking.”

It’s not that Shannon avoided collaboration. If anything, he was known for his ability to maintain stimulating conversation for hours when the topic was right. But he was wary of less fruitful digressions.

Shannon also discarded much of his voluminous incoming correspondence and invitations into a box labeled: “Letters I’ve Procrastinated On For Too Long.” When Soni and his co-author studied Shannon’s correspondence at the Library of Congress, they found “far more incoming letters than outgoing ones.”

To summarize these observations somewhat flippantly, while it’s absolutely true that Shannon’s breakthroughs ultimately enabled Facebook (which, of course, depends on computers and networks), if he was alive today, he’d almost certainly not use it.

YANSS 103 – Desirability Bias

Jul. 20th, 2017 07:36 pm
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Posted by David McRaney

Confirmation bias is our tendency to seek evidence that supports our beliefs and that confirms our assumptions — when we could just as well seek disconfirmation of those beliefs and assumptions instead.

It feels like we are doing the hard work — doing the research required to build good beliefs — but since we can so easily find that confirmation, when we stop searching at those moments when we think we have made sense of the world, we can grow ever more wrong over time.

This is such a prevalent feature of human cognition, that until recently a second phenomenon has been hidden in plain sight. Recent research suggests that something called desirability bias may be just as prevalent in our thinking.

Since our past beliefs and future desires usually match up, the desirability of an outcome is often twisted into our pursuit of confirmation like a single psychological braid — and here’s the thing: When future desires and past beliefs are incongruent, desire usually wins out.

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Last year, psychologist Ben Tappin and his team were in hot pursuit of this new psychological beast, and they are about to publish a new study detailing their work.

In most psychological research in confirmation, desire isn’t measured at all. For instance, people who believe that capital punishment is a strong deterrent to crime tend to give more weight to information that matches their preconceived notions. The result is that when such people are presented with an equal amount of confirmatory and disconfirmatory evidence (capital punishment works versus capital punishment does not), they don’t balance out their beliefs. They instead become more entrenched in their original positions because they disregard the disconfirmatory info, leaving behind the confirmation, which they then use to reinforce their priors.

Ben and his team hypothesized that there may be more at play than pure confirmation in situations like this. People who believe that capital punishment is a strong deterrent to crime also want to believe that capital punishment is a strong deterrent to crime. Their raw factual assumptions and their emotional investment are congruent.

Most of the time our beliefs and desires match up like this. You believe that your favorite fast food restaurant won’t give you food poisoning, and you want that to be true. Your past experiences have reinforced one aspect of your belief, and your future desire reinforces the other.

Tappin wanted to create a study in which the subjects’ beliefs and desires didn’t match up, and since the Trump vs. Clinton election was just getting started in the USA, they thought it would be a perfect opportunity. In this episode, you’ll learn what they discovered.

Links and Sources

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Previous Episodes

Boing Boing Podcasts

Cookie Recipes

Less Wrong: Adaptive Bias

Why We Are Poles Apart on Climate Change

Ben Tappin

You’re Not Going to Change Your Mind

The heart trumps the head : Desirability bias in political belief revision

102 – WEIRD Science (rebroadcast)

Jul. 20th, 2017 07:07 pm
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Posted by David McRaney

Is psychology too WEIRD? That’s what this episode’s guest, psychologist Steven J. Heine suggested when he and his colleagues published a paper showing that psychology wasn’t the study of the human mind, but the study of one kind of human mind, the sort generated by the brains that happen to be conveniently located near the places where research is usually conducted — those of North American college undergraduates.

They called them the WEIRDest people in the world, short for Western, Education, Industrial, Rich, and Democratic — the kind of people who make up less than 15 percent of the world’s population.

In this episode, you’ll learn why it took psychology so long to figure out it was studying outliers, and what it means for the future of the science.

 

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Great Courses PlusThis episode is sponsored by The Great Courses Plus. Get unlimited access to a huge library of The Great Courses lecture series on many fascinating subjects. Start FOR FREE with Your Deceptive Mind taught by neurologist Steven Novella. Learn about how your mind makes sense of the world by lying to itself and others. Click here for a FREE TRIAL.

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purchase.

PatreonSupport the show directly by becoming a patron! Get episodes one-day-early and ad-free. Head over to the YANSS Patreon Page for more details.

Links and Sources

Download – iTunes – Stitcher – RSS – Soundcloud

Previous Episodes

Boing Boing Podcasts

Cookie Recipes

Steven J. Heine

Just two questions predict how well a pilot will handle an emergency

Individual reactions to stress predict performance during a critical aviation incident

The weirdest people in the world?

We agree it’s WEIRD, but is it WEIRD enough?

Cognitive modulation of olfactory processing

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

[syndicated profile] youarenotsosmart_feed

Posted by David McRaney

In psychology, they call it naive realism, the tendency to believe that the other side is wrong because they are misinformed, that if they knew what you knew, they would change their minds to match yours.

According to Lee Ross, co-author of the new book, The Wisest One in the Room, this is the default position most humans take when processing a political opinion. When confronted with people who disagree, you tend to assume there must be a rational explanation. What we don’t think, however, is maybe WE are the ones who are wrong. We never go into the debate hoping to be enlightened, only to crush our opponents.

Listen in this episode as legendary psychologist Lee Ross explains how to identify, avoid, and combat this most pernicious of cognitive mistakes.

Download – iTunes – Stitcher – RSS – Soundcloud

Great Courses PlusThis episode is sponsored by The Great Courses Plus. Get unlimited access to a huge library of The Great Courses lecture series on many fascinating subjects. Start FOR FREE with Your Deceptive Mind taught by neurologist Steven Novella. Learn about how your mind makes sense of the world by lying to itself and others. Click here for a FREE TRIAL.

This episode is also sponsored Casper Mattressesby Casper Mattresses. Buying a Casper mattress is completely risk free. Casper offers free delivery and free returns with a 100-night home trial. If you don’t love it, they’ll pick it up and refund you everything. Casper understands the importance of truly sleeping on a mattress before you commit, especially considering you’re going to spend a third of your life on it. Get $50 toward any mattress purchase by visiting www.casper.com/sosmart and using offer code “sosmart.” Terms and Conditions Apply.

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Links and Sources

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Transcript of the interview with Lee Ross

Previous Episodes

Boing Boing Podcasts

Cookie Recipes

Lee Ross

The Wisest One in the Room

Carlin on Campus

Paper: The Selective Laziness of Reasoning

Neuroskeptic – The Selective Laziness of Reasoning

Illusion Image by Paul Nasca: http://bit.ly/1GTwHbc

YANSS 100 – The Replication Crisis

Jul. 19th, 2017 07:18 pm
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Posted by David McRaney

Psychology is working on the hardest problems in all of science. Physics, astronomy, geology — those are easy, by comparison. Understanding consciousness, willpower, ideology, social change – there’s a larger-than-Large-Hadron-Collider level of difficulty to each one of these, but since these are more relatable ideas than quarks and bosons and mass coronal ejections — this a science about our minds and selves — it’s easier to create eye-catching headlines and, well, to make podcasts about them.

This is the problem. Because the system for distributing the findings of science is based on publication within journals, which themselves are often depend on the interest of the general media, all the biases that come with that system and media consumption in general are now causing the sciences that are most interesting to the public to get tainted by that interest.

As you will hear in this episode, one of the most famous and most talked-about phenomena in recent psychological history, ego depletion, hasn’t been doing so well in replication attempts.

In the show, journalist Daniel Engber who wrote an article for Slate about the failure to replicate many of the famous ego depletion experiments will detail what this means for the science and the scientists involved.

Also, you’ll hear from psychologist Brain Nosek, who says, “Science is wrong about everything, but you can trust it more than anything.”

Nosek is director of the Center for Open Science, an organization working to correct what they see as the temporarily wayward path of psychology.

Nosek recently lead a project in which 270 scientists sought to replicate 100 different studies in psychology, all published in 2008 — 97 of which claimed to have found significant results — and in the end, two-thirds failed to replicate.

Clearly, some sort of course correction is in order. There is now a massive effort underway sort out what is being called the replication crisis. Much of the most headline-producing research in the last 20 years isn’t standing up to attempts to reproduce its findings. Nosek wants to clean up the processes that have lead to this situation, and in this episode, you’ll learn how he and others plan to do so.

Download – iTunes – Stitcher – RSS – Soundcloud

Great Courses PlusThis episode is sponsored by The Great Courses Plus. Get unlimited access to a huge library of The Great Courses lecture series on many fascinating subjects. Start FOR FREE with Your Deceptive Mind taught by neurologist Steven Novella. Learn about how your mind makes sense of the world by lying to itself and others. Click here for a FREE TRIAL.

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purchase.

PatreonSupport the show directly by becoming a patron! Get episodes one-day-early and ad-free. Head over to the YANSS Patreon Page for more details.

Links and Sources

Download – iTunes – Stitcher – RSS – Soundcloud

Previous Episodes

Boing Boing Podcasts

Cookie Recipes

The Reproducibility Project

How Reliable are Psychology Studies?

Psychology’s reproducibility problem is exaggerated – say psychologists

First results from psychology’s largest reproducibility test

Daniel Engber on Twitter

Everything is Crumbling (Engber’s Article)

How much of the psychology literature is wrong?

The Open Science Framework

The Center for Open Science

The Truth Wears Off

Psych File Drawer

YANSS 099 – The Half Life of Facts

Jul. 18th, 2017 09:02 pm
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Posted by David McRaney

In medical school, they tell you half of what you are about to learn won’t be true when you graduate — they just don’t know which half.

In every field of knowledge, half of what is true today will one day be updated with better information, and it turns out that we actually know when that day will come for many academic pursuits.

Download – iTunes – Stitcher – RSS – Soundcloud

Great Courses PlusThis episode is sponsored by The Great Courses Plus. Get unlimited access to a huge library of The Great Courses lecture series on many fascinating subjects. Start FOR FREE with Your Deceptive Mind taught by neurologist Steven Novella. Learn about how your mind makes sense of the world by lying to itself and others. Click here for a FREE TRIAL.


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This is what author Sam Arbesman calls “the half life of facts.” In fact, Sam wrote a book about this fact, called, The Half Life of Facts. The premise is that for every domain, silo, discipline, and school of knowledge, the facts contained within are slowly being overturned, augmented, replaced, and refined — and in medicine, for example, the rate of that overturning is high enough that if you never really complete your education. Medical school, in other words, never ends.

Because science is a self-correcting system, it not only continuously adds new evidence to our collection of things so that we know today that we did not know yesterday, but it also never stops attacking the ideas that make up our current models. A lot of what we knew yesterday, what we considered factual, just isn’t true anymore.

Sam says these two processes — adding and attacking — create a churn that is consistent but unique from one silo to the next. For instance, in physics, about half of all research findings will be disconfirmed within 13 years. In psychology, it’s every seven. In other words, if you graduated with a degree in psychology seven years ago, half of the information in all your textbook is now inaccurate.

Here’s the thing though, this isn’t just true for science. It’s true for everything people do. Some facts withstand the test of time, but a whole lot do not.

What does this tell us about how to approach the truth, and rationality, and how to live our lives, how to stay healthy, or who to trust, and so on? In this episode, listen as author and scientist Sam Arbesman explains.

Links and Sources

Download – iTunes – Stitcher – RSS – Soundcloud

Previous Episodes

Boing Boing Podcasts

Cookie Recipes

Sam Arbesman’s Website

Scientometrics

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

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Posted by Study Hacks

The Rule of Five

This morning I listened to Srini Rao interview Sarah Peck. Though most of the interview focuses on Peck’s personal life, toward the end they discuss her work as a business consultant.

During this segment, Peck mentioned an interesting heuristic I hadn’t heard before (I’m paraphrasing here): relying only on unstructured communication — e.g., just give everyone an email address or shared Slack channel and then rock and roll — works fine in organizations with five or less employees, but once you grow larger there is too much communication for people to comfortably keep track of everything just in their heads.

At this size, Peck notes, organizations need to introduce systems to document communication and to support structured decisions. It’s no longer enough to simply let emails and chats fly, and hope everything works out. You need more detailed and careful approaches to how people work.

This transition toward structure, of course, can be painful. Here’s Peck:

“It’s super frustrating for start-ups, because what they’re used to, their history, their knowledge of what it means to be their business is that they can move fast and break things and they can just reach out to anybody, and all of the sudden you add constraints, and it can piss people off.”

But adding constraints to how people communicate and make decisions is absolutely necessary. As Peck summarizes: “You have to move a little slower before you can move fast.”

I was intrigued by this discussion because it underscores something I’ve noticed in my research on effectiveness in an age of digital connectivity. A major (unspoken) defense of a hyperactive hivemind workflow based on constant disruptive messaging is that any other alternative would be inconvenient, and “frustrating,” and probably “piss people off.”

I like Peck’s (implicit) response to this concern: too bad. Valuable work is not always easy to produce.

#####

Speaking of valuable work, my friend Ryan Holiday, who is also, in many ways, my hero (he lives on a quiet ranch with a library-sized collection of books), has a great new book coming out next week titled: Perennial Seller. It’s an inside look at the hard but rewarding task of producing work that stands the test of time. I read a galley copy: I’m 100% on board with Ryan’s thinking on this topic. Check it out.