Cognitive Science and the Advance of Ideas

Here’s a link to the Center for Cognitive Science at the University of Minnesota top 100 cognitive science papers of the last century.  Definitely a useful reference.  Debates about modularity, connectionism, the mind as computational, limits on human rationality, and so forth all emerged from these papers.  Not a lot of culture, inequality or anthropology in the bunch, and a definite bias towards psychology as universal rather than also being variable and contextual–but, hey, this site has to work on something…

And if you haven’t seen it, Edge asked top scholars in 2008, What Have You Changed Your Mind About? Why?

In looking at the first page of answers, I am struck by how much scientists are now reworking the views developed in those top 100 cognitive science papers.

So, Joseph LeDoux: “Like many scientists in the field of memory, I used to think that a memory is something stored in the brain and then accessed when used. Then, in 2000, a researcher in my lab, Karim Nader, did an experiment that convinced me, and many others, that our usual way of thinking was wrong. In a nutshell, what Karim showed was that each time a memory is used, it has to be restored as a new memory in order to be accessible later. The old memory is either not there or is inaccessible. In short, your memory about something is only as good as your last memory about it.”


Karl Sabbagh: “I now believe that the people I know who are wise are not necessarily knowledgeable; the people I know who are knowledgeable are not necessarily wise. Most of us confuse expertise with judgment.”

Piet Hut: “I still think I was right in thinking that any type of insight can be summarized to some degree, in what is clearly a correct first approximation when judged by someone who shares in the insight. For a long time my mistake was that I had not realized how totally wrong this first approximation can come across for someone who does not share the original insight.”

Donald Hoffman: “I have changed my mind about the nature of perception. I thought that a goal of perception is to estimate properties of an objective physical world, and that perception is useful precisely to the extent that its estimates are veridical… I now think that perception is useful because it is not veridical. The argument that evolution favors veridical perceptions is wrong, both theoretically and empirically. It is wrong in theory, because natural selection hinges on reproductive fitness, not on truth, and the two are not the same: Reproductive fitness in a particular niche might, for instance, be enhanced by reducing expenditures of time and energy in perception; true perceptions, in consequence, might be less fit than niche-specific shortcuts. It is wrong empirically: mimicry, camouflage, mating errors and supernormal stimuli are ubiquitous in nature, and all are predicated on non-veridical perceptions. The cockroach, we suspect, sees little of the truth, but is quite fit, though easily fooled, with its niche-specific perceptual hacks.”

James O’Donnell: “What I have found is that the closer historical examination comes to the lived moment of the past, the harder it is to take sides with anybody… you find that the past is more a tissue of  choices and chances than we had imagined, that fifty or a hundred years of bad times can happen — and can end and be replaced by the united work of people with heads and hearts that makes society peaceful and prosperous again; or the opportunity can be kicked away.”

Colin Tudge: “I have changed my mind about the omniscience and omnipotence of science. I now realize that science is strictly limited, and that it is extremely dangerous not to appreciate this.”

Howard Gardner: “[F]orty years later, I have come to realize that the bulk of my scholarly career has been a critique of the principal claims that Piaget put forth. As to the specifics of how I changed my mind:
Piaget believed in general stages of development that cut across contents (Space, time, number); I now believe that each area of content has its own rules and operations and I am dubious about the existence of general stages and structures.
Piaget believed that intelligence was a single general capacity that developed pretty much in the same way across individuals: I now believe that humans posses a number of relatively independent intelligences and these can function and interact in idiosyncratic ways.
Piaget was not interested in individual differences; he studied the ‘epistemic subject.’ Most of my work has focused on individual differences, with particular attention to those with special talents or deficits, and unusual profiles of abilities and disabilities.
Piaget assumed that the newborn had a few basic biological capacities — like sucking and looking — and two major processes of acquiring knowledge, that he called assimilation and accommodation. Nowadays, with many others, I assume that human beings possess considerable innate or easily elicited cognitive capacities, and that Piaget way underestimated the power of this inborn cognitive architecture.
Piaget downplayed the importance of historical and cultural factors — cognitive development consisted of the growing child experimenting largely on his own with the physical (and, minimally, the social ) world. I see development as permeated from the first by contingent forces pervading the time and place of origin.
Finally, Piaget saw language and other symbols systems (graphic, musical, bodily etc) as manifestations, almost epiphenomena, of a single cognitive motor; I see each of these systems as having its own origins and being heavily colored by the particular uses to which a systems is put in one’s own culture and one’s own time.

One thought on “Cognitive Science and the Advance of Ideas

  1. If you’ll indulge a couple brief personal anecdotes, in reading these “mind changes” from Edge, it struck me again how much our collective knowledge has suffered by disciplinary boundaries and mutual distrust across those boundaries. I recently interviewed to teach a new theory class and was grilled with distaste and distrust by colleagues on my current work to consider evolutionary theory and cognitive science in social theory. My head started spinning when they started quoting Piaget and Mead as authorities who disproved my position, as if nearly 100 years of subsequent research hadn’t happened [see Howard Gardner above]. Then the very next day eating lunch with a colleague in molecular bio, he gave his strenuous arguments against any degree of social construction and for the genetic basis for human behavior. It was unclear to me why he could see the complex interaction of genes with environment when talking about the development of a fruit fly wing shape; but when I suggested that a given behavior was nothing more than a phenotypic expression that emerged in just such a transaction with the environment, and which for humans and other social animals is always constitutively social. He was baffled by my insistence that a) there was a wide variation in human behavior, and b) that such variation was completely consistent with evolutionary expectations of “adaptive variation”, which increases the suitability of an organism to its (potentially changing) environment.

    Take Donald Huffman, above, for example: If you learn evolutionary theory proper (not evo psych) seriously, you understand that mathematically, natural selection works on a “good enough” principle. That is, it does not select for the best solution, or even a really good solution. Nope. Natural selection only selects until something is “good enough” in the environment, at which time the selective pressure ceases. If you bring the research on perception together with that nugget of evolutionary theory, it’s completely sensical that our perceptions are only “good enough” to manipulate and control the environment; they are not about accuracy or veracity (although we sometimes stumble upon the truth). In a colloquial sense, this is what we already knew in social theory, where there is a difference between “folk theories” and “systematic/scientific theories” in terms of their veracity; but that folk theories must be taken seriously because they “work” in their environments (even when they aren’t systematically/scientifically true).

    As I said in my first comment on Neuroanthropology, I’m struggling with how to integrate and bring these knowledges together, because it’s both an intellectual project (my own writing and teaching) and a social project (of negotiating institutions and power relationships and distribution of resources & social capital) and breaking through our own learned assumptions about what is “true.”

    Then again, isn’t that always the challenge of scientific inquiry (broadly speaking)?

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