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The Importance of Model Thinking

datePosted on 14 June 2012 by cjf

Models can help us understand, predict, strategize, and re-design our worlds. This is the profound lesson from Scott E. Page’s engaging on-line Coursera offering on Model Thinking. I was particularly interested in this 10 week course because Buckminster Fuller instilled in me a deep appreciation for models. With this course, Scott Page reinforced and enhanced that appreciation in spades. Also, like Bucky, Page makes his penetrating approach accessible to a very broad audience. This is a great course for anyone with even rudimentary algebra skills.

In addition to reviewing the course, I will also suggest that model thinking is a new more incisive kind of science. This approach and its nascent toolkit for understanding, decision-making, prediction, strategy, and design is vitally important for practitioners of all types. Model thinking may be just the type of tool humanity needs to solve some of its thorniest problems. As such its arrival into broader consciousness is not a moment too soon!

So if you want to be out there helping to change the world in useful ways, it’s really really helpful to have some understanding of models.
— Scott E. Page

Why Model Thinking

There are many ways to model the world. One of the most popular is with proverbs or short pithy sayings (our modern media seem to particularly love this deeply flawed “sound bite” approach to knowledge). As Scott Page points out, there are opposite proverbs too. For instance, the opposite of “nothing ventured, nothing gained” is “better safe than sorry.” Proverbs and their more elaborate cousins, allegories, can model or represent the world with persuasive stories, but they provide little discerning power and little basis for deeper understanding. In contradistinction, model thinking with its greater concern for precision can help us more carefully distinguish a complex of important factors with their interrelationships and behaviors. Therein lies its power!

Is intuition sufficient? No! Philip Tetlock, Robyn Dawes and others have demonstrated that simple naive models outperform experts of all stripes. In 1979 Dawes wrote a seminal paper, The Robust Beauty of Improper Linear Models in Decision Making, which showed the effectiveness of even “improper” linear models in outperforming human prognostication. Tetlock has made the most ambitious and extensive study of experts to date and finds that crude extrapolation models outperform humans in every domain he has studied.

That is not to say that models are “right”. Page emphasizes that all models are “wrong” too! Which leads to his most profound insight in the course: you need many types of models to help think through the logic of any given situation. Each model can help check, validate, and build your understanding. This depth of understanding is essential to make better decisions or predictions or build more effective designs or develop more effective strategies to achieve your goals.

Is intuition important? Yes, absolutely! The many model thinker relies upon intuition to select and critically evaluate a battery of models or to construct new or modified models when appropriate. These models help test our intuition. Intuition helps tests the models! Writing out a model often identifies facets and elements of the situation which intuition misses. Intuition is essential to find the aspects of the models that are a bit off the mark — and all models are a bit off. Model thinking is not “flying on instruments” or turning control over to mathematical or computer models. Instead it is about evaluating and comparing diverse models to test, build, fortify, and correct our intuitions, decisions, predictions, designs, and strategies.

Fascinating Models

Page’s course is filled to the brim with fascinating models! One of the first models Page introduces is Thomas Schelling’s segregation model which represents people as agents on a checkerboard. We discover deep and unexpected insights about how people sort themselves into clusters where everyone looks alike, for example, the segregation of neighborhoods based on race, ethnicity, income, etc. It is the first of many agent-based models to be discussed.

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Dante’s Commedia, written in the early 1300s, is ostensibly an epic poem about a pilgrim who travels through Inferno (hell), Purgatorio (purgatory), and Paradiso (heaven) to encounter God face-to-face and then returns to tell us about it. More interestingly, it is a poem of learning, philosophy, and the struggles of life with more nuances, depth and perspectives than I would have thought possible had I not read it myself. To say that the Commedia is rich in a multidimensional way is an understatement. The Commedia is intricate, dramatic, thrilling, mind-blowing, cosmic, shocking, ineffable, sometimes oppressive, and altogether extraordinary!

Dante In Translation at Open Yale Courses in Giuseppe MazzottaThe pilgrim is Dante himself and his guide through most of the journey is the Roman poet Virgil. Open Yale Courses provides its own able guide in Giuseppe Mazzotta who presents a fascinating and deeply engaging course ITAL 310: Dante in Translation (videos at YouTube). Mazzotta places the Commedia, more commonly entitled The Divine Comedy, in the encyclopedic tradition (a circle of knowledge through the liberal arts) but he also calls it an epic, romantic, autobiographical, and visionary poem. Indeed by the end of the course, I had lost track of how many different angles on the poem Mazzotta had identified: prophetic, philosophical, historical, sublime, humanistic, theological, scientific, geometrical, musical, a poetry of hope, a poetry of the future, etc., etc.!

Dante makes large claims for poetry: poetry is a way of knowing.
— Giuseppe Mazzotta

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Since databases are a fundamental component of modern information systems, understanding at least their basics is essential knowledge for almost all citizens. Please read my review of Stanford’s excellent free on-line course Introduction to Databases which is posted on the blog Managing FOSS for Business Results at http://blog.remoteresponder.net/2012/01/19/learn-open-source-database-tools-from-stanford-for-free.

Please let me know what you think of it.

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EEB 122:  Principles of Evolution, Ecology, and BehaviorEach of us is connected through our parents and their parents and so forth to a first life form which has no parent and is composed and derived from non-biological forms. So each of us is intimately connected through our genealogical history to the non-biological Universe! Indeed, each of us is connected in this way to the whole Universe!!! It is this type of conceptual, big picture thinking that pervades Stephen Stearns’ free video course EEB 122: Principles of Evolution, Ecology, and Behavior at Open Yale Courses (OYC). Even though I do not think the separation between life and non-life is as clearcut as Stearns suggests, Jeannie and I thoroughly enjoyed our excursion into Biology with Stephen Stearns as our guide at OYC!

The Importance of Biology, Evolution, Ecology, and Behavior

Understanding biology is essential as civilization is inseparable from the great ecosystems upon which it is built and in which it is housed. Our future is inextricably linked to the always changing nature of the Earth-Biosphere system which provides our food and shelter. In EEB 122, we learned that the entire Earth has been sculpted by the biological technology we call “life“. At a more day-to-day human scale, medicine and health care are vital subjects in biology and in our economy (caring for the health of the ecosystem of cells, organs and their microscopic cohabitators known as “human” engages 9% of the economies in most OECD countries and nearly twice that in the USA). EEB 122 has a whole lecture devoted to medicine and more comments throughout the course.

Evolution theory has had a profound influence on modern thinking. From its nascent formulation by Charles Darwin, the theory of evolution has itself changed (evolved!) substantially over its first 150 years. I found it particularly interesting to learn that the modern theory is quite different from what my culture-imbued intuitions misled me to think. This course is eye-opening! Even if you disagree with some of the ideas of evolution (and who doesn’t have some questions and concerns about this subtle subject which is itself changing), this course corrects some of our endemic misperceptions. For example, Stearns asserts in lecture 3 that the notion of “survival of the fittest” is wrong! I had no idea that that iconic “sound bite” is but a dead-end on the road to the modern theory of evolution!

It’s not ignorance does so much damage; it’s knowing so darned much that ain’t so. — Josh Billings

With current concerns about global warming and other stresses on our environment, ecology is a vitally important subject. The point is reinforced by the work of three of the recent winners of the Buckminster Fuller Challenge which deeply engages the subject of ecology. The 2011 winner, Blue Ventures, conserves threatened marine environments. The 2010 winner, Project Hope, restores savannas and grasslands lost to desertification with a comprehensive program featuring cattle management. The 2008 winner, John Todd’s Comprehensive Design for a Carbon Neutral World, restores the ecological devastation of the impact of mining in Appalachia. The principles of biology and ecology are essential to better understand and contribute to these and similar initiatives to improve our management of Earth’s ecosystems while raising the standard of living of every human being. EEB 122 explains some of the vital principles that will underpin any such solution.

In summary, OYC’s EEB 122 is an excellent introduction to the basic principles of biology needed to better understand medicine, health care, evolution theory, ecology, the behavior of organisms, and biological technologies such as the enterprising work of the Buckminster Fuller Challenge winners. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, EEB 122 gives a conceptually broad, biologically detailed introduction to one of the most enchanting visions of change ever developed: the theory of the evolution of species.

How We Used the EEB 122 Course Materials

Jeannie and I started watching EEB 122 around New Year’s. We watch courses like this for edutainment. That is, we do not plan to become professional biologists, instead we watch video courses as a form cultural enrichment: How do biologists think? What do they know? What is the current understanding of evolution? I am deeply curious about how the world works. Video courses like EEB 122 are deeply enriching in this regard.

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Sugar is a chronic toxin

datePosted on 21 July 2011 by cjf

After some 30 years of waning, my interest in the assertion that the effects of sugar are poisonous was rekindled in April by reading a piece entitled “Is Sugar Toxic?” by Gary Taubes in the New York Times. When Taubes wrote admiringly of John Yudkin (1910–1995) (whose short 1972 book “Sweet and Dangerous” profoundly influenced me when I read it in the early 80s), the effect was electrifying: maybe he was right … vindicated after all these years! To sober myself up, I began researching our current understanding of the biochemistry and physiology of sugar metabolism. My research supported an interesting three hour discussion at the 10 July 2011 meetup of the Ben Franklin Thinking Society in Philadelphia.

Although the case against sugar is stronger now than it was in the 1970s, there is still no ironclad proof of its toxicity (more on that below). Sentiment against sweeteners with fructose in them (table sugar is one-half fructose) is growing because it has been implicated in several biochemical pathways associated with the so called metabolic syndrome. Metabolic syndrome is a complex of several (usually at least three) of the following factors: abnormal blood fat, high blood pressure, fatty liver, insulin resistance, and new fat deposition. Metabolic syndrome is very important because physicians now realize it is a more accurate predictor for diabetes, heart disease and cancer than any of the symptoms considered separately. The impact of this new perspective and the research that has ensued is starting to challenge conventional wisdom about the dietary factors involved in these diseases.

Taubes’ New York Times article starts by referring to the powerful, “viral”, 90-minute, YouTube video presentation by Dr. Robert Lustig indicting sugar. Lustig and Taubes convincingly lay out the case that fructose is a chronic toxin that causes metabolic syndrome. Therefore, it should be implicated as a causal factor in the obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease pandemics. Taubes ends his article ominously by quoting prominent oncologists (cancer physicians) worrying that cancer could be caused in part by fructose & sugar as well (a claim Lustig did not make).

The Robert Lustig Video: Sugar: The Bitter Truth

Dr. Robert Lustig argues that the “fat is bad craze” has failed us: we reduced our fat intake, but the obesity and diabetes epidemics grew much more intense in the 1990s and 2000s. He observes that the fastest growing epidemic in obesity is among six month old babies! So the disparaging view that gluttony and sloth are the key factors in obesity appears absurd: babies don’t choose gluttony nor sloth — indeed, no one does! Could excess fat be a physiological problem and not a simple issue of “won’t power” (a phrase my grandfather used)? Perhaps our conventional wisdom is wrong? Lustig argues convincingly that a calorie is NOT just a calorie: some have worse physiological effects than others.

Lustig’s main thesis is that fructose acts in the body as a chronic toxin of the liver very much like alcohol. He observes that fructose is implicated in eight of the 12 chronic symptoms attributed to ethanol: high blood pressure, heart attack, abnormal blood fat, inflamation of the pancreas, obesity, liver dysfunction, insulin resistance, and habituation. In his not too difficult (but also not too easy) biochemistry lesson, Lustig points out that fructose and alcohol metabolism are nearly identical. Both hit the liver hard and both share many similar metabolic pathways. He concludes that “hepatic [liver-based] fructose metabolism leads to all of the manifestations of metabolic syndrome”.

John Yudkin’s Book “Sweet and Dangerous”

John Yudkin's 1972 book Sweet and Dangerous

John Yudkin was a distinguished nutritionist and MD. He performed experimental studies and analyses of epidemiological data. As early as the 1960s, he concluded that sugar has no nutritional value beyond its calories and that if its effects were present in any other substance, it would be banned. This led to a heated debate with another distinguished nutritionist Ancel Keys who first proposed the link between dietary fat and heart disease. In his famous Seven Countries Study, Keys concluded that increased cholesterol and the western diet with its heavy load of saturated fats led to increases in heart disease and stroke. Keys effectively started the fat is bad craze that led to the US government’s recommendation that we reduce fat consumption from 40% to 30% of calories. Lustig argues that Keys may have done his statistical analysis incorrectly. Could the last 30 years of nutritional guidance be based on a statistics mistake?

On re-reading Yudkin’s book, I was impressed by his penetrating discussion of the techniques to prove causes of disease (a subject known as etiology). Yudkin observes that “absolute” proof requires pairing subjects into two groups who are as alike as possible with the exception of an experimental intervention. This “gold standard” in medical research is known as a clinical trial. Yudkin explains that the ethical and practical complications of such studies are enormous. Therefore, most nutritional and medical data comes from less reliable and more circumstantial evidence. Yudkin explains in basic terms the nature of epidemiological and experimental evidence and its limitations. Yudkin’s book is a great non-technical introduction to medical research.

I wish that more non-technical nutrition and health writing would advise us of the complications in applying insights from new medical research given the inherent limitations especially since so few of us understand reasoning with uncertainty. Health sciences writers would do well to “take a page” from Yudkin’s book.

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Society and Our Technology Built World

datePosted on 2 June 2011 by cjf

The interrelationships between society and technology run deep. We all partake and participate in the unfolding technology evolution “discussion” Invention by Design by Henry Petroski that is our lives. The tools we use, try out, improvise, critique, and/or advocate are our minimal contributions to this discussion. The accidents of technological history set the context for the discussion. We are all technologists entangled in a technological world! Technology has been the main (perhaps the only?) means by which human progress has been achieved with tools like the pencil, slide fastener (or zipper), jet airplane, water systems, skyscrapers, bridges, and computers all dramatically changing society. Henry Petroski’s great short book “Invention by Design: How Engineers Get from Thought to Thing” explores the design and engineering arts in the full richness of their social context in nine intriguing case studies.

I first read Invention by Design in February 1999. Recently I was re-reading it when Michael Tweed of the The Ben Franklin Thinking Society invited me to lead the group’s Science & Technology meetup every month. That led to the Discussion: Engineering Failures & Society on 8 May 2011. Here are some thoughts reflecting on Petroski’s book, the 8 May meetup, and further cogitating about the big picture of society and technology. Hopefully these notes and your feedback will help us better understand the technological world at the core of our ever changing civilization.

What is Technology?

Technology is the catch-all term used to describe objects and the networks, systems, and infrastructures in which they are embedded, as well as the patterns of use that we impose upon them and they upon us. Technology is clearly context-dependent and ever evolving. — Henry Petroski

Petroski’s definition suggests that civilization itself may be technology. So it would seem that technology embraces culture, values, psychology, history, and the multidimensional elements of the environment (materials science, biology, anthropology, geophysics, chemistry, etc.). Buckminster Fuller goes further:

In its complexities of design integrity, the Universe is technology. The technology evolved by man is thus far amateurish compared to the elegance of nonhumanly contrived regeneration. Man does not spontaneously recognize technology other than his own, so he speaks of the rest as something he ignorantly calls nature. — Buckminster Fuller, Synergetics, 172.00-173.00

By taking Petroski’s “networks, systems, and infrastructures” to the next level of “design integrities” and identifying it as technology, Bucky leads us to the biggest of big pictures: Universe itself! As social creatures we often think of society as the big picture. I think his point is well made: technology is an inhernet component of Universe itself. Human society is our storied Earth-developed technology. It seems likely that Human society will become the “brain” managing the regenerative ecological functions of Gaia, the theory that Earth is “alive”. If that happens, the storied technology of Earth would probably become even more syntropic and powerful than what life has achieved thus far. Regardless, society and the technology with which it is built are inextricably intertwined!

Design and Engineering in Society

Design and engineering are the arts of consciously working to evolve and develop our technological infrastructure to improve our worlds. Petroski emphasizes the role of society in the engineering process and vice versa in these illuminating quotes:

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The view that randomness impacts and shapes our lives in profound ways has been gaining traction since 2002 when Daniel Kahneman won the Nobel prize in Economics for his work with Amos Tversky in characterizing human weaknesses when facing uncertainty. My thinking on the subject was first awakened by reading Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s book Fooled by Randomness which will give anyone who imagines they can think “rationally” a healthy dose of humble pie. A more helpful discussion can be found in Jonah Lehrer’s How We Decide which The Drunkard's Walk by Leonard Mlodinow pays heed to our brain’s strengths while acknowledging our weaknesses. As I relayed in a post on the brain, mind and thinking, Lehrer recommends thinking about your thinking process to strengthen its decision-making function. Recently I finished reading Leonard Mlodinow’s The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules our Lives which provides an accessible, historically detailed, and elementary introduction to the sciences of randomness and uncertainty and shows how they rule our lives.

These books have started to change my thinking about the nature of reality itself: I see now that randomness and uncertainty have an essential role to play. Interestingly, I shunned probability and statistics, the sciences of randomness and uncertainty, in college because I was steeped in Euclid, logic, and Buckminster Fuller’s “generalized principles” in Synergetics. I wanted to design destiny with deliberate application of knowledge … to worship at the altar of scientific determinism. Fortunately, Bucky taught me to “dare to be naïve” so I have been open to the new evidence about randomness. Now I suspect that Bucky and I were a little off about this subtle subject. It isn’t surprising, probability and statistics are among the newer branches of mathematics having developed mostly after the calculus was well established. They have not had enough time to pervade our collective consciousness.

Do you think the world is fundamentally deterministic or random? What influences have shaped your thinking and biases about the subjects of randomness, uncertainty, probability, and statistics? Do you think the increasing focus on the role of randomness and uncertainty in our lives is an important trend?

Randomness Rules Our Lives

Is Mlodinow’s thesis that randomness rules our lives really so convincing? Evidently so. Mlodinow finds dramatic evidence of randomness in our economic lives. He retells the poignant story of Sherry Lansing who led Paramount Pictures to huge successes in seven consecutive phenomenal years. Then after three years of bad results, she left the company. Did Paramount let her go too quickly? Evidently so because the pipline she left behind was full of new hits that restored Paramount’s revenue and market share. Shouldn’t seven years of success earn the right to forgive a few bad years? What if another great leader happened to have their three consecutive bad years at the beginning of their tenure? Do we replace them before their ship comes in? Mlodinow cites many other examples including the fact that “And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street” was rejected by publishers some 27 times before Dr. Seuss’ career launched. Mlodinow also shows that student grades are often random and independent of their skill and knowledge.

Should we insist that our students, our schools, and our business leaders perform, perform, and perform with no “bad” years allowed? Do you believe that performance results are somewhat random? We invest a lot in exam and executive performance. Given the evidence, is that wise?

Venn Diagram of sets A, B, and COne part of Kahneman’s Nobel-prize winning work addressed the conjunction fallacy. Let A, B, and C be statements represented by a colored circle in the venn diagram to the right. The only case in which they can be simultaneously true is in the small area where all three colors overlap. So it is much less likely (less area) for three statements to be simultaneously true than for any one of them to be true. However, when someone weaves a story filled with a lot of concrete details, it seems more vivid and hence more believable than the statements considered separately: that’s the conjunction fallacy. Evidence of people falling for this fallacy has been documented widely even in medicine and the court room. We humans are easily duped by a good story!

It is surprising that the Nobel prize for the work showing how “blind” humans are to the elementary logic of the conjunction fallacy was only awarded one decade ago! Humanity has only just yesterday identified this basic weakness in our cognitive function! Add to the conjunction fallacy the many other fallacies and biases that Taleb, Lehrer, and Mlodinow show us to be subject to and one can see that Emanuel Lasker who was world chess champion for 27 years got it right: “In life we are all duffers”!

What is the significance of our weakness in understanding uncertainty? Do these weaknesses of the human mind subject us to the ravages of randomness? Are they a consequence of an inherent randomness in reality? Or do they simply lead to the appearance of randomness?

Our weakness extends to our sensory organs and perception as well. Mlodinow notes

Human perception … is not a direct consequence of reality but rather an act of imagination. Perception requires imagination because the data people encounter in their lives are never complete and always equivocal.

Mlodinow illustrates the problem by explaining that the human visual system sends “the brain a shaky, badly pixelated picture with a hole in it” (due to the relative weakness of our vision outside the fovea and the blind spot). In addition to conjunction bias, the sharp shooter effect, the hot-hand fallacy, availability bias, confirmation bias, and more, it becomes evident that “When we look closely, we find that many of the assumptions of modern society are based … on shared illusions.” And his conclusion

It is important in our own lives to take the long view and understand that streaks and other patterns that don’t appear random can indeed happen by pure chance. It is also important, when assessing others, to recognize that among a large group of people it would be very odd if one of them didn’t experience a long streak of successes or failures.

What shared illusions do we hold? How often are our lives subject to pure chance events? How important is serendipity? Do you believe that a long series of failures or successes is just the result of luck? When is it luck and when is it skill? How can we tell the difference?

The problem of randomness is deeper still: even machine-enhanced human sensing and measurement are fundamentally random! In Walter Lewin’s excellent video introducing physics and measurement in MIT OCW’s Physics I course, he says “Any measurement that you make without any knowledge of the uncertainty is meaningless.” Understanding uncertainty is at the heart of scientific measurement. No physics experiment ever found an exact match between theory and the laws of nature: data points always appear at random! Then add in effects like Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle and we see that randomness and uncertainty are vital elements of experience: they are pervasive.

In view of the elementary role of uncertainty in our perceptual and physical experience, what can we say about reality? What is reality if experience is so imprecise, fuzzy, uncertain, and fallible?

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Glibert Strang’s 18.06 Linear Algebra course at MIT OpenCourseWare is exquisite! Jeannie and I went through it about a year ago. Strang’s approach to the material and engaging teaching style make the course a joy. Unlike other OER (Open Educational Resources) courses that we have taken, I cannot recommend just watching the videos. Instead one needs to really think about the concepts which is greatly facilitated by doing the exercises: this is typical for mathematics. It took significant effort to master the content. The material builds quickly and it was essential for us to work hard on each lecture. On several occasions we re-watched the videos and had to read the text carefully and collate with other on-line resources (some provided or referenced in the wonderful OpenCourseWare materials but some found by web searching, Wikipedia, etc.). We also used resources from our library (personal and public).

Jeannie and I were able to enjoy the whole course but it definitely took significant effort. This is the only video course that we have thoroughly studied and it was worth it!

Are there any other OER video courses on linear algebra? I have not found any which is a shame for such important material.

Linear algebra is one of the most useful branches of mathematics beyond introductory (high school) algebra and geometry. It is the algebraic study of intersections of complexes of lines, planes and hyperplanes and therefore has a strong geometrical component. Since each coordinate in the Cartesian representation of a line can be thought of as a variable, linear algebra provides a first order or “linear” approximation to multivariable systems. It is therefore a widespread and fundamental tool. Linear algebra has found applications in business, economics, engineering, genetics, computer graphics, social sciences, graph theory and much more. It is essential for anyone wanting to understand advanced mathematics. The matrix or an array of numbers is the basic object of study in linear algebra. So it is sometimes called matrix theory. Vector spaces are the abstract form of linear algebra.

Is that a good characterization of linear algebra? How would you improve it?

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As citizens aboard SpaceShip Earth, we need to understand the principles of science and technology that shape our world. We need this knowledge to become effective co-designers of the world that Humanity is collectively building for today and tomorrow. We need to conceptually apprehend and comprehend how the Universe actually operates so we can better contribute to steering the forces that continually reshape our worlds. What are the most important concepts needed to proficiently build, use, steward, and re-generate the infrastructure of civilization on an on-going basis? Where can we get the information needed in terms that is easy to understand, easy to relate to, easy to use, and relevant to the problems we all face today and into the future?

Although Berkeley‘s free video course Physics C10/LS C70V: Physics for future Presidents AKA Descriptive Introduction to Physics is not the answer to all of these questions, it will explain the basic physics that is necessary to critically evaluate much of the information that inundates us each day. This course will significantly increase your ability to think more confidently about the heady questions above. It is a first step.

Is there an on-line video course that does a better job than Physics C10/LS C70V of explaining the broadly relevant principles needed to understand the big issues of the day?

In 2000, when Richard Muller started teaching a new course, Physics C10/LS C70V: Physics for future Presidents AKA Descriptive Introduction to Physics, at Berkelely he asked himself what are the principles and facts from physics that a student should understand to be able to make effective decisions on the Big issues of the day should they become President of the United States? From this ambitious question, a course was designed that is eminently useful. Even though it is oriented to the non-scientist, Physics majors at Berkeley can take the course for credit toward their degree, meaning it is even useful for scientists!

In an introductory post on the OER (Open Educational Resources) Movement, I explained that the Internet now offers illions of educational resources many with free video lectures. I’ve spent several years searching for and enjoying on-line video courses and Physics C10 is the most broadly relevant course with the most critical information for understanding how the world works that I have found. Everyone should watch, enjoy and think about this most enriching class of some 35 hours of free on-line video lectures!

What resources do you use to get comprehensively educated about the principles of science and technology and how they are changing our civilization so rapidly? What is the most important or broadly useful OER course that you have found on the Internet?

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Although I have always been interested in the mind and thinking, I have been suspicious of psychology and the cognitive sciences. Recently, I’ve been impressed by several TED Talks that address new ideas in the sciences of the mind. These subjects are starting to provide valuable insights into how the world really works. It is still wise to be skeptical, but we might have made enough mistakes in psychology that we now have some groundwork upon which to start figuring out what is really going on in our heads.

So I was delighted with the chance to go into more depth in the science of decision making by reading Jonah Lehrer’s 2009 book How We Decide and participating in a discussion with the Ben Franklin Thinking Society. First, some overall impressions of the book. I thought Lehrer gave a good account of how the emotional brain works and some strengths and weaknesses in our decision making. I really value how he presents so many examples of experiences and experiments to illustrate the subject. His conclusion, though adequate, did not bring it altogether for me (cognitive dissonanace is a good thing and it helped me write this post!). Jeannie was turned off by Lehrer’s bone-chilling accounts of airplane crashes and psychopaths. However, we both learned a lot about the neuroscience of decision making. For me it was a good read, if not a great book.

The nature of emotions

One major omission from the book was the lack of a diagram showing the relationships among the brain regions discussed. Jeannie drew a rough sketch entitled Brain Turmoil below to give some sense of how the pieces fit.Brain Turmoil by Jeannie Moberly

Apparently, the brain uses dopamine-mediated “prediction” neurons to recognize patterns (a dopamine “high” if the pattern fits and a “low” if the pattern is “off”). This effect delivers our “feelings” to a decision making center in the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC). In Lehrer’s synthesis the brain considers these often conflicting signals from its various parts until it forms a decision. Jeannie’s designation Brain Turmoil is apt: chapter 7 is entitled “The Brain Is an Argument”.

As I re-read Lehrer’s text trying to pinpoint what emotions are, I found his description too vague. Still I synthesized this working hypothesis: emotions are the self-communicated feelings, intuitions, or instincts formed by dopamine-mediated pattern detection centers in the brain. This gives a nice concrete notion of the nature of emotions that seems to fit well enough with the text and my experience. Does anyone know a better characterization of emotions?

Mistake Mystique

The message from the (sometimes excessively repetitive) middle part of the book is that both our “rational” and “emotional” brains can make serious mistakes. Lehrer recounts the emotional brain’s proclivity to find a pattern in any situation leading to grave errors whenever randomness is in play. For example, he explains the gamblers fallacy where one is rapturously deceived by occasional but completely random winnings leading to thoughts that “my turn has come” and the likelihood of bigger losses. He debunks the notion of streaks in sports citing the research of Gilovich, Vallone & Tversky that shows they are just random events that our brain misinterprets. There are more stories of this nature in the book. I had already encountered several from reading Fooled by Randomness by Nassim Nicholas Taleb which goes into great depth on this deficiency in the brain. Taleb details our weaknesses, but Lehrer also highlights some of our strengths and addresses how to make better decisions.

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