Is the world too complicated for us?

by WCE

Our world outsmarts us
Social problems are fantastically complex, while human minds are severely under-engineered. Is democracy doomed?

Given our ongoing discussions of human frailty, weakness and variation, this article seemed appropriate. The description of the “intuitive response” to the false positive test appealed to me and reminded me of my favorite picture of that.

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59 thoughts on “Is the world too complicated for us?

  1. I copied and pasted the comment image onto the post so I think it will show up now.

  2. “People who lack the knowledge or wisdom to perform well are often unaware of this fact. That is, the same incompetence that leads them to make wrong choices also deprives them of the savvy necessary to recognise competence, be it their own or anyone else’s.”

    Well, that may be the most depressing sentence I’ve ever read.

    I wonder how much of this comes from our predisposition to find patterns in everything. I mean, if you escaped the lion by climbing the tree, you’re pretty locked in to that approach and will likely be resistant to someone telling you it’s better to play dead. So we take associations and turn them into immutable rules, and it takes a huge shift (and lack of ego) to acknowledge when one of those immutable rules is actually wrong.

    And of course now those immutable rules don’t just involve common-sense things like escaping predators, but higher math and complex machinery and the like. So it seems almost guaranteed that only a few people will be able to make that mental shift to figuring out when some old idea is wrong.

    And then of course a bunch of those “smart” people will end up being wrong, because they had their own preconceived bias and imperfect information. And then everyone else just says, see, you can’t trust those scientists/intellectuals/academics/wonks/[insert group here], they don’t know any better than the rest of us. Which then makes it even less likely that those outside that limited realm of knowledge and experience will be open to changing their own preconceived notions.

  3. I wonder how much of this comes from our predisposition to find patterns in everything.

    That’s certainly part of it. I also think it has to do with the artificial reality that everyone creates for themselves. Few people have the stamina to deal with the world as it is. So, in order to make it through the day, they have to tell themselves a series of big and little lies and any information that disrupts that carefully curated narrative gets rejected. These internal narratives manifest themselves everywhere, it’s why so few people have anything saved for retirement and why they believe that vaccines cause autism. The need to believe they have control over the bad things that can happen and everything is going to work out in the end.

  4. “Each of us at some point reaches the limits of our expertise and knowledge. Those limits make our misjudgments that lie beyond those boundaries undetectable to us.”

    I think when we are aware of our limits, we are more likely to seek assistance. In the test example, I “knew” that the 95% was wrong and it was 5% or less, but did not know how to calculate it with out looking up how to. However, I would have asked the doctor to explain what that meant. I would also ask if there was a recommended retest at some later period, especially if my family had ever had anyone with any similar condition. So, I am relying on the person who ideally has the knowledge.

    I also agree that as complex as many things are we cannot be expected to understand all of them. As a result, we do boil things down to a reasonable set of “rules/processes” and/or trusted advisers or sources.

  5. “If those at the top of the educational heap can’t do better (75 per cent fell for the so-called base rate neglect fallacy), what can be reasonably expected from the rest of us?”

    So a few thoughts about this. I hate the “if people at Harvard can’t do this, who can?” Selection to Harvard (or other medical schools) is not based on prowess in statistics or epidemiology, which are learned disciplines. Sure, some people have an intuitive grasp of statistics, but there are no 6 year olds on stage at Carnegie hall showing off their ability to perform a student t-test with a large data set in their heads.

    I would imagine 75% of the kids at Harvard can’t change the oil on a car or forage for food in the wilderness. That doesn’t imply that it is an impossible challenge, just one that they have not been appropriately educated on how to do correctly.

  6. Ada,

    I have heard a proposal to replace calculus with statistics in high school. I assume most, if not all, Harvard students were on the calculus track so the idea might have some merit.

  7. Rhett – Many schools offer statistics to the students who aren’t pursuing a STEM major in college. However, most non-four-year degree bound students make it through enough math in high school to get to statistics (at least the way the hs curriculum is here).

  8. For most people, statistics is a better choice than calculus. However, calculus is good for people who want to learn physics (which doctor purportedly do). So, for the high-achieving high schooler, calculus might still be the right track.

    The answer is that Harvard needs to teach statistics and epidemiology better (which are rightfully part of the medical school curriculum).

  9. So, for the high-achieving high schooler, calculus might still be the right track.

    Why can’t it wait a year?

  10. Atlanta,

    Thanks! I was going to download that one but I never got around to it.

  11. “I have heard a proposal to replace calculus with statistics in high school.”
    The sixth grader is using statistics terms that I don’t know. I have to look them up or defer to my husband, who actually took (and still uses) statistics. I have been so far impressed with her math at the new school. I just hope she is retaining most of it.

  12. The podcast You are Not So Smart has many podcasts on basically our biases and how our brains really hold onto “wrong” information that results in making the wrong decision.

  13. I am now slowly eating my half cookie. I was going to eat the whole one but thought of L
    and decided to just eat the half.

  14. When the writer said (paraphrasing) ‘most people can’t figure out how to program the VCR’ I wondered for a moment just how old the article was, then realized that with all the Trump quotes it had to be fairly recent.

    And for some reason the writer struck me as very pleased with himself. I think maybe it was the bully story, where he hints at, and later reveals, that He Alone was the special, mature student who never laughed at the bully. Like that’s the most important thing about the whole story, that the author was understanding of others’ foibles. Never mind the guy who got killed, that was just a throwaway detail.

  15. I mean, I do agree that the world outsmarts us, but it’s always done so, and we’ve always struggled to grapple with it as best we can. And over time, we make progress. If we can make it through the stage where we’re capable of blowing the planet up but haven’t yet figured out how to hedge against that, whether through social psychology or space engineering / terraforming, we’ll make further progress.

  16. The idea that reality is just too much for our puny mortal brains reminded me of this (2 pages)

  17. HM,

    There was a comic I once read (I think it involved a penguin) that mentioned a philosopher who was fascinated by the fact that we don’t just sit stunned by the fact that we exist. I’ve always wanted to find it again but I never have. Does it ring any bells?

  18. “Like that’s the most important thing about the whole story, that the author was understanding of others’ foibles. Never mind the guy who got killed, that was just a throwaway detail.”

    Eh, I didn’t get that — I admit, I got a whiff of that up front, but at the end, when he put the dots together, I read it as “holy crap was I lucky, because I had No Clue that’s why he didn’t pick on me at the time, and there but for the grace of God etc. . . .”

    @Rhett: Bloom County? Opus the penguin?

  19. The pages I posted are from the Cartoon History of the Universe series, truly a book series for the ages.

    Rhett, I don’t know, could it have been from that Tom Tomorrow / This Modern World comic? That has a recurring penguin character, Sparky the Penguin. It’s mostly very political, but I could see it getting into philosophy. Or, could it have been a Bloom County strip? Those got philosophical.

    The penguin from This Modern World:

    Opus the penguin from Bloom County:

  20. I’m 80% sure it’s Opus but I’ve never been able to find the actual strip.

  21. I think when we are aware of our limits, we are more likely to seek assistance. In the test example, I “knew” that the 95% was wrong and it was 5% or less, but did not know how to calculate it with out looking up how to. However, I would have asked the doctor to explain what that meant. I would also ask if there was a recommended retest at some later period, especially if my family had ever had anyone with any similar condition. So, I am relying on the person who ideally has the knowledge.

    The point is that you are the exception in this regard.

    I also agree that as complex as many things are we cannot be expected to understand all of them. As a result, we do boil things down to a reasonable set of “rules/processes” and/or trusted advisers or sources.

    And most people try to fit things into the rules rather than ask for outside help, which is why they run into trouble.

  22. I knew this post was coming when I read last night about the collapse of a tunnel filled with high level nuclear waste at Hanford. I thought, “Clearly, whoever created a tunnel using Douglas fir beams to store nuclear waste thought we would have a long-term nuclear waste storage solution within the next 50 years… but we don’t, because Yucca Mountain isn’t good enough.”

    http://www.tri-cityherald.com/news/local/hanford/article149475209.html

  23. Rhett, I can only speak to why there is a “rush” to complete Calculus I if a student wants to study business in an undergraduate program. It is completely different than a student that is going into one of the STEM fields or wants to major in Economics at a liberal arts school.

    Calculus I is a prerequisite class for most undergrad business schools. The reason is that most programs require students to take micro and macro economics as part of their core curriculum. The schools usually want the students to complete the econ classes in their freshman year. if the student has completed Calculus in HS, then the student is ready for the econ classes. i don’t think a lot of calculus is needed, but economic problems often involve functions of several variables. The first level calculus course introduces differential and integral functions of one variable, and this can be helpful in economics classes. Many colleges will allow a student to place out of the Calculus I class if the student scores high enough on the AP Calc exam because they don’t need a lot of Calculus knowledge for most undergrad business majors. In business school, there is a need to have a strong background in Stats. The schools will offer their own Statistics courses, and the curriculum is much more detailed and rigorous than anything that will be offered in a high school AP class.

  24. Has anyone ever been on a silent retreat? I’m sort of toying with going on one. There are several different kinds of communities that offer them — Catholic, Buddhist, etc. There’s an Episcopalian retreat center up near Healdsburg. I can’t decide if I’d go insane.

  25. HM,
    Thanks for the Cartoon History of the Universe link! Don’t know how we missed this series when the kids were younger. Do you have favorites among these? There seem to be a lot of them….but they look great. College DS would like them too.

  26. RMS – members of my family regularly go on retreats but not silent ones. They are much too social. Along with the religious aspect they like socializing.

  27. Calculus I is a prerequisite class for most undergrad business schools

    That’s just a policy, it isn’t a law of nature. If its in the public interest to have more stats and less calculus in high school then higher education can and will adapt.

  28. Louise, I was thinking of you while watching this documentary:

    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt3279468/?ref_=nv_sr_1

    about the history of the Tamil film industry. It was very interesting. I don’t know why, but I have the impression you are from the northern part of your home country. But there was an interesting bit about the film Meera, which was first shot in Tamil and then later in Hindi with the same actors, only dubbed.

  29. Headline in the WSJ: “Sorry, Harvard and Yale, the Trading Whiz Kids Are at Baruch College. Students who have recently dominated trading competitions attend a public college in New York”

  30. Denver – maybe I am the odd person out. I have always been told that wisdom includes taking advice from the wise rather than relying solely on your own knowledge. Maybe that is also what drives me nuts when people start to tell me about a condition or situation and when I ask questions or ask if the (insert professional) had any advise about the condition or situation, I get blank stares.

  31. Scarlett, my favorites are the Cartoon History of the Universe volumes I, II, and III. I felt like in Cartoon History of the Modern World he kind of lost focus, probably because the subject matter got so broad, although I still liked those. And the Cartoon Guide to XXX ones are usually co-written with someone else who’s an expert on the area, so while they’re still fun, they’re more like a lighter version of a textbook that you’d read when you’re trying to study up on an area rather than a fun stand-alone read.

    As I recall, volume I presents some Old Testament biblical history, including King David’s life and times, and volume II includes a chapter on the New Testament. It’s presented in a similar style to the pages on the Bhagavad Gita, i.e. slightly irreverent.

  32. My whole life is too complicated. I am in renovation hell and trying to remember why any of this seemed like a good idea. It would have been easier to move. I hate everything and especially dust and dirt.

    But I made this salad for dinner tonight, and 3/4 of the family loved it (this is a win). I served it as a side with broiled salmon.

    ASIAN NOODLE SALAD
    One 8-ounce box Asian brown rice (whole-grain) noodles
    1/4 cup soy sauce (preferably reduced-sodium)
    1 tablespoon rice vinegar
    2 teaspoons fresh lime juice (from 1/2 lime)
    2 teaspoons honey
    2 teaspoons toasted sesame oil
    1 teaspoon minced fresh ginger
    1 garlic clove, minced
    3/4 cup fresh cilantro leaves, chopped
    3/4 cup chopped salted, dry-roasted peanuts or cashews
    2 ½ cups coleslaw mix (shredded green and red cabbage plus carrots, found in the produce aisle)
    Red pepper flakes (optional)
    Cook the noodles according to the package directions. Drain and set aside in a large bowl to cool . Cut the noodles up a bit with kitchen shears or a knife to make them easier to toss.
    In a small bowl, whisk together the soy sauce, vinegar, lime juice, honey, sesame oil, ginger, and garlic.
    Add the sauce, cilantro, peanuts, and slaw mix to the bowl with the noodles and toss until well combined. If desired, sprinkle in red pepper flakes to taste. Serve at room temperature or refrigerate for later.

  33. Denver – maybe I am the odd person out.

    You are – that’s my point.

    Here’s a great Nextdoor story. There were a bunch of posts today on our site about someone’s chickens getting loose. It turns out that the owners of said chickens are our backyard neighbors. I have to say I am very impressed that we had no idea they have chickens. We’ve never heard anything, no bad odors, nothing. It’s definitely changed my thinking on urban/suburban farming. We’ve never actually met these people because there’s a privacy fence on top of a retaining wall separating our yards, so no opportunity to chit-chat.

  34. “For most people, statistics is a better choice than calculus.”

    At a certain level, this is very true.

    However, there are some caveats to consider before having your kids take AP stats instead of AP calc:

    -Many colleges do not consider stats to be a math class, so kids who make the substitution may not meet the minimum application requirements for those schools.

    -AP stats, at least at some schools, is a 1 semester class, while AP calc is typically a one year class. Also, what I’ve heard about AP stats at my kids’ school is that it is much less rigorous than AP calc.

    A rigorous, full year stats class may be much more practical to many kids than AP calc, but I’m skeptical of such a class being available for most HS students, although taking classes through local colleges may provide that option.

    “However, calculus is good for people who want to learn physics”

    Yes. Some would argue that calculus is essential for people who want to learn physics.

  35. Lark– the reno will seem like a good idea once it’s over and you get to enjoy your renovated home.

  36. I thought the intro and conclusion antidotes were at least partially if not totally fictional, a hook for the article – otherwise very interesting- my mom has a saying I’ve heard since I was very little- the smarter you are the more you know how little you know.

  37. Reading a couple of posts from Ann Althouse this morning made me think of the OP topic as related to political power and populism.

    Robert Caro, biographer of LBJ and Robert Moses, has a new audible book On Power that I may break down and buy. Fascinating. In the sample excerpt he talks about the placement of the Triborough Bridge in NYC. It was not located in the most convenient spot, basically adding five miles to a trip across the river, because of political power. I’ve heard a similar anecdote about the Tappan Zee bridge in Westchester and I’m sure that is true for bridges across the country. Caro’s message is how political power affects us in so many ways big and small.

    From the NYT review of Meacham’s biography of Andrew Jackson, associated with the rise of populism in his day and the president Trump likes to compare himself to.

    But republics may endure best when leaders remain uncertain — as several dozen did in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787 — as to whether the people can be entirely trusted with their own government.

    But as Althouse notes, that review was written just after we had elected Obama.

  38. Lark – thanks for the recipe! Did you have a shrimp taco recipe before too? I should have copied it down, but now I can’t find the post with it in there.

  39. I just didn’t get this article at all. My reaction was a trifle milder than HM’s, but in the same vein. People have been stubborn about seeking advice or deferring to experts for eons. Experts have changed their minds from century to century or even from generation to generation. In the past few hundred years of history in the so called developed world, lay investors have lost their money, the populace has chosen quack remedies over the medicine of the day, people have ruined property in need of repair rather than seek help. This is not something that arose in the past 50 years.

  40. As a Economics major, I absolutely did not need to have Calc as an incoming freshman. It was not a prerequisite for Intro to Macro- or Microeconomics. Most Econ majors BITD took Macro & Calculus concurrently Fall Freshman year and then Stats and Micro concurrently Spring Freshman year, but you could even work around that if you started in the Econ program as a Sophomore. Of the two math prerequisites, we used Calc for some modeling, but Stats was far more useful in both the Economics and Finance classes. I was ahead of the game since I transferred in both Calc and Macroeconomics which I took in HS via the dual credit program at a 4-year college. There weren’t very many people BITD at my school who tested out of Calc with the AP test. I think the requirements were pretty strict & you still had to take a replacement math class anyway.

    And each of the Social Science and Business disciplines wanted you to take their own special stats class, not a general stats class. I had to get special permission (i.e., beg) to apply my Econ stats towards my Psychology double major so that I wouldn’t have to take two nearly-identical stats classes with different applications.

    I don’t think Accounting majors needed Calc at all, although I think most people took it anyway.

    I checked to see if this was still true at my alma mater, and it is. It also seems to be true at my State Flagship (where Econ is in the Liberal Arts School vs. the Business school) and at Harvard.

    TL;DR – I think taking Calculus in HS is fine and can be an advantage, but the need is completely overblown, even for those who may be going into a field where they will need it in their major.

  41. “Did you have a shrimp taco recipe before too? I should have copied it down, but now I can’t find the post with it in there.”

    We made it inspired by Lark! It was just taco seasoning with shrimp & then cabbage, avocado, and hot sauce/salsa on top which was good. I sauted the white part of some scallions with the shrimp and used the green part as a topping too.

    I bought the Frontera packet this week which was good too. These shrimp were okay cold the next day on a salad for lunch leftovers.
    http://www.fronterafiesta.com/store/seasoning-sauces/key-lime-shrimp-taco-skillet-sauce/27-93

    Thanks again Lark for the great idea. So simple, but just not something that was on my mind. It’s perfect for little league baseball season when I have about 10 minutes to make dinner some nights.

  42. I think taking Calculus in HS is fine and can be an advantage, but the need is completely overblown

    Heresy!

  43. Here’s some more heresy – I was able to take Macroeconomics in college without high school calc AND my college had no math requirement.:)

    Lark – renovation is like child birth, you forget how painful it is a few months later when you are enjoying your new space. I had wanted to time ours so I was at the beach with the kids last summer but couldn’t get the contractor lined up in time so ours went right up through Christmas.

  44. In the home country I fell into calculus in 10th and 11th grade. In my business junior college (10th and 11th grade) at the time students could opt out of Math entirely. I chose to take Math, that’s how I learned calculus, though many opted out. At the time there wasn’t any down the road consequences for opting out but in later years colleges never told students that lack of Math meant that they were dinged when applying to highly ranked MBA programs. I was so angry at this because the kids affected were ones whose parents were not educated or savvy enough to say keep the Math. I was helping one student when I went back. She was shut out of the better MBA programs and thereby the better jobs.

  45. “my college had no math requirement”

    *clutches pearls* :)

    Mine did have a math requirement, but you could take seminar and J-term classes about the philosophy/history of numbers or the logic class taught by the Philosophy department (Score one for RMS). That’s what a lot of the Humanities/Arts majors did.

  46. And the time has come to refer to Kaleberg’s cheat sheet of math classes. For DS, I must choose Algebra 1, instead of Pre Algebra.
    That, I think is the road to calculus ;-).

  47. I certainly don’t think everyone in high school should take calculus, but as has been mentioned it is often considered the most rigorous math course by which applicants at highly selective colleges are screened. Also, some colleges offer a more quantitative economics major that does require calculus as a prerequisite even for intro courses.

  48. I’ve always enjoyed economics (nearly became an econ major), so I took a couple extra econ classes for fun as an undergrad.

    I absolutely did not need any calculus for those econ classes. Even in the one upper level econ class I took, all I needed was algebra, and a lot of the students in that class struggled with the simple math requirements.

  49. ITA with CoC. If your kid aspires to HSS, then HS calculus is a requirement, and for a technically focused HSS (e.g., Caltech, MIT, Mudd), so is the Math II subject test.

    But as others here have often pointed out, there are many colleges your kids can get into that don’t require HS calculus, even for technical majors.

    However, I do suggest some calculus, along with at least the basics in other disciplines, as part of being an educated person.

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