A sextillion little grey cells, all thinking fast-and-slow, all needing to up-their-game at both.

Me and mine are ready for global change. Are you?

“Our comforting conviction that the world makes sense rests on a secure foundation: our almost unlimited ability to ignore our ignorance.” ― Daniel Kahneman, (Thinking, Fast and Slow, 2011)

“Go to the ant, you sluggard; consider its ways and be wise! it has no commander, no overseer or ruler, yet it stores its provisions in summer and gathers its food at harvest.”– Proverbs 6:6-8 (NIV)

In his brilliant 2011 book, Daniel Kahneman, psychologist and (Nobel-winning) behavioral economist lays out the landscape and functioning of the individual human brain. He finds there – and illuminates – two systems of thought:

System 1. Fast, automatic, frequent, emotional stereotypic, unconscious(pinpoint the  source of a sound, read pop-up ad text…)

System 2. Slow, effortful, infrequent, logical, calculating, conscious(identify the source of that sound, evaluate a piece of complex logical reasoning).

His focus is primarily on the individual; he concludes, inter alia, in each of us there’s a tendency for these two approaches to be at war. (With considerable oversimplification – there’s obviously much, much more to explore here), our default to one or the other, and misuse of either and both, leads to errors, and ties in to over-confidence in our judgment.

Something of an analogy to this might be discerned in groups – in particular, to society’s approach to two major challenges. First, there’s the set of global changes slowly unfolding as going-on-eight-billion people consume food, energy, water and other resources more voraciously than the less-numerous, less-advanced societies of the past. These largely-negative changes have been growing visibly, irrefutably more evident for some time now, but individuals and nations have been responding slowly and hesitantly to the inexorable transformations. The demands on our logic, our ability to calculate, at a sustained level have required more effort than we’ve been able to supply. We can’t seem to hold that thought.

More recently, each of us has been caught up what feels like the opposite circumstance – the world’s wild, chaotic reaction to the covid-19 pandemic.  Peoples and nations, and their leaders, have responded instinctively, following pre-existing biases and proclivities. The emergency and the front-end loading of the necessary decisions has defied puny national efforts to respond more strategically. 

It would seem not just our individual thinking, but also our group-think, whether fast or slow, could stand improvement. This, despite the fact, as pointed out in the previous LOTRW post, as a species we have a sextillion neurons, an additional and rapidly-growing high-performance computing power, and other assets to bring to any such task. 

If the problem isn’t in any lack of aggregate brainpower, then it must lie in how we deploy it, bring it to bear. That has two dimensions.

The first is whether we coordinate and collaborate, or instead work at cross purposes. For years observers of the world scene have decried a growing polarization of society, along fault lines of income disparity, race, gender, politics, and more. Pick any topic; as each emerges it seems our first order of business is find a framing that drives us to divide into opposing teams, close to a 50-50 split; then each side works harder to achieve 51-49 advantage than to identify common ground. That’s happening in spades when it comes to climate change and covid-19.

The second is that we underinvest thought on topics that matter. We ignore long-term goals such as improved education, and educational opportunity for all, building a culture of innovation, managing big risks such as disasters, global change, etc. Our inability to cooperate and sustain cooperation motivates us instead to seek individual security and well-being – and focus on a short term gratification. Our individual problem with the famous Stanford marshmallow experiment scales up to a global one.

The existence of this problem – and its cure – have long been known. Every American studies it repeatedly in K-12 history classes. The founders of our country knew that it is human nature to act in short-term self-interest. They constructed the Constitution as best they could so that each American, by acting in that momentary self-interest, would contribute to a more enduring public good. The construct has creaked and struggled ever since. (Each generation sees a new set of flaws, or more frustratingly – a new expression of the old historic set. Slavery and racial inequality heading today’s list – surely a plague on our souls proving as endemic as any virus.) But we’ve persevered.

In short, the cure is – getting the policies right.

A few examples. We all agree here in America to drive our automobiles of the righthand side of the road. We do this without thinking. Similarly, the vast majority of us pay our taxes. An infrastructure of rules and regulations are constructed make actions such as this far easier for each of us than any alternative. We do these things without tying up many of the little grey cells – our compliance is nearly instinctive.

Ants have really mastered this. Individual ants are short on brainpower. They boast a mere 250,000 or so neurons each, versus your- and my 100 billion. But there are somewhere between 100-10,000 trillion ants (the more recent figure vs. E.O. Wilson’s mid-1990’s estimate) worldwide. That would give a number of neurons between 0.02 and 2 sextillion neurons (approaching the human-population figure at the high end, just as the total global ant body mass would approach that of ours).

It’s taken them 100 million years, but through trial-and-error they’ve gotten the policies right. For example, they’ve solved the global change problem. Ant hives provide nearly-ideal conditions of temperature and humidity, easy access for food and water, the needed means of waste disposal and protection against predators. It took ants tens of millions of years, but they developed the ability to survive at least one mass extinction (a success record we have yet to prove we can equal). They’ve done this, and continue to do so, in large-part by being cooperative to a fault. Nobody’s in charge! No ant can be accused of having the big picture! But they’ve got the policies right.

Back to human beings: it could be argued that science per se falls closer to the short-term. individual gratification end of the human activity spectrum than to the long-range strategic investment. Gaining knowledge and understanding can bring relatively immediate personal satisfaction and joy. But to stop there – particularly in those geophysical and social sciences that document human failure (inaction in the face of climate change, deficiencies in hazard risk management, declines in the protection provided by ecosystem services, etc.) – would be an essentially selfish act. 

Scientists in those fields shoulder special responsibility for getting the policies right – policies for harnessing scientific and technological advance to human benefit, actually solving problems rather than merely inventorying them. That requires equal discipline, but of a different kind. It requires attention to human relationships, to fairness and cooperation. It requires acceptance of delayed gratification. It requires insight into the emergent consequences of different policy options.

This is an existential challenge for natural- and social scientists (and, closer to home, a particular focus for the two dozen scientists who for the next ten days will participate in the AMS 2020 Summer Policy Colloquium).

And be of good cheer. We don’t have ten million years to figure it out — probably more like a handful of decades. But we’re brighter than ants. And we can change our policies on a dime. Each of us, acting unilaterally, can make building trust and cooperating our policy too. As the ants tell it, once we do that, it’s easy sailing the rest of the way.

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1 Response to A sextillion little grey cells, all thinking fast-and-slow, all needing to up-their-game at both.

  1. Bill:-

    Scientists cannot and should not set policy. Although as a scientist I might want to set policy, policy involves non-scientific concepts like aspirations and values that go beyond science. Scientists can – and should – provide a context so effective policies are made. That context must include
    • what is known;
    • the limits of what is known;
    • the uncertainties around what is known; and
    • what the scientist thinks that means.

    If we as scientists stray beyond providing the context for informed decisions, we should be arrested for epistemic trespassing!

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