This week we'll wonder about certainty, interdisciplinarity, and what it takes to be an expert.
Mad Science Solves...
We live in a world obsessed with certainty. Voters crave definitive answers, neat resolutions, and clear paths forward. Policy makers cling to facts, figures, and rigid plans, mistaking them for stability in a universe that thrives on fluidity. Business leaders look for defensible answers in the trends of their peers. We crave the comfort of predictability, the reassurance of absolutes. Yet, clinging to certainty undermines immediate decision-making, life-long economic outcomes, and collective intelligence across organizations.
Our brains, marvels of pattern recognition, often fall prey to confirmation bias, cherry-picking evidence that reinforces existing beliefs while ignoring contradictory truths. Embracing uncertainty, however, disrupts this shallow decision-making and, as revealed in the Research Roundup below, reduces susceptibility to misinformation. By pushing us to explore the periphery of our knowledge and grapple with new information, uncertainty improves decision-making by allowing us to consider the full distribution of possibilities rather than the most likely or most favored.
Perhaps the most potent argument for embracing uncertainty lies in the fraught world of politics. In recent years, I've been exploring dynamical models of political polarization and the information-exploration paradox: as information increases exploration decreases. This emerges in both expert and everyday judgements, apparently without awareness. Overwhelmed, we trade nuance for absolutes. This behavior masquerades as commitment and strong leadership, but actually represents a lazy disengagement from the profound idea that we can be better than we are today. Acknowledging the inherent uncertainty of political solutions helps drive the long-demonstrated economic advantage of pluralistic societies.
The cognitive dissonance of uncertainty is decidedly uncomfortable, but leaning into this discomfort is a crucial factor in positive life outcomes. I lent my research and big mouth to an ambitious project called The Uncertainty Experts, a program designed to increase participants’ comfort with uncertainty. The goal is to make participants comfortable with uncertainty without feeling helpless or passive. Successfully embracing uncertainty enables but also requires active exploration and multi-factor decision-making.
Embracing uncertainty is not about abandoning principles or surrendering to chaos. It is about fostering a healthy skepticism, a willingness to question and adapt. It is about recognizing the limitations of our knowledge and the dynamism of the world around us.
On a completely unrelated note, United Airlines needs better “AI”. I’m flying down to LA this Thursday for a work-related day trip. United will fly me from SFO to LAX in the morning and then take me back home on the last flight from LAX to SFO that night. It’s an easy trip I’ve made many times that allows me to be home with family as much as possible.
Today I was notified that my flight home has been canceled. United automatically rebooked me onto the next best flight…but there was a subtle problem. Here is the new trip from LAX to SFO they secured for me:
- SFO to Eureka: yes, to return home to SFO from LAX my new trip begins in San Francisco. It then travels not south to LA but as far north as is possible and still be in California.
- Eureka to LAX: in order to leave LA, United will fly me to the very city I want to leave.
- LAX to SFO: in case you were wondering, yes, this is the exact same flight on which I was originally booked.
I’m guessing that United never canceled the original LAX-SFO flight but only swapped planes. This triggered their robotic process automation to rebook me onto that same flight (even the same seat), but it barfed because I’m beginning and ending the day in the same city. Now for the hour on the phone to fix it...
Stage & Screen
New Podcast Episode and Article for your viewing and reading pleasure...
"How to Become a Cyborg Company: A 4-Step Guide to Unleashing Human-AI Superpowers in Your Workforce, with Dr. Vivienne Ming"
We’ve all seen the panic-inducing headlines about AI taking away jobs. But what if we reframed automation as an opportunity to unlock new potentials in the workforce? What if emerging technologies, instead of displacing humans, elevated them into more creative and meaningful roles?
2024 is here and with engagements already secured in Paris, Stockholm, DC, Toronto, and more!
I would love to give a talk just for your organization on any topic: AI, neurotech, education, the Future of Creativity, the Neuroscience of Trust, The Tax on Being Different ...why I'm such a charming weirdo. If you have events, opportunities, or would be interested in hosting a dinner or other event, please reach out to my team below. - Vivienne
Science "Knowledge" is not Scientific Thinking
The popular notion of science is that of a textbook full of facts and equations—science is all of those things that we’ve been forced to memorize in science class (or occasionally the really cool pictures of orcas wearing fish hats or lava spilling down mountainsides).
Science is none of those things. Nor is it the industry, academic or commercial, of discovering new facts, much less the even larger industry of writing grant proposals to do so.
Science, at the only level that matters to me, is a belief: we share an understandable, explicable reality, but the only way we can reliably advance our understanding is by being skeptical of ourselves. This is far from a perfect definition, and it certainly makes no attempt to encapsulate the formalisms of modern scientific methodology. But at its heart is hope and aspiration in tension with imperfection and self-delusion. It is the single greatest accomplishment of humanity.
Recent research reveals a profound failure to educate society in the philosophy of science. “A meta-analysis of correction effects in science-relevant misinformation” found that “attempts to debunk science-relevant misinformation were, on average, not successful”. Interventions were particularly ineffective once issues had become politicized. And in related research, even interventions that worked in the lab failed in the wild, where counter arguments from ideological elites were readily available to refute them.
Too often societal problems, including misinformation, are seen as a marketing problem. People just don’t know the truth, the scientific facts. Scientists need to tell better stories. But the findings above point to a very different problem than a lack of nonexistent scientific “facts”. As knowledge of “facts” grows so does “overconfidence” in one’s knowledge and negative “attitudes toward science. Actual scientists are more likely to say they “don’t know” the answer to a question than those with intermediate levels of knowledge. The problem is not the education or marketing of scientific facts. It is a conflict of philosophy: are you using those facts to prove you are right or are you using them to understand where you are wrong and discover something better?
Most people (professional scientists included) learn just enough about the world to defend their beliefs about it. Once we’ve learned enough to fend off wrong thinkers, new knowledge not only doesn’t help but begins to reveal the very real gaps in all knowledge. If my goal is to prove myself right, the very complexity and uncertainty of science is anathema, and so we reject one of humanity’s greatest creations in favor of the comfort of certainty.
Prove yourself wrong.
Hurray for CogSci Degrees!
There has long been an argument that students should have a broad liberal arts education to prepare them for the world, but recent decades have shifted the focus almost entirely to STEM education. And why not? Doctors and engineers earn much more than others and solve meaningful problems in the world. Surely we should dispense with the ill-defined vision of a well-rounded citizen and focus instead on startup founders and the human capital they need. …right?
I’m a scientist and would never steer anyone away from an education in the sciences or skills base in math or engineering. My own research, however, suggests that the differences between those with STEM degrees and other grads predate their degrees. If you control for deep meta-learning factors (e.g. base cognitive, social, and emotional skills), history majors earn nearly as much as engineering majors.
Perhaps we shouldn’t be so focused on STEM uber alles, and instead look again at a broader understanding of the world. I spent my undergraduate at UCSD’s Cognitive Science department with classes in neuroscience, psychology, machine learning, programing, philosophy, math, and more. At CMU, I spent my PhD taking classes from 12 different departments in preparation for a dissertation crossing machine learning, psycholinguistics, cochlear neurophysiology, and not a little information theory. This interdisciplinary (downright dilettante) background has served me incredibly well across my career. Drawing connections between disparate disciplines and finding the story that connects them all is my superpower.
It turns out it is a superpower shared by my fellow dilettantes. New research leveraged machine learning to create a “text-based semantic measure of interdisciplinarity in college curriculum” that distinguishes “between what [universities] claim regarding interdisciplinarity and what they appear to actually do”. Not only is “greater exposure to interdisciplinarity...associated with increased earnings after college graduation”, but the effect is even stronger “for science majors”.
Beyond the vague notion of a liberal arts education or the false certainty of STEM, there is true value in interdisciplinarity and its obligation to admit one’s uncertainty about the world.
|Follow more of my work at
|The Human Trust
|RFK Human Rights
|Crisis Venture Studios
|Inclusion Impact Index
|Neurotech Collider Hub at UC Berkeley