Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

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Have you ever known someone who is intelligent but still makes astonishingly stupid decisions again and again? According to a recently published study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, reasoning is a distinct skill, and not everyone possesses it in equal measure, even those people who are thought of as being intelligent. A “decision scientist” at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh claims that while reasoning abilities are influenced by intelligence and socioeconomic status, reasoning ability may also be a skill that can be learned and improved upon with practice.


Many people are affected by the way that information is presented, marketed or spun, especially by advertisements. Most of them are affected by marketing spin, and thus exhibit poor decision-making skills, said Wändi Bruine de Bruin. But people with strong reasoning skills make the same choices regardless of how information is presented to them. For example, if a brand of beef is advertised as being 95 percent lean, a person should be equally likely to buy it as if it is advertised as being 5 percent fat, she said.

To test this, Bruine de Bruin and her colleagues asked 360 people from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds to complete standard hypothetical tests that assess reasoning skills. Then they asked the subjects about their real-life experiences and how frequently they ended up in bad situations — situations such as spending the night in jail or racking up excessive credit-card debt. They found that those people who performed better on the hypothetical reasoning tests were less likely to end up in bad predicaments.

“Performance on those hypothetical paper-and-pencil tasks is related to the decision outcomes people experience in their lives,” Bruine de Bruin said.

Then Bruine de Bruin’s team studied how different factors, such as intelligence and socioeconomic status, affect people’s decision-making. She was surprised to find that, although these variables do affect how well a person reasons, they don’t completely explain it. In short, reasoning might be a separate skill. So in fact, smart people can also make really stupid decisions.

But is reasoning a distinct skill? If so, can it be taught? Bruine de Bruin hopes to answer this question by teaching people better reasoning skills and following them over time to see how their lives change.

Cited story.

Comments

  1. #1 Ed Yong
    June 12, 2007

    A role for science education surely?

    I strongly believe that one of the most important things you can arm kids with before they leave school is the ability to critically analyse information, and to be media-literate. History classes in the UK are heading in this direction so why not science classes? Given the rise of pseudo-scientific nonsense, it seems even more important to instil children with inquisitiveness and a natural skepticism.

  2. #2 Chris' Wills
    June 12, 2007

    …it seems even more important to instil children with inquisitiveness and a natural skepticism.
    Posted by: Ed Yong

    Ed, I would say that young children are inquisitive and skeptical by instinct and that it gets lost somewhere along the way (Those who didn’t supress these faculties probably tend to become Scientists or Mathematicians; in their nature if not by qualification).

    The other thing is there is a difference twixt history and let’s say mathematics and how the natural world works.

    Things such as probability are often non-intutive and some things really can’t be taught to young children (the axioms of mathematics and arithmetic aren’t taught prior to teaching how to add/subtract for good reasons).

    Also, I am very wary of this thing called “critical analysis”; if it is derived from POMO it should be knocked on the head a toute vitesse and I definetely don’t want to see “critical analysis” in the sciences or mathematics if it is what IDists call critical analysis.

    To do proper critical analysis requires knowledge of how to analysise (correct tool for the object/subject being analysed) and in most real world examples this involves probability. So before starting critical analysis all children should know and understand why statistics and probablity work and why intuition is not a good guide in all cases. Also they need to know how to lie (obfuscate, misinform if you prefer to be polite about it) using statistics.

    We also need a cultural shift; knowledge of basic mathematics & methodological naturalism are accepted as normal or even good in many tiers of society. Even in parts of academia where ignorance of art or the appropriate literature would lead to ostracism and/or snearing, ignorance of mathematics and science is accepted as normal.

  3. #3 Chris' Wills
    June 12, 2007

    ..We also need a cultural shift; knowledge of basic mathematics & methodological naturalism are accepted as normal or even good in many tiers of society. Even in parts of academia where ignorance of art or the appropriate literature would lead to ostracism and/or snearing, ignorance of mathematics and science is accepted as normal.

    Sorry; a “lack of” is missing in the above paragraph.

    It should read:

    We also need a cultural shift; lack of knowledge of basic mathematics & methodological naturalism are accepted as normal or even good in many tiers of society. Even in parts of academia where ignorance of art or the appropriate literature would lead to ostracism and/or snearing, ignorance of mathematics and science is accepted as normal.

  4. #4 ben
    June 12, 2007

    Ed, I would say that young children are inquisitive and skeptical by instinct and that it gets lost somewhere along the way (Those who didn’t supress these faculties probably tend to become Scientists or Mathematicians; in their nature if not by qualification).

    Chris, do you remember the kids you went to school with? Inquisitive and skeptical or not, can you actually imagine anything more than a small minority of them becoming mathematicians or scientists? Really, their interests live far from those fields, and that is the crux, most people do not find mathematics and science interesting beyond a cursory level. Why else do you think CNN and the rest inundate us with stories about Paris Hilton etc? Seems more people find that sort of subject matter interesting.

  5. #5 Chris' Wills
    June 12, 2007

    Ben, strange to relate I do remember.

    Well, I wouldn’t say a small minority but yes they did go off and do lots of other things.
    Even those who did do science and mathematics mostly went off to do other things after graduating.

    It isn’t that I think that everyone should be a scientist or mathematician (how could I, I am an engineer); I just get niggled by the assumption that not knowing basic (and I do mean basic) mathematics or scientific methods isn’t a bad thing.

    This lack of basic knowledge means that people can be misled by bad statistics and are less able to make sensible decisions.

    This helps politicans and con-men to misled and misuse people.

    A well educated population is what is required for a democracy to function well.

    I also hold that education is a good thing even if it isn’t linked to your job and not only mathematics & science education.

  6. #6 JPS
    June 12, 2007

    This brings up the question, what makes a person smart? What things should be considered when judging someone as intelligent?

  7. #7 Chris' Wills
    June 13, 2007

    This brings up the question, what makes a person smart? What things should be considered when judging someone as intelligent?
    Posted by: JPS

    Well the paper http://fds.oup.com/www.oup.co.uk/pdf/0-19-289321-1.pdf explains a common IQ test.

    Now Alfred Binet, the original creator of intelligence tests didn’t see intelligence as being a fixed property. The original reason for inventing them was to identify poorly performing children and so identify who needed more help.

    So being intelligent just means, in modern parlance, having an ability to obtain a high score in an IQ test. This is probably a useful piece of information, one probably shouldn’t hire someone with and IQ of 70 to fly an aeroplane.

    Being smart seems to mean being able to react appropriately (maximise benefit) within your culture and/or in a strange culture/novel situation, quickly.
    It isn’t only equated with money, most people recognise that becoming/being rich can be due to things that you have no control over (i.e. being born to rich parents).

    Smart people who are intelligent should do better than smart people who are less intelligent

    Some highly intelligent people aren’t smart (there are various phrases to describe this such as egghead) and, as the linked paper http://www.as-if.org.uk/mental.htm shows, people with aspergers syndrome can be highly intelligent but socially inept and so not very smart.

    In terms of believing stupid things; this isn’t a function of intelligence or being smart, though I guess intelligent people do it as often or more often than smart people.

    People believe things for various reasons. The label “stupid” is applied by others as they are more able to detect the con going down or just more willing to look a gift horse in the mouth.
    An example is the illusionist known as mindfreak, he can apparently do amazing things. He says that it is illusion but still some people think that he is really perfoming magic. Are these people who believe stupid, I’ve no inkling of how he does what he does though I don’t think it is magic but I don’t have the ability or skill to test it so perhaps I’m stupid to take his word that it isn’t magic. Would a real magician admit it?

    I guess that highly intelligent people can be stupider than the average person, they have a self belief in their own abilities together with a history of being right more often than not and so if they see a trick they can’t explain or repeat they might deny that it is a trick at all.

  8. #8 Luna_the_cat
    June 14, 2007

    Wow, this is fascinating.

    I would argue that just as important as basic science and mathematical literacy, is some training on logic (including the all-important bit on how to spot logical fallacies!), and further encouragement — through roleplay, maybe? — on thinking through actions to their consequences. Thinking through “if I do this, what might happen? How likely is that?” is something which people don’t often seem to have a lot of naturally, and having some structure in schools which gives kids at least a partial road map for how that works could only be good.

  9. #9 Chris' Wills
    June 14, 2007

    Luna – The idea of teaching logic seems like a good idea; they can learn later when it makes sense to make a decision as logic trees can go on a while.

    I’m not sure how it could be implemented, as what it seems to be coming down to is teaching people how to learn and enjoy learning and giving them the tools to do so; while retaining a well structured and measurable framework and testing regime (like taxes there will always be exams/tests).

  10. #10 Chris' Wills
    June 14, 2007

    I happened upon this article that some might find interesting. Seemed appropriate as we are discussing education.

    Evolution and the Holy Ghost of Scopes: Can Science Lose the Next Round?

    Dowloadable from http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=981230

  11. #11 Alvaro
    June 18, 2007

    The question “Have you ever known someone who is intelligent but still makes astonishingly stupid decisions again and again?” implies a very limited (and common, in our still IQ-driven society) definition of “intelligent”.

    1- What if we define “intelligent” as someone who possesses the ability to adapt to and succeed in new environments and accomplish long-term goals (what neuropsychologists would call executive functions)? decision-making is an intrinsic component of “intelligence”. You have a good example in this advice by Bill Gates:
    http://www.sharpbrains.com/blog/2007/06/16/on-bill-gates-harvard-commencement-speech-and-his-frontal-lobes/

    2- and of course it is a skill that can be developed, both in field-specific and general ways. I haven’t seen it trained directly in K12 settings, but yes in corporate settings such as McKinsey and Goldman Sachs. That is the whole point to survive in those environments!

    3- without becoming “bio-philosophical”, we should remember why we have brains to start with…to learn and adapt.

  12. #12 Milagro
    July 1, 2007

    If decision scientists are intelligent, why did they decide to enter such a lame field? Why not make a mint off the stock market? Make your decisions truly count, young ones.

  13. #13 Chris' Wills
    July 2, 2007

    If decision scientists are intelligent, why did they decide to enter such a lame field? Why not make a mint off the stock market? Make your decisions truly count, young ones. Posted by: Milagro

    Probably because some people are interested in being happy and that doesn’t depend only on money.

    I did my degree because I was interested in the subjects; education for education sake; money wasn’t my prime concern otherwise I would have trained as a lawyer or an accountant.
    Each to their own, but if you don’t enjoy what you do for a living (at least a little bit) then it isn’t conducive to your overall happiness.

    Yes make your decisions count but don’t think that money will make you happy, you may just end up being unhappy in more comfortable surroundings.

  14. #14 Shaun Connell
    September 9, 2007

    Aw, great point. Reasoning is something one must practice and test on their own. Intelligence is potential, rationality is skill. =)

    Great blog!

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