Recent quotes:

Humans tend to make problem-solving unnecessarily complex, new study shows - The Washington Post

The tendency to overlook subtraction may be implicated in a variety of costly modern trends, including overburdened minds and schedules, increasing red tape in institutions and humanity’s encroachment on the safe operating conditions for life on Earth,” the authors write. The grid problem was one of eight experiments reported in the paper. In another, subjects were asked to stabilize the wobbly roof of a Lego structure by either adding or removing bricks. The easiest solution was to remove a single brick, allowing the roof to lie flat atop the base. But only 40 percent of participants took this route; the others added bricks to create more supports, even when doing so reduced the amount of money they received for completing the task.

The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race | Discover Magazine

One straight forward example of what paleopathologists have learned from skeletons concerns historical changes in height. Skeletons from Greece and Turkey show that the average height of hunger-gatherers toward the end of the ice ages was a generous 5' 9'' for men, 5' 5'' for women. With the adoption of agriculture, height crashed, and by 3000 B. C. had reached a low of only 5' 3'' for men, 5' for women. By classical times heights were very slowly on the rise again, but modern Greeks and Turks have still not regained the average height of their distant ancestors.

The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race | Discover Magazine

While farmers concentrate on high-carbohydrate crops like rice and potatoes, the mix of wild plants and animals in the diets of surviving hunter-gatherers provides more protein and a bettter balance of other nutrients. In one study, the Bushmen's average daily food intake (during a month when food was plentiful) was 2,140 calories and 93 grams of protein, considerably greater than the recommended daily allowance for people of their size. It's almost inconceivable that Bushmen, who eat 75 or so wild plants, could die of starvation the way hundreds of thousands of Irish farmers and their families did during the potato famine of the 1840s.

The Hidden Costs of Automated Thinking | The New Yorker

There’s far less prestige associated with conceptual papers or papers that provide some new analytical insight,” he said, in an interview. As machines make discovery faster, people may come to see theoreticians as extraneous, superfluous, and hopelessly behind the times. Knowledge about a particular area will be less treasured than expertise in the creation of machine-learning models that produce answers on that subject.

The Hidden Costs of Automated Thinking | The New Yorker

Taken in isolation, oracular answers can generate consistently helpful results. But these systems won’t stay in isolation: as A.I.s gather and ingest the world’s data, they’ll produce data of their own—much of which will be taken up by still other systems. Just as drugs with unknown mechanisms of action sometimes interact, so, too, will debt-laden algorithms.

The Hidden Costs of Automated Thinking | The New Yorker

Theory-free advances in pharmaceuticals show us that, in some cases, intellectual debt can be indispensable. Millions of lives have been saved on the basis of interventions that we fundamentally do not understand, and we are the better for it. Few would refuse to take a life-saving drug—or, for that matter, aspirin—simply because no one knows how it works. But the accrual of intellectual debt has downsides. As drugs with unknown mechanisms of action proliferate, the number of tests required to uncover untoward interactions must scale exponentially. (If the principles by which the drugs worked were understood, bad interactions could be predicted in advance.) In practice, therefore, interactions are discovered after new drugs are on the market, contributing to a cycle in which drugs are introduced, then abandoned, with class-action lawsuits in between. In each individual case, accruing the intellectual debt associated with a new drug may be a reasonable idea. But intellectual debts don’t exist in isolation. Answers without theory, found and deployed in different areas, can complicate one another in unpredictable ways.

from religion to science, faith to progress

Seduced by scientism, distracted by materialism, insulated, like no humans before us, from the vicissitudes of sickness and the ubiquity of early death, the post-Christian West believes instead in something we have called progress — a gradual ascent of mankind toward reason, peace, and prosperity — as a substitute in many ways for our previous monotheism. We have constructed a capitalist system that turns individual selfishness into a collective asset and showers us with earthly goods; we have leveraged science for our own health and comfort. Our ability to extend this material bonanza to more and more people is how we define progress; and progress is what we call meaning. In this respect, Steven Pinker is one of the most religious writers I’ve ever admired. His faith in reason is as complete as any fundamentalist’s belief in God.

Why Is Everyone Getting Shingles? – Member Feature Stories – Medium

From the late 1940s to the early 2000s, the prevalence of shingles among Americans younger than 50 more than quadrupled, Harpaz’s data shows. Some research suggests the incidence of shingles among younger adults may actually be gaining steam. At least anecdotally, shingles seems to be increasingly common among people in their twenties and thirties — a group that, historically, suffered from vanishingly low rates of the disease.

The Dark Side of the Enlightenment - WSJ

This astonishing arrogance is based on a powerful idea: that mathematics can produce universal truths by beginning with self-evident premises—or, as Rene Descartes had put it, “clear and distinct ideas”—and then proceeding by means of infallible deductions to what Kant called “apodictic certainty.” Since this method worked in mathematics, Descartes had insisted, it could be applied to all other disciplines. The idea was subsequently taken up and refined by Thomas Hobbes, Baruch Spinoza, John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau as well as Kant. This view of “reason”—and of its power, freed from the shackles of history, tradition and experience—is what Kant called “Enlightenment.” It is completely wrong. Human reason is incapable of reaching universally valid, unassailably correct answers to the problems of science, morality and politics by applying the methods of mathematics. The first warning of this was Descartes’s 1644 magnum opus, “The Principles of Philosophy,” which claimed to reach a final determination of the nature of the universe by moving from self-evident premises through infallible deductions. This voluminous work is so scandalously absurd that no unabridged English version is in print today. Yet Descartes’s masterpiece took Europe by storm and for decades was the main textbook of the Cartesian school of science. Kant followed this dubious example with his “Metaphysical Foundations of Natural Science” (1786), in which he claimed to have deduced Newton’s laws of motion using pure reason, without empirical evidence.

Yale neuroscientists have debunked the idea that anyone's personality is normal — Quartz

trying to define people one way from a psychiatric perspective is a failure of imagination and opportunity, which hobbles people rather than empowering them to inhabit their full selves. Classic psychiatry categorizes people in limiting, linear ways, while the world is inherently wide-ranging, according to the researchers. They propose instead that each individual be assessed and understood singularly from a psychiatric perspective, but according to a wide range of fluctuating behaviors and tendencies.

Recentering the universe

It was this hierarchy—so central to Western cosmology for so long that, even today, a ten-year-old could intuitively get much of it right—that was challenged by the most famous compendium of all: Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d’Alembert’s eighteen-thousand-page Encyclopédie. Published between 1751 and 1772, the Encyclopédie was sponsored by neither the Catholic Church nor the French monarchy and was covertly hostile to both. It was intended to secularize as well as to popularize knowledge, and it demonstrated those Enlightenment commitments most radically through its organizational scheme. Rather than being structured, as it were, God-down, with the whole world flowing forth from a divine creator, it was structured human-out, with the world divided according to the different ways in which the mind engages with it: “memory,” “reason,” and “imagination,” or what we might today call history, science and philosophy, and the arts. Like alphabetical order, which effectively democratizes topics by abolishing distinctions based on power and precedent in favor of subjecting them all to the same rule, this new structure had the effect of humbling even the most exalted subjects. In producing the Encyclopédie, Diderot did not look up to the heavens but out toward the future; his goal, he wrote, was “that our descendants, by becoming more learned, may become more virtuous and happier.”