Does Reading Cognitive Bias Research Distort The Mind? by Sam McNerney

Over break I read The Invention of Science: A New History of the Scientific Revolution by the British historian David Wootton. Wootton writes that modern science was invented between 1572 (when the Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe saw a nova) and 1704 (when Isaac Newtorn published Opticks). A big part of the revolution was technological. The telescope, barometer, and printing press allowed people to study the world with more precision and share their findings with scholarly communities, such as The Royal Society. But, more importantly, the scientific revolution involved a new set of conceptual tools.

Take the concept of discovery, for instance. Until around the 16th century, most scholars believed that humanity’s greatest achievements were in the past—Aristotle, the preeminent source for all intellectual inquiry, still towered over European thought like a colossus, despite his deeply flawed ideas about the nature of the universe. When Columbus sailed to America in 1492, he did not use the word “discover” to describe what he had done because he was not familiar with the concept. After Amerigo Vespucci used the new word in 1504, it quickly spread into other European languages. Soon, intellectuals of the era began to not only investigate the world in new ways. They began to treat the world as something to be investigated.

I liked Wootton’s book because it helped me understand something I’ve noticed ever since the Nobel-Prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman published Thinking, Fast and Slow in 2011. Kahneman’s book is about biases that distort judgment, how to identify them and what we can do to avoid them. In the traditional view, emotion is the enemy and people are thought to be generally rational, their thinking sound. Nearly four decades of decision-making research reveal a new perspective. Systematic biases not only undermine the idea that people are rational but they are largely invisible to us. We are “blind to our blindness,” Kahneman says.

 

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The Invention of Science, a survey into how we made discoveries about the world and how those discoveries replaced the conceptual tools we used to perceive the world, is a lesson in intellectual humility. It’s a story about the persistent belief that we see the world as it is, on the one hand, and our willingness to test that belief, on the other. The purpose of this essay is to test the belief that you can use your mind to understand your mind, and I’d proceed cautiously if that test elicited a sense of enlightenment. We should expect nothing less from an organ that evolved to do just that.

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A companion to such acclaimed works as The Age of Wonder, A Clockwork Universe, and Darwin’s Ghosts—a groundbreaking examination of the greatest event in history, the Scientific Revolution, and how it came to change the way we understand ourselves and our world.

We live in a world transformed by scientific discovery. Yet today, science and its practitioners have come under political attack. In this fascinating history spanning continents and centuries, historian David Wootton offers a lively defense of science, revealing why the Scientific Revolution was truly the greatest event in our history.

The Invention of Science goes back five hundred years in time to chronicle this crucial transformation, exploring the factors that led to its birth and the people who made it happen. Wootton argues that the Scientific Revolution was actually five separate yet concurrent events that developed independently, but came to intersect and create a new worldview. Here are the brilliant iconoclasts—Galileo, Copernicus, Brahe, Newton, and many more curious minds from across Europe—whose studies of the natural world challenged centuries of religious orthodoxy and ingrained superstition.

From gunpowder technology, the discovery of the new world, movable type printing, perspective painting, and the telescope to the practice of conducting experiments, the laws of nature, and the concept of the fact, Wotton shows how these discoveries codified into a social construct and a system of knowledge. Ultimately, he makes clear the link between scientific discovery and the rise of industrialization—and the birth of the modern world we know.

Invention Of Science

The Invention of Science: A New History of the Scientific Revolution by David Wootton