What an Educated Person Should Know – Steven Pinker

[Via Farnam Street, one of  my favorite blogs]

Steven Pinker of Harvard University writes:

It seems to me that educated people should know something about the 13-billion-year prehistory of our species and the basic laws governing the physical and living world, including our bodies and brains. They should grasp the timeline of human history from the dawn of agriculture to the present. They should be exposed to the diversity of human cultures, and the major systems of belief and value with which they have made sense of their lives. They should know about the formative events in human history, including the blunders we can hope not to repeat. They should understand the principles behind democratic governance and the rule of law. They should know how to appreciate works of fiction and art as sources of aesthetic pleasure and as impetuses to reflect on the human condition.

On top of this knowledge, a liberal education should make certain habits of rationality second nature. Educated people should be able to express complex ideas in clear writing and speech. They should appreciate that objective knowledge is a precious commodity, and know how to distinguish vetted fact from superstition, rumor, and unexamined conventional wisdom. They should know how to reason logically and statistically, avoiding the fallacies and biases to which the untutored human mind is vulnerable. They should think causally rather than magically, and know what it takes to distinguish causation from correlation and coincidence. They should be acutely aware of human fallibility, most notably their own, and appreciate that people who disagree with them are not stupid or evil. Accordingly, they should appreciate the value of trying to change minds by persuasion rather than intimidation or demagoguery.

I believe (and believe I can persuade you) that the more deeply a society cultivates this knowledge and mindset, the more it will flourish.

Pretty much sums it up. If every person was educated this way, I have no doubt that the world will be an immeasurably better place.

Imagine if politicians around the world just did these two things!

They should appreciate that objective knowledge is a precious commodity, and know how to distinguish vetted fact from superstition, rumor, and unexamined conventional wisdom.

… they should appreciate the value of trying to change minds by persuasion rather than intimidation or demagoguery.

When I grade my own education against Pinker’s list, I can see some big holes, particularly in areas like history, culture, law and the arts. Definitely need to fix them. And it has never been easier, thanks to MOOCs.


The Taste Of This Meal Is Affected By The Room We Sit In

From The Laws of Simplicity by John Maeda.

I once met a designer friend in a quiet Paris flat with white walls, white surfaces, and white furniture. A lunch of aesthetically prepared sushi was served. Red tuna, pink salmon, white squid, silvery mackerel, and a sliver of green leaf boldly engaged my visual senses as I took the entire scene into my mind. I reached to my chopsticks to begin, when my friend said, “The taste of this meal is affected by the room we sit in.”

True. With everything around me in pure white including the plate upon which the sushi was served, the thin slabs of raw fish atop the fist-sized mass of white rice appeared to float in space. I could imagine the taste to be very different in an environment that was appointed with different dishes, table, overall decorum and even different people.

The quality of our interaction with what’s in the foreground may be heavily affected by what’s in the background.

I can relate to this and can think of many examples from my daily life. When I am eating, if the tablecloth under my plate is wrinkled, it does tend to irritate me, in an under-the-radar, nagging sort of way. When I am working with my laptop, if there’s clutter around it on my desk, same thing. I also think that if my work isn’t going well, the frustration from that combines with the “background irritation” to make it feel worse.

Apart from being aware that this happens, what else can we do?

If given an empty space or an empty room, technologists would invent something to fill the expanse; similarly, businesspeople would not want to pass up a potential lost opportunity.

On the other hand, a designer would choose to do their best to preserve the emptiness because of their perspective that nothing is an important something. The opportunity lost by increasing the amount of blank space is gained back with enhanced attention to what remains.

… When there is less, we appreciate everything much more.

Maeda asks us to surround something with nothing. Make the background (whatever it is) clean, simple, uncluttered, with plenty of “white space” so that there’s nothing to distract us and the contrast between it and the object of our attention is high.

Interesting advice. I will give it a try.

The User is Never Wrong – Larry Page’s Insight

I have always been curious about the “origin stories” of startups and founders. If you had asked me to guess the deep interests that fueled Larry Page to co-found Google, I’d have guessed algorithms, AI, data mining and the like.

Perhaps they were. But I’d have missed the big one.

From The Innovators by Walter Isaacson.

The college course that made the greatest impression on him was one on human-computer interaction, taught by Judith Olson. The goal was to understand how to design interfaces that were easy and intuitive.

Page did his research paper on the display of the Eudora mail client, estimating and then testing how long it would take to perform various tasks. He discovered, for example, that command keys actually slowed people down by 0.9 second compared to using a mouse.

“I feel like I developed an intuition for how people interact with a screen, and I realized those things were pretty important,” he said. “But they’re not well understood, even to this day.”

At one point, they compared Google to Alta Vista (arguably the top search engine at that time) by searching for university and Alta Vista returned a list of random pages that happened to use that word in the title.

“I remember asking them [Alta Vista], ‘Why are you giving people garbage?'” Page said. The answer he got was that the poor results were his fault, that he should refine his search query.

“I had learned from my human-computer interaction course that blaming the user is not a good strategy, so I knew they fundamentally weren’t doing the right thing. That insight, the user is never wrong, led to this idea that we could produce a search engine that was better.”

I find it striking that Larry Page would consider “the user is never wrong” an insight.

I’d consider “the user is never wrong” a good (if somewhat obvious) principle to follow, but not an insight. Yet, by viewing it as an insight (if not a fundamental truth) and building his product so that it is consistent with this truth, Larry has built one of the greatest companies of all time.

Obviously, a great many things happened to make Google successful, but I find it inspiring to consider that this simple philosophy, brilliantly and relentlessly practiced, played a critical role.

I wonder how many cliches and platitudes out there are really insights in disguise, waiting to be put into practice?

Three Supernovae Every Night!

From A Universe from Nothing by Lawrence Krauss.

Go out some night into the woods or desert where you can see stars and hold up your hand to the sky, making a tiny circle between your thumb and forefinger about the size of a dime. Hold it up to a dark patch of the sky where there are no visible stars.

In that dark patch, with a large enough telescope like the type we have in service today, you could discern perhaps 100,000 galaxies, each containing billions of stars. Since supernovae explode once per hundred years per galaxy, with 100,000 galaxies in view, you should expect to see, on average, about three stars explode on a given night.

Wow. How’s that for a quick, Fermi-style back-of-the-envelope calculation? 🙂