Simanaitis Says

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TWO ARTICLES IN The New York Times, March 5, 2017, have different topics, but they generate a synergy. “What Biracial People Know,” by Moises Velasquez-Manoff, describes research suggesting that diversity generates open-minded creativity. “Why We Believe Obvious Untruths,” by Philip Fernbach and Steven Sloman, suggests that like-minded people can fall for the same falsehoods.

Neither article acknowledges any linkage with the other. But taken together, they offer me a resonance of diversity and truth.

Moises Velasques-Manoff is “the son of a Jewish dad of Eastern European descent and a Puerto Rican mom.” He notes that such a background “makes it harder to fall back on the tribal identities that have guided so much of human history, and that are now resurgent.”

“Your background pushes you to construct a worldview that transcends the tribal,” he says. And, “… much of the strength and creativity of America, and modernity in general, stems from diversity.”

As an example, Velasquez-Manoff cites research in linguistics: Dr. Kristin Pauker, a psychologist at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, has identified that infants who hear only Japanese don’t distinguish the L sound from the R sound because this language makes no such distinction. By contrast, infants who hear both Japanese and English distinguish the difference; in a sense, their worldview is greater.

Illustration by Linnie Z, from The New York Times, March 5, 2017.

“Another path to intellectual rigor,” Velasquez-Manoff says, “is to gather a diverse group of people together and have them attack problems, which is arguably exactly what the American experiment is.”

Among his conclusions: “If human groups represent a series of brains networked together, the more dissimilar these brains are in terms of life experience, the better the ‘hive-mind’ may be at thinking around any given problem.”

“Why We Believe Obvious Untruths,” the second article, is written by two in academia. Philip Fernbach is a cognitive scientist at the University of Colorado’s Leeds School of Business. Steven Sloman teaches cognitive, linguistic and psychological sciences at Brown University.

They begin by observing that “… collective delusion is not new, nor is it the sole province of the political right. Plenty of liberals believe, counter to scientific consensus, that G.M.O.s [genetically modified organisms] are poisonous, and that vaccines cause autism.”

How do our beliefs of one sort allow us to be duped in other ways?

“They reflect a misunderstanding of knowledge that focuses too narrowly on what goes on between our ears. Here’s a humbler truth: On their own, individuals are not well equipped to separate fact from fiction, and they never will be. Ignorance is our natural state; it is a product of the way the mind works.”

“What really sets human beings apart is not our individual mental capacity. The secret to our success is our ability to jointly pursue complex goals by dividing cognitive labor. Hunting, trade, agriculture, manufacturing—all of our world-altering innovations—were made possible by this ability.”

“Chimpanzees can surpass young children on numerical and spatial reasoning tasks,” Fernbach and Sloman note, “but they cannot come close on tasks that require collaborating with another individual to achieve a goal. Each of us knows a little bit, but together we can achieve remarkable feats.”

“Knowledge,” they say, “isn’t in my head or your head. It’s shared.”

Yet therein lies a challenge: “This is especially true of divisive political issues. Your mind cannot master and retain sufficiently detailed knowledge about many of them. You must rely on your community.”

However, if this community is a narrow one, so will be your knowledge. Again, diversity comes to mind and the Fernbach/Sloman article’s illustration of the tree of knowledge with diverse branches seems compelling to me.

Illustration by Marion Fayolle, from The New York Times, March 5, 2017.

Fernbach and Sloman conclude, “That individual ignorance is our natural state is a bitter pill to swallow. But if we take this medicine, it can be empowering. It can help us differentiate the questions that merit real investigation from those that invite reactive and superficial analysis. It can also prompt us to demand expertise and nuanced analysis from our leaders, which is the only tried and true way to make effective policy.” ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2017

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