A blog about problems in the field of psychology and attempts to fix them.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Embodied Cognition and the Direction of Inquiry in Psychology

One aspect of the embodied cognition argument regards the direction in which psychology should proceed. My impression (from sparse readings of works from Plato through the middle ages) is that once upon a time you could start psychology at any point, by wondering about any interesting phenomenon, and proceeding from there however you wanted.

Sometime around Descartes, I’m not sure if he started it or just popularized it, everyone decided that you had to start by figuring out so-called higher mental functions. The idea was that if you got a handle on how that stuff worked, you would automatically understanding how lower mental functions. In those days, hierarchies of being were all the rage, so the higher vs. lower metaphor worked. The modern “offline” vs. “online” distinction, taken from the cog-psych computer metaphor, is basically the same thing. This was not a bad hypothesis, but it really hasn’t worked out. It is not clear that all of our studies of thinking, reasoning, planning, imagining, etc., over the past centuries have told us much about how behavior works and, worse, it is also unclear how much it has told us about thinking, reasoning, planning, and imagining.

Monday, September 17, 2012

A Question Re: APS (Association for Psychological Science)

Dear Readers,
The Association for Psychological Science (APS) is holding its annual meeting in Washington DC this year, which makes it easy than usual for me to attend. I am generally not a fan of big conventions (c.f., prior comments on the APA convention). At smaller conferences you can meet new people, have lots of good unplanned conversations, and see lots of things you are interested in. In my general experience at big conferences, you can say "hi" to lots of people, but not really meet them; everything is too anonymous for unexpected good conversations; and there are tons of talks, but few are interesting. I am hoping for advice about whether or not I should give APS a try. In particular, I would like to know what types of positive experiences (if any) people have had there, and/or why you might think APS is worth prioritizing over other options.

Many thanks!

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Cheating... it just got much easier, and much harder

Fascinating things to think about in a just-released Chronicle article about cheating at Harvard: http://chronicle.com/article/Harvard-Cheating-Scandal/134160

Basically, it is suspected that a bunch of students violated policy by collaborating on a take home, open book, open notes, open internet exam. I'm not so much interested in the details of the case (it was a class in which students were encouraged to collaborate in groups across the semester, but then told to do the exam alone, but there is a grey are where you talk to people a little... but not too much... etc.). Instead, I want to think for a bit about the implications of the "open internet" clause in a "web 2.0" world. Here is the rub: Anything another student posts on the internet is now, by definition, openly available. This has profound implication for how we think about and evaluate cheating on out-of-class assignments, perhaps even undermining our standard criterion for cases when the internet is not allowed! It is almost as bad as the case in Roy Sorenson's insightful essay about what can happen when a professor gives "Permission to Cheat." Why does this such a mess, well:

Monday, September 3, 2012

A "natural design" proposal

Between my wife's major surgery, the start of classes, and a big grant proposal due tomorrow, this blog has been neglected. Rather than try to finish one of the half-written posts, I want to try posting a bit of the grant proposal. It is for the Templeton Foundation, which is a very large private philanthropy in the US. They have a decidedly conservative bent on some issues: They take religion and spirituality (broadly construed) quite seriously, and are concerned with character development, individual freedom, free enterprise, genius, and many other notions that can, at times, seem a bit antiquated. That said, they have these concerns due to an honest commitment to the intent of their founder, who was very concerned with such things. Personally, I like this focus, as it is rare to see such a large foundation that is unwilling to drift in the wind away from their donor's intent. Whatever your thoughts are on those issues, Templeton also has very ambitious programming on what they call the Big Questions, which they are confident we can make progress on through strategic scientifically rigorous investigations. Also very appealing is their encouragement of a "humble approach" in which people are reflective and honest about what they can accomplish, and open to other people's insights.

While I hope in the future to try to engage the Templeton Foundation in funding broad inquiries into embodiment and potentially unifying theories of psychology... at the moment I am proposing something much more modest: A book about design in nature. In addition to the book, I am asking for additional funding to create an accompanying course, related articles, and conference presentations. The book would be based on several of my writings over the past decade, and several writings of Nicholas Thompson over the past four decades. The central premiss is that we can talk about design in a manner that is neutral to how the design came to be, and that the ability to discuss design in that manner will help solve central problems in biological and psychological theory. The obvious implications for current debates about evolutionary theory are not the book's focus, though we do believe the book will aid in clarifying confusions in that debate.

Templeton's application process is somewhat infuriating for someone used to NSF and NIH applications, but only because Templeton want's different details and a different style of writing. In fact, from the point of view of the funding agency, Templeton's essays are much more insightful and useful than what most agencies ask for. I will probably write about this in more detail next week. In the meantime, I pasting below the essay about my "Theory of Change". In a prior part of the application there is a short essay in which we lay out the "Strategic Opportunity" and there is a ten page "Project Description". Following this essay will be a list of "Outcomes", specific "Outputs", and an idea of what the "Enduring Impact" of the project might be. The purpose of this essay, limited to 3,000 characters, including spaces, is to create an explicit bridge between the opportunity and the outputs.

------------ Theory of Change ----------

The strategic opportunity is created by three Big Question conversations about which people care deeply, each of which are currently convoluted by a lack of agreement about fundamental premises. In some cases this lack of agreement has created extreme polarization of positions, and led to the type of purely rhetorical argumentation that makes it difficult to restart earnest conversation. The most broadly public conversation regards the existence of design in nature, and how that design can be explained. The professional conversations regard the fundamental principles of evolutionary theory and the interface between biological and psychological science. While these conflicts cannot be solved by a single work, and they are unlikely to be solved in a single lifetime, we believe it is possible for well thought-out contributions to help overcome specific confusions, and thereby re-create the type of discourse needed for noticeable advancement.

This project aims to advance these conversations by creating a framework in which the design properties of organisms can be discussed in a neutral manner —independent of a particular explanation for the presence of that design. To put it quickly and crudely, to be “well-designed” is to display a matching of form to function. We will show that questions about the ways in which organisms are well-designed, and how they became so, are central to the fields of biology and psychology. This will entail showing that there is no sharp line between the types of design that biologists are interested in and the types of design that psychologists are interested in. Of particular interest will be the ways in which natural selection succeeds in explaining the presence of design, and several types of situations in which it fails to explain the presence of design. Evolutionary biologists are, as a group, well aware of these exceptions, but they have long been unwilling to openly discuss the implications.

The primary enduring impact of this research shall be created through a book; the other listed Outputs are, largely, in service of promoting the book and the ideas therein—associated articles and conference talks, a course and supporting materials. The Outcomes will be created by dissemination of the book to students, professionals, and the public, and by engaging readers at public talks, professional publications, and in-online forums. Despite speculation to the contrary, we still believe that monographs, carefully constructed, timely, and articulate, are capable of moving us closer to answering the big questions of our time. The growing challenge is producing a compelling argument for the work to be read, and we believe that we can make such an argument for this work. Through our professional networks, and our (limited but growing) public reach, we believe we can engage an audience already very interested in questions about design. From there, it is a matter making a compelling case for further dialog.