Why Great Artists, Leaders, and Scientists Open Their Minds to Uncertainty
Science and the arts both reward curiousness and uncertainty. They both attract great outside-the-box minds.
Beau Lotto is a professor of neuroscience, previously at University College London and now at the University of London, and a Visiting Scholar at New York University. His work focuses on the biological, computational and psychological mechanisms of perception. He has conducted and presented research on human and bumblebee perception and behavior for more than 25 years, and his interest in education, business and the arts has led him into entrepreneurship and engaging the public with science. In 2001, Beau founded the Lab of Misfits, a neuro-design studio that was resident for two years at London's Science Museum and most recently at Viacom in New York. The lab's experimental studio approach aims to deepen our understanding of human nature, advance personal and social well-being through research that places the public at the centre of the process of discovery, and create unique programmes of engagement that span the boundaries between people, disciplines and institutions. Originally from Seattle, with degrees from UC Berkeley and Edinburgh Medical School, he now lives in Oxford and New York.
Beau Lotto is a professor of neuroscience, previously at University College London and now at the University of London, and a Visiting Scholar at New York University.
His work focuses on the biological, computational and psychological mechanisms of perception. He has conducted and presented research on human and bumblebee perception and behavior for more than 25 years, and his interest in education, business and the arts has led him into entrepreneurship and engaging the public with science.
In 2001, Beau founded the Lab of Misfits, a neuro-design studio that was resident for two years at London's Science Museum and most recently at Viacom in New York. The lab's experimental studio approach aims to deepen our understanding of human nature, advance personal and social well-being through research that places the public at the centre of the process of discovery, and create unique programmes of engagement that span the boundaries between people, disciplines and institutions. Originally from Seattle, with degrees from UC Berkeley and Edinburgh Medical School, he now lives in Oxford and New York.
Beau Lotto: Yes, so I mean a really good question is how do you expand, how do you in the very least change your space of possibility? And one way of changing of course is to expand it. And especially if doing so requires you to step into uncertainty. Because if everything is really nice inside your little village during evolution what a stupid idea to see what’s on the other side of the hill because now you’ve just increased the possibility of dying because dying is actually really easy. So, in fact, we even have a safety bias that our assumptions will gear us towards safety. Because again, it’s easy to die. So are there tricks, are there ways, are there principles that enable people to step into uncertainty? And the answer is yes.
Because it’s such an important point. It’s such an important space to be that evolution also gave us a solution to that. So if you think what is the one activity where uncertainty is not simply tolerated it’s actually celebrated, it’s actually sought, it’s a way of being. And we have a name for that way of being which we call science.
So science is not defined by a methodology which is too often thought to be what science is. If you think, "What defines a good science test or good science?", it’s this way of being that celebrates uncertainty. It’s open to possibility. It’s inherently cooperative.
And it’s what we call intrinsically motivating. The reason for doing a discovery, the reward for a discovery is the discovery itself. Almost everything we do in the world we do one thing in order to get a reward that’s different from the thing that we did. You work to get money. But the inherent reward for science, for discovery, is the discovery itself. Now if you think – and what’s more science has an intention. Now if you think about those first three or four principles – celebrating uncertainty, open to possibility, inherently motivated, inherently cooperative – those are the exact same definitions of play. Which means that science isn’t like play. Science is play. But it’s play with intention. And if you add rules to play you have a game which is nothing other than an experiment. And what’s true for science it actually transcends science. Because anything that is creative is effectively play with intention.
So this concept of there being a distinction between art and science is completely arbitrary.
Because these are different methodologies for applying the same underlying principle way of being which is play with intention. And this isn’t – I should say - and this isn’t to say that science is playful and fun and all that, which I find to be a slightly trivial way of trying to get people into science. Because to play well is hard. Talk to an Olympic athlete, right. To get to a gold medal is a really hard thing to do. To play chess incredibly well is really hard.
So to do science, to be creative really well is hard. But nonetheless it’s a way of putting your brain into a space that where it’s open and celebrates uncertainty and possibility. Which is inherent in actually good leadership. Because what defines a good leader is how you lead others into uncertainty. Which means you have to create an ecology, an environment that enables people to celebrate the possibility, ask questions, search, discover.
You don't learn anything from being certain—you're far more likely to learn something by throwing yourself into something unknown and figuring it out. Science rewards uncertainty, and neurologist Beau Lotto says it is science where uncertainty is it’s actually celebrated. In saying that he might be overlooking more pedantic professions (i.e. detectives and chefs are two jobs where, one can imagine, you have to operate on figuring things out on the fly) but Beau's point is clear: science is an area where you are constantly putting your brain into a space that is open and celebrates uncertainty and possibility. To be great at this, he suggests it takes a talent not unlike that of the great artists and painters and writers and musicians of history. Beau Lotto's new book is Deviate: The Science of Seeing Differently.
A recent study gives new meaning to the saying "fake it 'til you make it."
- The study involves four experiments that measured individuals' socioeconomic status, overconfidence and actual performance.
- Results consistently showed that high-class people tend to overestimate their abilities.
- However, this overconfidence was misinterpreted as genuine competence in one study, suggesting overestimating your abilities can have social advantages.
Is this proof of a dramatic shift?
- Map details dramatic shift from CNN to Fox News over 10-year period
- Does it show the triumph of "fake news" — or, rather, its defeat?
- A closer look at the map's legend allows for more complex analyses
Dramatic and misleading
Image: Reddit / SICResearch
The situation today: CNN pushed back to the edges of the country.
Over the course of no more than a decade, America has radically switched favorites when it comes to cable news networks. As this sequence of maps showing TMAs (Television Market Areas) suggests, CNN is out, Fox News is in.
The maps are certainly dramatic, but also a bit misleading. They nevertheless provide some insight into the state of journalism and the public's attitudes toward the press in the US.
Let's zoom in:
- It's 2008, on the eve of the Obama Era. CNN (blue) dominates the cable news landscape across America. Fox News (red) is an upstart (°1996) with a few regional bastions in the South.
- By 2010, Fox News has broken out of its southern heartland, colonizing markets in the Midwest and the Northwest — and even northern Maine and southern Alaska.
- Two years later, Fox News has lost those two outliers, but has filled up in the middle: it now boasts two large, contiguous blocks in the southeast and northwest, almost touching.
- In 2014, Fox News seems past its prime. The northwestern block has shrunk, the southeastern one has fragmented.
- Energised by Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, Fox News is back with a vengeance. Not only have Maine and Alaska gone from entirely blue to entirely red, so has most of the rest of the U.S. Fox News has plugged the Nebraska Gap: it's no longer possible to walk from coast to coast across CNN territory.
- By 2018, the fortunes from a decade earlier have almost reversed. Fox News rules the roost. CNN clings on to the Pacific Coast, New Mexico, Minnesota and parts of the Northeast — plus a smattering of metropolitan areas in the South and Midwest.
Image source: Reddit / SICResearch
This sequence of maps, showing America turning from blue to red, elicited strong reactions on the Reddit forum where it was published last week. For some, the takeover by Fox News illustrates the demise of all that's good and fair about news journalism. Among the comments?
- "The end is near."
- "The idiocracy grows."
- "(It's) like a spreading disease."
- "One of the more frightening maps I've seen."
- "LOL that's what happens when you're fake news!"
- "CNN went down the toilet on quality."
- "A Minecraft YouTuber could beat CNN's numbers."
- "CNN has become more like a high-school production of a news show."
Not a few find fault with both channels, even if not always to the same degree:
- "That anybody considers either of those networks good news sources is troubling."
- "Both leave you understanding less rather than more."
- "This is what happens when you spout bullsh-- for two years straight. People find an alternative — even if it's just different bullsh--."
- "CNN is sh-- but it's nowhere close to the outright bullsh-- and baseless propaganda Fox News spews."
"Old people learning to Google"
Image: Google Trends
CNN vs. Fox News search terms (200!-2018)
But what do the maps actually show? Created by SICResearch, they do show a huge evolution, but not of both cable news networks' audience size (i.e. Nielsen ratings). The dramatic shift is one in Google search trends. In other words, it shows how often people type in "CNN" or "Fox News" when surfing the web. And that does not necessarily reflect the relative popularity of both networks. As some commenters suggest:
- "I can't remember the last time that I've searched for a news channel on Google. Is it really that difficult for people to type 'cnn.com'?"
- "More than anything else, these maps show smart phone proliferation (among older people) more than anything else."
- "This is a map of how old people and rural areas have learned to use Google in the last decade."
- "This is basically a map of people who don't understand how the internet works, and it's no surprise that it leans conservative."
A visual image as strong as this map sequence looks designed to elicit a vehement response — and its lack of context offers viewers little new information to challenge their preconceptions. Like the news itself, cartography pretends to be objective, but always has an agenda of its own, even if just by the selection of its topics.
The trick is not to despair of maps (or news) but to get a good sense of the parameters that are in play. And, as is often the case (with both maps and news), what's left out is at least as significant as what's actually shown.
One important point: while Fox News is the sole major purveyor of news and opinion with a conservative/right-wing slant, CNN has more competition in the center/left part of the spectrum, notably from MSNBC.
Another: the average age of cable news viewers — whether they watch CNN or Fox News — is in the mid-60s. As a result of a shift in generational habits, TV viewing is down across the board. Younger people are more comfortable with a "cafeteria" approach to their news menu, selecting alternative and online sources for their information.
It should also be noted, however, that Fox News, according to Harvard's Nieman Lab, dominates Facebook when it comes to engagement among news outlets.
CNN, Fox and MSNBC
Image: Google Trends
CNN vs. Fox (without the 'News'; may include searches for actual foxes). See MSNBC (in yellow) for comparison
For the record, here are the Nielsen ratings for average daily viewer total for the three main cable news networks, for 2018 (compared to 2017):
- Fox News: 1,425,000 (-5%)
- MSNBC: 994,000 (+12%)
- CNN: 706,000 (-9%)
And according to this recent overview, the top 50 of the most popular websites in the U.S. includes cnn.com in 28th place, and foxnews.com in... 27th place.The top 5, in descending order, consists of google.com, youtube.com, facebook.com, amazon.com and yahoo.com — the latter being the highest-placed website in the News and Media category.
If you thought your mother was pushy in her pursuit of grandchildren, wait until you learn about bonobo mothers.
- Mother bonobos have been observed to help their sons find and copulate with mates.
- The mothers accomplish this by leading sons to mates, interfering with other males trying to copulate with females, and helping sons rise in the social hierarchy of the group.
- Why do mother bonobos do this? The "grandmother hypothesis" might hold part of the answer.
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