Rationality in Action: Look at a Problem as an Outsider
Julia Galef is a New York-based writer and public speaker specializing in science, rationality, and design. She serves on the board of directors of the New York City Skeptics, co-hosts their official podcast, Rationally Speaking, and co-writes the blog Rationally Speaking along with philosopher of science Massimo Pigliucci. She has moderated panel discussions at The Amazing Meeting and the Northeast Conference on Science and Skepticism, and gives frequent public lectures to organizations including the Center for Inquiry and the Secular Student Alliance. Julia received her B.A. in statistics from Columbia in 2005.
Julia Galef: In a nutshell, we take the most useful research from cognitive science about how the human brain reasons and makes decisions and the errors that the human brain tends to make when reasoning or making decisions and we turn that research into workshops that people can use to apply it to their own lives and improve their own decision making about their health, their finances, their relationships and the decisions that they make for society and the world in general about how to vote and how to treat other people and what they can do to improve the world.
One example of rationality in action, just to give you a sense of what it looks like and how it's relevant, back in 1985 Intel had a large foot in the memory chip manufacturing business and they’d been losing money on memory chips for years, so the two cofounders Andy Grove and Gordon Moore met to figure out what to do, and at one point Andy asked, "What do you think a new CEO would do if the board kicked us out and brought in a new CEO?" And without hesitating Gordon replied, 'Oh, he would get out of the memory business." And Andy said, "Well, so is there any reason we shouldn't do that, if we just walk out of the door and come back in and switch out of the memory business?"
And in fact that’s exactly what they decided to do, and it was a huge success. And this is just one example of a cognitive bias that appears in lots of contexts in lots of skills called the commitment effect, where we stick with a business plan or a career or a relationship long after it has become quite clear that it's not doing anything for us or that it's actively destructive or self-destructive because we have an irrational commitment to whatever we have been doing for a while because we don't like to idea of our past investment having gone to waste or because it’s become part of our identity.
And the technique that Andy and Gordon used to snap themselves out of the commitment effect is also a really generally useful technique called looking at a problem as if you were an outsider, an outside party. Over the past few decades cognitive scientists have learned a lot about this and many other biases that human brains are subject to when we try to make decisions, but fortunately, cognitive science has also learned a lot about things that we can do to improve. So at the Center for Applied Rationality we're taking that research, teaching people about the biases, where they occur, when we're vulnerable to biases and then teaching them simple and easy mental habits like looking at a problem as if you're an outsider to overcome those biases.
Rationality also is a significant public good, and that's one of the main motivations behind the founding of CFAR. Society would look very different if rationality, rational thinking and decision making were widespread. Just to name a few of many, many things that I could name, we as a society would demand evidence from politicians for the claims that they made, we would notice when politicians were misdirecting us by playing on our emotions, we would be less vulnerable to prejudice and to stereotypes because we would be weary of the confirmation bias, which is a very universal bias in which you look for examples that fit a stereotype, but you don't look for examples that don't fit the stereotypes, so you end up confirming and reinforcing a stereotype in your mind.
We would spend our money much more effectively as a society to stave off important risks. The fact that things like terrorism and crimes like abduction are so vividly portrayed on the news makes them much more salient and makes us overweight those risks the same way we overweight any kind of evidence that is particularly vivid or salient, even if it isn’t actually the best bang for our buck in terms of risk reduction.
Directed / Produced by
Jonathan Fowler & Elizabeth Rodd
Julia Galef provides a fix for the "the commitment effect," the condition of sticking with a business plan or a career or a relationship "long after it has become quite clear that it's not doing anything for us."
A plan to forgive almost a trillion dollars in debt would solve the student loan debt crisis, but can it work?
- Sen. Elizabeth Warren has just proposed a bold education reform plan that would forgive billions in student debt.
- The plan would forgive the debt held by more than 30 million Americans.
- The debt forgiveness program is one part of a larger program to make higher education more accessible.
Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.
- Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
- They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
- The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.
The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?
But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.
What's dead may never die, it seems
The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.
BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.
The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.
As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.
The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.
"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.
An ethical gray matter
Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.
The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.
Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.
Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?
"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."
One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.
The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.
"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.
It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.
Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?
The dilemma is unprecedented.
Setting new boundaries
Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."
She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.
In most states, LGBTQ Americans have no legal protections against discrimination in the workplace.
- The Supreme Court will decide whether the Civil Rights Act of 1964 also applies to gay and transgender people.
- The court, which currently has a probable conservative majority, will likely decide on the cases in 2020.
- Only 21 states and the District of Columbia have passed laws effectively extending the Civil Rights of 1964 to gay and transgender people.
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