Thought experiments at TED

Perhaps it was the title of the track: Mindshift. But three of the speakers in the first session at TED all threw out a thought experiment at the gathered crowd. A meme, I say, a veritable meme!

Nobel Prize-winning behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman, kicked off the event proper. He challenged us to imagine that after our next vacation, all our photographs would be destroyed. Then we’d take a drug that would mean that we wouldn’t remember anything about our holiday. Would we, asked Kahneman, still choose to go on the same vacation? His question was intended to illuminate the difference between the “experiencing self”, which lives in the present, and the “remembering self”, which keeps track of memories. These two very different concepts cause very different responses—and are important considerations for those looking to study happiness, a deeply complex concept. It was a lyrical presentation and a thought-provoking way to start the day.

The next thought experiment came courtesy of French economist and poverty specialist, Esther Duflo. “You have a few million dollars,” she said. “Maybe you’re a politician in a developing country and you want to spend it on the poor. How do you spend it?” Duflo used this set-up to add nuance to the discussion around aid and global poverty, throwing out some stark statistics as she did so. For instance, she said, nine million children under the age of five die every year. “That’s the devastation of Haiti’s earthquake every eight days. And entirely preventable.” In Duflo’s eyes, individuals are so hampered by the scope and weight and sadness of the thought of global poverty that they end up not doing anything at all. “There’s no silver bullet, and it’s very frustrating,” she acknowledged. But, she added, even small measures can have a large impact. “So much of the discussion around poverty generates emotion and rhetoric that is more ideological than practical,” she said. “Just do an experiment.” An economist in tune with the “always-in-beta”, “launch-early; launch-often” mantra of our times.

Final thought experiment for the morning came from Michael Shermer, founding publisher of Skeptic magazine. Imagine you’re a hominid on the plains of America, he said, when you hear a rustle in the grass. Is it a dangerous predator, or is it the wind? Your decision, he said drily, is important. Get it wrong by believing that it’s wind when it’s actually a predator and you’re history. “You won a Darwin award. You’ve been taken out of gene pool.” Shermer’s point, in an entertaining presentation, was to show that human beings look for patterns, and have a tendency to infuse patterns with meaning. Given the title of the magazine Shermer oversees, I imagined he was preaching to us all to stop being taken in by everything. Not the case. “If you’re too skeptical you miss the really good ideas,” he said. If you’re not skeptical enough, you’ll see patterns everywhere, and that way madness lies (here he used mathematician John Nash as an example of someone who had found too many patterns). “But just right and you don’t fall for too much baloney.” There’s a lesson there for everyone: question everything, but don’t be a cynic.

All images courtesy of TED/James Duncan Davidson

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