Two Trondheim talks

Posted on January 7, 2008

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It turns out that I am to give two talks in Trondheim, the first to a broad audience, the second to a group of philosophers.

January 22nd – Superstition as science

Is the idea of a lucky number scientific? Obviously not. The more interesting question, however, is why not? After all, the early anthropologists Frazer and Tylor saw magic as a primitive attempt to understand the world and there are many who consider science to be modern mythmaking. Neither truth nor empirical adequacy are sufficient to distinguish between science and superstition. Nor, indeed, is the natural/supernatural distinction of use here. However, looking at superstitious explanations we find that sceptical arguments sometimes raised by philosophers of sciences such as van Fraassen are far more appropriate in this context. This leads us to consider the role of testability, how scientists pursue it, and how it can be applied to superstitions.

January 23rd – Bounded rationality, biases and superstitions

Given that superstitions are a prime example of how human reasoning sometimes fails it is surprising that they have not been extensively examined in terms of Kahneman and Tversky’s heuristics and biases or Herbert Simon’s bounded rationality. What would be the connection between them? As Wimsatt observes, heuristics, being systematically biased, leave a characteristic ‘foot-print’ of errors when used. If superstitions are caused by cognitive biases, it should be possible to reconstruct this foot-print and, using it, identify the offending heuristics. A possible example of this kind of work is Rozin and Nemeroff’s work on contagion. A fundamental problem for the approach is the important role played by the social transfer of superstitious beliefs.

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