Dual thinking and scientific progress

You go out to your favorite noodle shop. They’ve got four types of ramen, but you always order the shio. Should you stick with it or try a different one?

The ramen-lover’s quandary illustrates, on a personal (and whimsical) level, a trade-off that occurs across systems from biological to organizational and social: exploiting current tendencies, understandings, or viabilities comes at the expense of exploring novel variations, approaches, or possibilities.

In 1975, John Holland called this situation the “mutual interference of search and exploitation.”

In “Dual thinking for scientists,” a paper in the Ecology and Society special-feature-in-progress on “Reconciling Art and Science for Sustainability,” Marten Scheffer and ten coauthors discuss the exploration/exploitation-like duality in human cognition and consider its implications for scientific progress.

To readers of Daniel Kahneman, these two cognitive modes are familiar as system-I and system-II. The former diverges, associates, and intuits; the latter reasons and rationalizes.

“Here we will defend the perhaps provocative view,” Scheffer and coauthors write, “that the way science and its institutions are organized reflects [an] overestimation of system-II thinking in producing scientific progress.”

Provocative indeed. How then to engage this science-as-usual regime? — so as to engender a shift toward a science that more effectively stimulates and incorporates system-I thinking?

“Perhaps we should use some of the education techniques from arts to boost adventurous exploration and ‘learning at the edge of chaos,’” they conclude.

I couldn’t agree more.

(Written with an eye toward next week’s Transformations 2105 conference.)


  • John 28 Sep 2015, 2:12 pm

    This question of dualism has absolutely nothing to do with the reality of choice.

    Is it a taco or not?

    • Howard Silverman 28 Sep 2015, 7:57 pm

      Hey John, the lede about the ramen is indeed whimsical. Metaphorical, if you will. In fact, the reference link to Page is a h/t, as he describes a similar metaphor.

      Points of note are that (1) this exploration-exploitation pattern plays out in multiple system domains; and (2) on a personal level, one’s participation in, affiliation with, identification with, “exploitation of” a particular system (food system, energy system, etc.) is subject to reinforcement.

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