What is your favorite strategy for solving a problem? Say as much as you can about the strategy's parts, steps and/or dynamics. (DYM I.30)

By John Allen

One of my favorite organizations, Edge.org, publishes a new book each year that addresses a single question. Over 150 contributors responded to Edge's 2011 annual question:  

What scientific concept would improve
everybody's cognitive toolkit?  

The wide range of Edge.org contributors expands what we normally think of as a "scientific concept" by defining it as an effective tool for understanding the world that can come from any discipline that engages in analysis.  

Check out these three great cognitive tools from the book: 
1.  The Mediocrity Principle: P. Z. Myers Biologist, University of Minnesota; blogger, Pharyngula.
The mediocrity principle simply states that you aren’t special. The universe does not revolve around you; this planet isn’t privileged in any unique way; your country is not the perfect product of divine destiny; your existence isn’t the product of directed, intentional fate; and that tuna sandwich you had for lunch was not plotting to give you indigestion. Most of what happens in the world is just a consequence of natural, universal laws— laws that apply everywhere and to everything, with no special exemptions or amplifications for your benefit— given variety by the input of chance. Everything that you as a human being consider cosmically important is an accident. The rules of inheritance and the nature of biology meant that when your parents had a baby, it was anatomically human and mostly fully functional physiologically, but the unique combination of traits that make you male or female, tall or short, brown-eyed or blue-eyed, were the result of a chance shuffle of genetic attributes during meiosis, a few random mutations, and the luck of the draw in the grand sperm race at fertilization (6-7).
What the mediocrity principle tells us is that our state is not the product of intent, that the universe lacks both malice and benevolence, but that everything does follow rules— and that grasping those rules should be the goal of science (8). 

2. Failure Liberates Success: Kevin Kelly Editor-at-large, Wired magazine; author, What Technology Wants. 
What this tool suggests is that you should aim for success while being prepared to learn from a series of failures. More so, you should carefully but deliberately press your successful investigations or accomplishments to the point where they break, flop, stall, crash, or fail (79). 
Wrapped up in the idea of embracing failure is the related notion of breaking things to make them better— particularly complex things. Often the only way to improve a complex system is to probe its limits by forcing it to fail in various ways (80). 

3.  Wicked Problems: Jay Rosen Professor of journalism, New York University; author, What Are Journalists For? 
Wicked problems have these features: It is hard to say what the problem is, to define it clearly, or to tell where it stops and starts. There is no “right” way to view the problem, no definitive formulation. The way it’s framed will change what the solution appears to be. Someone can always say that the problem is just a symptom of another problem, and that someone will not be wrong. There are many stakeholders, all with their own frames, which they tend to see as exclusively correct. Ask what the problem is and you will get a different answer from each. The problem is interconnected to a lot of other problems; pulling them apart is almost impossible.  
It gets worse. Every wicked problem is unique, so in a sense there is no prior art, and solving one won’t help you with the others. No one has “the right to be wrong”; meaning has enough legitimacy and stakeholder support to try stuff that will almost certainly fail at first. Instead, failure is savaged, and the trier is deemed unsuitable for another try. The problem keeps changing on us. It is never definitely resolved. We just run out of patience, or time, or money. It’s not possible to understand the problem first, then solve it; rather, attempts to solve it reveal further dimensions of the problem. (Which is the secret of success for people who are “good” at wicked problems.)  
Know any problems like that? Sure you do. Probably the best example in our time is climate change (203-204).   
Wicked problems demand people who are creative, pragmatic, flexible, and collaborative. They never invest too much in their ideas, because they know they will have to alter them. They know there’s no right place to start, so they simply start somewhere and see what happens. They accept the fact that they’re more likely to understand the problem after it’s solved than before. They don’t expect to get a good solution; they keep working until they’ve found something that’s good enough. They’re never convinced they know enough to solve the problem, so they’re constantly testing their ideas on different stakeholders (205).

You might also be interested in Daniel Dennett's new book, Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking. 

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