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SSS Course info

SSS will be held during the Spring 2021 semester. Details about course assignments and grading will be available at the beginning of the semester.

Course description:

The approaches to problem-solving developed by scientists have proven to be quite effective, and yet we as individuals, groups, and larger societies do not often seem to be able to take advantage even of rational approaches to problems–let alone the “hyper-rationality” offered by science. Watching the political process of our country–or even the discussions of a small committee–can therefore often feel quite disheartening. We should be able to do better!

The course begins with an overview of the methods and heuristics (and jargon) that a physicist usually picks up in the course of graduate school. We will use lots of small-group exercises and discussion problems to give a bit of an experiential sense of how these approaches and techniques work. The goal here will be to first convey the optimistic (arrogant) fiction that any problem can be solved rationally — a fiction that we use to focus our efforts for long enough to potentially succeed. Then we show the pessimistic (skeptical) side of the approach, where we recognize how easy it is to fool ourselves; and we (rationally) try out methods that science has developed over the years to catch ourselves seeing patterns in random noise, getting results that we expect, and generally biasing results inadvertently because we have fallen in love with a theory.

Rationality by itself does not solve any problems or answer any questions. Its efficaciousness depends on how we combine it with our drives, goals, and desires–and perhaps our less-linear-algorithm-based intuitions. This synthesis of the rational and arational occurs at the individual level of a person figuring out a problem or making a decision. It also is in play (at issue) when a larger social group or society debates, plans, …and votes. The second half of this course will discuss the many issues that arise when this synthesis occurs, looking at both successful models and dysfunctional examples of this activity. We will draw here on the relevant literature — and real-world examples–from philosophy, cognitive and social psychology, game theory, economics, political science, law, and negotiation and leadership studies (in fact, computer sciences and psychiatry turn out to be relevant too). We would like to again use small-group exercises, discussion problems and polls to give an experiential sense of the issues for this half of the course as well. In both halves of the course we will use real-world examples of debates and decisions.

A number of fundamental questions arise in this discussion: What can we learn about objectivity, an underlying goal of science? Sometimes it is argued that ultimately there are only various power groupings fighting over which view is to dominate, and that ‘objective’ is simply a compliment that the most powerful pay to their own views. In this sense, is science itself just another powerful religion, with its own priesthood? And, if not, can we pinpoint the difference, and perhaps use this recognition as a tool to help us determine how to find experts that we should trust, and to improve approaches to group decision making?