All posts by HelenaHandbasket

Survey Time!

103990447-img_7216-600x400Quiz Time!

Hi kids! It’s quiz time again. As you know, at this time of year I like to do a pop quiz to see if you’ve been paying attention to ol’ Doc King as he’s banged on in Psychology Research Methods Class throughout the year.

As you all know, this year the topic was “Surveys”. Surveys are a great way to gather data, often anonymously and in large amounts. Some people think that everyone always lies on them—but actually when we compare the information gained there with other methods (called “validating”) we get useful results: But only if we construct our surveys intelligently!

So, as in previous years we decided to test your knowledge by putting together a purposely (and, if I say so myself, laughably!) bad survey. And this year’s one was a treat because we had help from a celebrity. He asked not to be named, so let’s just call him “Professor Drumpf”…

Anyhow—this was his survey. As normal it was riddled with ridiculous errors. Your task was to list all the errors—the things that would make this survey utterly useless to anyone with even a passing respect for science, or the fair collection of data. And, I’m glad to say—you all did really well. As a reminder: Here’s the complete quiz.

Of course—as you all spotted, pretty much every single question was so badly constructed as to render the survey totally without value except as an item of comedy, or to test one’s questionnaire making skills. Well done students! However, some of the questions posed special issues and rather than deal with the question papers individually, I’ve put them together here.

Those Howlers

We led you in gently with the first three…even putting a “No opinion” on the questions to make the questions appear legit. Having got your guard down we then hit you with question 4!

4) On which issues does the mainstream media do the worst job of representing Republicans? (Select as many that apply.)



Pro-life values


Individual liberty


Foreign policy

Second Amendment rights

(The question asks for “the worst” and then allows you to tick multiple boxes. As most of you realized—this would confuse anyone remotely familiar with normal human logic.)

Bonus points if you spotted that question (4) also led the respondents to particular conclusions by mentioning only “Republicans” and no other parties.

6)  Which online sources do you use? (Select as many that apply.)

Drudge Report


National Review

Weekly Standard

Free Beacon

Daily Caller

American Spectator

Red Alert Politics


Question 6 was a doozy, wasn’t it? It caught a couple of you out…By only mentioning Far-Right news outlets and not allowing any write-ins for “other”, the survey maker would have stacked the deck in their favor (assuming they were a real survey maker and not a gag one like this one!)

7)  Do you trust the mainstream media to tell the truth about the Republican Party’s positions and actions?



No opinion

Question 7 was, as most of you spotted what we call in the trade a “complex question”: E.g. it asks for more than one thing at a time.

Someone might agree with the first part (“Tells the truth about Republican positions” while not the second “Tells the truth about Republican actions”). Indeed—given that the Republican party might itself say one thing and do another—this is a very possible position for a rational person to hold. This question would smear those things together. And you all spotted it—well done you!

8) Hillary Clinton still gets a free pass from the media as she continues to lie about sending classified information on her secret server.



No opinion

Question 8 (“Hilary Clinton gets a free pass”) was, as you all spotted—a leading question. Technically it’s “question-begging”—assuming the conclusion in the question, like asking “do you still grab pussies?”

9)  The mainstream media takes Donald Trump’s statements out of context, but bends over backwards to defend Hillary’s statements.



No opinion

Question 9 was both the errors of (7) and (8) rolled into one. It was a complex question and a leading question! Well done to those who potted the double-error.

11) The mainstream media needs to do more to expose the shady donations to the Clinton Foundation.



No opinion

Question 11 (“Shady donations”) was another leading question. We thought we could slip that by you by putting that word later in the sentence—but you all spotted it. It also manages to sneak in an undefined but vaguely perjorative term “mainstream media” without defining it.

25) More time is spent covering fake “scandals” involving Trump than real scandals involving Hillary and our national security.



No opinion

As you all spotted, this one contained begging the question, leading questions, complex questions and managed to push the “social desirability” element to the fullest. Who doesn’t want to care about “national security” after all…

And, last but not least…

Every piece of data collection should start off with an ethical declaration and a reminder that your data will be kept confidential. Especially important in this day and age where some officials will take your phone, demand your password, and download every text, FB post, and drunken sext to your ex (that you now regret) at the border of certain countries.

This survey asked for personal details at the end without saying these data were only to be collected to prevent repeated surveying of the same individual. Naughty naughty! And well-spotted, students.

Now, some of you thought you could get extra credit by speculating on the possible state of mind or political motives of someone who could construct such a survey. Might I remind you that terms like “narcissistic”, “delusional” or “possible psychedelic drug abuse” are only appropriate in the context of properly conducted clinical interviews? In a similar vein, speculations about “testing the ground for a dictatorship” or similar have no place in psychology.

We are scientists, not politicians. That said, we didn’t remove any marks for these speculations and found them most entertaining. I’m sure our guest professor will agree.

—Robert King

The Last Duel

tumblr_lngin6s4w21qa3ssoo1_500Do you want to hear the tale of the last sabre duel to be fought in Europe?

Of course you do. In a world where powerful people pretend that lying is honourable, or that to be a tough guy means running crying to your lawyer when insulted, who doesn’t want to remember “an elegant weapon for a more civilised age” as Obi Wan Kenobi put it in Star Wars?

Actually—the Star Wars connection is more than a coincidence, as I will get to in good time. And where is the psychology in this? Well, this all happened in living memory, and the mechanisms that underlie duelling are still present in modern humans—and other animals too.

But first, some back story. Sixty years ago this year, the Hungarians rose up against their communist invaders. The Hungarians—a people once described as folk who could follow you into a revolving door and come out first—have long been known to be the best sabreurs (sabre fencers) in the world. The sabre is a tricky weapon. Whip-fast and, in its duelling form, capable of slicing a human body into long strips of dangling bloodied flesh in seconds.

Hungarians have won half of all the gold medals at sabre in all the Olympics since 1896. But to the old style Hungarians, sporting sabre was just a side-line. In Hungary the sabre was still used to duel right up until 1956. Illegally, of course. And, of all the swordsmen in the army, the best sabreur was Akos Moldovanyi.

I came to know Akos when he was an émigré in London in the 1990s. He taught fencing to a huge range of abilities, from Olympians down to neophytes like me. He was possessed of an old world charm such as, without a trace of self-consciousness clicking his heels and kissing ladies on the hands when introduced. He was, to us youngsters, a vision into an older, more direct and honourable, world. Incidentally, lest it be thought that all this hand-kissing meant a general sexism, Akos had a number of lady students at a time when the teaching of sabre to women was deeply frowned upon by the ultra-conservative fencing fraternity of the time. He was the one who once told me admiringly of the lady duelist Julie de Maupin—but that is a story for another day.

Akos’ old-world charm had teeth too. At the time I was studying sabre, I was training in a lot of mixed martial arts, and had something of a reputation as a scrapper. The story went around that Akos had chased off four thugs who were menacing some young lady. After training that day Akos approached me and asked mildly what I would have done had the four decided to cut up rough. He was asking me for advice! This eighty-year old man, mark you, had without a second thought taken on four men a quarter his age and chased them off. Only later did it occur to him that things might have gone badly if they had been more determined, and sought advice from someone he thought of as more used to this sort of thing. I just looked at him open mouthed. You can’t take on odds of four determined thugs to one and come out on top—fantasy movies notwithstanding. But, Akos would not have cared about such trifles.

Akos was the only man I ever saw who could fence two of us at once. I promise that most of you have never even seen pictures of anyone capable of doing that for real.

We loved him. Every year his students would take him out for his birthday and every year he would have a few too many and tell us the story of the last sabre duel. Inevitably, drink and memory being what they are, minor details might vary from year to year. Anyway—this is one of the versions of the last sabre duel (and not too different from the others):

There were once two Hungarian army officers. The Hungarian army was a well-disciplined group, but men were expected to defend their own honour. To someone who has no concept of honour, the logic of it is quite simple. In a lawless region your only protection is your own reputation. Those who look askance at the fights between lawless gangs and drug dealers, but extol the ethics of the Three Musketeers, are being deeply inconsistent. Once you gain a reputation for being a soft touch in a rogue environment—as a man you are done for. Even if you survive physically, in reproductive terms—you may as well be dead. (1)

And you don’t need to be a historian or travel to exotic places or inner city dives to understand the importance of honour as a protection in lawless places. Anyone who has experienced the law of the schoolyard already has insights into how honour works on young men.

Anyway, one of these Hungarian army officers had insulted the other in ways too terrible for a simple apology. I will leave the details of the insult to later, so heinous are they. Suffice to say—only blood would satisfy the issue. Seconds were swiftly summoned. Would the principals shake hands and forget the deadly insult? They would not. The captain of the unit was summoned and consulted. Clearly a duel would have to take place. The honour of the principals and the regiment itself demanded it.

Now, duels were strictly illegal, so it was imperative that the police would have to be informed, so that they could cordon off the area of the duel and make sure that no-one was offended by such an illegal spectacle. The chief of police duly had the Town Hall surrounded by armed officers to keep the public at bay.

A duel must be conducted properly. Akos was the best sabreur in the army—he was summoned to preside it.

Shortly before he died in 2011, Akos presented me with his old book—in French of course—for the proper conduct of a duel. Somehow, he thought this would come in handy for me one day. But, until it does, I can check its contents against his description of events, and I can assure you that they tally. This is how a duel should be conducted, and how it was conducted:

Akos summoned the principals to the piste (the duelling strip). They were naked from the waist up—apart from some padding under the arm to protect the radial artery. Bleeding out too soon would be tough to explain to the authorities. But—bare chests make it easy to swiftly spot injuries. A doctor examined the blades and washed them in antiseptic. We don’t want anyone dying of a post duel infection—that would be embarrassing. The blades were offered to the fencers—with the insulted party having first choice. A duelling sabre is not a toy. Light, but razor sharp. Two pounds of pressure are all that are required to open up human flesh. Speed would matter far more than strength. Speed and courage.

The principals are brought to the centre line and asked if they would, at this late stage, shake hands and forget matters. Too dry mouthed to speak, they shake their heads. No one could countenance backing out at this stage—it would destroy one’s honour—but the question must be asked, for form’s sake.

Akos nods at them and indicates that they should take their places. Looking at a half-naked man holding a three foot razor blade, with the avowed intent of carving you up with it, focuses the mind wonderfully.

“Êtes-vous prêt?” He asks each in turn. Both nod. Almost imperceptibly. Their necks as tense as the rest of their bodies.

“En garde!” The sabres come up. Ready to both attack and defend. It’s tough to defend against sabre cuts–which can come in at any angle and with bewildering speed in the hands of an expert. Often the win goes to the fighter who lunges first and fastest.


The fight begins.

At this point, however, it becomes rapidly obvious to the on-lookers that neither party had the faintest idea how to handle a sword properly. Tentatively, they move forward and back. Looking like an amateur dramatic production where the actors think that tapping at each-others blades will pass for a fight, they nervously prod and shake. People start to get bored.

Perhaps now would be a good time to mention the details of the insult? These two army officers were quite fresh in the army. One was a potato buyer, the other a potato seller. The potato buyer had accused the potato seller of putting too much earth in his potato sacks. This was the insult that could not go unpunished. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it) the potato trade is not famed for its swordsmanship. This was very evident now.

More by luck than judgement, one fencer took a wild hack at his rival and, much to everyone’s surprise, managed to catch him a glancing shot on the wrist. Blood had been shed. Finally.

“Arrête!” Akos commanded.

The wound was examined. First blood. Was honour satisfied? The duelists nodded gratefully that it was. The duel was over.

That was the last sabre duel—but Akos’ influence goes well beyond that. He was an exceptional teacher who passed on not mere skills, but a way of approaching the world. All his students have strong memories of him and deeply mourned his passing—well into his 90s—on December 3rd 2011. (2)

By an odd coincidence one of his students—Bob Anderson, the legendary fight choreographer, died at about the same time. Anderson is famous for the fights in a number of movies like The Princess Bride and the original Star Wars. In fact, because David Prowse (the body of Darth Vader) never really got the hang of handling the sabre, for the fights in long shot Bob Anderson was under the cowl—he was Darth Vader. So, technically, that means that the person who taught us sabre was the person who taught Darth Vader sabre. Which was Obi Wan Kenobi.


Where’s the psychology in all this, you might ask? The logic of male-male competition has been set out most clearly in Maynard-Smith and Price’s 1973 paper on evolutionary game theory. (3) All across taxa, males engage in sub-lethal (but still credibly dangerous) forms of fighting to establish status because in males status equates to reproductive fitness. These forms of fighting often use specific modes (like antlers) specially grown for the purpose that are not used in other fighting (such as against predators).

Humans don’t grow antlers—they grow cultural practices instead. We often develop highly stylised fighting forms with specific overtones—such as fencing and the ones I explore in my 2013 paper on boxing. (4) Humans are more socially complex than deer butting antlers but the logic is much the same. Violence is often portrayed by social psychologists as necessarily anti-social or pathological but a little thought reveals how superficial such a description is. It may not be the best way of settling disputes, but it can be highly social. I would just point out that, historically, the rise of lawyers is in neat correlation to the fall of duelling as a way to settle disputes. I suppose I have to concede that this is more civilised. Grudgingly.


  • Daly, M., & Wilson, M. (1988). Homicide. Transaction Publishers.
  • Maynard-Smith, J.; Price, G. R. (1973). “The Logic of Animal Conflict”. Nature. 246 (5427): 15–18.
  • King, R. (2013). Fists of furry: at what point did human fists part company with the rest of the hominid lineage?. Journal of Experimental Biology, 216(12), 2361-2361.

Elfwick’s Law

A fortnight back, The Guardian newspaper (1) published a worrying article about the rise of fascism—in its new shiny manifestation, spurred on by various online forums. The sub-headline was worrying enough:


“It started with Sam Harris, moved on to Milo Yiannopoulos and almost led to full-scale Islamophobia. If it can happen to a lifelong liberal, it could happen to anyone”. (2)

It made for grim reading, talking about “cult-like” aspects and flirtations with the far right. The poor author, who had started out as a “normal white liberal”, had been almost brainwashed into the “alt-right” was enveloped in a web of “indoctrination”, but just drew themselves back from the brink because “[D]eep down, I knew I was ashamed of what I was doing…”

Some of us who have followed Sam Harris, and his much-maligned attempts to raise the level of public intellectual debate above the banal and asinine, smelled a rat at the first headline. But, for those unfamiliar with him or his work, there were some not so subtle signals. The brainwashed writer went on: “On one occasion I even, I am ashamed to admit, very diplomatically expressed negative sentiments on Islam to my wife. ‘[W]e should be able to discuss these things without shutting down the conversation by calling people racist, or bigots.’”

(Horrifying indeed!)

Oh dear. Anyone who had not seen the signs by this time had been led up a garden path, one decorated with crazy paving, and bordered by Mad Dog-Weed.

The Guardian had been spoofed.

“I’m not a ‘Grammar-Nazi’, I’m ‘Alt-Write’”…

The article had not come from some anonymous anxious young white man who had just managed to pull himself back from the brink of full-blown Nazi extremism after all. So, where had it come from?

There is a scurrilous (and sometimes hilarious) online troll who calls himself “Godfrey Elfwick” and styles himself on Twitter:

“Genderqueer Muslim atheist. Born white in the #WrongSkin. Itinerant jongleur. Xir, Xirs Xirself. Filters life through the lens of minority issues.”


His account parodies the self-abasing virtue signalling of elements of the far left, and is frequently painful reading for the liberally inclined.

“Elfwick” came forward and admitted that the piece was his. It certainly fits with his normal output, and in the time I’ve been aware of him, this is the first time he’s broken through the fourth wall and come out of character. Some were outraged at his fooling of The Guardian, but I think his example is a reminder of the important role that satire has to play in the modern marketplace of ideas.

The Day the Music Died.

The great satirical songster Tom Lehrer dramatically declared the death of satire on the occasion of awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Henry Kissinger. How was he, a mere satirist, to approach ridiculing by parody and extension the awarding of the world’s highest peace honor to a man who ordered the carpet bombing of civilians on Christ’s birthday? As the cliché has it: you couldn’t make it up.

This supposed death of satire was much exaggerated. There is always a role for pushing the boundaries of beliefs into absurdity, and one such is when the bearers of such beliefs seem not to have realized that the absurd is where they have taken up more or less permanent residence. And let’s be specific about what I mean by “absurd” here: It means to have abandoned one’s critical faculties to the extent that one is governed by wishful thinking. And one of the ways this is revealed is that the difference between real and fake no longer matters to you. Talk of post-truth worlds or fake news is hot air. We humans have always been suckers for hearing what we want to hear. Satire has always been one of the cures.

But it’s more than just fun at the expense of the hoaxed. A foundational ability in any discipline must be able to tell the real from the fake. Art experts who praised the “furious fastidiousness” of the brushstrokes of Pierre Brassau (actually Peter, a four-year-old chimp from Boras zoo) confirmed what many of us suspected about modern art expertise. (3) The knowledge that wine experts can be fooled by switching expensive and fake labels casts a lot of their expertise into doubt. (4) In the 1970s, Rosenhan’s classic “Being Sane in Insane Places” study threw the whole of the psychiatric community into disarray; by showing that mental health care professionals of the time couldn’t distinguish real patients from ones who were faking it. (5)

Why can’t the opposition just recognise that they are evil and stupid?

An oft-repeated finding in psychology is that expectation conditions perception. We are notoriously easy to hoax when you give us what they want to see. From the Cottingley Fairies, to the Roswell Alien Autopsy, through the Book of Mormon, to Uri Geller, the history of humanity is a history of people seeing daft things because they wanted to.

This is one reason I advise all my students to study a bit of magic. Not enough to turn pro, but just enough to see how hoaxable we all are. It’s like any self-defence course, although in this case it’s mental self-defence. It’s a humbling experience. Anyone can be blindsided and beaten in a fight. Likewise, any of us can be fooled if someone matches our expectations to their pitch.  Ideally, of course, a good scientist should have no expectations, but scientists are human too. Uri Geller for instance, managed to hoax a number of famous physicists but no magicians.

This is one place where satire comes in. In the 1990s Sokal gloriously hoaxed a post-modernist journal called Social Text. (6) He produced an article of high-sounding gibberish that the editors happily let through to publication as it appeared to speak to their idea that science was just one way of knowing among many. It was filled with supposed physics support for bizarre claims about “physical ‘reality’” [being] fundamentally “a social and linguistic construct” and with needs for a “postmodern science [that] provide[s] powerful intellectual support for the progressive political project”.


When he revealed the hoax, what did the editors do? Remove the article in embarrassment? Sore up their editorial policies? Laugh along? Not a bit of it—they somehow tried to maintain the fiction that this tosh was meaningful all along, losing any opportunity to develop their thinking, if thinking it ever was. After Rosenhan’s study, the field of Psychiatry made a concerted effort to tighten its procedures—resulting in new editions of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. Whether it was 100% successful is a different question, but there was an effort to reform in response. But Post Modernism as a field never took this option. Having effectively amputated itself from critical self-reflection, it is now largely moribund, although versions of it still exist to poison efforts at critical reflection in the academy.

Don’t like my opinions of post-modernism? Well, they are true for me…

Now, I’m not claiming that expertise rests on getting it right every time. Expertise does not imply that. But the desire to understand a phenomenon must involve the disciplined attendance to mistakes—so when one is fooled (by nature, colleagues, the maliciously mischievous, or oneself) then one goes back and studies how so it doesn’t happen again. To not do this is to forever live wishfully, rather than authentically attending.

So, what’s the next step? Here’s my suggestion: There are a number of famous Internet laws. Rule 34 is the famous law that somewhere there is a porn version of everything. (7) Godwin’s Law is the tendency over time from all Internet discussions to tend towards an accusation that the opponent is Hitler. An addendum to Godwin’s Law is that the opponent to first yield to the temptation to Hitlerise their opponent automatically loses. (8) Poe’s Law is the rule that any right wing fundamentalist internet site is indistinguishable from a satirical parody of right wing fundamentalist Internet sites. A few minutes on Alex Jones’ will confirm the truth of this. But why should the right wing have it all their own way when it comes to being mocked?

I think we need a new Internet Law to invoke that mirrors Poe’s Law. If a piece of far left virtue signalling cannot be reliably distinguished from a satirical version of it, then this deserves its own nomenclature.

Given his latest achievement I would like to propose the term “Elfwick’s Law” to mark such occasions. If nothing else this would serve as a reminder that descending into parody, and not caring about real or fake, is not the preserve of any political tribe, but is part of common humanity. That’s real equality for you.

—Robert King



1) For those not in the UK—The Guardian is a respectable left-leaning broadsheet newspaper.

4) Hodgson, R. T. (2008). An examination of judge reliability at a major US wine competition. Journal of Wine Economics, 3(02), 105-113.

5) Rosenhan, D. K. (1973). On Being Sane In Insane Places. Science, 179, 250-258

A good write-up is here

6) Sokal, A. D. (Ed.). (2000). The Sokal hoax: the sham that shook the academy. U of Nebraska Press.

7) My advice is to never, ever, check on the truth of this.

8) In the light of recent events the use of Godwin’s Law is under judicial review

9) For more details of the Heterodox Academy see:

((Of course it’s also possible that Godfrey Elfwick is playing some elaborate game of double bluff and I have been fooled along with others. Which would have a touching irony about it! But–let the record show that when respected newspaper (the Guardian) and respected journalist (Glenn Greenwald) were confronted with the hoax accusations their response was to double-down  and, in Greenwald’s case, to insist that truth was not the issue–the piece spoke to a “deeper truth”.

No it doesn’t. Not if it’s false it doesn’t. That’s what true and false mean.
“Elfwick” broke character for the only time I’ve known to share his workings on the hoax the day after and I reproduce them here. Could these also be faked? Well, of course they could but its worth asking –why would he pick this one to lie about? And even if he did–what is going on with a journalist telling the world that mundane sorts of truth (you know, those ones that are actually true) no longer matter? When Harris retweeted a story that turned out to be false he apologized publicly. This is how public debate should be conducted


(Shared via screenshot from Godrey Elfwicks Twitter account on 29/11/2016)


Too Hot for Psychology Today

article-2128724-128fa522000005dc-36_964x652How should we think about thinking? Is even trying to do this akin to trying to open a box with a crowbar locked inside it? A widely-shared Aeon article from earlier this year got very angry and confused on the whole issue, concluding that the whole of cognitive science was based on a very simple error—that error being that “humans are computers”. (1) Needless to say the author, Robert Epstein, was very stern and sarcastic at the foolishness of the assertion that we are little clockwork toys beeping around mindlessly, and he was at pains to set us all right. Unfortunately, in his eagerness to set the whole of science straight, Epstein showed his misunderstanding of science in general, cognitive science in particular, and the march of history into the bargain.

I’d like to deal with the history part first, because it’s something that lots of people don’t know but that I am lucky enough to benefit from directly. The usual story about the “humans as computers” metaphor goes like this: Humans have always compared thinking to their most impressive technology, hydraulics or clockwork say, computers are just the latest in a long line of this. Every other metaphor has failed, so will this one.

Epstein puts it this way: “In the earliest one, eventually preserved in the Bible, humans were formed from clay or dirt, which an intelligent god then infused with its spirit. That spirit ‘explained’ our intelligence – grammatically, at least. The invention of hydraulic engineering in the 3rd century BCE led to the popularity of a hydraulic model of human intelligence, the idea that the flow of different fluids in the body – the ‘humours’ – accounted for both our physical and mental functioning…By the 1500s, automata powered by springs and gears had been devised, eventually inspiring leading thinkers such as René Descartes to assert that humans are complex machines. In the 1600s, the British philosopher Thomas Hobbes suggested that thinking arose from small mechanical motions in the brain. By the 1700s, discoveries about electricity and chemistry led to new theories of human intelligence – again, largely metaphorical in nature. In the mid-1800s, inspired by recent advances in communications, the German physicist Hermann von Helmholtz compared the brain to a telegraph. Each metaphor reflected the most advanced thinking of the era that spawned it. Predictably, just a few years after the dawn of computer technology in the 1940s, the brain was said to operate like a computer, with the role of physical hardware played by the brain itself and our thoughts serving as software. The landmark event that launched what is now broadly called ‘cognitive science’ was the publication of Language and Communication (1951) by the psychologist George Miller.”

Sorry for the long quote—but actually Epstein gives a pretty good survey of the ways that humans have tried to use metaphors to explain human cognition. Good that is, but for one rather glaring omission. Which brings me back to the personal remark at the start. The person missing from this story is the person whose home I can see if I lean out of my office window dangerously far, whose name adorns the lecture halls I teach in and the library I study in. His work, and that of his equally erudite wife, is the major reason for the existence of the machine on which I write this and the reason you can read it. His name is George Boole, and the insights he had—in attempting to analyse all cognition—fully one hundred years before the invention of the physical computer, are the reason computers exist in the first place. (2)

There isn’t the space to go into detail here but it is Boolean algebra—a general way of analysing the grammar of all possible relations between ideas—that enabled the cognitive revolution and the information revolution. You don’t need to read Boole’s Laws of Thought to get why this is important (although, please do). The fact that you are reading this on a computer that relies for its existence on the accuracy of his analysis is the actual pudding whose juicy proof you are eating.

Thus, it is simply, factually inaccurate to claim that modern cognitive science is drawing on the most impressive current technology to explain thought. In term of historical progression, it was Boole’s attempts to fully analyse thought that led to the creation, long after his death, of the technology. It was what made the technology possible in the first place—by making giving cognition functional analysis. Functionalism is the thread that runs through all science. It’s the insight that essentialism is a blind alley and that what something is, is what it does. Functionalism about thought—that minds are what brains do—came a hundred years before the technology that was the triumphant vindication of that insight.

So much for history. But it segues neatly into the second point that Epstein fails to appreciate. Cognitive scientists (unless they are very confused) do not think that human minds are computers. Rather—they think that computers—the physical objects on your desk top say—are just one way to make functions real. Functions are mathematical operations—but we shouldn’t get too hung up on numbers and equations here. You can turn an equation into a physical object yourself and you did it in high school (you called it “making a graph”) and there are many ways to see that functions can be realised in different ways.

Machines in general are ways to make abstracted functions into physical things. And that’s what cognitive scientists study. Functions. E.g. “How do we turn electromagnetic inputs into perceptions?” or “How do our past experiences function to make us wary of similar present dangers?”. The author’s frustration that cognitive scientists keep on thinking this way is simply misplaced. Hilariously he offers what he thinks is an alternative to functional thinking in explaining catching a ball:

“The IP [Information Processing] perspective requires the player to formulate an estimate of various initial conditions of the ball’s flight – the force of the impact, the angle of the trajectory, that kind of thing – then to create and analyse an internal model of the path along which the ball will likely move, then to use that model to guide and adjust motor movements continuously in time in order to intercept the ball.

That is all well and good if we functioned as computers do, but McBeath and his colleagues gave a simpler account: to catch the ball, the player simply needs to keep moving in a way that keeps the ball in a constant visual relationship with respect to home plate and the surrounding scenery (technically, in a ‘linear optical trajectory’). This might sound complicated, but it is actually incredibly simple, and completely free of computations, representations and algorithms.”

Oh really? Ok. Build something that does it. I’ll lay a pound to a penny that it’s a lot more difficult than Epstein thinks. He has made the classic mistake (and especially egregious for a psychologist) in thinking that what seems simple to conscious access does not have a wealth of highly complex unconscious processing going on beneath the surface. The brilliant Hans Morovec gave his name to the general error of this kind: Morovec’s paradox. (3)

Morovec asked the question: Why is it that it takes the smartest humans to do things like fly planes, diagnose disease, and play chess; when we can make fairly stupid computers that beat all but the best of humans at this with ease? The other side of this coin is that things that we wrong thought would be computationally easy to programme—like walking up stairs, recognising faces, and so on turned out to be horribly difficult to get computers to do. Why was this? We were making the same mistake as the Epstein—forgetting that evolutionarily novel tasks (like chess) have their computational architecture laid bare. People who think a thing is easy simply haven’t given serious thought to the millions of years that went into making it so. That’s why they need smart people to do things like play chess, because there isn’t that much (in computational terms) to know (and the humans with the biggest brains know it better and faster). As the brilliant AI technician Rob Brooks pointed out, “Elephants don’t play chess”. Learning to be an elephant took millions of years prior to that particular elephant’s existence. (4)

Epstein gets more and more frustrated with the benighted community of cognitive scientists as he goes on. “To understand even the basics of how the brain maintains the human intellect, we might need to know not just the current state of all 86 billion neurons and their 100 trillion interconnections, not just the varying strengths with which they are connected, and not just the states of more than 1,000 proteins that exist at each connection point, but how the moment-to-moment activity of the brain contributes to the integrity of the system.”

Or—you could just listen to what that brain is saying? Through its attached mouth, for example? If someone was to object that what I’ve just said in response is a trick—that you don’t know every single thing that that particular brain is doing at any particular moment the appropriate response is: “So what?” I don’t know what every single one of the 1026 sub-atomic particles in my cup of coffee are doing on an individual basis either. But I know what they are doing on the aggregate as I pick up the cup. Because their collective action is called “heat”. And it’s the mean kinetic energy of the molecules in the liquid (e.g. the average amount of whizzing about they are doing—and good luck trying to map those on an individual basis). I don’t need to know everything in order to know anything.

We still have many problems to solve—but they are problems, not mysteries. And there is only one game in town to solve them: Functionalism. The alternative that Epstein offers—essentialism—has gone the way of astrology, alchemy, and homeopathy. And for the exact same reason. Essentialism comes from the pre-science time of humans. It’s magical thinking.

There is a saying that those who think that a task is impossible should not get in the way of those achieving it. The irony is that the opponents of cognitive science live in a world were aeroplanes fly themselves, machines govern investments, and artificial eyes can be spliced into the place of lost ones, directly into nervous systems. The functionalist account of the human brain isn’t something we are predicting. We are living in the midst of it. (5)

—Robert King

See also Searle, J. R. (1990). Is the brain’s mind a computer program. Scientific American, 262(1), 26-31.
Other accounts drawing on these metaphor include

Daugman, J. G. (2001). Brain metaphor and brain theory.

de La Mettrie, J. O. (1960). L’Homme Machine, 1748. Man a Machine.

2) Boole, G. (1854). An investigation of the laws of thought: on which are founded the mathematical theories of logic and probabilities. Dover Publications.
I work at UCC and in honor of Boole’s bicentenary his house is being restored.

3) Moravec, H. P. (2000). Robot: Mere machine to transcendent mind. Oxford University Press on Demand

4) Brooks, R. A. (1990). Elephants don’t play chess. Robotics and autonomous systems, 6(1), 3-15.

5) King, R. J. I Can’t Get (no) Boolean Satisfaction (2016). Frontiers in Psychology.