Saturday, 21 May 2011

Cognitive Flexibility

One of the neat things about getting a doctorate at a school partly supported by the Military Industrial Complex is that sometimes you get visitors giving seminars about stuff (often having little to do with killing people) that give you an interesting perspective you might not have encountered elsewhere. Once upon a time a the US Navy was soon to commission a new aircraft carrier, and its Captain went around DARPA-supported universities to see if they were working on anything useful to him. (With us he found a mainframe-based hypertext information management system, about 15 years before the Web existed). He gave a talk that mentioned “levels of cognitive development” in which he summarized the first three as
  1. There is one right answer to every question, and Mommy knows it.
  2. There is one right answer to every question; if Mommy doesn't know it, someone else does.
  3. There is one right answer to every question, but maybe nobody knows it.
He then said an aircraft carrier is a small city with average age 19 and average cognitive level just above 2.


I suspect this is an amusing overview of William Perry's scheme for categorizing “epistemological premises of college students;” I find the good Captain's version a lot more enlightening. Sadly, on a bad day it's hard to avoid thinking that most Internet discussions involve a level less than 1.5 (substituting “I” or “my in-group” for “Mommy”), which suggests the average Able Seaman of the late 1970's may have been more open-minded than the average Internet denizen.

The reason this is relevant to (some) geeks is that for typical programming or engineering job you need to be able to design things that fit other people's requirements, which means you have to be able to make some attempt at seeing things from their point of view.  That means reaching at least level 4: “everything is a matter of opinion; you need to figure out the boss' (or the customer's).” If you aspire to anything above an entry-level job, you need 5: “nothing is right or wrong, but some answers might be better than others.”

At this point I could demonstrate my science geek credentials by adding a gazillion caveats and disclaimers, but that would be a tangent using up electrons better spent elsewhere. If this blog continues long enough, you'll find I'm around 3 on some issues and 9 on others (the latter being part of why I add so many parenthetical remarks). Insofar as I'm aiming at any particular audience, this blog is meant for people who like to look at things from multiple perspectives.