Leonard Mlodinow: Rules of thumb made to be broken

LMlodinow_250Physicist, television writer for such shows as MacGyver and Star Trek: The Next Generation, and author of The Drunkard's Walk, Leonard Mlodinow will be at IdeaFestival 2011 to talk about the role of chance and probability in our everyday lives. He recently took a few moments to answer three questions from the festival. Enjoy.

1) Humans are demonstrably bad at intuiting statistical likelihoods, but why? Can this inaptitude be studied, perhaps, by evolutionary biologists?

Our way of probabilistic thinking, though it can lead to errors, is really very useful and efficient. We are made to make quick decisions and so we use heuristics or rules of thumb in deciding. These are often biased by our prior experience, as they should be, for prior experience tells us a lot about the world. These methods however are not foolrpoof, and so, just as our eyesight is wonderful and efficient, but can lead to optical illusions, so too can our probablistic rules of thumb lead to “cognitive illusions.”

2) Can theoretical physicists use mathematics in the same way that English authors write for the human ear and experience? If so, do particularly elegant and compact expressions have more appeal? Why so?

Yes, human experience (but not the ear) has much to do with it. Many advances in physics are in a way advances in the expression of the concepts. For example, sometimes as we learn more about a theory its mathematical expression becomes more concise and elegant. And more compact elegant mathematical expressions are more powerful, easier to understand, interpret, and use. This happened with electromagnetism, for example. Also, with quantum electrodynamics, the theory of electrons and photons.

3) If the well asked question is half-answered, what is your favorite unanswered question? Why?

“What makes us human?” The fact that we ask that is the answer to the question itself.