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Knowledge, Certainty, and Destiny: How to Keep Up With Science & Technology

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  • (0:45) - Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance  
  • (5:10) - Meet the Huxleys: Evolution’s Grand Champions 
  • (10:15) - The Chaos Theory of Learning & Unstoppable Creativity
  • (16:10) - Books for Minds Wide Open: Bill Nye and Richard Feynman  
  • (23:45) - The Death of Doubt: Why We Pretend To Know It All 
  • (28:00) - The Wrong Ways To Use Science 
  • (31:50) - The Future Of Education
  • (37:30) - Episode

Did you read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig? I recommend it to every thinking person. When Pirsig died in April of 2017, Paul Vitello wrote a good piece on him for the New York Times. I thought this part summed up why it's an enduring book worthy of reading and discussion...

Todd Gitlin, a sociologist and the author of books about the counterculture, said that “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” in seeking to reconcile humanism with technological progress, had been perfectly timed for a generation weary of the ’60s revolt against a soulless high-tech world dominated by a corporate and military-industrial order.

“There is such a thing as a zeitgeist, and I believe the book was popular because there were a lot of people who wanted a reconciliation — even if they didn’t know what they were looking for,” Mr. Gitlin said in 2013 in an interview for this obituary. “Pirsig provided a kind of soft landing from the euphoric stratosphere of the late ’60s into the real world of adult life.”

The book was definitely a sort of reconciliation for me. But I had to read it twice since my Generation X experience was different. I got to see how technology was becoming even more soulless in 1990 when I was 25. More on that coming up.

What is a Chautauqua?

Another intelligent thing that Pirsig gave us in his "Inquiry Into Values" (the subtitle of the book) was the practice of the "Chautauqua."

Chautauqua (pronounced sha-TAW-kwa) is an Iroquois word with a few meanings: “a bag tied in the middle” or “two moccasins tied together,” and describes the shape of Chautauqua Lake, located in southwest New York. This area was the setting for the first assembly of something that came to be known as the Chautauqua movement, an adult education gathering that was highly popular in late-19th and early-20th century rural America.

Here's how Pirsig described it...

“What is in mind is a sort of Chautauqua...that's the only name I can think of for the traveling tent-show Chautauquas that used to move across America, this America, the one that we are now in, an old-time series of popular talks intended to edify and entertain, improve the mind and bring culture and enlightenment to the ears and thoughts of the hearer. The Chautauquas were pushed aside by faster-paced radio, movies and TV, and it seems to me the change was not entirely an improvement. Perhaps because of these changes the stream of national consciousness moves faster now, and is broader, but it seems to run less deep. The old channels cannot contain it and in its search for new ones there seems to be growing havoc and destruction along its banks. In this Chautauqua I would like not to cut any new channels of consciousness but simply dig deeper into old ones that have become silted in with the debris of thoughts grown stale and platitudes too often repeated.

"What's new?" is an interesting and broadening eternal question, but one which, if pursued exclusively, results only in an endless parade of trivia and fashion, the silt of tomorrow. I would like, instead, to be concerned with the question "What is best?," a question which cuts deeply rather than broadly, a question whose answers tend to move the silt downstream. There are eras of human history in which the channels of thought have been too deeply cut and no change was possible, and nothing new ever happened, and "best" was a matter of dogma, but that is not the situation now. Now the stream of our common consciousness seems to be obliterating its own banks, losing its central direction and purpose, flooding the lowlands, disconnecting and isolating the highlands and to no particular purpose other than the wasteful fulfillment of its own internal momentum. Some channel deepening seems called for.”

Given this introduction, let me begin my Chautauqua. Now the way I do them is to connect ideas by connecting books. I will likely talk about at least 6 books and articles. And if I do this right, you will see their connections, and several important themes, in the cerebral web I hope to weave.

I will also make a note whenever we come across a topic I have explored on a previous podcast. The article version of this podcast will have a link to the Mind Over Money podcast archive, as well as links to individual episodes.

Meet the Huxleys: Darwin's Grand Champions of Evolution

The first book I will introduce you to was written over 60 years ago by a grandson of "Darwin's Bulldog," Thomas Henry Huxley.

Sir Julian Huxley, who was born in 1887 and left us in 1975, was a British evolutionary biologist and a vigorous proponent of natural selection, just like his granddad. He was considered a leading figure in the mid-twentieth century modern synthesis.

The modern synthesis was the early 20th-century synthesis reconciling Charles Darwin's theory of evolution and Gregor Mendel's ideas on heredity in a joint mathematical framework. Huxley coined the term in his 1942 book, Evolution: The Modern Synthesis.

Julian was not only the older brother of Aldous Huxley, he was the first Director of UNESCO, a founding member of the World Wildlife Fund and the first President of the British Humanist Association. There is also some controversy surrounding his views on eugenics, which I am not familiar with.

For my podcast on the work of Aldous and his amazing prescience with Brave New World, check out my January 9th episode titled Apple (AAPL - Free Report)  iPhones Give Me the Feelies.

Regardless of how history judges Julian for his possibly extreme beliefs, I just want to share the impact his book had on me when I first read it in 1989. I had just finished my first book on evolution, Ever Since Darwin, by the late, great Stephen J. Gould, professor of biology, geology, paleontology and the history of science at Harvard.

And I felt lucky to have found Huxley's Knowledge, Morality, and Destiny in a used book store in Chicago. It had been reissued in 1960 with this new title after the first edition, New Bottles for New Wine, may have not quite attracted the thinking person's interest.

Within just the first few pages of Huxley's book I had an epiphany, actually 2 of them, that transcended any other religious, philosophical or cosmological ideas I had about the universe, human life and our destiny.

At 25 years old, my double epiphany was this: Through human evolution, the universe had become conscious of itself. And now, evolution could become conscious and intentional.

Now that may not sound so dramatic today. But at the time, my world of knowledge was just beginning to explode with new ideas about science.

My Chaos Theory of Learning

Fast forward another 25 years and we are now discussing such radical ideas of conscious evolution with Elon Musk of Tesla (TSLA - Free Report) and Yuval Noah Harari, who wrote the 2017 book Homo Deus, about a future where some humans with biological and technological enhancements will rule over the commoners who cannot afford such luxuries.

I covered this general topic in my May 2017 episode What to Do Before the Machines Take Over.

And I discuss the specific potential of CRISPR gene editing, in such an unpredictable future, in a week of back-to-back episodes in November 2017:

Don't Fight the Gravity of Exponential Change

Bitcoin or CRISPR: Which is the Bigger Disruptor?

For more recent video presentations on CRISPR and companies like CRISPR Therapeutics (CRSP - Free Report) , see these videos from June 18 and 20...

CRISPR Science and Stocks: Knowing Enough to Invest

Why I Bought More CRSP Under $55

Okay, back into our time machine, we return to the early 1990s when I was reading 10 books at once from every field trying to figure out a bunch of burning questions I had about the birth of the universe, the evolution of life, the probability of God, the spiritual calling of ecology, and the role of philosophy and religion in a world run on economic and technological priorities.

It was a very confusing time for me. I left college and then accelerated my self-driven quest. I became something of a radical, left-wing tree-hugger, thinking we should all go back to living in small farming communities to preserve the planet and raise kids in a better, more family-centered world. Yep, I was a modern-day Luddite.

But then I had my next important epiphany. Because as confused as I was in my mid-20s, the one thing I didn't do was give up trying to figure it out. I spent entire days in my local library several days a month, from 9am to 9pm, just searching for books and answers.

And my epiphany was this: It was not only pointless and ridiculous to fight against technological progress, it was anti-human to do so. Because the one thing we were destined to do for certain was to tinker, to create, to innovate. Technology was what it meant to be human and we were going to keep right on exploring, inventing, and creating as long as we existed.

Since human creativity was unstoppable, technology was therefore unstoppable. We would always be creating new problems with every new solution, forever and ever as long as we could persist as a species and a global civilization.

This philosophical and practical mind shift also shifted my politics back to the right in terms of economic liberty and self-determination. If a man or woman was free to create and build a company with ideas and hard work, then he or she should have as few restrictions as possible in creating that enterprise, making discoveries, and inventing a new world.

I'm glad I woke up to these truths before the great bull market of the 1990s which was built on such freedom and ingenuity. Indeed, our greatest entrepreneurs from Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos to today's heroes Elon Musk and Jensen Huang of NVIDIA (NVDA - Free Report) have shown us that their ideas have more economic power and creative destruction in them than any government policy or restriction.

Since it was piles of books on unrelated topics that got me through my jungle of confusion, I came up with a name for my style of learning. I called it my “Chaos Theory of Learning, Creativity, and Growth.”

It has served me ever since in learning new things. I used to keep a list of the half-dozen most important books that "woke me up" out of my misguided Luddite stupor. In a moment, I will try to recall more than the three I can think of right now.

Bill Nye, the World's Science Guy

Let's flash forward again to 2018 and the newest book by Bill Nye the Science Guy. It's titled Everything All at Once. As you can imagine, it spoke to me at once.

His subtitle is "How to Unleash Your Inner Nerd, Tap Into Radical Curiosity, and Solve Any Problem."

I think the book would be great reading for all middle school and high school teachers.

In the podcast, I read a few paragraphs of the book's opening passage.

Okay, how about the books that opened my mind a little wider in 1992?

One book was titled The Green Machines by Nigel Calder. It was about genetic engineering in agriculture and other biotechnology-friendly industries that could solve our global food and pollution problems.

I also read The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. Must-reading for every American.

Furthering my understanding of the American founding, I loved the history and philosophy lessons from George Will in The Pursuit of Virtue and Other Tory Notions.

Back to science, Infinite in All Directions by Freeman Dyson was another mind-blowing look at our future and potential destiny in the stars.

Certainty and Ignorance: A High Correlation?

While we know that Facebook (FB - Free Report)  didn't invent "fake news," the company will be forever associated with the scourge of online moshpits where people exchange "information" and questionable articles.

But as I discuss on the podcast, this isn't a new problem. It's the same old human behavior -- just with new technology that amplifies its impacts.

One of my favorite quotes attributed to Mark Twain is this gem from a time when "fake news" could have come from your church just as easily as your newspaper, townhall, or local watering hole...

"It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so."

In a similar vein, Bertrand Russell described what he saw around him a century ago that sounds like an observation one could easily make today...

“One of the painful things about our time is that those who feel certainty are stupid, and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt and indecision.”

And last week, Sean Illing writing for Vox updated an article he had written in March based on interviews with Brown University brain expert Steven Sloman...

Why we pretend to know things, explained by a cognitive scientist

Here's how Illing opens his piece...

Why do people pretend to know things? Why does confidence so often scale with ignorance? Steven Sloman, a professor of cognitive science at Brown University, has some compelling answers to these questions.

“We're biased to preserve our sense of rightness,” he told me, “and we have to be.”

The author of The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone, Sloman’s research focuses on judgment, decision-making, and reasoning. He’s especially interested in what’s called “the illusion of explanatory depth.” This is how cognitive scientists refer to our tendency to overestimate our understanding of how the world works.

This is all classic research territory for my favorite behavioral economics scientists like Daniel Kahneman, Richard Thaler, and Dan Ariely.

To "know" that our values and beliefs -- and thus, our world -- make sense, our minds work overtime consciously and unconsciously to connect coherence and meaning to our experiences and actions. It's a matter of survival both socially and psychologically to have some degree of congruence.

And as we discuss here on the podcast frequently, people love a good story and they will make up just about any kind of story to explain their beliefs and actions in a way that makes them feel more comfortable.

Sloman believes that part of the reason we do this is because of our "reliance on other minds."

“The decisions we make, the attitudes we form, the judgments we make, depend very much on what other people are thinking,” he told Illing.

In the podcast, I share another scientific mind you should know and treasure as much as Bill Nye. And Richard Feynman will get the last word on all things involving knowledge, certainty, and the practice of doubt that science lives and thrives because of...

“I have approximate answers and possible beliefs and different degrees of certainty about different things, but I'm not absolutely sure of anything”

I also introduce a new book about the late, great Professor Feynman titled The Quantum Labyrinth: How Richard Feynman and John Wheeler Revolutionized Time and Reality written by physics professor and science translator Paul Halpern.

And I tell you why you must follow @ProfFeynman on Twitter. While you're there, follow this guy too @KevinBCook.

Classroom Wars: Google vs Microsoft

Finally, I end the podcast with a few thoughts on the tech monsters who are trying to be friends to school children. Of course, I'm talking about Alphabet (GOOGL - Free Report) with Google Classroom.

But I'm also talking about Microsoft (MSFT - Free Report) who just made a key acquisition to compete with Google's big beachhead in education. On Monday, Mr. Softee bought Flipgrid, a video discussion platform used by more than 20 million teachers and students around the world.

Microsoft said it would make Flipgrid free for educators and would offer refunds to everyone who has purchased a subscription from Flipgrid in the last year.

CEO Satya Nadella said the pairing seeks to "democratize" technology to empower educators and students.

"Building communities around learning is more important than ever," Nadella said. "Technology is merely a tool to enable their creativity and ingenuity."

"Flipgrid will continue to work great on Chromebooks, iPads, iPhones, PCs, and Android devices," a company spokesperson said. "And just as we always have, we will continue to improve Flipgrid for ALL educators."

I always talk fondly about my 6th-grade daughter's positive experience with Google Classroom and her Chromebook. She is becoming tech-savvy in ways I could never teach her (since she basically teaches me new stuff every week).

Now that Microsoft is trying to compete again with Google in this realm, things can only get better for young learners.

And that's all that Bill Nye and Richard Feynman, and me, really care about.

Kevin Cook is a Senior Stock Strategist for Zacks Investment Research where he runs the Healthcare Innovators service. Click Follow Author above to receive his latest stock research and macro analysis.

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