Cognition based solutions to global problems

Publisher’s proposal for two book series

Email Alpert@skil.org © 2000 J. M. Alpert


Before seat belts, drivers made their children sit close to them. That way, when they stepped on the brakes, they could hold them back and prevent them from flying into the dashboard. The behavior prevented a lot of chipped teeth and bloody noses. However, the "hold back" behavior was not perfect. If the car crashed in spite of heavy braking, the "hold back" behavior increased the child’s injuries! During the 50 years before seatbelts, hundreds of thousands of deaths, and millions of severe injuries, could have been avoided if drivers just kept their arms down.

From where did this imperfect behavior come? No one learned the "hold back" behavior from a driver training manual. No one learned it from applying physics. (If they did, rocket scientists would have chosen a different behavior from fruit pickers and they didn’t.) Instead everyone learned the same behavior from experiencing things sliding forward during abrupt stops. After a couple of spilled grocery bags, arms almost unconsciously pulled back on whatever is on the seat before braking. We, today are still learning the "hold back" behavior from these experiences. We are still putting out our arms during heavy braking. The increase in injuries is avoided only because our kids are wearing seatbelts. If they were not, our normal learning processes would still be adding to the highway death toll.

If you want to understand the physics that explains why holding back children increases their injuries, read the endnote. If you want to visualize that learning process and its implications for human wellbeing, read the first book in the series. I describe how normal learning results in behavior that causes scarcity, social conflict, and environmental destruction, just as surely and unintentionally as holding back the unrestrained increases their injuries. I show how normal learning fails to accurately predict future conditions, weakens values for predicted conditions, and diminishes ability to connect predicted conditions to behaviors that cause them.

In the second book I describe how some of these learning processes are acquired after birth. Each of us learned them from interactions with the environment. Part of this environment was produced by our culture. Therefore, part of six billion sets of imperfect behavior is the unintended by product of cultural activity.

In the second book I describe how these behaviors might be improved by changing what culture contributes, not to knowledge, but to cognitive development. Finding and implementing these changes might develop a new generation whose thinking and learning takes them to an environmentally balanced, abundant, and peaceful future.

The learning processes on which I focus contain a common thread "time." Our perception of time shapes both our predictions and the values we assign them. When a person fails to use available "temporal information" I call these distortions in prediction and value, "temporal blindness." When an entire society is time blind, and we try to fix social problems by changing the temporal cognitive abilities of all individuals in the next generation, I call the activity "cognition based solutions to global problems."

In the first book I describe the "time blind problem" for the general reader. I show that our weak abilities to gather, process, and value information, distort our expectations. These distortions cause people to smoke, skid off roads, not wear seat belts, and contribute to global problems. The book's conclusion:

Unless the next generation thinks better than we do they will continue to create conditions of scarcity, violence, and environmental destruction for future generations. Each reader should finish this book convinced that if we raise the level of temporal cognition in most members of a future generation, they, through collective action, will create the futures that have eluded us.

The text is not designed to upgrade the reader’s temporal thinking abilities. The text is designed to get each reader to acknowledge: 1) their own thinking limitations; 2) the implications of these limitations in terms of their behavior’s impact on future conditions; and 3) the utility of creating new "thinking development environments" that prevent these limitations from being a part of a future generation’s cognitive tools.

In the second book I outline a solution to the time blind problem for the science reader. I connect "behavior selection" to "thought processes," "thought processes" to "learning environments," and learning environments to cultural activity.

Predictions of and values for outcomes of behavior result from a caulron of competing nurture and nature. This implies that when "nurtured cognitive abilities" produce predictions or values that are too weak to compete with those produced by our animal nature, or our culture’s transmissions different behavior results than if they were stronger.

I show, using graphs of information flow, how existing learning environments weaken temporal cognitive abilities. Cultural activities unintentionally are inducing temporal blindness. With the graphs I show how alternative learning environments may prevent it. The conclusion:

We use experience, transmission, and inference thought processes to shape our behavior. Each process can be enhanced or diminished by developmental environments. The graphs show how we learn and use temporal inference. Use them as a basis to develop cognition based solutions to global problems.

Other publishing questions

Who will read these books? ––

Time Blind — Global problems in terms of human thought processes — will be read by a diverse general audience, who already knows the world has scarcity, conflict and environmental destruction. Each is already choosing behaviors to promote peace, redistribute resources, conserve, and recycle. These readers will want to know that these behaviors create harm as well as good. They will want to know that these behaviors are like putting out an arm to reduce the injuries of children. Each will want to know when his or her thinking process conspires to keep harm caused by a behavior hidden and diminished in value.

Time Blind — The development of temporal thought will be read by people who study "learning." These include scholars in the fields of cognitive science, psychology, education, organizational behavior, and artificial intelligence.

As the time blind argument gains momentum, the books will be read by public policy makers and social activists. The first book will explain why their farsighted suggestions are seldom adopted and those that are, are often soon reversed. The second book will provide new starting points to meet their old objectives.

What other books have been published on this subject? ––

The Time Blind books present an integration of topics previously presented as independent issues.

In the 60’s and 70’s books on the size and intractability of the problem between human beings and their environment include Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, Paul Ehrlich’s, Population bomb, and Donella Meadows’ Limits to growth.

The books of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky presented in the 70’s and 80’s described how people use a twisted logic to choose daily behavior. They describe situations where most normal people come to the same false conclusion. Amos and I talked about a book on "why people think this way." He died 6 years ago. This book is my way of honoring him.

In the early 1980’s I attended seminars with both Robert Ornstein and Paul Ehrlich. In these seminars, I discussed materials from my MS dissertation 1975, and an almost completed Ph.D. dissertation 1982. My theme was: "limitations in human thought are a key to creating the behaviors that shape the human predicament with the environment." These discussions influenced their thinking — seven years later they published their 1989 book, New World, New Mind (Doubleday).

More recently John Glover's Humanity (Yale University Press, 2000) describes a century of inhumanity. For him inhumanity stems from failures of the intellect to create empathy. His readership will be interested in the Time blind series for it shows how empathy for the "individuals who live in the future" is beyond existing cognitive capacity.

Just out is E.O. Wilson’s, "The Future of Life" (Alfred Knoph, 2002) which uses a temporal format to present the human condition and describes our survival as a species being dependent on our capacity to behave in a way that reflects its dynamics.

While these books describe how humans cause environmental problems and that humans have twisted thinking processes, they do not show twisted thinking processes cause environmental problems. None describe the twisted thinking processes clearly enough to show how each works, or how each was developed. The Time blind books add these connections and structure to this dialog.

What is the length of these books? ––

The two books are 57, 000 are 90,000 words respectively.

What elements will the manuscript include? ––

The first book has 25 simple line drawings. The second has 75 line drawings. The latter are mostly signal flow graphs.

Has your manuscript been read by anyone who would be competent to review it? ––

During the last twenty years, many scholars have read parts of this book. They include Seymour Papert of MIT, Marshall Haith of Denver University, Rachel Clifton of the University of Mass. Amherst, Susan Carey of NYU, Andy DiSessa of University of California Berkeley, Jim Adams, John McCarthy, Terry Winograd, Jim March, Brain C. Smith, Bill Clancey, and Robert C. North, all from Stanford. Mark N. Cohen SUNY Plattsburg, Ben Zuckerman, UCLA, Alan Collins, Northwestern University and BBN, Oran Young, Dartmouth, David C. Wilkens, University of Illinois, Alan Lesgold, University of Pittsburgh, Michael Garet, AIR, Joel Hirschhorn, National Governor’s Association DC, and Jay Harris, Mother Jones. The deceased can not help evaluate these books. However Amos Tversky, Jonas Salk, Albert Sabin, George Pak, and Bill Linnvile all supported this effort for many years and the text reflects their views.


Book -1 — Global problems in terms of human thought processes

What is temporal blindness?

What are its global implications?


Book -2 — Development of temporal thought

What processes cause and prevent temporal blindness


("Physics of injury" note)

During a 30-MPH crash both the car and the child must abruptly stop moving. The stop is like landing on the pavement after jumping off a 3rd story balcony. If any of the parents had a choice between landing on a thick cushion or a thin one, they would all pick the thick one. However, the "pull back behavior" is like picking the thin one. "Not holding back" is like picking the thick one.

In such a crash, the car’s front-end crushes 12-inches. This crush acts like a 12-inch cushion for the dashboard and everything that slows down with it. If the child is against the dashboard at the instant of crash, he or she slows down in 12 inches. The dashboard applies a 500-pound force to the child’s body. It seems large. However it causes no severe injury. Seat belts prevent injury because they act like the dashboard. They apply the 500-pound force for the 12-inch stopping distance.

No parent however, can create 500 pounds of restrain with one arm outstretched to the right. The child’s body overpowers the arm and continues moving forward at 30 MPH. Unfortunately, by the time the child moves from the seat to the dash, the dash has already moved 12 inches and has already slowed to zero MPH. When the child collides with it, he or she slows to zero MPH in the 1 inch or so the dash deforms. What could have been a 12-inch cushion is now little more than a one-inch cushion. The forces on the child are ten times higher and so are the injuries.

---> This analysis is confirmed by crash data of unbelted car occupants. Sleeping passengers, drunks, and un-restrained children, that slid forward during braking, and were "on-the-dashboard" at the time of collision, walk away from accidents only slightly injured. Passengers that hold themselves, or are held like children, away from the dashboard during braking, and then collide with it during collision, get seriously injured or killed.