Category Archives: life philosophy

Shaping the mind during COVID-19

Books on a window sillIf you looked closely at our holiday bookshelf in my post on August 12th 2020, you might have spotted ‘The Living Mountain‘ by Nan Shepherd [1893-1981] which a review in the Guardian newspaper described as ‘The finest book ever written on nature and landscape in Britain’.  It is an account of the author’s journeys in the Cairngorm mountains of Scotland.  Although it is  short, only 108 pages, I have to admit that it did not resonate with me and I did not finish it.  However, I did enjoy the Introduction by Robert MacFarlane and the Afterword by Jeanette Winterson, which together make up about a third of the book. MacFarlane draws parallels between Shepherd’s writing and one of her contemporaries, the French philosopher,  Maurice Merleau-Ponty [1908-1961] who was a leading proponent of existentialism and phenomenology.  Existentialists believe that the nature of our existence is based on our experiences, not just what we think but what we do and feel; while phenomenology is about the connections between experience and consciousness.  Echoing Shepherd and in the spirit of Merleau-Ponty, MacFarlane wrote in 2011 in his introduction that ‘we have come increasingly to forget that our minds are shaped by the bodily experience of being in the world’.  It made me think that as the COVID-19 pandemic pushes most university teaching on-line we need to remember that sitting at a computer screen day after day in the same room will shape the mind rather differently to the diverse experiences of the university education of previous generations.  I find it hard to imagine how we can develop the minds of the next generation of engineers and scientists without providing them with real, as opposed to virtual, experiences in the field, design studio, workshop and laboratory.


Nan Shepherd, The Living Mountain, Edinburgh: Canongate Books Ltd, 2014 (first published in 1977 by Aberdeen University Press)


Forecasts and chimpanzees throwing darts

During the coronavirus pandemic, politicians have taken to telling us that their decisions are based on the advice of their experts while the news media have bombarded us with predictions from experts.  Perhaps not unexpectedly, with the benefit of hindsight, many of these decisions and predictions appear to be have been ill-advised or inaccurate which is likely to lead to a loss of trust in both politicians and experts.  However, this is unsurprising and the reliability of experts, particularly those willing to make public pronouncements, is well-known to be dubious.  Professor Philip E. Tetlock of the University of Pennsylvania has assessed the accuracy of forecasts made by purported experts over two decades and found that they were little better than a chimpanzee throwing darts.  However, the more well-known experts seemed to be worse at forecasting [Tetlock & Gardner, 2016].  In other words, we should assign less credibility to those experts whose advice is more frequently sought by politicians or quoted in the media.  Tetlock’s research has found that the best forecasters are better at inductive reasoning, pattern detection, cognitive flexibility and open-mindedness [Mellers et al, 2015]. People with these attributes will tend not to express unambiguous opinions but instead will attempt to balance all factors in reaching a view that embraces many uncertainties.  Politicians and the media believe that we want to hear a simple message unadorned by the complications of describing reality; and, hence they avoid the best forecasters and prefer those that provide the clear but usually inaccurate message.  Perhaps that’s why engineers are rarely interviewed by the media or quoted in the press because they tend to be good at inductive reasoning, pattern detection, cognitive flexibility and are open-minded [see ‘Einstein and public engagement‘ on August 8th, 2018].  Of course, this was well-known to the Chinese philosopher, Lao Tzu who is reported to have said: ‘Those who have knowledge, don’t predict. Those who predict, don’t have knowledge.’


Mellers, B., Stone, E., Atanasov, P., Rohrbaugh, N., Metz, S.E., Ungar, L., Bishop, M.M., Horowitz, M., Merkle, E. and Tetlock, P., 2015. The psychology of intelligence analysis: Drivers of prediction accuracy in world politics. Journal of experimental psychology: applied, 21(1):1-14.

Tetlock, P.E. and Gardner, D., 2016. Superforecasting: The art and science of prediction. London: Penguin Random House.

Success is to have made people wriggle to another tune

Shortly before the pandemic started to have an impact in the UK, I went to our local second-hand bookshop and bought a pile of old paperbacks to read.  One of them was ‘Daisy Miller and Other Stories’ by Henry James (published in 1983 as Penguin Modern Classic).  The title of this post is a quote from one of the ‘other stories’, ‘The Lesson of the Master’, which was first published in 1888.  ‘Success is to have made people wriggle to another tune’ is said by the successful fictional novelist, Henry St George as words of encouragement to the young novelist Paul Ovett.  It struck a chord with me because I think it sums up academic life. Success in teaching is to inspire a new level of insight and way of thinking amongst our students; while, success in research is to change the way in which society, or at least a section of it, thinks or operates, i.e. to have made people wriggle to another tune.

Thinking in straight lines is unproductive

I suspect that none of us think in straight lines.  We have random ideas that we progressively arrange into some sort of order, or forget them.  The Nobel Laureate, Herbert Simon thought that three characteristics defined creative thinking: first, the willingness to accept vaguely defined problems and gradually structure them; second, a preoccupation with problems over a considerable period of time; and, third, extensive background knowledge. The first two characteristics seem strongly connected because you need to think about an ill-defined problem over a significant period of time in order to gradually provide a structure that will allow you to create possible solutions.    We need to have random thoughts in order to generate new structures and possible solutions that might work better than those we have already tried out; so, thinking in straight lines is unlikely to be productive and instead we need intentional mind-wandering [see ‘Ideas from a balanced mind‘ on August 24th, 2016].   More complex problems will require the assembling of more components in the structure and, hence are likely to require a larger number of neurons to assemble and to take longer, i.e. to require longer and deeper thought with many random excursions [see ‘Slow deep thoughts from planet-sized brain‘ on March 25th, 2020] .

In a university curriculum it is relatively easy to deliver extensive background knowledge and perhaps we can demonstrate techniques to students, such as sketching simple diagrams [see ‘Meta-knowledge: knowledge about knowledge‘ on June 19th, 2019], so that they can gradually define vaguely posed problems; however, it is difficult to persuade students to become preoccupied with a problem since many of them are impatient for answers.  I have always found it challenging to teach creative problem-solving to undergraduate students; and, the prospect of continuing limitations on face-to-face teaching has converted this challenge into a problem requiring a creative solution in its own right.


Simon HA, Discovery, invention, and development: human creative thinking, Proc. National Academy of Sciences, USA (Physical Sciences), 80:4569-71, 1983.