Despite that, our species is great: David Dobbs’ piece in today’s New York Times had us right at hello.
The piece appeared in the Science Times section. It began with a hook we’re always intrigued by—the famous old hook where we humans explain how “great” our species is:
DOBBS (4/23/13): When it comes to play, humans don't play around.We human beings were made in God’s image! Man [sic] is the rational animal! From the dawn of the west, the western self-concept has always been built around the notion of human exceptionalism. And sure enough:
Other species play, but none play for as much of their lives as humans do, or as imaginatively, or with as much protection from the family circle. Human children are unique in using play to explore hypothetical situations rather than to rehearse actual challenges they'll face later. Kittens may pretend to be cats fighting, but they will not pretend to be children; children, by contrast, will readily pretend to be cats or kittens—and then to be Hannah Montana, followed by Spider-Man saving the day.
And in doing so, they develop some of humanity's most consequential faculties. They learn the art, pleasure and power of hypothesis—of imagining new possibilities. And serious students of play believe that this helps make the species great.
This morning, there was Dobbs, reassuring Times readers that their species is “great.” With apologies, our species didn’t seem so great to us by the time Dobbs and his editor finished.
Dobbs’ piece is 1200 words long; it includes some very jumbled attempts at psychological cogitation. At its heart, it describes an intellectual puzzle presented to a bunch of adults—and to “an extremely alert 4-year-old” named Esther.
Dobbs is blown away by Esther’s ability to solve the puzzle. We aren’t sure why, but that’s not the key point.
Here’s what the 4-year-old did:
According to Dobbs, a professor of psychology named Alison Gopnik asked Esther to play a game named Blickets. In the passage which follows, Dobbs starts to describe the way Blickets is played:
DOBBS: In the game, which has the fetching name Blickets, players try to figure out what it is that makes an otherwise undistinguished clay figure a blicket...Even at the age of 4, Esther finds herself being conned by a professor's assistant! At any rate, Esther will have to determine which of the clay shapes are blickets.
Last summer I joined Dr. Gopnik behind a wall of one-way glass to watch her lab manager, Sophie Bridges, play the game with an extremely alert 4-year-old, Esther.
Seated at a child-size table, Esther leaned forward on her elbows to watch as Ms. Bridges brought out a small bin of clay shapes and told her that some of them were blickets but most were not.
''You cannot tell which ones are blickets by looking at them. But the ones that are blickets have blicketness inside. And luckily,'' Ms. Bridges went on, holding up a box with a red plastic top, ''I have my machine. Blicketness makes my machine turn on and play music.''
It's a ruse, of course. The box responds not to the clay shapes but to a switch under the table controlled by Ms. Bridges.
The game can be played two different ways. For the sake of clarity, we will include Dodd’s full description of the two different versions. Try to screen out the unneeded confusion that is included here:
DODD: Now came the challenge. The game can be played by either of two rules, called ''and'' and ''or.'' The ''or'' version is easier: When a blicket is placed atop the machine, it will light the machine up whether placed there by itself or with other pieces. It is either a blicket or it isn't; it doesn't depend on the presence of any other object.In the version of the game Esther played, the machine lights up if a blicket is placed on the machine with a second blicket. The machine will light up even if a third non-blicket is placed on the machine with them.
In the ''and'' trial, however, a blicket reveals its blicketness only if both it and another blicket are placed on the machine; and it will light up the box even if it and the other blicket are accompanied by a non-blicket. It can be harder than it sounds, and this is the game that Esther played.
After watching a bunch of clay shapes get placed on the machine, Esther has to figure out which of the shapes are blickets.
How hard is this game? To some extent, it all depends on how clearly the rules are explained. But at its heart, this game is about as complex as playing tic-tac-toe. Two blickets turn on the machine. One blicket or fewer will not.
If you understand the rules, the game is rather simple. As it turns out, Esther was given a straightforward set of three observations from which to draw her conclusions:
DODD (continuing directly): First, Ms. Bridges put each of three clay shapes on the box individually—rectangle, then triangle, then a bridge. None activated the machine. Then she put them on the box in three successive combinations.Duh. The rectangle and bridge are plainly blickets, as we see in observation 2. Plainly, the triangle can’t be a blicket, as we see in observations 1 and 3.
1. Rectangle and triangle: No response.
2. Rectangle and bridge: Machine lighted up and played a tune!
3. Triangle and bridge: No response.
Ms. Bridges then picked up each piece in turn and asked Esther whether it was a blicket.
If you understand the rules, these deductions just aren’t complex. How many 4-year-olds could figure this out? We have no idea. (Again, that would partly depend on how clearly the rules were explained.)
But good God! For an adult, this just isn’t a complex undertaking! Unless you’re a science writer at the Times, in which case the stunning complexity of this task leads to reams of jumbled cogitation, as you can see by reading Dobbs' complete piece.
Here’s the weird news: According to Dobbs, Esther and a bunch of other kids were able to figure this puzzle out—but Dobbs and a bunch of other adults could not! This is his fuller lab report:
DOBBS (continuing directly): I had been indulging my adult (and journalistic) prior bias for recorded observation by filling several pages with notes and diagrams, and I started flipping frantically through my notebook.Most of the children figured it out. Dobbs and most of the adults did not. Dobbs goes on to pen a large amount of gobbledegook about the reasons for this outcome.
I was still looking when Esther, having given maybe three seconds' thought to the matter, correctly identified all three. The rectangle? ''A blicket,'' she said. Triangle? A shake of the head: No. Bridge? ''A blicket.'' A 4-year-old had instantly discerned a rule that I recognized only after Dr. Gopnik explained it to me.
Esther, along with most other 4- and 5-year-olds tested, bested not just me but most of 88 California undergraduates who took the ''and'' test.
This gobbledegook is much more striking than the fact that Dobbs was stumped by this game in real time. Here’s why: Even after contemplating this game as it was presented to Esther, Dobbs and his editor still couldn’t see how simple the puzzle was. Despite his obscure ruminations, he doesn't see how odd it is that a bunch of adults couldn’t figure it out.
We will offer a simpler synopsis than the one Dobbs provides in his piece:
This journalist for Science Times isn’t as smart as a bunch of 4-year-olds. And even after the fact, he still couldn’t see how simple this game really was.
In line with that, we have to say that our species may not be all that “great.” But then, we often think that after reading the Times. Kidding aside, this represents a major social problem.
Why can’t Times readers see through Maureen Dowd’s steady-state nonsense? We’re not sure, but one of the paper’s science reporter couldnt even figure out which of the shapes were blickets!
Most of the adults couldn’t do it! Despite that, our species is great!