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I Almost Hit a Cyclist

April 13, 2015

I almost hit a cyclist Sunday morning. That is my inference, after the fact, from his shouts and our incomplete conversation through the closed passenger window. It was perhaps the first time I ever really wanted power windows. I wanted to understand and to apologize. But I couldn’t open the window.

It’s a strangely fractured memory assembled from the circumstances because I completely failed to see him. There is not a hint of visual input I can recall, even to say, “Oh, that’s what that was.”

It’s a disturbing gap; almost like lost time. I’m pretty sure I know what happened, since it’s happened before over decades of driving, and apparently I’ve only incompletely guarded against it: blind spots.

If our respective speeds are just right, even a rear-view mirror can obscure an entire vehicle approaching the same intersection from my right. In small cars, where the mirror seems right in my face, I developed the habit of ducking a tad to glance under it. In my old pickup, there’s both a mirror plus a failing sun visor that falls down, and I think this blocked the motion of the cyclist.

I mention this because, one, it’s a good time to remember all the ways motor vehicles share the road. Cyclists, especially children, are less easily noticed. I’m well aware of this after five decades of cycling in all kinds of traffic.

And I mention it because this experience highlights some recent reading. One book is “This Will Make You Smarter,” edited by John Brockman, who founded Edge.org. A hundred or more scientists and other thinkers address the question: “What scientific concept would improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit?”

These fascinating short essays come from all different angles—physics, astronomy, mathematics, economics, philosophy, psychology, neuroscience, engineering, etc. &c. And many touch on cognitive deficits, if you will, such as I demonstrated.

We proceed through our small portion of a thin layer on a tiny sphere in a possibly infinite universe with the cognitive equivalent of the tiny flashlight on our car keys, trying to see in the dark.

Humans have natural cognitive biases and deficits, and we have now created a world in which it is to our considerable advantage to become aware of them. The understandings discussed in “This Will Make You Smarter” have been gained by careful inquiry, largely scientific.

There’s the idea of “deep time,” beyond our direct experience but understandable; one writer discusses how this can change our thinking. Others discuss the nature of experimentation, such as the double-blind experiment, and how it can save us from our biases.

We can have better understanding of uncertainty and risk, of what makes up our personalities and temperaments, of our penchant for anecdotalism, of the value of mistakes.

There are ideas that one might call wisdom, such as the “mediocrity principle,” which simply put is that we aren’t special—that is, the universe doesn’t revolve around me, and I am the consequence of natural, universal laws.

Similarly, the “Copernican principle” extends from noting that the earth is not specially centered in the universe to the understanding that humans are not specially centered in time and place, either. We’re just happening.

My favorite essay title: “The Pessimistic Meta-Induction from the History of Science.” The idea is great, though: So many theories from the history of science have turned out to be wrong, we must conclude that today’s knowledge will, as well—all manner of knowledge.

Such understanding could be liberating.

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