CogSci 2018 – Why Changing Minds?

On the motivation for this year’s theme and its connection to current events.

When we bid to organize CogSci three years ago the global erosion of faith in factual knowledge was already well under way. Scientific consensus was doing little to temper public disagreement across all manner of hot-button topics, from the health effects of vaccination to questions about climate change to the remarkable resurgence, in some quarters, of questions about whether the earth is flat. In our own discipline, a series of high-profile psychological studies failed to replicate or were even found to be made up of whole cloth, initiating a very public crisis of trust in the scientific process itself. While the questioning of historical and scientific truths is hardly unique to our time, the recent use of cognitive and behavioral research to promote misinformation demands some attention from our academic community. What light, if any, can cognitive science shed on the emergence, spread, and persistence of false beliefs? We aim to understand how minds work–how beliefs are formed, how decisions are made, how actions are taken, how the facts on the ground are perceived and understood. What can we as scientists do, and what should we advise policy makers or industry leaders or the general public to do, to remediate false beliefs? As advocate cognitive scientists, how do we change minds?

These questions intersected with another societal trend that was also becoming widely apparent: the increasing use of information technology in education. Universities were expanding their offerings of massive open online courses in efforts to both bolster their bottom lines and to make higher learning more widely available across the country and the globe. Apps seeking to teach you a new language or to “train your brain” or to inoculate against future dementia were rapidly multiplying, sometimes sparking controversy. Cognitive and computer scientists were collaborating to develop intelligent tutors that tailor learning experiences to each student’s individual needs. School boards across the country were evaluating the cost/benefit ratios for bringing ipads into the classroom. Here again it seemed that our science should have a role to play in guiding how these forces play out. What, if anything, do the learning models we develop in the lab offer to the teacher in the classroom, the school board president, the curriculum designer, or the software engineer? How do we relate the cognitive theories that elegantly explain behavior in tightly-controlled scenarios to the wilds of the classroom, where students simultaneously grapple with unconstrained learning problems ranging from how to read to calculating derivatives to understanding the structure of molecules? As educator cognitive scientists, how do we change minds?

A good theme should also resonate in the discipline more broadly, and it occurred to us that much of cognitive science concerns change in one guise or another. Developmental approaches, of course, make cognitive change their principal focus–but research into learning and memory is also the study of change, and so too is the study of mental and neurological disorders. Cognitive control, choice, decision, and action all involve understanding how behavior is changed in real time. Attention changes what events in our environment come to our awareness and guide our actions. A central debate in perception concerns whether it can be changed by interactions with conceptual or other non-perceptual knowledge. Indeed we were hard pressed to think of any aspect of cognitive science that does not involve questions about changing minds.

We hope the CogSci 2018 program has braided these strands in a way that does justice to the current moment and to the discipline as a whole. Our starting question–how and why do false beliefs arise, spread, and persist in society?–is reflected in Thursday’s plenary symposium Persuasion, Propaganda, and Politics which brings together four field-leading experts studying the problem from diverse perspectives. We have also identified contributed talks that focus generally on understanding how and why human learning and behavior can go wrong, or can appear to go wrong, and have grouped these into three sessions under the header “Fake news” (shown in orange here). The relations among cognitive science, technology, and education are addressed in Saturday’s plenary symposium Big Data Goes to School, which brings together speakers who address this topic from both the academic and the industrial side of the fence. Contributed talks focusing generally on cognitive science and education have been grouped into four sessions under the (less cheeky) heading “Education” (shown in yellow here).

The broader themes of change, technology, and current issues in society are addressed by three outstanding plenary speakers. On Thursday morning we will hear from Michael Kearns, a computer scientist at the University of Pennsylvania and Founding Director of the Warren Center for Network and Data Sciences, who focuses on understanding how machine learning algorithms function in and shape society, and how such algorithms can be inoculated against the human biases that permeate the masses of data on which they are trained. Friday we will hear from Matt Botvinick, Director of Neuroscience Research at DeepMind, whose research connects the latest innovations in machine learning to cognitive and neural theories about human goal-directed action. Saturday we will hear from Susan Gelman, the Heinz Werner Distinguished Professor at the University of Michigan, who will speak about the conceptual roots and development of moral reasoning.

We are thrilled to be hosting a scientist whose career has changed minds, in the sense of fundamentally altering our understanding of language. Friday morning features a symposium honoring the work of Michael Tanenhaus, the 2017 Rumelhart Prize recipient, and on Friday evening Prof. Tanenhaus will deliver his Rumelhart Prize Lecture, “The Paradox of Real-time Language Comprehension: Signal, Noise, and Context.” Join us afterward for a reception on the rooftop of the conference venue to celebrate the lecture and for the announcement of this year’s winner.

Finally, for those staying on past the conference end, Saturday evening features a public event entitled Minds, Machines, and Society. Two conference speakers–Matt Botvinick and Ulrike Hahn–will be joined by Bob Mankoff, humor editor at Esquire and longtime cartoon editor at the New Yorker,for an evening of informal talks about the ways that cognitive science, machine learning, and technology are interacting to influence culture and society. The event is open to the public and free to attend, but space is limited so make sure to register your attendance here.

Looking forward to seeing you all and hearing about your work in Madison,

The CogSci 2018 Program Committee

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