You can’t play 20 questions with nature and win

You can’t play 20 questions with nature and win” is the title of Allen Newell‘s 1973 paper, a classic in cognitive science. In the paper he confesses that although he sees many excellent psychology experiments, all making undeniable scientific contributions, he can’t imagine them cohering into progress for the field as a whole. He describes the state of psychology as focussed on individual phenomena – mental rotation, chunking in memory, subitizing, etc – studied in a way to resolve binary questions – issues such as nature vs nature, conscious vs unconscious, serial vs parallel processing.

There is, I submit, a view of the scientific endeavor that is implicit (and sometimes explicit) in the picture I have presented above. Science advances by playing twenty questions with nature. The proper tactic is to frame a general question, hopefully binary, that can be attacked experimentally. Having settled that bits-worth, one can proceed to the next. The policy appears optimal – one never risks much, there is feedback from nature at every step, and progress is inevitable. Unfortunately, the questions never seem to be really answered, the strategy does not seem to work.

As I considered the issues raised (single code versus multiple code, continuous versus discrete representation, etc.) I found myself conjuring up this model of the current scientific process in psychology- of phenomena to be explored and their explanation by essentially oppositional concepts. And I couldn’t convince myself that it would add up, even in thirty more years of trying, even if one had another 300 papers of similar, excellent ilk.

His diagnosis for one reason that phenomena can generate an endless excellent papers without endless progress is that people can do the same task in different ways. Lots of experiments dissect how people are doing the task, without constraining sufficiently the things Newell says are essential to predict behaviour (the person’s goals and the structure of the task environment), and thus providing no insight into the ultimate target of investigation, the invariant structure of the mind’s processing mechanisms. As a minimum, we must know the method participants are using, never averaging over different methods, he concludes. But this may not be enough:

That the same human subject can adopt many (radically different) methods for the same basic task, depending on goal, background knowledge, and minor details of payoff structure and task texture — all this — implies that the “normal” means of science may not suffice.

As a prognosis for how to make real progress in understanding the mind he proposes three possible courses of action:

  1. Develop complete processing models – i.e. simulations which are competent to perform the task and include a specification of the way in which different subfunctions (called ‘methods’ by Newell) are deployed.
  2. Analyse a complex task, completely, ‘to force studies into intimate relation with each other’, the idea being that giving a full account of a single task, any task, will force contradictions between theories of different aspects of the task into the open.
  3. ‘One program for many tasks’ – construct a general purpose system which can perform all mental tasks, in other words an artificial intelligence.

It was this last strategy which preoccupied a lot of Newell’s subsequent attention. He developed a general problem solving architecture he called SOAR, which he presented as a unified theory of cognition, and which he worked on until his death in 1992.

The paper is over forty years old, but still full of useful thoughts for anyone interested in the sciences of the mind.

Reference and link:
Newell, A. You can’t play 20 questions with nature and win: Projective comments on the papers of this symposium. in Chase, W. G. (Ed.). (1973). Visual Information Processing: Proceedings of the Eighth Annual Carnegie Symposium on Cognition, Held at the Carnegie-Mellon University, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, May 19, 1972. Academic Press.

See a nice picture of Newell from the Computer History Museum

1 thought on “You can’t play 20 questions with nature and win”

  1. Interesting. I’ve read loads about cognitive biases, and one that peaked my interest was the Binary Bias, our desire to simplify everything to a binary distinction:
    black or white
    yin and yang
    right or wrong
    the list goes on
    and it’s been interesting watching myself to see how i do it, and learning to accept shades of grey and always search for a 3rd option

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