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"OH WATERS, TEEM WITH MEDICINE TO KEEP MY BODY SAFE FROM HARM, SO THAT I MAY LONG SEE THE SUN." - Rig Veda
These new findings — involving the pigeons superior ability to solve a perplexing statistical problem — might in turn shed light on why humans are bad at solving certain kinds of problems, scientists added.
Past research with university students found they almost universally believed that staying and switching were equally likely to win, while younger students believed this less. Only in the youngest group tested — a bunch of 8th graders — did a significant although small fraction of students figure out switching was the best strategy. It may be that education leads people to acquire ways of thinking that, while efficient, can interfere with certain kinds of performance.
"During 'education,' which I would take to encompass not just formal education, but also one's general life experience, we acquire heuristics — rules of thumb that, either consciously or unconsciously, allow us to respond to a complex world quickly," said researcher Walter Herbranson, a comparative psychologist at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington. "But while these heuristics are fast and generally accurate, they're not correct 100 percent of the time."
The scientists propose the curious difference between pigeon and human behavior might be rooted in the difference between classical and empirical probability. In classical probability, one tries to figure out every possible outcome and make predictions without collecting data. In empirical probability, one makes predictions after tracking outcomes over time.
"Different species often find very different solutions to the same problems," Herbranson said. "We humans have ways of tackling probability-based problems that generally work pretty well for us, the Monty Hall dilemma being one notable exception. Pigeons apparently have a different approach, one that just happens to be better suited to the Monty Hall dilemma."
Left: You are a dedicated father who, with your wife, has just sat down to dinner with your 15-year-old daughter, who is defiantly announcing that she’s pregnant.
Center: You are a fashion designer on the morning of your big runway show, realizing that nothing in the collection is ready or fabulous.
Right: You are a blustering, pompous member of the British Parliament, giving a speech that is being broadcast on the BBC, and you’re thrilled at the sound of your own voice.
Felisa Wolfe-Simon, a geobiologist, is interested in the lake not for its scenery but because it may be harbouring alien life forms, or “weird life”. Mono Lake, a basin with no outlet, has built up over many millennia one of the highest natural concentrations of arsenic on Earth. Dr Wolfe-Simon is investigating whether, in the mud around the lake or in the water, there exist microbes whose biological make-up is so fundamentally different from that of any known life on Earth that it may provide proof of a shadow biosphere, a second genesis for life on this planet.
Arsenic is chemically close to phosphorus. While phosphorus is a primary building block of life on Earth — an essential component of DNA and ATP, the energy molecule — arsenic is a deadly poison. In Mono Lake there are micro-organisms that live with arsenic. But they don’t incorporate it into their biology.
Dr Wolfe-Simon has theorised that there may be life that chose an “evolutionary pathway” to utilise arsenic. If such microbes existed, it could suggest that life started on our planet not once but at least twice. In turn this would help to support the idea that life is much more likely to have started elsewhere in the galaxy.
“There is life ‘as we know it’ and there is life ‘as we don’t know it’. What would that look like? I am trying to give us a framework to work with to help us look for what ‘we don’t know’, the particular framework of arsenic,” she says