[Paleopsych] Nature: Science secret of grand masters revealed
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Sat Aug 7 15:38:18 UTC 2004
Science secret of grand masters revealed
Chess experts gain the edge over opponents by falsifying their own
For all you budding Kasparovs out there, a team of cognitive
scientists has worked out how to think like a chess grand master. As
those attending this week's Cognitive Science Society meeting in
Chicago, Illinois, were told, the secret is to try to knock down your
pet theory rather than finding ways to support it - exactly as
scientists are supposed to do.
"This is a new result in the psychology of chess, as far as I know,"
says Mark Orr, a chess enthusiast and Ireland's first international
master. The research could help developing chess players to hone their
skills, he adds.
In deciding which move to make, chess players mentally map out the
future consequences of each possible move, often looking about eight
moves ahead. So Michelle Cowley, a cognitive scientist and keen chess
player from Trinity College Dublin in Ireland, decided to study how
different chess players decide whether their move strategies will be
winners or losers.
Along with her colleague Ruth Byrne, she recruited 20 chess players,
ranging from regular tournament players to a grand master. She
presented each participant with six different chessboard positions
from halfway through a game, where black and white had equal chances
of winning and there was no immediately obvious next move.
Each player had to speak their thoughts aloud as they decided what
move to make. Cowley scored the quality of the move sequences by
comparing them with Fritz 8, one of the most powerful chess computer
She found that novices were more likely to convince themselves that
bad moves would work out in their favour, because they focused more on
the countermoves that would benefit their strategy while ignoring
those that led to the downfall of their cherished hypotheses.
Conversely, masters tended to correctly predict when the eventual
outcome of a move would weaken their position. "Grand masters think
about what their opponents will do much more," says Byrne. "They tend
to falsify their own hypotheses."
"We probably all intuitively know this is true," says Orr. "But it's
never a bad thing to prove it like this."
The philosopher Karl Popper called this process of hypothesis testing
'falsification', and thought that it was the best way to describe how
science constantly questions and refines itself. It is often held up
as the principle that separates scientific and non-scientific
thinking, and the best way to test a hypothesis.
But cognitive research has shown that, in reality, many people find
falsification difficult. Until the latest study, scientists were the
only group of experts that had been shown to use falsification. And
sociological studies of scientists in action have revealed that even
they spend a great deal of their time searching for results that would
bolster their theories^1. Some philosophers of science have
suggested that since there is so much rivalry within science,
individuals often rely on their peers to falsify their theories for
Byrne speculates that the behaviour may actually be widespread, but
that it could be limited to those who are expert in their field. She
thinks the ability to falsify is somehow linked to the vast database
of knowledge that experts such as grand masters - or scientists -
accumulate. "People who know their area are more likely to look for
ways that things can go wrong for them," she says.
Byrne and Cowley now hope to study developing chess players to find
out how and when they develop falsification strategies. They also want
to test chess masters in other activities that involve testing
hypotheses - such as logic problems - to discover if their
falsification skill is transferable. On this point Orr is more
sceptical: "I've never felt that chess skills cross over like that,
it's a very specific skill."
1. Latour A., et al. Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific
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