Friday, 26 February 2016

In defence of the Psychologist's "White Room"

Throughout his review of Hutchin's book, "Cognition in the Wild", Bruno Latour makes consistent reference to a navigation technique employed by the navy. He uses this reference as a classic example of distributed cognition throughout the navigation crew in a particular ship.

In the view of distributed cognition, there ceases to be any such thing as a "mind", or really any independent agent within which cognitive processes such as working memory, reasoning and attention could be "housed". Instead, these processes are available distributed across time, space and between different people. It is in this that the view contrasts most sharply with that of cognitive psychology.

A primary argument levelled against the field of cognitive psychology from the school of distributed cognition stems from the stereotypical image of the "white room", wherein participants are put through a test of cognitive processing, typically on a computer screen. In doing this in an isolated white room, the cognitive psychologist fails to account for really any of the principles at the heart of distributed cognition; the role played by real-time, real-space and real-world interpersonal interaction in the employment and function of these processes.

As a counter to this, he proposes the navigation quarters of a naval ship as his equivalent of the "white room", wherein to assess the function of these cognitive processes. In analysing real-world problem solving, indeed problem solving which would occur with or without the presence of a cognitive scientist present to analyse them, he claims to bring true ecological validity to his observations. First of all, I must state that this may indeed bring outstanding ecological validity to his observations when applied to the navigational quarters of a navy ship. It is quite likely that he has collected the most accurate and valid descriptions of the techniques, solutions and processes utilised by any naval navigational crew.

However, a major point of contention with this approach is the generalisability of any of his observations. While he may indeed succeed in describing the processes utilised in the context of a naval ship, it is impossible to validly apply his observations to any other setting. In this, the real value or purpose of his research becomes unclear.  His results may be of some use to the navy, the source of his funding, and rightly so, but I think it goes a bit far to set his work to a platform which eclipses anything the psychologist's white room can produce.

Although the white room undoubtedly has its drawbacks, the argument can easily be made that the observations made in the white room can form a sort of "generalised baseline". While this baseline may be subject to change in different settings, it provides some form of indication of cognitive processing with a minimal amount of external interference. This basis, while the subject of criticism, at least offers something with which to gauge in the context of a general population. If one were to take Bruno's approach as "ecologically valid", the only way to gain information on cognitive processes would be to examine them in action for each and every unique individual occupation in existence, a task next to impossible. So, again, I call into question the real use of his results outside of his own incredibly small domain, a domain so small that one might call it meaningless, with far less meaning than the results produced in a psychologist's white room.

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