Sunday, August 31, 2008

The value of science?

I was watching a Discovery Channel program this evening and listening to some guy pontificating about the need to bring science to the public, and even better, to school kids. I found myself nodding in agreement but at the same time felt a little unease. I was surprised at myself because I have always been an advocate for more science education for the general public. What did I find upsetting in what this guy was saying? I realized with a kind of small epiphany that my own interest in science is not in science per se, but rather in the human relationship with science. I think the two are different. I can completely get behind the notion of teaching anyone who will listen the value of applying scientific principles to everyday life, and in the process shedding some light on certain facets of the way things work. However, I'm not so sure about teaching science as an absolute methodology, or an absolute set of facts, that represent 'the way things are'. Science is useful or not depending on our relationship with it. Religion is the same way although Richard Dawkins would likely say religion is never useful. Science is one way to look at the world that has offered up incredible insights to the way our world works and the way we as humans interact with it. However, there is much that science cannot shine a light on. Yet. The science that is accepted as 'real' is that which is agreed upon by the majority, or by the key figures in a particular discipline. The science that is not accepted as real, ie quack science, is accepted by only a few and cannot as yet be properly explained by the scientific tools we have at our disposal. Rather than teach this as being bad science, it should be highlighted as an example of unrealistic expectations of science and an overzealous faith in the power of one particular way of looking at the world being unable to explain certain observations. I say, teach the public about science, but keep it in perspective. The answers science offers us are the best we can come up with at a given moment in time. We should develop expectations of science as a way to understand our place in the world in a temporary and context dependent fashion. To teach our kids to be open-minded and to think for themselves rather than jump from one dogmatic view to another, would be progress indeed.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Nicholas Carr is right-Google is making us stoopid (sic)

Google is making us stupid. Well, Carr actually asked the question rather than made the statement but I think I know what his opinion is from reading the article he wrote in the latest Atlantic Monthly (July/August 2008 issue, Is Google Making us Stupid?). As I read I was jumping up and down in agreement. It's just the right question. For thinking humans, the internet it too tempting and too easy. While writing an article on dementia this evening I suddenly thought of an old school friend who became a famous horse jumper and rushed to Google to see if she was involved in the Olympic team. This distraction lasted about 10 minutes and was fruitless in turning up my friend. I them turned back to the article for half a paragraph before wondering about the weather tomorrow because we have a cook-out with friends. A quick check on reassured me that the cook-out has a 60% chance of being dry but if any storms occur, they are likely to be severe. Oh, and right now, there is a tornado brewing in New York. Only two minutes for that one and back to the article. I read for half a paragraph more before deciding to write this blog.
Carr feels that the net is changing not just the way we search but the way we think. The inventors of Google seem to be banking on it, as are all the advertisers that tempt us in every scrap of free space on the Internet. The potential for distraction on any one web page is enormous, with information just one click away on how to buy, sell, learn, relax, see related information, dig into archives, check our IQ, our eyesight, our 'real age' etc, etc. It is endless.
Information is so readily available that it becomes an invaluable tool for advancing human intellect. Fact, figures, answers are available virtually instantly. So rapidly can one get answers that we can ask hundreds of questions a day. Great! Mmmm,not so fast. In the olden days, when you had to look up information in libraries, newspapers or even other people's heads, you were more choosy about what you might ask. Some questions were not worth the trouble. Nowadays any whim that takes our fancy can be searched in an instant. It takes minutes. The problem is, all those not so smart questions that I didn't really need to know the answers to take up a good portion of my day when I add them all together. This is the power of the net-to allow one to collect unprecedented volumes of 'answers' to often trivial questions, thus making us unquestionably more intellectual, but arguably less intelligent. By orders of magnitude in my opinion. OSHO, the Indian philosopher sees intellect and intelligence as opposites in balance. More of one leads to less of the other. If OSHO is correct the Google is making us stupid. I am not a Luddite, but I do believe that as with freedom, technological advancement comes with great responsibility. It can't be take as read that more is better when it comes to information, especially when it comes at the expense of time to think. Who has to stop the madness? We do, of course. Only you and I can decide not to click that interesting link on the most recent evidence for Big Foot and the bizarre news conference that went with it....the web calls, gotta go..

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Olympic fever

No, not a new disease. But it might as well be. It is just as debilitating to be glued to the TV at every opportunity as being bed-bound with a sickness, but a lot more fun. I watched the opening ceremony last night and was truly amazing at the seemless integration of human innovation and technological mastery. The coordination of the performers was unbelievable, especially the multiple groups of 2008 artists who drummed, danced, and tai-chi-ed like syncytia across the floors, the props and through the air.
As the history of China unfolded in the performances I was reminded of the wisdom of the East. At a conference in Singapore a few years ago, a speaker asked the audience a question: Which of the following are the odd ones out: cow, grass chicken? The audience was divided, along geographical lines it seemed. The Westerner agreed the grass is odd man because it is not an animal. The Eastern folks were certain it was the chicken because the cow eat the grass, leaving the chicken out in the cold. Who was right? Well, both. If you think in categories as we tend to in the West, then the grass is odd. For Easterners who believe everything is connected, then the chicken loses. The fundamental disconnect between two diametrically opposed ways of thinking in this simple but profound example lies at the heart of current contentions around communications, medicine, science and computing. It is becoming more clear that the East is right--everything is connected, so what do we do about our heavy reliance on taxonomic thinking and uber-reductionism in the West? This is the big problem of our age and it is up to those who can see both sides to bridge the divide.
Like the Beijing opening ceremony, there will have to be choices such as not using technology just because we can (there were several elements of the performances that could have been easily driven by technology but where people were used instead). A hi-tech show would have been more flawless, but the real awe for me, was inspired by the trade off of precision for heart. Knowing the practice, the team work and the pride that went must have gone into those performances made them special in a way pure technology could not.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Eating to fit your heritage?

Just a quick blog on eating, after getting half way through Michael Pollan's book, In Defense of Food (2008, Penguin Press). One of Pollan's theses is that we have turned into a nation (world?) obsessed with nutrition to the detriment of our health. I believe what he says so far. His book provides a shining example of the problems of over-reliance on reductionism that I'm writing about in my own book. Pollan talks about the various diets of indigenous peoples and how, despite the variety in their staples, they all seem to maintain their health. When these folks are uprooted and placed in a different food habitat, or even worse, adopt the Western diet, they become fat, diabetic and acquire heart disease.
It seems there is an opportunity here. Scientific reductionism yielded the Human Genome Project which has had limited impact so far on the nation's health. If diet really is the main culprit for our decline in health and life expectancy (Pollan notes that in 2007, we were ranked by the CIA fact book as 45th for life expectancy behind Israel, Bermuda, Jordan and Bosnia) then how much can be blamed on the Western diet in general and how much on our removal from our native food habitats which we had evolved to thrive on? It would seem like a double whammy. Many of us do not know our exact heritage (I'm adopted and have no clue other than I was born in London) and therefore may not know how to choose food wisely for our genotype and phenotype. Maybe genomic profiling for heritage may help us understand what's good for us and what is not. So the key to regaining a healthy relationship with our food could be to find out where we were evolved and eat what that culture eats/ate. That and avoiding the Western diet (the odds are against us with the food industry's tactical and political clout, but it's worth a try). I wonder if there is any way my genes would show an evolutionary adaptation to eating potato chips....? Just a thought.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Knowledge versus information

I am somewhat of a temporalist (yes, spellchecker caught this invented word), meaning that I like to create timelines to see how thought has changed over the years on various subjects. In other words, I am interested in what is believed at a moment in time. I do believe in ‘truth’ but I’m not sure how to define it. On the other hand, something that is ‘true’ is easy to define; a so-called fact that is commonly understood to be true according to certain conventions mainly based on science. I say mainly, because there is often general agreement that something is so, even when there is no way to prove it. That a sunset is beautiful for example, is an observation that is unverifiable scientifically because there are no criteria against which to measure the assertion other than everybody thinks so. Few would deny the beauty inherent in a good sunset, and many would even agree that it’s a fact that sunsets are beautiful. But if we try to convey that ‘fact’ to others we quickly find that it is impossible to pass on the experience. You just had to be there.
Similar problems occur when sorting out the differences with information and knowledge. In my view, the difference between information and knowledge is mainly this:
Information occurs in discrete packets that can be transferred without loss of meaning by word, in image, or by numbers. It is slightly more sophisticated than data in that there is already some context applied in the way it is packaged (eg labeled and categorized). Information can be true or false, and we can still be informed when the information is false.
Knowledge is the sum of knowing and occurs after we have received information in one form or another (experiential, or objective) and have interpreted it based on our own experience as well as the context with which it came to us, and have added it to our store of accepted wisdom (even if it is only accepted wisdom in our own heads). When we know something we accept it as true.
An example: you can have information that eating too many cherries causes Alzheimer’s Disease or you can know eating too many cherries cause Alzheimer’s. In the former you can be informed but still suspend belief; in the latter you have made your choice to accept the information as true (with or without caveats).
When you look at it this way it becomes very easy to see why institutionalized knowledge management efforts often fail. Knowledge is accepted wisdom for a moment in time. Information exists forever. Knowledge cannot be easily transferred because it requires the receiver to believe the contexts and conditions that apply to the knowledge in question. Information is easily transferred because there is little judgment involved. It is what it is. One can argue about what category it goes in, or about whether it is true or not, but information is just information at the end of the day.
Knowledge management inside corporations has historically confused information and knowledge. Sophisticated IT systems have been set up for ‘knowledge transfer’ and extensive people networks built to ‘share knowledge’. Computing is well suited to sharing information, but not to sharing knowledge unless there is a way to de-contextualize the knowledge back to data and allow re-sorting in the light of new and different contexts. This can happen with ontologically based systems that allow complex questions to be asked of the de-contextualized knowledge such that new insights can be derived. Most knowledge management initiatives within large institutions end up buried in an IT group where some system is build to store and share ‘best practices’, or to access multiple databases from a single interface in the hope of improving accessibility to knowledge deep within the organization. By ignoring the human side of KM, (ie that knowledge includes a belief element and therefore an element of trust), these initiatives cause untold political horrors and at best produce yet another data access tool that skims the surface of real knowledge while continuing to build deep silos to hold yet more information.
People networks are often used to ‘transfer knowledge’ from person to person, group to group. These approaches have yielded some genuine successes but can stumble when there is a failure to realize that transferring knowledge requires transfer of belief that the knowledge is true, or at least a forum to challenge and evolve an understanding. An open acknowledgement of the assumptions that accompany knowledge as it is passed along can alleviate the pain and create a path to success. This is a relatively simple task and I’m not sure why it is not more often undertaken.
Knowledge management is considered an old fad nowadays. It’s a shame since this is a time when organizations that deal in novelty and innovation surely need it the most.

Umberto Eco likes Starksy and Hutch

Umberto Eco likes Starsky and Hutch. Imagine my surprise when I read that. Umberto is one of my favorite philosopher/novelists and I have to admit I was heartened to read that he like TV, DVDs and especially cheesy TV detectives. I was reading the latest Paris Review and the interview with Mr Eco is priceless. I found that he and I have much in common aside from the fact that he is Italian, unimaginably intelligent, and wildly successful as a novelist and scholar, and I am none of those things. We share a fascination with language, books, communication generally,magic, alchemy, The Middle Ages, and the intersections between all those things. He says he never stops working, always thinking about stories wherever he is (especially in water it seems--me too!). Umberto has something else I don't have-a prodigious memory. He actually remembers the books he reads and the thoughts he has on his travels and then incorporates them into his writings on a daily basis. I am in awe of a good memory and inspired by his approach to his work which seems less methodical than most writers I've read about.
There are snippets about Umberto's feeling on facts and culture. He recognizes that facts are contextual to some degree and while 'true' at a moment in time, are not necessarily 'truth'. He talks about culture as the determiner of what is remembered and what is forgotten, and in a sense he is talking about what we believe to be knowledge and how we preserve or alter it. One of the most profound acknowledgements made in the interview is that the literate person can afford himself multiple lives through reading whereas the illiterate person is stuck with only one--the real life.

You might be wondering what this has to do with future health trends and the honest answer is nothing at all. I just found this interview interesting and wanted to share! Check it out in The Paris Review, Summer 2008.