Tag Archives: information

Experiencing silence

Here is the second in a series of reprints while I am on vacation.  This one is from five years ago. It was published on August 9th 2017 under the title ‘Blinded by the light‘.

It has become a habit during our summer vacation to read the novels short-listed for Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction.  Unusually this year, we were not only unanimous in our choice of the best novel but we also agreed with the judges and selected the ‘The Power‘ by Naomi Alderman.  In another of the books, Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien, a Chinese composer called Sparrow thinks ‘about the quality of sunshine, that is, how daylight wipes away the stars and planets, making them invisible to human eyes, might daylight be a form of blindness? Could it be that sound was also be a form of deafness? If so, what was silence?’.  I felt some resonance between these thoughts and John Hull’s writings on blindness and my earlier blog posting on ‘Listening with your eyes shut‘ [on May 31st, 2017].  In our everyday life, we are bombarded with sounds from people living around us, from traffic and from devices in our homes and places of work.  We rarely experience silence; however, when we do, perhaps on holiday staying in a remote rural location, then a whole new set of sounds becomes apparent: waves breaking on the shore in the distance, the field mouse rooting around under the floorboards, or the noises of cattle enjoying the lush grass in the field next door.  Okay, so you have to be in the right place to hear these sounds of nature but you also need silence otherwise you are deaf to them, as Sparrow suggests.

The same is true for knowledge and understanding because our minds have finite capacity [see my post entitled ‘Silence is golden‘ on January 14th, 2014].  When you are bombarded with information and data it is easy to become overwhelmed and unable to structure the information in a way that makes it useful or meaningful.  In our connected society, information has become like white noise, or daylight obscuring the stars and planets.  Information is blinding us to knowledge and understanding.  We need to aggressively filter the information flow in order to gain insight and knowledge.  We should switch off the digital devices, which bombard us with information constantly, to leave our minds free for conceptual and creative thinking because that’s one of the few tasks in which we can outperform the smartest machine [see my post entitled ‘Smart machines‘ on February 26th, 2014].

In a similar vein see: ‘Ideas from a balanced mind‘ on August 24th, 2016 and ‘Thinking out-of-the-skull‘ on March 18th, 2015.

Reasons for publishing scientific papers

A few months ago I wrote about how we are drowning in information as a result of the two million papers published in journals every year [see ‘We are drowning in information while starving for wisdom‘ on January 20th, 2021]. As someone who has published about 10 papers each year for the last couple of decades, including three this year already, I feel I should provide some explanation for continuing to contribute to the deluge of papers. I think there are four main reasons for publishing scientific papers. First, to report a discovery – a new contribution to knowledge or understanding.  This is the primary requirement for publication in a scientific journal but the significance of the contribution is frequently diminished both by the publisher’s and author’s need to publish which leads to many papers in which it is hard to identify the original contribution. The second reason is to fulfil the expectations or requirements of a funding agency (including your employer); I think this was probably the prime driver for my first paper which reported the results of a survey of muskoxen in Greenland conducted during an expedition in 1982. The third reason is to support a promotion case, either your own or one of your co-authors; of course, this is not incompatible with the reporting original contributions to knowledge but it can be a driver towards small contributions, especially when promotion committees consider only the quantity and not the quality of published papers. The fourth reason is to support the careers of members of the research team; in some universities it is impossible to graduate with a PhD degree in science and engineering without publishing a couple of papers, although most supervisors encourage PhD students to publish their work in at least one paper before submitting their PhD thesis, even when it is not compulsory. Post-doctoral researchers have a less urgent need to publish unless they are planning an academic career in which case they will need a more impressive publication record than their competitors. Profit is the prime reason for most publishers to publish papers.  Publishers make more money when they sell more journals with more papers in them which drives the launch of new journals and the filling of journals with more papers; this process is poorly moderated by the need to ensure the papers are worth reading.  It might be an urban myth, but some studies have suggested that half of published papers are read only by their editor and authors.  Thirty years ago, my PhD supervisor, who was also my mentor during my early career as an academic, already suspected this lack of readers and used to greet the news of the publication of each of my papers as ‘more stuffing for your chair’.

Source:

Patterson, E.A., 1984, ‘Sightings of Muskoxen in Northern Scoresby Land, Greenland’, Arctic, 37(1): 61-63

Rose Eveleth, Academics write papers arguing over how many people read (and cite) their papers, Smithsonian Magazine, March 25th, 2014.

Image: Hannes Grobe, AWI, CC BY-SA 2.5 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons.

Four requirements for consciousness

Max Tegmark, in his book Life 3.0 – being a human in the age of artificial intelligence, has taken a different approach to defining consciousness compared to those that I have discussed previously in this blog which were based on synchronous firing of assemblies of neurons [see, for example, ‘Digital hive mind‘ on November 30, 2016 or ‘Illusion of self‘ on February 1st, 2017] and on consciousness being an accumulation of sensory experiences [Is there a real ‘you’ or’I’? on March 6th, 2019].  In his book, Tegmark discusses systems based on artificial intelligence; however, the four principles or requirements for consciousness that he identifies could be applied to natural systems: (i) Storage – the system needs substantial information-storage capacity; (ii) Processing – the system must have substantial information-processing capacity; (iii) Independence – the system has substantial independence from the rest of the world; and (iv) Integration – the system cannot consist of nearly independent parts.  The last two requirements are relatively easy to apply; however, the definition of ‘substantial’ in the first two requirements is open to interpretation which leads to discussion of the size of neuronal assembly required for consciousness and whether the 500 million in an octopus might be sufficient [see ‘Intelligent aliens?‘ on January 16th, 2019].

Source:

Max Tegmark,  Life 3.0 – being a human in the age of artificial intelligence, Penguin Books, Random House, UK, 2018.

Image: Ollie the Octopus at the Ocean Lab, (Ceridwen CC BY-SA 2.0)

 

Epistemic triage

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about epistemic dependence and the idea that we need to trust experts because we are unable to verify everything ourselves as life is too short and there are too many things to think about.  However, this approach exposes us to the risk of being misled and Julian Baggini has suggested that this risk is increasing with the growth of psychology, which has allowed more people to master methods of manipulating us, that has led to ‘a kind of arms race of deception in which truth is the main casualty.’  He suggests that when we are presented with new information then we should perform an epstemic triage by asking:

  • Is this a domain in which anyone can speak the truth?
  • What kind of expert is a trustworthy source of truth in that domain?
  • Is a particular expert to be trusted?

The deluge of information, which streams in front of our eyes when we look at the screens of our phones, computers and televisions, seems to leave most of us grasping for a hold on reality.  Perhaps we should treat it all as fiction until have performed Baggini’s triage, at least on the sources of the information streams, if not also the individual items of information.

Source:

Julian Baggini, A short history of truth: consolations for a post-truth world, London: Quercus Editions Ltd, 2017.