Tag Archives: reading

We are drowning in information while starving for wisdom

Decorative image: Lake Maggiore from AngeraThe title of this post is a quote from Edward O. Wilson’s book ‘Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge‘. For example, if you search for scientific papers about “Entropy” then you will probably find more than 3.5 million. An impossible quantity for an individual to read and even when you narrow the search to those about “psychological entropy”, which is a fairly niche topic, you will still find nearly 500 papers – a challenging reading list for most people.  The analysis of the trends embedded in scientific papers has become a research activity in its own right, see for example Basurto-Flores et al 2018 on papers about entropy; however, this type of analysis seems to generate yet more information rather than wisdom.  In this context, wisdom is associated with insight based on knowledge and experience; however the quality of the experiences is important as well as the processes of self-reflection (see Nicholas Weststrate’s PhD thesis).  There are no prizes for wisdom and we appoint and promote researchers based on their publication record; hence it is unsurprising that editors of journals are swamped by thousands of manuscripts submitted for publication with more than 2 million papers published every year.  The system is out of control driven by authors building a publication list longer than their competitors for jobs, promotion and grant funding and by publishers seeking larger profits from publishing more and bigger journals.  There are so many manuscripts submitted to journals that the quality of the reviewing and editing is declining leading to both false positive and false negatives, i.e. papers being published that contain little, if any, original content or lacking sufficient evidence to support their conclusions  and highly innovative papers being rejected because they are perceived to be wrong rather than simply deviating from the current paradigm. The drop in quality and rise in quantity of papers published makes keeping up with the scientific literature both expensive and inefficient in terms of time and energy, which slows down acquisition of knowledge and leaves less time for reflection and gaining experiences that are prerequisites for wisdom. So what incentives are there for a scientist or engineer to aspire to be wise given the lack of prizes and career rewards for wisdom?  In Chinese thought wisdom is perceived as expertise in the art of living, the ability to grasp what is happening, and to adjust to the imminent future (Simandan, 2018).  All of these attributes seem to be advantageous to a career based on solving problems but you need the sagacity to realise that the rewards are indirect and often intangible.

References:

Basurto-Flores, R., Guzmán-Vargas, L., Velasco, S., Medina, A. and Hernandez, A.C., 2018. On entropy research analysis: cross-disciplinary knowledge transfer. Scientometrics, 117(1), pp.123-139.

Simandan, D., 2018. Wisdom and foresight in Chinese thought: sensing the immediate future. Journal of Futures Studies, 22(3), pp.35-50.

Nicholas M Weststrate, The examined life: relations amoong life experience, self-reflection and wisdom, PhD Thesis, University of Toronto, 2017.

Edward O. Wilson, Consilience: the unity of knowledge, London, Little Brown and Company, 1998.

Distancing ourselves from each other

Image of a person behind a camera‘The camera lens was our way of disengaging from each other, distancing ourselves from each other’s emotions.’ At the moment, we are using the camera lens in our computer or mobile phone to distance ourselves physically from colleagues, friends and relatives in order to hinder the spread of coronavirus. However, the camera lens also allows us to disengage emotionally from one another as JG Ballard wrote thirty years ago in his novel called ‘The Kindness of Women‘ from which the opening sentence is taken.  It is relatively easy to avoid giving emotional cues to your interlocutor when they can only see a flat image of your face.  I am unsure whether JG Ballard would have anticipated our virus-induced socially-distanced world but he would certainly have recognised the rather flat discussions that we tend to have in our internet meetings.

Source: JG Ballard, The Kindness of Women, London: Fourth Estate, 2014 (first published 1991).

Image from StockSnap

Life of the mind in a bubble

About four years ago I wrote about living in bubbles and rarely coming into contact with people outside of our bubble [see ‘You’re all weird‘ on February 8th, 2017]. This was in the context of our experience of the media and our surprise when electorates make apparently irrational decisions. Since early this year we have been encouraged to live in more literal bubbles in order to slow down the spread of COVID-19; so, for example, we have created bubbles of researchers using our research labs in shifts to avoid a total shutdown of research when someone tests positive for coronavirus.  For many people, the pandemic has isolated them in a bubble of one that has created concerns about the well-being and happiness of individuals living and working alone.  When asked about the place he is happiest, the artist Ai Weiwei responded ‘Every place is equal for me.  Even in detention I could still find joyful moments’.  He finds ways to connect to other people and their emotions by reflecting on who he is, which leads to moments of joy.  He believes that success in life is about finding yourself in way that ‘doesn’t need ambition or talent. It just needs a functioning mind, emotion and simple judgment.’  During lockdowns induced by the COVID-19 pandemic, I believe that it has become more important to maintain the life of mind through reading and discovering new ideas. As Jarvis Cocker said in a recent interview: ‘I don’t want to spend the rest of my life thinking the same thoughts and feeling the same things, rechewing the same thing. I find that really boring.’  I hope that these posts have brought you new ideas and ways of thinking during 2020; writing them has certainly kept my mind active and stimulated.  So, I plan to continue in 2021 and hope that you will continue to read them.  Best wishes for a happy New Year!

Sources:

Inventory: Ai Weiwei, Artist interviewed by Lilah Raptopoulos in the FT Magazine, October 31/November 1, 2020.

Evolve or fade away, Jarvis Cocker interviewed by Ludovic Hunter-Tilney in the FT Weekend, 14 November/15 November 2020.

Puzzles and mysteries

Detail from abstract by Zahrah ReshPuzzles and mysteries are a pair of words that have taken on a whole new meaning for me since reading John Kay’s and Mervyn King’s book called ‘Radical uncertainty: decision-making for an unknowable future‘ during the summer vacation [see ‘Where is AI on the hype curve?‘ on August 12th, 2020]. They describe puzzles as well-defined problems with knowable solutions; whereas mysteries are ill-defined problems, that have no objectively correct solution and are imbued with vagueness and indeterminacy.  I have written before about engineers being creative problems-solvers [see ‘Learning problem-solving skills‘ on October 24th, 2018] which leads to the question of whether we specialise in solving puzzles or mysteries, or perhaps both types of problems.  The problems that I set for students to solve for homework to refine and evaluate their knowledge of thermodynamics [see ‘Problem-solving in thermodynamics‘ on May 6th, 2015] clearly fall into the puzzle category because they are well-defined and there is a worked solution available.  Although for many students these problems might appear to be mysteries, the intention is that with greater knowledge and understanding the mysteries will be transformed into mere puzzles.  It is also true that many real-world mysteries can be transformed into puzzles by research that advances the collective knowledge and understanding of society.  Part of the purpose of an engineering education is to equip students with the skills to make this transformation from mysteries to puzzles.  At an undergraduate level we use problems that are mysteries only to the students so that success is achievable; however, at the post-graduate level we use problems that are perceived as mysteries to both the student and the professor with the intention that the professor can guide the student towards a solution.  Of course, some mysteries are intractable often because we do not know enough to define the problem sufficiently that we can even start to think about possible solutions.  These are tricky to tackle because it is unreasonable to expect a research student to solve them in limited timeframe and it is risky to offer to solve them in exchange for a research grant because you are likely to damage your reputation and prospects of future funding when you fail.  On the other hand, they are what makes research interesting and exciting.

Image: Extract from abstract by Zahrah Resh.