Sunday, May 11, 2008

The Illusion of Knowledge

Isn't it funny how one sometimes uses words with the honest believe it's a well known term, but then comes to realize nobody understands it? Like, when I was a kid, the 'grandma-button' was a very well known concept to me. My grandma, being farsighted, used to accidentally tune the TV's brightness and color instead of the volume. Luckily, the remote control had a 'grandma-button' to reset the now very odd looking appearance on the screen. Since 'reset' didn't mean anything to me, the corresponding feature on various technical devices became grandma-buttons. Needless to say, except for my younger brother nobody knew what I was referring to.

I was thinking about this recently when Michael mentioned that the 'Illusion of Knowledge' I kept talking about and that even made it on our conference poster (it's no longer there), isn't anything he'd ever heard of. Thus, I guess I made that up and came to believe I heard it elsewhere. So here is the missing explanation.

The Illusion of Knowledge refers to the following quotation by Daniel J. Boorstin
    "The greatest obstacle to discovering the shape of the earth, the continents, and the oceans was not ignorance but the illusion of knowledge."

~ Daniel J. Boorstin


Illusion in the 21st Century


In the 21st century we are faced with an incredible amount of information, and it is in many instances impossible to read and judge on all of the available information on a given topic. If under pressure to put forward an opinion it is often necessary to use shortcuts to arrive at a conclusion fast, most notably relying on trusted sources. The illusion to then have knowledge about a topic makes the world much easier classifiable in good and bad, right and wrong, friends and enemies.

The internet supports the Illusion of Knowledge in various ways
  • Because many sites are publicly available, but poorly referenced, unrevised, and present unbalanced and severely biased information whose scientific quality possibly isn't immediately clear to non-experts. Yes, one would think people should be critical, but sites with high ranking in search engines are widely read, and I suspect there are many people who don't judge as critically as necessary.

    Take as an example the discussion about the alleged danger that the LHC destroys the earth. It is tale-telling how many people believe such catastrophe stories notwithstanding the fact that literally everybody working on the field patiently explains why the accusation is completely unjustified. The question here is not who has the better arguments, but which side receives larger attention in the media (and catastrophes always go well).


  • Because with the advent of infotainment there seems to come the believe that learning must be easy, and if a topic is complicated, it must be the fault of the person explaining it. Everything can be explained easily on only five powerpoint slides, in a blogpost not exceeding three paragraphs, or on a YouTube video, right? This consumer-attitude is an unjustified expectation.

    Possibly "in the year 3535 everything you think, do or say is in the pill you took today" - but we're not there yet. To learn something in the year 2008, it still takes time, one has to sit down and think about it. It doesn't help reading 30 websites in the hope to find the one explanation that immediately makes sense. This explanation just might not exist.


  • Because of the increasing believe that knowledge which isn't on the internet doesn't exist, or if there's only ununderstandable explanations to be found, nobody can explain something understandably.

    It's not only that Stefan and I, we've both come to notice that there is sometimes no useful reference that can be linked to. It's also that many of the best and most useful sources of information are still books, carefully researched, revised, and written by people who know how to write (it makes a big difference, at least to me). And many of these books are possibly decades old, and don't even appear on Amazon search inside. I have also repeatedly come across statistics or data that weren't available online, even if I knew the institution who did a survey. There are also large differences in coverage depending on the country. Yes, one would think that the knowledge base on the internet grows, but the question is very much one of demand. I am afraid that the pieces of knowledge that are likely to receive little attention (like not very well known books in the history of science or so), will just never make it.


  • Related to the above, the increasing believe that newer information is better. E.g. if there is a newer book/article on some topic, omit the older one because it isn't up to date. As things are, many of the really insightful science books were written long before the first website went online. (A side effect of this attention-for-newness is that pieces of information have a recurrence time after which they can be warmed up again and reappear.)


  • Because of the believe that relevant information which is online can be found easily, which I suspect leads people to not search very closely for information.


  • Because of the general problem of information overflow, and the effects of constant time pressure combined with the fear of missing something and not being up to date. It causes a generally short attention span, and lacking patience. The constant fear to miss something and to not be up to date supports very much the tendency of people to expose themselves to more information than they can possibly accurately judge on in the time they take.


  • Because online one can find support for whatever point of view one holds, one just has to chose the social network appropriately and stick to the right forums, blogs or interest groups. As I mentioned in this earlier post "Can technology make us happy?", online networks can much easier be kept 'clean' from undisturbed influence and thus support confirmation bias.



Consequences

  • The distribution of opinions about science without any quality control leaves people with a great confusion about the reliance of today's scientific research, and with the suspicion that science is a waste of time and money, and people in the 'ivory tower' don't care or don't understand what is important in the real world out there. This is an excellent base for superstitious believes.


  • A raise of pseudoscience distributed by people who have the erroneous believe they've solved some urgent problem without knowing exactly what the problem is to begin with.


  • Blurring of the boundaries between Fact or Fiction for the sake of entertainment, on which I previously commented here.


  • And eventually an erosion of the facts that progress can be build upon. There can be no scientific progress without it being appreciated by the public, since research has to be funded and eventually needs to be incorporated into every day life.


You can witness today the consequences of such a gap between scientific research and its incorporation in the case of social sciences, politics, economy and ecology. It's been decades that scientists have warned our political and economical systems are inappropriate to deal with global environmental problems, yet people have continued to argue with faith based approaches - and they still do so. If you are among those who believe in 'invisible hands' or that 'it will all work out somehow' you probably sleep better at night than I do, but there is no scientific basis for your faith. I don't want to see the same thing happening in the natural sciences - there being a case in which incorporation of knowledge into our society is stalled by opinionated influential lobbies and insufficient education. I therefore think we need to keep track on how technological developments influence the way we pursue and communicate research, and what the impact is of these changes.

Bottomline

The internet is a tightly coupled network that reacts on very short timescales. It is not a coincidence that 'hypes' have been gaining more momentum with the advent of online media, and it is unsurprising this also affects the scientific community. Such hypes are brilliant examples for positive feedback loops, in which attention causes more attention - and nowadays everybody craves attention. Information that has been repeated many times gains some sort of importance notwithstanding its actual value. The result are bubbles of nothing that waste time, energy, and resources.

The problem is not lack of knowledge. The problem is the Illusion of Knowledge that comes with an overabundance of unstructured information. It fosters the public manifestation of unfounded believes, stalls scientific arguments, and hinders progress.




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57 comments:

Andrew Thomas said...

Maybe the onus is now on the best physicists to come down from their "ivory tower" and compete with those on the internet who are getting their message across much more effectively. I guess it won't happen while research is judged by how many papers you publish, not how many eyeballs you reach.

Here's a question: why are so many published physics papers almost wilfully impenetrable and difficult to read? It's almost as if authors feel they are more authoritative if they make their paper so technical as to be almost unreadable - whereas the goal should surely be the reverse: to make it as easy to understand as possible. That Bogdanov affair revealed the root of the problem: you can get a paper published without anyone understanding what the hell you're going on about! It's fascinating reading the
comments of the referees who were basically reviewing a load of impenetrable nonsense. What is wrong with the system if you can do that?

Changing the subject, you make a good point about much important information only being available in old books. I tried to find a derivation of the Wheeler De Witt equation recently and I seem to remember it is literally unavailable on the internet. You can only find it in books from the '60s and '70s. Surely someone should be putting the old, important stuff on the internet?

Andrew Thomas said...

Thinking about it, I think presenting work in an overly technical manner can give an "aura of competence" which can be unjustified (as in the Bogdanov case).

You say: "Because with the advent of infotainment there seems to come the believe that learning must be easy, and if a topic is complicated, it must be the fault of the person explaining it." I do actually see your point there, that some concepts in physics are just plain complicated, and always will be. But things should not be made more complicated than necessary (unfortunately, as I said, sometimes the goal of a paper seems to be to wrap-up a simple idea in a complicated explanation). I like Einstein's quote: "You do not really understand something unless you can explain it to your grandmother."

A basic grounding in physics (which, after all, is all most people searching on the internet are looking for) is really not that difficult to obtain. Using its complexity as an excuse for not presenting work in an accessible manner, and then getting all grumpy about it when people look elsewhere for answers, is not going to improve the state of education of the public.

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Bee,

I certainly agree with many of your points. However, the illusion of knowledge is not a phenomenon that is a consequence of the internet or any modern media. It is a phenomenon that has existed probably as long as mankind ; only it had different names such as myth or legend. The most largely used term for the phenomena today is what is often referred to as common sense. What the modern media has done in this regard is to have such opinion propagate more quickly and widely.

The other consequence related to knowledge is not only what we think we know, yet also how we come to know it. To truly know something one needs to consider it from base or fundamental principles. In mathematics that would refer to proof and in science deductive and inductive reasoning applied in terms of the scientific method.

To omit such methodology is what is called route learning and is not what I would call true knowledge. The fact is the vast the majority of the populous both now and in the past are route learners and have little or no knowledge of anything from a fundamental perspective; as such they are not simply restricted by what they know yet more importantly by how they know it, since they cannot apply such knowledge often or reliably in new situations or problems.

Best,

Phil

Bee said...

Hi Andrew,

I agree with you. As I have expressed many times I very much like the trend to make abstract scientific research more accessible, and I also think that many explanations do not need to be as technical as they are often presented.

I think however this is a somewhat different point than what this post was aiming at. The problem I think underlies the complications in peer review and in overly technical papers is the increasing specialization in our communities. When I get to read a paper first time I have the immediate ten stupid questions of the kind 'What is l* ?', 'Why is it obvious that from X follows Y?' and 'How does reference [8] support the claim soandso?'. Peer review doesn't allow a sensible exchange with the author to clarify these immediate questions, and possibly many referees just assume it will be okay in some way. I would very much prefer a process in which one could e.g. through the journal online interface discuss with the author (anonymously), clarify these immediate questions (that would also save a lot of time), and after some weeks write a report summarizing the conclusions one has drawn from reading the paper and the additional explanations of the author.

Part of the reason why works are more technical than necessary is that some researchers just aren't good writers, and very likely believe their papers are perfectly clear in their argumentation. But I think it is also true what you say that technical details provide an 'aura of competence'. In a paper much as in a talk, many equations look impressive and 'scientific' notwithstanding the actual content. It isn't difficult to produce content-free and unnecessary details. Here, as in many cases, the difficulty is in making things simpler, but it seems to me simplification is a style that isn't very much appreciated by a community that rewards specialization and technicalities.

Anyway. You are probably right that this is connected to the Illusion of Knowledge as it produces a gap between the overcomplication and the oversimplification. As an example for oversimplification, I think it is a mistake to ban equations out of pop science. We know from magazines like SciAm, that it is indeed possible to add some equations without scaring the readers away, and with only getting used to it I believe everybody can manage to 'read' mathematics. This would help in many instances to make arguments incredibly more precise, since the written word is often very insufficient as an explanation.

Best,

B.

Bee said...

Hi Phil,

Yes, there is nothing new about this problem. What is new is the extend to which it can grow due to the technological developments we are subject to. This is basically what I was trying to say. Best,

B.

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Bee,

I’m sorry if I came across as one preaching to the choir. It’s just that I feel often that what you write carries with it the assumption that things such that I point out are obvious. In this regard what I say is more from my own experience and association with what I refer to as the lay people, which I am a member of. What I truly like about this blog is that you and Stefan attempt not only to communicate ideas and opinions to your peers, yet also more importantly with the ones I refer to. When I post such a comment it is more for them, as I am aware you have taken such as a given.

Best,

Phil

Arun said...

Not to do with physics, but to do with the illusion of knowledge:

http://turcopolier.typepad.com/sic_semper_tyrannis/2008/05/qustioning-the.html

"After a recent talk at a small college, a faculty member in the business sciences asked me if I had really meant to say that the Iraqis and other Middle Easterners did not want to be "us." When assured that I had meant it, he said that this was most disturbing and that the thought had not occurred to him before. He continued that such a notion was threatening because, if believed, it would require a re-appraisal of the worth of Western culture. He said that he had always assumed that people who lived in significantly different ways did so either from ignorance or because the structure of their societies functioned to hold them in subservience to a primitive way of life. He said that if that were not true and in fact most non-Western people wanted a better life in material terms without adopting the values of the West, then much of his life had been lived in error. "I think of all the foreign students whom I assumed were just waiting for enlightenment.""

Arun said...

Oops, URL
http://turcopolier.typepad.com/sic_semper_tyrannis/2008/05/qustioning-the.html

Bee said...

Hi Phil,

Sure. I just meant to say I agree with you. I assumed you know anyway (I think the topic came up previously), but just in case another reader might have a different impression. Best,

B.

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Arun,

“Not to do with physics, but to do with the illusion of knowledge”

Is what you impart able to be accessed in terms of proof, as to be deduced and or inducted within a logically derived structure?

Best,

Phil

Ed said...

Hi Bee. Excellent article. In further support of your point, look up "nonintuitive nature of physics" (without quotes). I found 5350 entries. Any subject which is non intuitive is by definition hard to understand. That doesn't make it any less valuable.

X said...

Andrew Thomas:” I tried to find a derivation of the Wheeler De Witt equation recently and I seem to remember it is literally unavailable on the internet. You can only find it in books from the '60s and '70s. Surely someone should be putting the old, important stuff on the internet?”

What wrong with going to library, sitting quietly with piece of paper and pen and to read and reconstruct the necessary calculation steps of derivation?

Andrew Thomas:” I like Einstein's quote: "You do not really understand something unless you can explain it to your grandmother."”

Notice that it doesn’t imply that your grandmother should understand your explanation.

Bee:” As things are, many of the really insightful science books were written long before the first website went online. (A side effect of this attention-for-newness is that pieces of information have a recurrence time after which they can be warmed up again and reappear.)

The Burning of the Library of Alexandria is claimed to delay the progress for 1000 years, nevertheless it didn’t prevent it.

Regards, Dany.

X said...

Arun:” Not to do with physics”

No. All presented examples without exception are covered by C.E.Shannon “Theory of Communication” which I consider adequate. It implemented empirically in every existing communication system: 1) hardware – receiver, transmitter, communication media, overlapping bandwidth, matched filters, etc; 2) software – message format, coding, error corrections, acknowledgement (receive confirmation), etc. Notice that ack means only I got it, don’t mean understand or intend to perform accordingly.

Regards, Dany.

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Dany,

“The Burning of the Library of Alexandria is claimed to delay the progress for 1000 years, nevertheless it didn’t prevent it.”

Most likely so; and yet what I believe is Bee’s concern, which I share, is who would want to risk or better have apathy compounded by ignorance be the cause of such a likely possibility? It would be much simpler to install a sprinkler system, which is the action taken by way of knowledge manifesting the necessity of forethought. Dumb may prove to be natural, yet I would maintain doesn’t therefore render it either desirable or wise.

Best,

Phil

X said...

Hi Phil,

Phil Warnell:” and yet what I believe is Bee’s concern, which I share, is who would want to risk or better have apathy compounded by ignorance be the cause of such a likely possibility?”

I used the extreme case that seems impossible today. Today analogy is “burning” signals in the excessive noise. However we develop in parallel the sophisticated methods of the coherent integration to extract them anyway.

Regards, Dany.

Bee said...

Hi Dany,

The question is whether we pay enough attention to keeping the signal above the noise? Do you think this is presently the case? If I look around on the internet, I don't think so.

Anyway, even though I might sometimes come across as a pessimist, I do not actually think we will 'prevent' progress - I think nature will find a way, somehow. But as you say, it is possible we can seriously hinder progress for potentially a long time. There is no guarantee that every change that arises is an improvement, but there is very realistically the possibility that we are facing a time of regress and possibly breakdown - if only temporarily, I do not want the next generation to grow up in less pleasant circumstances than us, and I think it can be avoided if we think ahead a little bit, and apply the scientific method a little bit more consequently also in areas like politics and economy. Best,

B.

Uncle Al said...

As with any vehicle moving over rough ground knowledge requires shock absorbers - dashpot and spring. Good science oozes with viscosity. When there is no governor on the engine polywater, cold fusion, the Fifth Force, Podkletnov, ending reality with synthetic black holes... acquire momentum and energy they do not merit. Reality is not a peer vote.

Is the postulated Equivalence Principle true? Parity-violating massed sectors are neither required nor forbidden in metric-affine, Einstein-Cartan, teleparallel, and Riemannian geometry gravitations. Ashtekar has a parity violating term with the Immirzi coefficient. EP parity violation cannot originate in Newtonian gravitation (e.g., Green's function), General Relativity (Equivalence Principle), or string theory (BRST invariance).

Do chemically identical left and right shoes (space groups P3(1)21 and P3(2)21 quartz) vacuum free fall identically? Somebody should look. The greatest obstacle to discovery is not ignorance but the illusion of knowledge.

Anonymous said...

Somebody actually did mathematically "prove" the existence of Adam Smith's "invisible hand" in some simplified economic models. They even won the Nobel Prize for it in 1983.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gerard_Debreu

Bee said...

Anonymous: Markets provide a mechanism that leads our societies from somewhere to somewhere. You can call that an 'invisible hand' and then it exists. The question is however whether this regulation 'automatically' leads where we want to go. 'Want' being a consciously chosen goal, including political, social, and economical considerations. The answer is 'no' and it is e.g. known that the regulation on the free market does not appropriately deal with externalities unless they are incorporated by assigning monetary value or issuing laws etc. This process is esp. on a global level extremely complicated (carbon tax??) and works very inefficiently. There is nothing new about this, yet there are still people arguing against necessary additional regulations (and globally functional decision making processes) by claiming their national economy could suffer and this would of course be the worst scenario they can think of.

Anonymous said...

In most of these simplified mathematical economics models of Debreu and others, the "human factors" which defy a precise mathematical formulation have all largely been left out. This is the main reason as to why hardly anybody believes in these mathematical "proofs" of Adam Smith's "invisible hand". The underlying assumptions of these models are just too simplistic, and are generally not accurate representations of the real world economy.

Bee said...

Yes. But I think the trend to replace trial and error with a scientific method is the right idea. I am afraid though it will take far too long for this to result in the changes we need if one hopes 'it will all work out somehow' within the present system. The scientific community is far too quiet and polite.

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Dany,

“Today analogy is “burning” signals in the excessive noise. However we develop in parallel the sophisticated methods of the coherent integration to extract them anyway.”

The difference often between the solutions of man and the solutions of nature relate to time. In one perspective nature finds the correct path without the restriction of time as expressed by action. With the solutions of man, the path is found often only through and with time, where all after cancelled wrong paths must first be realized. I would rather have us act more like nature, where the wrong path may be recognized yet never realized.

Best,

Phil

X said...

Hi Bee,

Bee:” The question is whether we pay enough attention to keeping the signal above the noise? Do you think this is presently the case? If I look around on the internet, I don't think so.”

Agree with you. I think we should isolate ourselves from journalists.

Regards, Dany.

Plato said...

Dany:I think we should isolate ourselves from journalists.

You know Dany, I think this is counter productive to learning again.

Developing the base of knowledge for reference is ever the exercise on leading one out of ignorance, giving always, to the pursuit of clarity and meaning.

It's a life struggle too.

Shall we deny you this opportunity using such a medium, and then say, you just did not get the full picture?:)

As a lay person I would not like to be cut off like this, and I am sure, had I had the ability to censor you against such a pursuit would again be counter productive to what I know one can learn from you.

So we have ever the growth in Wiki( an example) that has served it's purpose. To use the technical aspects of this medium, that again you could be isolated because of this detriment to advancing the human condition?

I am sure if one considered this in this vain, one may reconsider the error of one's way?

Stefan and Bee have advanced the cause of allowing growth in understanding?

EX. LHC in face of what would not have been allowed a greater space for reason to prevail, and remove the ignorance while point out the truth of the situation?

Nor shall we forget those who challenge us to explain ourselves.:)

Plato said...

Using the policy of Perimeter Institute Recorded Seminar Archive -PIRSA, as an inception to allowing access to the lectures?

Who in their rightful educated mind would withdraw this? Does "this medium" discriminate?

Lazardis, and the opulence of wealth wilfully grants to every citizen, a new model of learning, which is advanced in the cause of an open dialogue?

We take these models then, out into to society, and "advance the cause." Shall we be so pompous that we deny that we can ever learn?

Neil' said...

The disturbing and fascinating essay "Why most published research findings are false" by John P. A. Ioannidis (2005) fits right in to the subject of this post, and can be found here.
The title is fairly self-explanatory. The study was developed in reference to bio-medical research, where we are subject to shifting winds about echinacea, St. John's wort, salt use, this or that medication etc, but the author says the general principles apply to research in general. That's scary. This is a must-read.

BTW, another great essay, Bee.

X said...

Hi Phil,

Phil Warnell:” I think this is counter productive to learning again... Shall we deny you this opportunity using such a medium... As a lay person I would not like to be cut off like this.”

I didn’t say that and didn’t mean that. I think nobody need second hand to learn. I identify journalists as a main source of the excessive noise. They are jammers (ECM) to prevent access to the real knowledge (intentionally or not).

A typical time constant to formulate physical theory is of order 100 years. It is completely outside the bandwidth of any journalist.

Regards, Dany.

Bee said...

Hi Neil,

Thanks for mentioning that article, sounds interesting!

Hi Dany,

Well, there are good journalists. The question here as in many other instances is what kind of 'good' gets rewarded.

Hi Plato,

Learning requires effective information exchange. Recall the problem with putting the key in the trunk?

Best,

B.

Bee said...

Hi Ed,

Any subject which is non intuitive is by definition hard to understand. That doesn't make it any less valuable.

Indeed. One can also ask how far our 'intuition' is likely to help when theories get increasingly abstract and depart from our every day experience that our brains evolved to deal with.

Best,

B.

Plato said...

Bee:An irreversible process, resulting in a potentially expensive, and certainly annoying, need to unlock a lock to access the key to that very lock.

Learning requires effective information exchange.

Good thing this bloggery is about "other things" as well as science:)?

Your key, is maybe a "logical conclusion" about science "in the way things are manufactured?":) I think Phil pointed to the aspect of ingenuity, "other then," the way things had always been done.

Sorry, if I may seem failing in the contributions?

X said...

Hi Bee,

Bee: “The problem is the Illusion of Knowledge that comes with an overabundance of unstructured information.”

Bee:” Well, there are good journalists. The question here as in many other instances is what kind of 'good' gets rewarded.”

“There is nothing either good or bad.” We have our popsci, for example, S.Weinberg, M.Gell-Mann, R.P.Feynman. I do not believe that there exist journalists compatible with them as far as physics is a matter.

Hi Plato,

Plato:” But they are more then speculations, even while they are subjective to you. I am speaking of something I do know. I am a student, yet, we live "experience" and underneath the realities, the math you talk about… I also pay attention to what scientists are doing too. I am learning, and trying.”

Plato:” I think this is counter productive to learning again... Shall we deny you this opportunity using such a medium... As a lay person I would not like to be cut off like this.”

Sorry for misidentification. I consider this discussion as continuation of the previous (Ned comment). I now admit that I didn’t understand your comment at all.

Regards, Dany.

X said...

Hi Plato,

Plato:” I think this is counter productive to learning again.”

I apologize in advance, but if I take your statement literally, it is absurd statement. For example, the Young experiment was known and “understood” around 1800. It was relearned during 20th century. That “counter productive” process lead us to the today generally accepted statement that understanding of double slit is equivalent to formulation consistent Quantum Theory of Fields.

Plato:” I am sure, had I had the ability to censor you against such a pursuit would again be counter productive to what I know one can learn from you.”

I don’t understand what you say and what you intend to say (my English is poor). I may illustrate on less trivial example what one can learn from me (provided he/she is not a lay person):

1)look now at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HnBZf1RfB-w&feature=related;
2)verify what is the definition of black body and what the Planck distribution is supposed to describe;
3)go to L.D. Landau and E.M. Lifshitz “Statistical Physics”;
4)go to the Feynman Lectures on Physics;
5)compare and explain how it happens that two outstanding physicists provide the opposite explanation of the physical content of the same experiment;
6)provided that you accept that the Planck distribution describes the statistics of ideal photon gas at thermodynamical equilibrium, explain what the above you tube movie has to do with all that (except that the final result is obviously correct).

Regards, Dany.

Plato said...

Hi Dany,

First off, I have to apologize too, in that the impressions that stuck with you, has you reacting.

It would not be unfair to say that such reactionary modes are my own failing too.:)I slip, and I make mistakes, only to come back later, and try and do it over again:)

Einstein's simultaneity was a mantra I guess you could say. IN that, such speculations of Jung were induced by scientific discussions with his peers and brought to a psychological end.

Science continues in this work and the results today are an interesting life lesson in itself.

History in terms of Fessenden and Marconi, along with Edison, were good examples as well.

Silicon valley and the transistors. Moore's law?:)Miniaturizations, and computers?

Communication has been changed by the way in which information is now shared, and looking at this historical picture, is, as much as a education, as leaving around some conclusions of the kind that I do.

A perpetrating of further illusions? LOL

But to your points, I will have a look. I will have to wait until I can access high speed connections of Youtube, and then download for viewing here at home.

Do you live in Belarus?

Best,

X said...

Hi Plato,

“But to your points, I will have a look. I will have to wait until I can access high speed connections of Youtube, and then download for viewing here at home.

Do you live in Belarus?”

I live in Birobijan. When you will have access high speed connections of Youtube I suggest look also “M Theory”:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ietlmry3pss&feature=related

I find it deep and interesting presentation that I guess fit the spirit of your approach.

Regards, Dany.

Bee said...

Hi Dany,

“There is nothing either good or bad.” We have our popsci, for example, S.Weinberg, M.Gell-Mann, R.P.Feynman. I do not believe that there exist journalists compatible with them as far as physics is a matter.

Probably not. But I think scientific journalism has its place, and it can't be entirely done by the scientists themselves. For one it's a matter of time. The demand for scientific journalism is larger than what scientists could cover themselves while still doing research. The other point is that an education in writing for the public is quite helpful. Some people are naturals, but admittedly I find that many scientists who write (e.g. for Discover magazine or blogs) don't actually write well. This causes a lot of unintended misunderstanding, or possibly just bores people into afterlife. Best,

B.

changcho said...

"But I think scientific journalism has its place, and it can't be entirely done by the scientists themselves"

Totally agree - it is a big job.

Great article, again. When are you going to write a book??

Bee said...

Hi Changcho,

Funny you're asking that because I've just dragged myself out of bed after a sleepness night and thought maybe I should write a book to get rid of all these words in my head? What should I write a book about? Best,

B.

X said...

Hi Bee,

Bee:” But I think scientific journalism has its place, and it can't be entirely done by the scientists themselves. The demand for scientific journalism is larger than what scientists could cover themselves while still doing research.”

For me the Internet is a miracle that I never imagined decades ago: using a few keywords I instantly get access to practically everything I want to know. My suggestion was to isolate ourselves from journalism (passive jammers) and not journalism from us (active jammers). By the way, I think M.Jammer is the best. With respect to demand I didn’t notice so much progress that can’t be covered by good presentation once per decade.

Regards, Dany.

Neil' said...

Bee, I think you should write a book about science, learning, knowledge and society in the best tradition of CP Snow. There's way too much rebundled blabber out there about strings and dark energy and other universes and not enough pulling it together with the whole of our civilization. Your essays here are readable, informed, and thought-provoking. Integrate them together with some new material and editing, and put it forth.

X said...

Hi Bee,

I would like to add something to clarify my point about the positive role of Web in the distribution of knowledge.

Today every curious layman used to use Wiki to obtain the superficial acquaintance with the meaning of the notions used in the specific text (posts, comments, papers, books). Now consider for example S.Weinberg “The First Three Minutes”. Provided the author want to write about 200 pages book, today he can’t devote most of it to “explanations” of irrelevant notions which every fool may obtain through Wiki.
Therefore, I am really curious to know how he would manage to avoid the explanation what Rayleigh – Jeans region (first ed. p.59, 1977) has to do with photons. Layman may instantly verify using Wiki that it adequately described by the classical Maxwell ED. In addition, in order to fill in the above 200 pages the writer would be forced to explain what the indicated Galactic Radiation (presented on the same p.59) has to do with the Planck distribution.

Regards, Dany.

Bee said...

Hi Dany,

I personally find it incredibly annoying if an author uses concepts he or she doesn't explain in the book, but one has to look it up elsewhere. In addition to this, Wikipedia entries are not generally well written, and not explanations I like very much because they are so concise or insightful. Best,

B.

X said...

Hi Bee,

“I personally find it incredibly annoying if an author uses concepts he or she doesn't explain in the book, but one has to look it up elsewhere.”

We are talking about popsci literature for layman. How it may be otherwise?

Regards, Dany.

Bee said...

Hi Dany,

We are talking about popsci literature for layman. How it may be otherwise?

It's a matter of details. You can explain the relevant concepts without necessarily explaining every step one needs to derive it. Good popsci books manage to do that. Wikipedia in most cases does a poor job in that it's often not well written, and has too many details, like, you get constantly referred and referred and referred and end up reading 100 Wikipedia sites plus twice as many outbound links. It's not that this is bad or not useful, it's just not what I'd want from a concise introduction (that hopefully also is entertaining).

Best,

B.

X said...

Hi Bee,

“It's a matter of details. You can explain the relevant concepts without necessarily explaining every step one needs to derive it. Good popsci books manage to do that.”

I used “Three Minutes” in attempt to understand you and the present situation with popsci literature. It is all your territory: phenomenology, cosmology and popsci.
I should tell you something personal. I read perhaps two or three popsci in my life. The first was “The Evolution of Physics”. It was before I started study physics and perhaps the trigger why I decided to do that. It was pure illusion of understanding and layman knowledge. Much later, I got farewell gift from my English teacher (I was her total failure):”The First Three Minutes”. I read it and didn’t understand a-n-y-t-h-i-n-g. No doubt that both are outstanding examples of popsci literature.

Regards, Dany.

Bee said...

Hi Dany,

Well, I don't read much popsci either, mostly because it becomes very repetitive if you know the field. Most of the popsci that I read is from magazines like Discover or SciAm. I didn't read the Three Minutes so can't say anything about it. I actually liked Brian Greene's book, he explains very nicely. What I dislike generally however is the fear of using equations. Even if one or the other reader doesn't get it, an equation makes things much more precise and can clarify a lot were words remain insufficient. It would also encourage those who are interested to look somewhat more into the theoretical background. I think with some practice most people would be able to 'read' maths. It isn't that complicated after all. Best,

B.

Andrew Thomas said...

I agre, Bee, I wish they'd use more equations. I don't like just being TOLD a result, I like to know how they got there in the first place. Roger Penrose's "Road To Reality" is solid gold if you like equations in a popular science book.

X said...

Hi Bee,

“I didn't read the Three Minutes so can't say anything about it.”

Pity. Thus we can’t establish the common (and unobservable) information background to maintain communication.

Bee:” What I dislike generally however is the fear of using equations. Even if one or the other reader doesn't get it, an equation makes things much more precise and can clarify a lot were words remain insufficient.”

Your statement is in the direct contradiction with:

"You do not really understand something unless you can explain it to your grandmother."

Bee:” I think with some practice most people would be able to 'read' maths. It isn't that complicated after all.”

Your statement is in the direct contradiction with:

“This will not do. Physics is obviously far too difficult to be left to the physicists!”

I think that the average professional in the theoretical physics need at least five years to learn the math which I consider directly relevant to formulation of Relativistic QM (QFT). After that he needs to develop the necessary supplementary math on his own. Physics is obviously far too difficult to be left to the mathematicians.

Let return back to earth and to main topic of our discussion. Let me illustrate my statement from the other universe: today morning on radio was reported that U.S. Senator Barack Obama translated his name on Hebrew “blessed”. The correct translation every fool may obtain through Wiki (if he want to) instantly.

Regards, Dany.

X said...

Hi Bee,

“like, you get constantly referred and referred and referred and end up reading 100 Wikipedia sites plus twice as many outbound links.”

P.S. It takes from me less than three minutes. I use the “collapse of the wave packet” and come to the certain conclusion: the writer has no idea what he is talking about. I leave the site instantly and don’t use his refs which supposed to support his nonsense.
There exist always eigenschaftens.

Regards, Dany.

Bee said...

Hi Dany,

"What I dislike generally however is the fear of using equations. Even if one or the other reader doesn't get it, an equation makes things much more precise and can clarify a lot were words remain insufficient.”

Your statement is in the direct contradiction with:

"You do not really understand something unless you can explain it to your grandmother."


Why is that a contradiction? If you can explain something without equations doesn't mean you have to, and as I said previously I don't think leaving equations out completely is the best option. One can explain equations to grandmothers.

"I think with some practice most people would be able to 'read' maths. It isn't that complicated after all.”

Your statement is in the direct contradiction with:

“This will not do. Physics is obviously far too difficult to be left to the physicists!”


No it isn't. What is complicated about physics isn't the maths. What is complicated is to get the physics into maths. As you say "Physics is obviously far too difficult to be left to the mathematicians."

I think that the average professional in the theoretical physics need at least five years to learn the math which I consider directly relevant to formulation of Relativistic QM (QFT). After that he needs to develop the necessary supplementary math on his own.

That might be true, but you don't need to know all the details to roughly understand how you can e.g. extract the interaction vertices from the Lagrangian or something like this. There's some concepts that are rather easy to explain, like conservation laws and so on. Or take Einstein's Field Equations. You don't need to know exactly how to construct the curvature tensor etc. You can already get something out of knowing you have the space-time properties in the metric and curvature on the one side, and this curvature is caused by the stress-energy tensor on the right side. It needs to have a coupling constant that is dimensionful etc. That's about the level I was thinking about. Geodesics also aren't so difficult to understand.

As to developing the necessary supplement - that's the difficult part, but I wouldn't have called that 'reading' maths. Maybe one could call it 'speaking' maths.

Best,

B.

X said...

Hi Bee,

Bee:” One can explain equations to grandmothers.”

Sure, provided that grandmothers have PhD in the theoretical physics.

Bee:” No it isn't. What is complicated about physics isn't the maths.”

I am not sure. It is not so for me at least. In addition, D.Hilbert was pretty educated math-ph.

Bee:” There's some concepts that are rather easy to explain, like conservation laws and so on. Or take Einstein's Field Equations. You don't need to know exactly how to construct the curvature tensor etc. You can already get something out of knowing you have the space-time properties in the metric and curvature on the one side, and this curvature is caused by the stress-energy tensor on the right side. It needs to have a coupling constant that is dimensionful etc. That's about the level I was thinking about. Geodesics also aren't so difficult to understand.”

Great. If I got it you are talking about popsci book which explain and describe carefully the foundations of cosmology. A. Einstein certainly didn’t that. If nobody serious did that, go ahead! But it will be boring in blogosphere without you.

Regards, Dany.

Andrew Thomas said...

You can have equations in a pop science book as long as you also include a written description so people can avoid the equations if they so wish. But people who want to dig a bit deeper could consider the maths. So it appeals to the widest audience. At the very least, they should have references to arXiv papers.

X said...

Hi Bee,

“The other point is that an education in writing for the public is quite helpful. Some people are naturals, but admittedly I find that many scientists who write (e.g. for Discover magazine) don't actually write well. This causes a lot of unintended misunderstanding, or possibly just bores people into afterlife.”

P.P.S. I just stumbled on some garbage published in SciAm. All that magazines are dead horses. Web and blogs killed them.

Regards, Dany.

X said...

Andrew Thomas:” You can have equations in a pop science book as long as you also include a written description so people can avoid the equations if they so wish. But people who want to dig a bit deeper could consider the maths.”

Hi Andrew,

That is exactly what S.Weinberg did in “Three Minutes” (A Mathematical Supplement +Glossary+ Suggestion for the Further Reading). You clearly express the correspondent layman backreaction: after first reading one remains with the filling that it is interesting but only illusion of understanding and knowledge. Now, if you get triggered, you go on along the standard track: classical mechanics, analytical mechanics, SR, ED, stat physics and GR (at least) and in parallel classical analysis, vector analysis, tensor analysis, general algebra and theory of continuous groups (at least). I would not provide you any tools “to dig a bit deeper” since I honestly respect my reader.

Regards, Dany.

Bee said...

Hi Dany, Andrew:

I've exported the reply to your last comments into a new post. Best,

B.

X said...

Hi Bee,

“Einstein certainly used equations e.g. in his book 'Über die Spezielle und die Allgemeine Relativitätstheorie'. Whether or not an equation is useful and or necessary depends of course on the scope of the book.”

You may compare the Preface in “The Evolution of Physics” and here.It is clearly stated that the evolution is for layman and On SR and GR is addressed to the “educated scientists”. Here the empirical foundations of the theory are unambiguously emphasized right from the beginning (even in Preface). The necessity of the empirical verification of the theory is discussed in details. In addition to math, the paper contains refs to investigations of others.

You didn’t react on my remark about SO(1,3) vs SO(3,1). A. Einstein used SO(3,1) and that is the illustration of what I had in mind saying “physics is obviously far too difficult to be left to the mathematicians.” (“Weyl unitary trick” for example). A. Einstein believed too much to the mathematicians (H.Minkowski, H.Weyl, E.Cartan).

I would like to attract your attention to “Mein Antwort uber die antirelativitätstheoretische G.m.b.H. Gesellschaft mit beschränkter Haftung”. It contains interesting remarks about dark matter. If you will decide to write popsci or not popsci book (investigation) of the foundations of cosmology, I will be your reader doesn’t a matter what math level you will choose to be appropriate; however, without the detailed historical analysis (evolution) and A. Einstein “Autobiographisches” I will not read.

Regards, Dany.

X said...

Hi Stefan,

Stefan:” Albert Schweitzer may indeed be a good starting point... Actually, I do not want to read about music, I was just musing that books about music may face a similar problem that they have to deal with musical notation. Keep it, so that it emands that readers can read notes, or omit it? This seems to be not too different to the questions how to deal with maths.”

Your question is so beautiful! You introduce another and equivalent reference frame. The questions related to knowledge, illusions and the connection between them are the general concern of human beings and human culture and not something specific to the physics. However, we are the frontier as always were during the entire history of civilization.

It is common point that the pure music is the integrated alternative form of the wave mechanics (acoustics), mathematics and consciousness. However, the audio language operates directly on subconsciousness (irrational) and apparently can’t be expressed using words. The writings are easily readable but by the professionals only. In my experience, at the average level the ability to read music not only don’t help to professional but make him/her insensible, neutralize the ability to grasp the content due to the excessive and obsessive attention to the irrelevant technical details.

The historical development (evolution) went through pure sound (tools: instruments and human voice) to sounds + declamations (religious fairytales) to video (opera and ballet, initially on the religious bases and finally separated from it; C. Monteverdi et al). If my indication is correct, the evolution proceeds from the irrational (chaos) to the rational (organized structures) and not on the contrary (indeed that is a matter of sign, our worst enemy).

I consider J.S. Bach the creator of intermediate TOE, outstanding mathematician and physicist who only used alternative tools. Albert Schweitzer book is the only example known to me of the popsci translation of music on human language (Marie-Henri Beyle I don’t count). I read the Russian translation from the German; I don’t have it handy, but remember that he used “equations” two or three times for the illustration. I consider them yet another tool and each writer use them according to his/her personal taste where appropriate.

Regards, Dany.

P.S. Stefan, music is not area of my competence either, I am just layman there and thus consider your question extremely enlighten for the purpose of the present discussion (for me, at least). However, to defend myself, I am serious layman and memorized about 90% of known J.S. Bach “papers” from BWV arXiv.

X said...

Hi Bee,

Bee:” Since you claim I did not identify your point of view, then maybe you could tell me what it is?... Besides this, times change.”

It appears today in our media the additional “treasure” of U.S. Senator Barack Obama: his uncle participated in the liberation of Auschwitz annihilation facility.
In compliance with my POV which somehow is not clear to you, the journalists should worry much more about human quality of the next President of the U.S.A. (doesn’t a matter who will be) than about experimental and theoretical physics facilities. After all we are trying to reveal the Laws of Nature. There is nothing personal in that by definition.

“There is nothing either good or bad. Thinking makes it so.”

So far I told you what is “Yes” in my position. To complete the qubit, read what is “No” here:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GSlJQkP9YE4&feature=related

Regards, Dany.

P.S. I didn’t read R.Penrose book “The Road to Reality-A Complete Guide To The Laws of The Universe” yet, but I have his “Shadows” on my desk. R.Penrose is the professional mathematician. FAPP there is no math in his book and within the area of my competence is “The Measurement Problem” only. That is THE PHYSICS and the truth is very simple. As C.E. Shannon explained, the languages of the transmitter and the receiver should be matched. A. Einstein did that for the Newtonian Mechanics vs Maxwell ED using rod and clock and without philosophy. How to do that for the Newtonian Mechanics vs Heisenberg - Schrödinger QM is demonstrated in quant-ph/0606121. I just relearn the backreaction (third Newton law) ignored by John von Neumann. I simply introduce the mathematical language(s) which was (were) unknown (missed) by the mathematicians. Without any philosophy.