Thursday, September 24, 2015

The power of words – and its limit

What images does the word “power” bring to your mind? Weapons? Bulging muscles? A mean-looking capitalist smoking cigar? Whatever your mind’s eye brings up, it is most likely not a fragile figure hunched over a keyboard. But maybe it should.

Words have power, today more than ever. Riots and rebellions can be arranged by text-messages, a single word made hashtag can create a mass movement, 140 characters will ruin a career, and a video gone viral will reach out to the world. Words can destroy lives or they can save them: “If you find the right tone and the right words, you can reach just about anybody,” says Cid Jonas Gutenrath who worked for years at the emergency call center of the Berlin police force [1]:

“I had worked before as a bouncer, and I was always the shortest one there. I had an existential need, so to speak, to solve problems through language. I can express myself well, and when that’s combined with some insights into human nature it’s a valuable skill. What I’m talking about is every conversation with the police, whether it’s an emergency call or a talk on the street. Language makes it possible for everyone involved to get out of the situation in one piece.”

Words won’t break your bones. But more often than not, words – or their failure – decide whether we take to weapons. It is our ability to convince, cooperate, and compromise that has allowed us to conquer an increasingly crowded planet. According to recent research, what made humans so successful might indeed not have been superior intelligence or skills, but instead our ability to communicate and work together.

In a recent SciAm issue, Curtis W. Marean, Professor for Archeology at Arizona State University, lays out a new hypothesis to explain what was the decisive development that allowed humans to dominate Earth. According to Marean, it is not, as previously proposed, handling fire, building tools, or digesting a large variety of food. Instead, he argues, what sets us apart is our willingness to negotiate a common goal.

The evolution of language was necessary to allow our ancestors to find solutions to collective problems, solutions other than hitting each other over the head. So it became possible to reach agreements between groups, to develop a basis for commitments and, eventually, contracts. Language also served to speed up social learning and to spread ideas. Without language we wouldn’t have been able to build a body of knowledge on which the scientific profession could stand today.

“Tell a story,” is the ubiquitous advice given to anybody who writes or speaks in public. And yet, some information fits badly into story-form. In popular science writing, the reader inevitably gets the impression that much of science is a series of insights building onto each other. The truth is that most often it is more like collecting puzzle pieces that might or might not actually belong to the same picture.

The stories we tell are inevitably linear; they follow one neat paragraph after the other, one orderly thought after the next, line by line, word by word. But this simplicity betrays the complexity of the manifold interrelations between scientific concepts. Ask any researcher for their opinion on a news report in their discipline and they will almost certainly say “It’s not so simple…”

Links between different fields of science.
Image Source: Bollen et al, PLOS ONE, March 11, 2009.
There is a value to simple stories. They are easily digestible and convey excitement about science. But the reader who misses the entire context cannot tell how well a new finding is embedded into existing research. The term “fringe science” is a direct visual metaphor alluding to this disconnect, and it’s a powerful one. Real scientific progress must fit into the network of existing knowledge.

The problem with linear stories doesn’t only make the writing about science difficult, but also the writing in science. The main difficulty when composing scientific papers is the necessity to convert a higher-dimensional network of associations into a one-dimensional string. It is plainly impossible. Many research articles are hard to follow, not because they are badly written, but because the nature of knowledge itself doesn’t lend itself to the narrative.

I have an ambivalent relation to science communication because a good story shouldn’t make or break an idea. But the more ideas we are exposed to, the more relevant good presentation becomes. Every day scientific research seems a little less like a quest for truth, and a little more like a competition for attention.

In an ideal world maybe scientists wouldn’t write their papers themselves. They would call for an independent reporter and have to explain their calculations, then hand over their results. The paper would be written up by an unbiased expert, plain, objective, and comprehensible. Without exaggerations, without omissions, and without undue citations to friends. But we don’t live in an ideal world.

What can you do? Clumsy and often imperfect, words are still the best medium we have to convey thought. “I think therefore I am,” Descartes said. But 400 years later, the only reason his thought is still alive is that he put into writing.

[1] Quoted in: Evonik Magazine 2015-02, p 17.


  1. "our willingness to negotiate a common goal." World war plus Hiroshima became risk beyond gain as surveillance ended secrecy. Contraception negated mass slaughter of economically disenfranchised young males. Mid-East Islam (obsessive martyrdom, penury, reproduction) has 300 million oil-subsidized desert adherents as Earth is sucked empty. War is macroeconomics.

    "Links between different fields of science" The central expanse is codified bullšit. Imagine the entire collected knowledge of mankind stored within a 3-cm cube, discovered to have no index. History says "mobs are stupid," now a planetary social goal,
    Nobel Prizes gutted civilization. Macroeconomics is positive feedback wherein efficiency causes chaos.
    The hand that dumps the cradle.

  2. Hi Bee!
    Off-topic, but of interest!
    U.S. Restarts Hunt For Gravitional Waves With Advanced LIGO.

    "Advanced LIGO has begun its first official data run at its sites in Hanford, Wash. and Livingston, La.

    On Friday, the hunt for gravitational waves began again for the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO)—the largest instrument of its kind. The restart follows a five-year-long, US $200-million project to overhaul the experiment’s detectors."

  3. Read "The gift of Gab" by Jack Vance and enjoy..

  4. Some of the other analogies for public speakers other than "tell a story" are "paint a picture" and "describe a small part of the whole well, instead of trying to tell the whole story".

    The magazines "Popular Science" and "National Geographic", for example, (the first of which is about technology and not science for the most part, and the second of which is mostly about anthropology) both make excellent use of annotated illustrations that convey information in a non-linear way. The accompanying text of the stories is often very short.

    One of the best examples of the "describe a small part of the whole well" illustrations is Richard Feynman's QED lectures which describes one little piece of quantum physics (the photon propagator without polarization) in considerable technical detail to give the reader a feel for all most modern Standard Model physics.

    The real important piece of "tell a story" is that if you can explain the gist of an idea in ordinary language there is a good chance that you don't really understand the idea yourself, or that it may be flawed or trivial in ways that a clouded by jargon.

  5. “Every day scientific research seems a little less like a quest for truth, and a little more like a competition for attention”

    => Perhaps because most of the fundamental research is done by lonely cow-boys (like lucky-lucky) far away from the main stream?

    “In an ideal world maybe scientists wouldn’t write their papers themselves. They would call for an independent reporter and have to explain their calculations, then hand over their results. The paper would be written up by an unbiased expert, plain, objective, and comprehensible. Without exaggerations, without omissions, and without undue citations to friends. But we don’t live in an ideal world”.

    => Finding the correct words describing their calculations without distorsion is effectively a central problematic for scientists. Even if it is extremely difficult to do, who can do it better? A part of the creation is the result of a deep inter-play between our thoughts and the mathematics translating them. On one side we have un-said informations (my brain, alone, doesn’t speak) and on the other side we have complicated hieroglyphs who no-one understand, except some experts. This is the reason why either the creator or some friends of him/her must make efforts to convey the ideas in a more understandable language. For who wants to exist, it is actually no more enough to think. One has to do some publicity, to communicate, to explain. What is the value of a genial idea if nobody understand it?

  6. " Finding the correct words describing their calculations without distorsion is effectively a central problematic for scientists"

    It's a central problem for the majority of literate people on the planet. All the more for those not literate. There's no particular reason why your arbitrary scientist has it any worse to this end. They *should* have it much better; they've got more tools, more mediums. They've got mathematics if they're any good.

    I don't think we're talking about the case in which someone has successfully captured something into a set principles and equations, but struggle to find a form of words. I mean, if you have the principles, you have the method, and you have the maths, then you have all that you need thereabouts.

    No form of words can capture something like that. We never even attempt to capture the holistic thing into prose. What we do, is we don't go there without an explicit, narrow goal. We construct a form of words minimally to make threshold for accomplishing the goal.

    People that don't get in the groove of this discipline, risk their mental wellbeing, and productive potential. It's very easy to become obsessed with finding a perfect's a hole.

    But I think what we're talking about is the stage in affairs, someone has an envisioning that feels exciting, but has no way to explain themselves to others. But that's because they haven't yet got a substantial idea. They have a seed idea. Everyone has to go through that for every next thing.

  7. I didn't read Curtis W. Marean's essay, but I will; anyway I read for instance Herder, G.H. Mead, Arnold Gehlen, Jürgen Habermas, Thomas Luckmann. And authors like James Joyce, Alfred Döblin or Arno Schmidt made an art out of being unable to
    "to convert a higher-dimensional network of associations into a one-dimensional string".

    So what is so new about the insight that our ability to communicate and work together is constitutional for what is called the human race?
    Don't get me wrong, I don't write this to show off how educated I am or to criticize you.

    I just find it remarkable that nowadays (since maybe 10 years or so) many many truths which I thought for a long time were part of common sense (and state of the art in the respective science branch as well) are either questioned (Spencer/Darwin vs. creationism) or sold als brand new.

    From my personal point of view, people around 40 and younger are vaccinated with imperturbable self confidence and a lack of historical consciousness whatsoever. (Yes, ok, the "youth" has always been criticized). I got a gut feeling, that this is dangerous.

    Again, no offence intended.

  8. Sshawnuff,

    Uhm, I didn't exactly claim it's a new insight. I'm one of those people who tend to think everything has been said before, including that it's been said before. So what are you trying to say, that I shouldn't reflect on what I consider a tragedy of the human condition? That I shouldn't write? That you don't want to read about it? Well, if you don't like to read about it, I recommend you don't. Hope that explains it. No offence intended. Best,


  9. Hi Bee,

    you should write and reflect on whatever you choose to. Did I write something in terms of should and shouldn't?

    Thank you, that you accept that I at least try to say something.
    This kind of arrogance is what I meant with that "vaccination". You didn't understand it, but proved it.
    That's also a kind of tragedy. :-)


  10. Sshawnuff: I merely chose to ignore insults to my whole generation. The day has only 24 hours and I have to pick my fights wisely. This isn't one worth fighting.

  11. I'm not an expert, and I have not read the paper, but it seems to me that the question whether LQG respects the holographic principle is at the very least open.

    Take this quote from a standard reference on the calculation of the entropy of a black hole in LQG (from A. Ashtekar, J. Baez, A. Corichi, K. Krasnov,

    "It is intuitively clear that not all the degrees of freedom described by fields are relevant to the problem of black hole entropy. In particular, there are volume degrees of freedom in the theory corresponding to gravitational waves far away from $\Delta$ which should not be taken into account as genuine black hole degrees of freedom. The surface degrees of freedom describing the geometry of the horizon S have a different status. It has often been argued (see, e.g., [3] and references therein) that it is the degrees of freedom living on the horizon that should account for the entropy. We adopt this viewpoint in our approach."

    This clearly says that they cannot demonstrate that the entropy scales with area, only that there is a calculable surface term.

    This paper is obviously somewhat dated, but I occasionally ask whether there is a more definitive statement somewhere else, and I have yet to receive a convincing answer (maybe someone here can chime in).

  12. Thomas,

    I think you posted this in the wrong thread. But besides this you are right that there is a controversy around this when it comes to the black hole entropy in LQG. It seems intuitively strange that a quantization that relies on dividing up space into chunks would have microstates that do not count these chunks.

    However, this was *not* the point in the paper that I said is wrong. They don't calculate the entropy of a black hole, they loop-quantize a quantum field and claim that this field violates the bound. Best,



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