Thursday, August 22, 2019

You will probably not understand this

Hieroglyps. [Image: Wikipedia Commons.]

Two years ago, I gave a talk at the University of Toronto, at the institute for the history and philosophy of science. At the time, I didn’t think much about it. But in hindsight, it changed my life, at least my work-life.

I spoke about the topic of my first book. It’s a talk I have given dozens of times, and though I adapted my slides for the Toronto audience, there was nothing remarkable about it. The oddity was the format of the talk. I would speak for half an hour. After this, someone else would summarize the topic for 15 minutes. Then there would be 15 minutes discussion.

Fine, I said, sounds like fun.

A few weeks before my visit, I was contacted by a postdoc who said he’d be doing the summary. He asked for my slides, and further reading material, and if there was anything else he should know. I sent him references.

But when his turn came to speak, he did not, as I expected, summarize the argument I had delivered. Instead he reported what he had dug up about my philosophy of science, my attitude towards metaphysics, realism, and what I might mean with “explanation” or “theory” and other philosophically loaded words.

He got it largely right, though I cannot today recall the details. I only recall I didn’t have much to say about what struck me as a peculiar exercise, dedicated not to understanding my research, but to understanding me.

It was awkward, too, because I have always disliked philosophers’ dissection of scientists’ lives. Their obsessive analyses of who Schrödinger, Einstein, or Bohr talked to when, about what, in which period of what marriage, never made a lot of sense to me. It reeked too much of hero-worship, looked too much like post-mortem psychoanalysis, equally helpful to understand Einstein’s work as cutting his brain into slices.

In the months that followed the Toronto talk, though, I began reading my own blogposts with that postdoc’s interpretation in mind. And I realized that in many cases it was essential information to understand what I was trying to get across. In the past year, I have therefore made more effort to repeat background, or at least link to previous pieces, to provide that necessary context. Context which – of course! – I thought is obvious. Because certainly we all agree what a theory is. Right?

But having written a public weblog for more than 12 years makes me a comparably simple subject of study. I have, over the years, provided explanations for just exactly what I mean when I say “scientific method” or “true” or “real”. So at least you could find out if only you wanted to. Not that I expect anyone who comes here for a 1,000 word essay to study an 800,000 word archive. Still, at least that archive exists. The same, however, isn’t the case for most scientists.

I was reminded of this at a recent workshop where I spoke with another woman about her attempts to make sense of one of her senior colleague’s papers.

I don’t want to name names, but it’s someone whose research you’ll be familiar with if you follow the popular science media. His papers are chronically hard to understand. And I know it isn’t just me who struggles, because I heard a lot of people in the field make dismissive comments about his work. On the occasion which the woman told me about, apparently he got frustrated with his own inability to explain himself, resulting in rather aggressive responses to her questions.

He’s not the only one frustrated. I could tell you many stories of renown physicists who told me, or wrote to me, about their struggles to get people to listen to them. Being white and male, it seems, doesn’t help. Neither do titles, honors, or award-winning popular science books.

And if you look at the ideas they are trying to get across, there’s a pattern.

These are people who have – in some cases over decades – built their own theoretical frameworks, developed personal philosophies of science, invented their own, idiosyncratic way of expressing themselves. Along the way, they have become incomprehensible for anyone else. But they didn’t notice.

Typically, they have written multiple papers circling around a key insight which they never quite manage to bring into focus. They’re constantly trying and constantly failing. And while they usually have done parts of their work with other people, the co-authors are clearly side-characters in a single-fighter story.

So they have their potentially brilliant insights out there, for anyone to see. And yet, no one has the patience to look at their life’s work. No one makes an effort to decipher their code. In brief, no one understands them.

Of course they’re frustrated. Just as frustrated as I am that no one understands me. Not even the people who agree with me. Especially not those, actually. It’s so frustrating.

The issue, I think, is symptomatic of our times, not only in science, but in society at large. Look at any social media site. You will see people going to great lengths explaining themselves just to end up frustrated and – not seldom – aggressive. They are aggressive because no one listens to what they are trying so hard to say. Indeed, all too often, no one even tries. Why bother if misunderstanding is such an easy win? If you cannot explain yourself, that’s your fault. If you do not understand me, that’s also your fault.

And so, what I took away from my Toronto talk is that communication is much more difficult than we usually acknowledge. It takes a lot of patience, both from the sender and the receiver, to accurately decode a message. You need all that context to make sense of someone else’s ideas. I now see why philosophers spend so much time dissecting the lives of other people. And instead of talking so much, I have come to think, I should listen a little more. Who knows, I might finally understand something.


  1. Sabine, I can relate. My thoughts on reality become creative. Thoughts are fed from reality, and therefore reality become imagination. One express oneself not because everything is real, but because everything that is real whisper memes in such a way that whatever one can imagine will find a place of understanding. When this happens, we create things that science at some stage could not prove, and as we all know, that science is all about reality. Thought is the fruit of evolution, because it reduce chaos and bring it to order. I'm not saying that order is real. What I am saying is that the singularity is real, and that everything else is chaos, and that thought evolved to undo reality. Science is a tool of thought. It is the hands of the mind, and one cannot agree on what someone else is thinking, because that would not be real. Two people cannot feed two different situations, and come up with the same conclusion. If so, then the other cannot exist. I'm not saying you should consider this comment as real, because nothing I think can be proven, but I do say, that all our thoughts and all matter and stardust will dissappear within a black hole and that it would be tough to prove that reality was real.

  2. This might be a nice example of what you mean:

    And this is a wonderful and funny talk about a closed universe. You need to look only at the first 4 minutes. Ignore the philosophy and enjoy the concept. This is a perfect illustration of your case:

  3. "The issue, I think, is symptomatic of our times"

    This smacks of recency bias to me.

    Eliezer Yudkowsky called the problem Expecting Short Inferential Distances. He's got a whole 1000 word'ed on it. he also thinks it's 'new'.

    I don't buy that I'm betting that the complexity of an individuals internal world scales with their innate ability to perceive patterns (IQ for brevity). I have trouble 'buying' a model that says only us moderns had complex thoughts (Epicurus anyone?). though I'm willing to entertain the idea that now should a person want to learn 'more' the barriers to entry have lowered. I can be an interested lay person by merely reading blogs at work when no-one gives me anything to do. In olden times I would probably need to be part of the idle rich who could afford to bum around college libraries all day. Before all that I bet this type of person would spend a lot of time perfecting terraced agriculture or making cooler arrows or something equally opaque to the lay gatherer.

    1. It plausibly is amplified by the ease of sharing information now, as opposed to decades ago.

      Think about it this way. You have a million people who have something to say/time to write papers and have some time to think about what other people say/have time to read papers. The way that social media (and, increasingly, science) works, it makes it more and more likely they will spend their time thinking about what the same small group of popular people say, as opposed to a reciprocal, tit-for-tat information exchange.

      It's the network structure that does it. This, combined with our limited bandwidth (there are only so many hours in the day).

  4. Sounds like another entry under Toxic Entitlement, toxic narcissism. Healthy narcissism can regulate performance anxiety when one feels under scrutiny - an extremely valuable achievement.

    Toxicity arises when one needs a constant stream of approval to maintain sufficient self-confidence, self-approval. We see the Trump-like people who experience disagreement as attack and insufficient agreement as evidence of disloyalty.

    Fight/flight mode kicks in. Significant parts of one's brain shut down. Cunning is still on line, but critical thinking and empathy are turned off (along with the immune & digestive systems). These are energy drains & distractions when facing a lion or an opponent who wants to hurt you in some quasi-combat sport. Of course the problem is the Other - never oneself.

    Empathy, reflection, etc help create a sense of relative safety in relationships. Healthy entitlement quiets the fight-flight-freeze reflex - a huge achievement. (And sadly lacking in too many).

    Toxic entitlement that needs ongoing validation can make one an excellent competitor, because flight-freeze modes are avoided and fight mode, with its adrenaline, etc make one feel powerful. But it's always the other guy who's the problem. That's the real problem.

  5. Sabine, this is an especially insightful and powerful piece you have written today.

    In software we too often see the demise over time of fantastically good software solutions not because better solutions replaced them, but because they were developed in closed environment with no way of conveying the insights of their main developers to a broader audience audience. As people moved on, companies faded, and programming languages and platforms evolved, amazing work far too often ends up lost forever.

    This waste provides the underlying economic incentive for the open source movement, in which developers try hard to keep solutions out in the open and in languages large communities know and can learn. Even when only moderately successful, the exponential multiplication of insightful solutions and powerful software to share them enables truly amazing things. It is no accident that a global internet did not take off until highly reliable (in comparison to other options) open source Linux became widely available, since in terms of technologies alone the internet should have come about decades earlier. It is also no coincidence that the astonishingly powerful smart phone in your pocket, including Apple products, was enabled almost entirely by open source infrastructure. That is true even if you have an Apple product, since the BSD open source license allows business use reclaiming of software, a feature that Apple made full use of. (And yes, since I do have some modest reputation in this area, I am that Terry Bollinger.)

    Physics has a similar problem, only it is at least a hundred times worse for the reason Sabine just described. Software developers can capture deep insights in the form machine-executable software, which means those solutions become instantly available to anyone who can download an app. For physics… argh, there just is no way to "download" into the human brain the math or concepts needed, even if software can help one see the results of an innovative idea!

    This transfer problem makes "open source physics" a far more difficult process, even beyond the substantial initial problem of just making papers widely available in the first place. (And on that point, three cheers for arXiv despite its problems. I am not the only person reading this blog whose personal research library is stuffed with links to papers that would have cost me tens of dollars each from traditional sources, even for research done decades ago with public funding!)

    I do not know of any easy solution, but it is worth noting that looking more intently at the less recognized works of proven physics innovators is one (small) strategy that can help. I'll give a specific example of that in a separate comment immediately after this, to keep this comment on focus.

    1. Terry,

      Basically, yes, the problem is there's no way to copy ideas from one brain to another one and add the required software package to compile that. So what we do is that we rely on written and spoken words in what is usually a linear narrative. Works okay for some disciplines. Doesn't work all that well in disciplines heavy with abstract ideas that convert badly to words.

      I actually do think that software is much more flexible in that regard. I used to think that math is somewhat of an exception because, by virtue of being self-referential, you should in principle be able to understand it without interpretation. But in practice, it seems, even in math you'll be thrown back to the problem that you need to convince other people that your work is worth looking at to begin with.

  6. As an example of how looking carefully at the lesser known works of proven physics giants can help a bit on capturing ideas that might otherwise remain lost, I will again put in a plug for a favorite of mine: Dirac and all of his writings. Never look at something Dirac wrote too casually! This very private man was insightful in strange and wonderful ways.

    Here is a specific example of what I think may be an underappreciated work by Dirac, and why it may be particularly relevant now. As I noted in a comment to Sabrine's immediately previous post on why GR cannot be exactly correct, Dirac in his book Lectures on Quantum Mechanics concluded by saying that quantum mechanics really, really seems to prefer flat space over curved space.

    Now here's a thought for you: What is the symmetry of Dirac's argument?

    In other words, if you simply make the odd assumption that ordinary quantum mechanics comes first, what kind of set of particle relationships must quantum mechanics put into play in order to keep its own house in order?

    The answer as implied by Dirac's detailed analysis is that such relationships between particles must exhibit a great deal of rigidity over a wide range of metrics that indicate relative relevance of particles in a particular quantum system. As my own example of this, I would note that systems that include integer spin those relationships must include three isotropic axes to ensure proper accounting of conserved spin in all possible situations. There is after all a good reason why they call them "vector bosons"! Too much curvature messes this relationship up, making (as Dirac describes) simple sets of 16 collapsible variables explode to infinity.

    So this raises an interesting question: Is QM just a freeloader that latches onto an existing mostly-flat xyz space for its own unrelated purposes… or is QM in some deeper sense an actual generator of xyz space, as a necessary part of how it maintains proper accounting of absolutely conserved quantities such as spin? (There is more to this argument than I'll get into here, including some observations about Planck's constant.)

    Some of you may recognize this as a "low energy", non-holographic version of the string theory holographic concept space as entanglement. That is, if you do nothing more than invert Dirac's argument for why QM needs flat space into an assertion that to work correctly, QM needs to generate something very much like flat space for bookkeeping purposes. With this simple strategy you don't really need Planck scale entanglement and complicated projections to generate a low-resolution (depending on the number of participating particles) version of xyz space. All you really need is an agreement by all of the particles that have touched each other (that is, that have become quantum entangled) to share the same set of rigid coordinates over large metric spaces. Gravity in this approach simply becomes the geometric limit on how much long-range bending QM, with its fanatical focus on conservation, will allow before space itself breaks down into a Hawking-hot mess.

  7. As long as scientists have trouble communicating with the public, I'll have a job. :-)

    1. Fraser,

      I understand you are joking, but I wasn't commenting on communicating with the public, I was commenting on scientists communicating among themselves. I think that we underestimate the difficulty. This is particularly obvious when it comes to interdisciplinary work.

  8. Excellent!

    Two nitpicks:
    * you often/usually clarify something in your post, in response to a comment pointing out lack of clarity ... but not always. Part of this is that your audience has a wide range of understanding, so sometimes I feel you need to clarify something you see as very basic, but some of your audience doesn't
    * Blogger is far from ideal with respect to structuring comments and making sub-threads easily legible. Once the post count goes over 100 or so, this generally gets worse, quickly ("exponentially" in everyday speech, but clearly not ~e^n).

    1. JeanTate,

      I know that the comments at Blogger suck, but there's nothing I can do about that. I can only ask people to please get a facebook account and instead comment on facebook. I know facebook has somewhat of a bad rep, but from the popular social media pages it is currently the one where the comment feature lends itself best to having a sensible discussion.

      As to clarifications. I get hundreds of comments per day. Here, by email, on twitter, on facebook, on YouTube. I try to respond as I can, but it just isn't possible to answer every single question. The questions I am most likely to ignore are the ones that Google can answer. Other questions I don't answer because the answer would take so long I might as well write another blogpost about it. (The recent post about the measurement problem was an answer to a question I ignored on the earlier post about superdeterminism.)

    2. Thanks Sabine.

      I feel quite a few of the comments (at least, the ones that pass your moderation) aren't really about what you wrote in the accompanying blogpost; rather, they are marketing, or advertising. Of what? At worst, "pet theories" (sometimes crackpot), otherwise a plug for some fave idea or other. There's usually - but not always! - a hook to something in your blogpost, but in many cases, it seems to me, it's tenuous and/or contrived.

      In my experience (yes, I do have considerable experience), this is very common: the more popular a blog site such as yours, the greater the number of such "marketing" comments.

  9. As usual Sabine, your writing is clear and lucid, no decoding necessary. However, there are a couple of points where, in the first case I disagree, and in the second, I don't understand quite what you are saying.

    So they have their potentially brilliant insights out there, for anyone to see. And yet, no one has the patience to look at their life’s work. No one makes an effort to decipher their code. In brief, no one understands them.

    Of course they’re frustrated. Just as frustrated as I am that no one understands me. Not even the people who agree with me. Especially not those, actually. It’s so frustrating.

    In the first case I don't see why it is incumbent on a would be interlocutor to decode someone else's privately encoded material, especially if the originator cannot do so and cannot furnish a code book. I don't need to decode your posts nor do I need an extensive grasp of your philosophy, that's why it's a pleasure to read them.

    So I don't see why anyone should feel the need to make an extensive effort to understand someone unwilling to make themself understandable. Sure, there might be some hidden gems behind those code-walls but there might just be a lot of blithering nonsense contributing to the translation problem.

    If the problem is a mental health issue, an inability to generally communicate with others, then obviously professional help should be provided. If it is simply a matter of choice, however, that the would be communicator chose to develop their brilliant insights in a private language, then the translation to a communicable language should be on them, shouldn't it, rather than on those they wish to communicate with?

    In the second matter, do you really feel that no one understands you, even when they agree with you? No one? I read the comments here and it seems that most understand what you are saying, whether they agree with you or not. I'm trying to get a sense of what you mean by no one understands you. Can you give an example? Thanks.

    1. bud rap,

      As to the first point. It's not that they mean it to be "privately encoded". I think it's the best they can do. I don't know if you have ever tried to write a paper about some calculation you have done. Writing up the calculation is the easy part. The difficult part is explaining why it matters. The problem is that if you cannot explain why it matters, no one will look at your calculation to begin with. And so, the problem we face is, what do you do with someone who can't get their ideas down on paper in a way that you can decipher them? I think that this is a much more common situation in science than we think.

      As to the second point. I wasn't referring to science communication issues (how do we know black holes exist - that kind of thing).

      But take that recent discussion we had on the multiverse, because that was a particularly painful example. I spent weeks explaining exactly what I was saying and paid a lot of attention to spelling out what I mean by "existence" and "scientific" and so on. What happens then is that everybody comes and informs me they agree or don't agree with my conclusion (other universes do not exist in a scientific sense), entirely disregarding the argument I made.

      And that's a simple case, in that I wasn't even discussing a particularly new topic. The discussion about superdeterminism was even worse. It's basically me explaining why the commonly made objections to superdeterminism are wrong, followed by people telling me to look at the commonly made objections. I would call that a complete communication failure.

      Or take my criticism of naturalness arguments. I have both written a book and a paper about that. I don't think anyone has yet understood just why I say naturalness arguments aren't scientific.

      They understand by now that these arguments do not work, yes. They understand that I said long ago they wouldn't work, yes. But they still don't understand why I say that. And so, they don't see why I say there's a deeper problem that needs to be fixed, as opposed to just discarding of naturalness arguments. (I have by now pretty much given up trying to get them to see the issue.)

  10. Hi Sabine
    Tiny typo
    "society by large" should be
    "society at large"

  11. Just wait till we have to converse on scientific matters with aliens. Usually math gets invoked as the universal language but I am convinced it will be much more difficult. Assuming there are aliens willing to converse.

  12. I recently finished reading the book "Nonviolent Communication" by Marshall Rosenberg. I highly recommend it! There is a connection between the insights in that book and Sabine's observation that people who are frustrated in their attempts to be understood often become aggressive. I't difficult for me to clarify that connection, but it seems worth mentioning.

    Here, the term "aggressive" doesn't necessarily imply physical violence. And in the book title, "nonviolent" broadly refers to communication that is compassionate. Ultimately, this book describes ways we can communicate that are more likely to create a positive connection with other people. While it often looks at communication during conflict resolution, I think it even applies here. It says a lot about the importance of communicating our feelings and trying to understand the feelings of others. So on the surface it's hard to relate this to something as content-centered as science communication. But Rosenberg (I can't find the quote) at one point suggests that *all* communication is, on some level, an attempt to express our own feelings and needs.

    It's difficult to explain complex ideas to other people. Communication takes time and commitment on both ends. I often find that what seems to be a very small idea in my mind is extremely difficult to completely express to someone else. It takes a lot of back-and-forth.

    In an academic environment, professors often believe that sharing knowledge is as easy as standing at the front of a room and lecturing. Pedagogues have found that this is the least-effective form of teaching, with comprehension reaching 10% in the best of cases. Even so there's this assumption that if you say something and you aren't understood, it's abnormal and it's either your fault or the fault of the listener. Maybe the source of frustration and aggression stems from this: making judgments or feeling judged because the communication failure must be somebody's fault.

    Even on the comment sections of this blog there is frequently impassioned, slightly violent back-and-forth of ideas. The back-and-forth is probably a necessary part of communication. The personal attacks must come from frustrations based on feeling misunderstood.

    If Rosenberg is right, it's more helpful than we'd expect to identify and express our feelings and needs even in this context of science and philosophy. I feel discouraged when failing to communicate with others, but hopeful when imagining the possibility of success. I'd like to see people put more effort into understanding others, and being more objective. There! ;-)

    1. Topher,

      Thanks for mentioning the book; I'll put that on the reading list.

  13. There is actually a tonne of work on this.

    Culture also plays a part. Americans are statistically different on this than Europeans, because the school system emphasises practising giving storied presentations. This is helpful for getting people into making their own narratives for things, but the way it is done, by front-of-the-class lectures, makes it difficult for comments and listening.

    A lot of the time it is also about the human bias against self-doubt. Doubting oneself is a thing that comes across as feeling bad, especially for beginners. A culture focused upon feeling good about oneself only makes that worse.

    There is a thoughtful manga called Liar Game, sadly ugly, whose side story had an incredible lesson: most people seem to think that blind trust in other people is a virtue. That is actually merely putting zero effort into a relationship. You are supposed to constantly doubt things, spice things up, second guess, so that you actually learn something about this other person you are trying to establish a relationship with.

    It explains my obsession, from young (merely hunches back then), about the internal narratives and motivations people go for. I try to figure out what other people want, so that my stories can connect with them and they can get something out of it. If they are interested, as in vested, into the story I am trying to tell, it helps me get my story out. Same with students.

    The "melding my narrative into one you are into" method does have drawbacks, though. ADHD is really difficult to wrestle with. Also, people who base their identity into conspiracies, tend to have so many internal contradictions that they would be unable to absorb a logical story anyway you spin it. You literally have to abandon teaching principles; sometimes that means teaching the lesson by using bad arguments. Morality would get in the way, but it might be even less moral to leave dangerous stupidity to fester.

    Anyway, let me refrain from further mansplaining what you obviously already live through: that plenty of people, especially men, have trouble explaining themselves. And then they aggressively refuse to spend the time organising a story that would explain what they have trouble explaining.

    Great communicators know: Great messages can be short and catchy, or substantiated and fully internalised. Guess what teachers of complicated concepts have to choose, v.s. what they typically choose to do.

  14. “Structure of Scientific Revolutions” by Kuhn should be essential reading for anyone studying advanced science. That should make people understand the domain walls that insulate meaning.

  15. Sabine,

    Communication must also make it possible to take note of divergences in opinion.
    You have to accept that people do not agree with your opinions if they are in disagreement with scientifically tested, philosophically grounded and technologically fertile theories.
    They will argue and that's a good think for both side.

  16. Ludwig Wittgenstein: "The older I grow the more I realize how terribly difficult it is for people to understand each other, and I think that what misleads one is the fact that they all look so much like each other. If some people looked like elephants and others like cats, or fish, one wouldn’t expect them to understand each other and things would look much more like what they really are."


    1. That is quite an amazing observation/quote.

      It also matches my experience traveling to foreign places without knowing the language and meeting people who also don’t speak my language, but who joyfully and enthusiastically *try* communicating with me. It feels like a great triumph when we actually do seem to communicate something precisely because we don’t expect to be able to do so.

      The problem is expectations. Communicating is hard.

  17. What is so special about not begin understood? It is a matter of fact, that the more complicated a topic gets and the more unreal its scenarios appear the more likely people will not understand it. That is just basic evolution.

  18. Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
    Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
    The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
    The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
    The best lack all conviction, while the worst
    Are full of passionate intensity.

    William Butler Yeats, The Second Coming, 1919

  19. “Eleanor Rigby picks up the rice at a church where a wedding has been ...” We all know this one. Hope I did not cause an ear worm, but two weeks ago I went to a concert where Ravel's Bolero was played and that has been stuck in my head ever since. Maybe this can displace Ravel, for I have been saying of late “curses on you Maurice.” In the end because of how we communicate or miscommunicate we have in spite of all our media and communication technology an unusual level of loneliness.

    We are by some measure all guilty of this. Think about it. Often when we hear a talk within five minutes that little voice in our heads start chattering away with, “What is wrong with this?” I suppose we are all trained to do this; it is a part of that Socratic idea of constantly asking questions. However, if this is not tempered it lurches us away from really listening.

    People tend to look at hypotheses as either true or false, where really without direct tests these should be placed in a toolbox of possibilities. I try to keep even conflicting concepts alive and things that can be pondered on their own merits without be considered relative to something else.

    For all our cosmopolitan lives and large scale communications many people are very lonely. This usually means the level of connection people have is not the same as the types of connections they want. So here we are in a world where many of us are alone together. Curious state of affairs.

  20. Each Physicist has his own framework of beliefs. This is more so for theoretical ones. No law has equal value among physicists. Theoretical physics apparent controversies is a symptom of a confidence crisis. Non-determinism is irrational, like singularities and infinities. Invoking anyone of them is a pure belief. The only possibility of that kind is an eternal universe though time should come in pieces. This is only my proper opinion, for what it worth...

    Once you understand that non-determinism is just due to a lack of knowledge and that there is a deterministic global system underneath, it becomes quite difficult to listen to theories rooted in non-determinism.

    A pocket universe popping out from the vacuum from a calculation based on fuzzy vacuum fluctuations based on an imaginary extension of QM which, within itself, says truly nothing on the subject. You can easily see the weaknesses in the model unless it was your bread and butter for a very long time. It looks like a large card castle with too many jokers in it. A gust of wind and...

    Now, imagine a universe made of only one particle. What is its mass? Charge? Momentum? It's all relative. We need Quantum Relativity theory... We need a deterministic theory. Though we are stuck with some probabilities in practice.

  21. to comprehend how exclusive predictiins work between additional observstions, model the information content of the simplest deniable system (more points than none):

    point a: everything will be (including point a)
    created at some point in the past and destroyed at some point in the future

    point b: everything will be (including point b)
    neither (point a) created at some point in the past
    nor (point a) created at some point in the future

    In summary, using the right math to exclude none while including false generalizations:
    (+) = more
    (square root symbol) = than (differentiation)
    (-) = none

    Just use one character words instead of four character words; squaring negatives doesn't produce additional evidence

    1. Someone will use imaginary numbers to contradict your methodology and still get positive results...

  22. Sabine,
    So a talk that you gave two years ago at an institute for the history and philosophy of science, changed your life? It’s wonderful to hear that you’ve already had such an experience! This pairs with a hope that I have regarding your future career.

    I consider it inevitable that a respected group of professionals will eventually develop various generally accepted principles of metaphysics, epistemology, and value, from which to better found the institution of science. The principles that this society establishes should improve scientific endeavors in general, though most dramatically in our still soft mental and behavioral varieties. Given your career so far, it is my hope that you’ll become one of the founders of this coming society.

    I’d of course love to join you as well, though unfortunately I’m no academic. Nevertheless I do still hope to live vicariously through you. Furthermore there may be some hope for me anyway, that is if this society eventually adopts any or all of my four principles of philosophy.

    Cheers to the future!

  23. I think Thurston made some similar points about math. Namely that some sub-communities (of the larger math community) can develop an idiosyncratic language that becomes very obscure once the particular area they studied is no longer so active. If I remember correctly, he said this about some specific area of geometry in which he had worked in the past.

  24. I think this concept of not communicating with each other in science is even more applicable when we think about how we expect to communicate with an extraterrestrial species. We assume that they would use radio waves and would use mathematics in their message because it's "the most fundamental language". Considering how disconnected we are with each other on this planet,it's not hard to see that we may be missing messages every day from ETs, making the assumptions we have. What if they found a way to use aspects of space-time that we don't understand to send messages to us in order to speed up the communication channel? What if their method of communication is less mathematical and more instinctual (related to their own biology, for instance)? What I'm saying is,even if we try hard in science to remove our own biases, we will always miss the biases that are hidden by our form of communication. In my opinion that's what makes science truly exciting - it's not what we think we know that's important, it's what we missed that has been starting us in the face and waiting for our perspective to change in order to see it.

  25. @mh
    "…it's not what we think we know that's important, it's what we missed that has been starting us in the face and waiting for our perspective to change in order to see it.": this is well stated, and it is also clear to understand. When you and I see the same thing at the same time and at the same level then there is neither "you" nor "me"; there is only "observation"; also, there is not only communication but also communion.

  26. I have a question about this. As a grad student I always struggled with knowing: "When is my literature review done?". This is, in a way, also a communication (or a communication efficiency) problem. The problem was never resolved.

    A story. When I was about twenty years old I read "the selfish gene" by Richard Dawkins (now that's a good read!). Thinking about it I came to realize that we as humans are done getting smarter through natural selection - actually we'll become more stupid rather soon. I wrote an essay about it and ditched it on some blog (what else could I do? I wasn't a biologist and neither was this newspaper material). A year later the movie Idiocracy came out (hilarious!). And right now, there's nothing new about this anymore, it's established science in both medicine, biology and psychology journals. Dysgenics, reverse Flynn effect... (actually I later discovered that a dude had already published about this in the 70's, but he 'd been ignored because he was in the naughty racists corner)
    So what am I to make of all of this? Apparently good ideas come to me all by themselves, or they are spawned by a few good-reads, but I then can't do anything with them because the process of getting to them was 'unscientific' and I completely lack knowledge of the jargon of the field and know nothing of the relevant books and articles I'm supposed to refer to - I often don't even have the basic degree in that particular field.

    So basically, the scientific community wants me to work as follows: take all the basic and intermediate courses of the particular field - hell, maybe even a few graduate ones (takes multiple years); then read all the relevant literature (takes half a lifetime if you take it literally) and then you still need to check whether someone else hasn't published this idea, somewhere - at some time (too much time).
    But hey, this is not how my mind works. My original ideas -and those are the ones science and society actually needs, not the mediocre repetitive ones - just don't come to me in that way.

    It's almost like a trap. We're more than seven billion people right now. My life experience has taught me to be selective in what I read. There's so much crap and time is scarce. However, others think like that as well (rightfully so). So they will tend to not read my random rant on a blog and open up the latest edition of Science instead. In fact, I myself often skip everything on this blog that has but the faintest smell of a rant. So basically we're mostly ignoring each other.

    I suppose I mean that besides wanting to know how you guys find the balance between thinking 'alone' and reading up or conversing I also want to know how we could make the sharing-of-ideas in science more valuable and meaningful.

    1. I think a lot of us have had similar feelings; I know I have.

      But here's what I found when I spent some time looking into one or two: there's a HUGE selection effect! I found I was - subconsciously - remembering/retaining only those ideas which seemed to have some legs; those ideas which were truly ridiculous I had forgotten that I'd had.

      Curiously, I spent quite a bit of time on the Flynn effect, and things related. I learned that the relevant data is (was) both vast and spotty, and that - from my perspective - a great deal of the science was, well, less than stellar. Not unlike the field I'm active in now (crudely, galaxies) ...

  27. But so basically you do read through "it all" and your mind sifts the gold from the river by forgetting. When an idea was good or "has legs" as you put it, it is retained?

    When I'd do that, I'd forget the reference, I wouldn't be able to quote.

    I wish I could go straight to the heart of all the information out there and have some kind of a "master bibliography" which only gives you the really good and inspirational work. Who knows, maybe machine learning could help. I input entire texts that I like (like an e-version of the selfish gene) and with it the label good - then some crappy texts and with 'em the label bad. Then the machine tests out things like word count, grammer patterns, use or lack of use of semicolons etc. and just tells me what's worth reading. Straight to the gold!

  28. In the last few weeks I have been thinking how difficult it is to discuss political concepts and politics in general. The words used are not up to the job.

    For example you can't have a political conversation without the Left and Right being mentioned, but what do these concepts mean? How can can you define the many different political ideas on a single axis, or two? You can't.

    What socialism means to me and someone else is likely to be very different, it doesn't help that American uses of many political terms are different than in the UK.

    I guess we forget that communication of any intangible idea is sort of miraculous to begin with. How do we manage to learn a language and end up agreeing on the meaning of intangible terms like hate or money? Maybe if we do meet another intelligence we might find that the gulf between us will make it exceeding difficult to communicate.


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