Samuel Arbesman at Long Now

Samuel Arbesman gave a talk on his new book “The Half LIfe of Facts” at the Long Now museum tonight.  This is a good venue to hear authors speak.  It is quite intimate and there are generally plenty of good questions and discussions afterward.  Arbesman did a good job of fielding comments from the  group.  You can see his presentation style in this short video.

His thesis is that there is an order and regularity  to the way knowledge changes.  He thinks that studying this can help us order the knowledge around us.  Because of this change, we should expect some portion of the facts we take for granted now to be overturned.  He points out that doctors are taught in medical school to expect their field to change and journals such as UpToDate provide this service to help doctors keep track of changes in medical knowledge. (My personal experience makes me skeptical that many doctors actually take advantage of this sort of thing.)

Arbesman takes the position that we would all benefit from this approach to learning.   We should learn how to think and how to understand the world but treat education as a continuing process.  Which is something I tried to touch on before.  Arbesman did comment that it’s better to rely on Google for current information than memorize a bunch of facts that may or may not continue to be true.  This takes me back to the ideas of Madeline Levine who I’ve mentioned before.  She argues that children should do less homework and more play because that builds creativity and problem solving skills.

Another point Arbesman brought up was that there is so much knowledge now, that many correlations can be discovered by mining the existing literature and joining together papers that each solve some fraction of a problem.  A speaker at the CogSci conference in 2010 at UC Berkeley mentioned that many answers probably go unnoticed and uncorrelated in the literature.  One effort to start detecting these hidden relations in the bioinformatics field is CoPub project which is a text mining tool developed by Dutch academics and researchers.  Theory[Mine] does an amusing take on this idea by letting users purchase a personalized, AI derived, unique, and interesting theorem.

Arbesman also suggested that facts in the hard sciences are subject to longer half-lives than facts in biology and the half-life decreases even further for the humanities and medicine.  He mentioned that when physicists colonize other fields they are unpopular and create disruption, but that they bring in useful ideas.  But I wonder if it’s even theoretically possible to reduce sociology to physics.  This is the whole holism/reductionism dichotomy that Monica Anderson loves to explore.

Another point that came up was that while the idea of fact decay should encourage healthy skepticism, we should still try to avoid unhealthy skepticism.  During the question and answer session it was suggested that politically controversial topics such as evolution, global warming, and even GMO labelling are clouded with incorrect facts.  I think a lot of scientists get a little overly defensive by what they term as anti-science policy decisions and they might be incorrectly grouping GMO opponents in with the creationists and global warming denialists.  Hopefully, better understanding of fact decay will radiate out and attenuate some of the scientific hubris out there.

Stephen Pinker at the Long Now

I went to see Pinker’s talk at the Long Now this evening.  He is promoting his latest book “The Better Angels of our Nature” in which he proposes that many forms of violence have declined over time.  His previous TED talk on this topic caused “Sex at Dawn” author Christopher Ryan to criticize his characterization of hunter gatherer society as violent.  But Pinker’s talk this evening focused mostly on the last 500 years and stayed away from prehistoric man.

I liked it when Pinker pointed out that when people say that the 20th century was the most violent in history, they never mention any other centuries to compare it to.  He had data that showed that even World War II was only the 9th most deadly event in human history on a per capita basis.  I do agree with his view that per capita violence is the only intelligent way to measure it.

When evaluating causes of this great decline in violence, Pinker asserts that literacy played a greater role than wealth. English wealth was fairly flat during a great decline in murder and capital punishment, but efficiency of book production and literacy greatly increased.  He posits that reading allows us to be in the mind of others to some extent and naturally increases empathy.  It also supposedly decreases ignorance and superstition which may lead to violence.

Another cause of this decrease is alleged to be cosmopolitanism.  As humans rub shoulders with one another in cities, it forces them to share ideas and develop some tolerance of others.  Our allegiances expand outward from family and tribe to include our entire nationstate and on to other races, sexes, and children.

Pinker says that there is a propensity for genocidal totalitarians to push anti-city, back to nature ideologies.  Pol Pot’s Year Zero, Mao’s Cultural Revolution, and even Hitler’s Lebensraum all focused on pushing urban populations into rural areas.  Stewart Brand commented on the fact that many of his contemporaries had followed suit and went out into the countryside only to become bored and returning to the cities.  Brand regrets that more of his friends don’t acknowledge the failure of this experiment.

Several times during the closing discussion with Brand, Pinker said that he was excited by social network science.  He mentioned the study of how social norms arise from individuals exchanging ideas explored in the work of Nicolas Christakis, Duncan Watts, James Fowler, Michael Macey.  I was deeply impressed by Connected by Christakis, so I will definitely be checking out these other researchers as well.

Overall, I enjoyed this talk.  I sense that Pinker is trying to defend the narrative of progress and the virtues of Western Civilization that are so maligned in this post-modernist era.  More power to him.

Suarez at the Long Now Again

I went to see Daniel Suarez read from his latest book, Kill Decision at the Long Now this evening. I had originally been introduced to his work at a previous Long Now talk he gave years ago in support of his first book, Daemon.  Daemon was about ways in which a bunch of narrow AIs could be cobbled together to form a deadly system.  Kill Decision seems to be focusing on the problems around weaponizing autonomous drones. Suarez is particularly concerned about allowing algorithms to kill humans. He believes that these “kill decisions” should be made by humans and that treaties should be created to restrict the use of autonomous drones.  Suarez suggested that there has been a historical trend in warfare that has required the complicity of  more and more people over the years.  He compared the relatively few knights required to wage battles in the middle ages with the hundreds of thousands of soldiers who must cooperate to conduct modern wars.  He argues that autonomous drones would reverse this trend and allow even a single person to wage a battle without the complicity of any other humans.     There was a very lively discussion and it was suggested that autonomous drones are not unlike other modern weapons in how separated an attacker can be from the actual killing. Suarez stuck by his guns an insisted that it’s important that humans and not algorithms are making the actual decisions.  He acknowledged that humans still do make horrible decisions that result in many deaths, but pointed out how much worse it could be if the process were automated.  I suggested that if drone warfare followed the pattern of cyberwar as Suarez suggested then we could expect to see hackers contributing to the defense against automated drones.  Alex P. suggested that we should start an open-source anti-drone drone project.  I like that idea.  Technology is often a double-edged sword but there always seems to be more people willing to use it to help than to hurt (barely).