Mitchell Baker says firms should hire philosophy and psychology graduates to tackle misinformation
Last year, an anti-vaccination activist was awarded a PhD from an Australian University. She conducted her thesis in the School of Law, Humanities and the Arts. Her thesis was titled “A critical analysis of the Australian government’s rationale for its vaccination policy”. In it, she argued th...
That's a question I've been stewing about for the past few weeks, ever since reading the results from a quiz (at http://www.nature.com/…/three-minutes-with-hans-rosling-wil… ) in the scientific journal Nature, from Hans Rosling.
The quiz contains 8 fundamental questions about the state of the world: questions about poverty, life expectancy, wealth, population, and so on. All big, important questions.
What has me stewing is that respondents to the quiz - I presume, nature.com's readers - do far worse than chance. That is, they would have done much better overall if they'd simply guessed their answers at random (the questions are multiple choice). Only on 2 of 8 questions do respondents do appreciably better than chance. On most questions they do worse than chance, sometimes much worse than chance. A chimpanzee pushing buttons at random would have done better than nature.com's readers.(By the way, I'm not certain the response data is from nature.com's readers. It may be separate data, perhaps from Rosling's audiences. If that's the case, it weakens my argument below.)
I'm not usually bothered by this kind of thing. Media love to bemoan surveys showing lack of basic scientific knowledge among the general population. That kind of thing doesn't alarm me. We're a society in which most people specialize, and it's not surprising if most of us are ignorant in major areas; collectively we can still do pretty well. But this data from Rosling - the Nature survey - really got under my skin. It's a survey of a group (one I'm part of, I guess) that often seems to think it has special knowledge of solutions to big, important problems - things like climate change, energy, development, and so on. And what I take from Rosling's data is that that group isn't just ignorant about the state of the world in some fundamental ways. They're actually anti-informed.
So, why does this matter?
On Twitter, I regularly see people like Rosling, Max Roser, Steven Pinker, and Dina Pomeranz post graphs showing changes in the state of the world. Often, those graphs are extremely positive, like Roser's wonderful graphs on poverty, education, literacy etc over the last 200 years:
(See the images below, or: https://twitter.com/MaxCRoser/status/811587302065602560… )
It is absolutely astonishing to read the responses to such tweets. Many people are furious at the idea that some things in the world are getting better. Many responses boil down to "Nah, nah, can't be true", or "I'll bet [irrelevant thing] is getting worse, why don't you focus on that, you tool of the capitalist conspiracy."
Of course, while those responses are irritating, & illustrate a certain kind of wilful ignorance, they don't really much matter. What bothers me more is that some of the most common responses are variants on "It doesn't matter, climate change is more important than all your graphs"; "Where are your climate graphs?"; "Nukes are going to kill us all"; etc.
This type of comment seems wrongheaded for more interesting reasons.
First, appreciating Roser's (and similar) graphs does not mean failing to acknowledge climate change, nuclear security, and other problems. Roser, for instance, has repeatedly acknowledged that the challenges of climate are huge and critical.
But I think the more significant thing is that graphs like Roser's don't happen by accident. They are extraordinary human achievements - the outcome of remarkable technical, social and organizational invention. If you don't know of these facts, in detail, or if you underplay their importance, then you cannot hope to understand the underlying technical, social, and organizational invention in any depth. And it seems to me that that kind of understanding may well be crucial to solving problems like climate, etc.
To put it another way, the anti-Pollyannas, including much of our intellectual elite who think they have "the solutions", have actually cut themselves off from understanding the basis for much of the most important human progress.
What's the solution? I'm not sure. But this line of thinking is deepening my appreciation for the work done by people such as Roser, Rosling et al. And it's making me think about how it can be scaled up & incorporated more broadly into our institutions.
During decades the study of networks has been divided between the efforts of social scientists and natural scientists, two groups of scholars who often do not see eye to eye. In this review I present an effort to mutually translate the work conducted by scholars from both of these academic fronts hoping to continue to unify what has become a diverging body of literature. I argue that social and natural scientists fail to see eye to eye because they have diverging academic goals. Social scientists focus on explaining how context specific social and economic mechanisms drive the structure of networks and on how networks shape social and economic outcomes. By contrast, natural scientists focus primarily on modeling network characteristics that are independent of context, since their focus is to identify universal characteristics of systems instead of context specific mechanisms. In the following pages I discuss the differences between both of these literatures by summarizing the parallel theories advanced to explain link formation and the applications used by scholars in each field to justify their approach to network science. I conclude by providing an outlook on how these literatures can be further unified.
One thing I will mention is that it’s got quite a bit more philosophy in it than most popular science books with such a physics bent. Those who aren’t already up to speed on the math and science of modern physics can certainly benefit from the book (like most popular science books of its stripe, it doesn’t have any equations — hairy or otherwise), and it’s certain to help many toward becoming members of both of C.P. Snow’s two cultures. It might not be the best place for mathematicians and physicists to start moving toward the humanities with the included philosophy as the philosophy is very light and spotty in places and the explanations of the portions they’re already aware of may put them out a bit.
I’m most interested to see how he views complexity and thinking in the final portion of the text.
More detail to come…
Prior to the holidays Sean wrote a blogpost that contains a full overview table of contents, which will give everyone a stronger idea of its contents. For convenience I’ll excerpt it below.
I’ll post a review as soon as a copy arrives, but it looks like a strong new entry in the category of popular science books on information theory, biology and complexity as well as potentially the areas of evolution, the origin of life, and physics in general.
As a side bonus, for those reading this today (1/15/16), I’ll note that Carroll’s 12 part lecture series from The Great Courses The Higgs Boson and Beyond (The Learning Company, February 2015) is 80% off.
THE BIG PICTURE: ON THE ORIGINS OF LIFE, MEANING, AND THE UNIVERSE ITSELF
* Part One: Cosmos
- 1. The Fundamental Nature of Reality
- 2. Poetic Naturalism
- 3. The World Moves By Itself
- 4. What Determines What Will Happen Next?
- 5. Reasons Why
- 6. Our Universe
- 7. Time’s Arrow
- 8. Memories and Causes
* Part Two: Understanding
- 9. Learning About the World
- 10. Updating Our Knowledge
- 11. Is It Okay to Doubt Everything?
- 12. Reality Emerges
- 13. What Exists, and What Is Illusion?
- 14. Planets of Belief
- 15. Accepting Uncertainty
- 16. What Can We Know About the Universe Without Looking at It?
- 17. Who Am I?
- 18. Abducting God
* Part Three: Essence
- 19. How Much We Know
- 20. The Quantum Realm
- 21. Interpreting Quantum Mechanics
- 22. The Core Theory
- 23. The Stuff of Which We Are Made
- 24. The Effective Theory of the Everyday World
- 25. Why Does the Universe Exist?
- 26. Body and Soul
- 27. Death Is the End
* Part Four: Complexity
- 28. The Universe in a Cup of Coffee
- 29. Light and Life
- 30. Funneling Energy
- 31. Spontaneous Organization
- 32. The Origin and Purpose of Life
- 33. Evolution’s Bootstraps
- 34. Searching Through the Landscape
- 35. Emergent Purpose
- 36. Are We the Point?
* Part Five: Thinking
- 37. Crawling Into Consciousness
- 38. The Babbling Brain
- 39. What Thinks?
- 40. The Hard Problem
- 41. Zombies and Stories
- 42. Are Photons Conscious?
- 43. What Acts on What?
- 44. Freedom to Choose
* Part Six: Caring
- 45. Three Billion Heartbeats
- 46. What Is and What Ought to Be
- 47. Rules and Consequences
- 48. Constructing Goodness
- 49. Listening to the World
- 50. Existential Therapy
- Appendix: The Equation Underlying You and Me
- Further Reading