Tag Archives: science

Evolution, Innovation, and Ethics

I took my sweetie to London’s best holiday nerdfest last night – Robin Ince’s 9 Lessons and Carols for Godless People.  It was a three-hour celebration of the wonders and beauties that science can reveal – along with lots of hilarious British standup comedy.  Throughout, there was lots of emphasis on the role of evolution in creating fantastically complex organisms – and societies.  But there was something bittersweet, to me, about celebrating how much our society has evolved, especially in the wake of the disastrous lack of results from Copenhagen.

Yes, our society has evolved and created astonishing innovations like the computer I’m using to write this, and the network that ensures all of you can read it.  The internal combustion engine, in particular, has facilitated extraordinary developments in transportation, commerce, health and well-being.

But such development comes with consequences, as we now know.  Our evolved intelligence has got us into this mess, and now must get us out of it.  Unfortunately, much of society is now in thrall to a particularly well-evolved form of self-interested greed.  The policy debates about how to respond to climate change illustrate this well:  everyone agrees that something must be done, the conclusive data is building up, but there is hesitation.  Why?  In many cases, because agreeing to collectively solve a problem interferes with the pursuit of individual gains – a pursuit so well supported by today’s capitalism.

Luckily, we have also evolved an ethics of collective action.  Elinor Ostrom’s Nobel prize winning work explains that societies have also evolved innovative ways of sharing resources to avoid the “tragedy of the commons.”  As the pressure to define ourselves as self-interested consumers mounts in this holiday shopping week, it’s important to remember what else our society has evolved:  ethics, compassion, and a sense of the collective good.

Happy holidays – I’m off to slow down and enjoy the snow.

Quantifying everything: Wolfram alpha and algorithms

Wolfram Alpha is pretty great:  you type in a problem and it finds a solution.  It does this by transforming the natural language problem into computational elements and entries in its curated data set, and then running the computations.  Ta-Daa!  The solution appears, provided that the problem includes elements that are 1. reducible to computation and 2. include elements that are in the database.  Improving on 2. is easy enough, the argument goes:  simply add more things into the database.  If you want to calculate the likelihood that a word will occur in a Yeats poem, simply add more Yeats poems to the database and eventually you’ll get a meaningful result.

It’s principle 1. that’s potentially more problematic.  It raises the question about the extent to which all knowledge can be quantified.  In other words, it doesn’t explain why the repetition of words in a Yeats poem might be important.

Ahh, you say.  But that’s not science!  True, science is about quantifiablity.  But it is also about inquiry, about determining how to ask questions that are verifiable.  And it is about applying those questions generatively in order to develop new knowledge.  Wolfram Alpha’s founder has written about a new kind of science, which is based on simple rules that can be embodied in computer programs. I’m ready to be convinced, but I’m concerned that the Age of the Algorithm could mean the end of the Age of Inquiry.

My most memorable university exam included a question which asked me to differentiate special relativity from general relativity, and to explain how Einstein developed one from another.  I attempted to get Wolfram Alpha to compute this, but the closest result I got was this.  So far, inquiry is safe.