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How Networks Topple Scientific Dogmas – Article by Max Borders

How Networks Topple Scientific Dogmas – Article by Max Borders

The New Renaissance HatMax Borders
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The Peer-to-Peer Republic of Science

Science is undergoing a wrenching evolutionary change.

In fact, most of what we consider to be carried out in the name of science is dubious at best, flat wrong at worst. It appears we’re putting too much faith in science — particularly the kind of science that relies on reproducibility.

In a University of Virginia meta-study, half of 100 psychology study results could not be reproduced.

Experts making social science prognostications turned out to be mostly wrong, according to political science writer Philip Tetlock’s decades-long review of expert forecasts.

But there is perhaps no more egregious example of bad expert advice than in the area of health and nutrition. As I wrote last year for Voice & Exit:

For most of our lives, we’ve been taught some variation on the food pyramid. The advice? Eat mostly breads and cereals, then fruits and vegetables, and very little fat and protein. Do so and you’ll be thinner and healthier. Animal fat and butter were considered unhealthy. Certain carbohydrate-rich foods were good for you as long as they were whole grain. Most of us anchored our understanding about food to that idea.

“Measures used to lower the plasma lipids in patients with hyperlipidemia will lead to reductions in new events of coronary heart disease,” said the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in 1971. (“How Networks Bring Down Experts (The Paleo Example),” March 12, 2015)

The so-called “lipid theory” had the support of the US surgeon general. Doctors everywhere fell in line behind the advice. Saturated fats like butter and bacon became public enemy number one. People flocked to the supermarket to buy up “heart healthy” margarines. And yet, Americans were getting fatter.

But early in the 21st century something interesting happened: people began to go against the grain (no pun) and they started talking about their small experiments eating saturated fat. By 2010, the lipid hypothesis — not to mention the USDA food pyramid — was dead. Forty years of nutrition orthodoxy had been upended. Now the experts are joining the chorus from the rear.

The Problem Goes Deeper

But the problem doesn’t just affect the soft sciences, according to science writer Ron Bailey:

The Stanford statistician John Ioannidis sounded the alarm about our science crisis 10 years ago. “Most published research findings are false,” Ioannidis boldly declared in a seminal 2005 PLOS Medicine article. What’s worse, he found that in most fields of research, including biomedicine, genetics, and epidemiology, the research community has been terrible at weeding out the shoddy work largely due to perfunctory peer review and a paucity of attempts at experimental replication.

Richard Horton of the Lancet writes, “The case against science is straightforward: much of the scientific literature, perhaps half, may simply be untrue.” And according Julia Belluz and Steven Hoffman, writing in Vox,

Another review found that researchers at Amgen were unable to reproduce 89 percent of landmark cancer research findings for potential drug targets. (The problem even inspired a satirical publication called the Journal of Irreproducible Results.)

Contrast the progress of science in these areas with that of applied sciences such as computer science and engineering, where more market feedback mechanisms are in place. It’s the difference between Moore’s Law and Murphy’s Law.

So what’s happening?

Science’s Evolution

Three major catalysts are responsible for the current upheaval in the sciences. First, a few intrepid experts have started looking around to see whether studies in their respective fields are holding up. Second, competition among scientists to grab headlines is becoming more intense. Third, informal networks of checkers — “amateurs” — have started questioning expert opinion and talking to each other. And the real action is in this third catalyst, creating as it does a kind of evolutionary fitness landscape for scientific claims.

In other words, for the first time, the cost of checking science is going down as the price of being wrong is going up.

Now, let’s be clear. Experts don’t like having their expertise checked and rechecked, because their dogmas get called into question. When dogmas are challenged, fame, funding, and cushy jobs are at stake. Most will fight tooth and nail to stay on the gravy train, which can translate into coming under the sway of certain biases. It could mean they’re more likely to cherry-pick their data, exaggerate their results, or ignore counterexamples. Far more rarely, it can mean they’re motivated to engage in outright fraud.

Method and Madness

Not all of the fault for scientific error lies with scientists, per se. Some of it lies with methodologies and assumptions most of us have taken for granted for years. Social and research scientists have far too much faith in data aggregation, a process that can drop the important circumstances of time and place. Many researchers make inappropriate inferences and predictions based on a narrow band of observed data points that are plucked from wider phenomena in a complex system. And, of course, scientists are notoriously good at getting statistics to paint a picture that looks like their pet theories.

Some sciences even have their own holy scriptures, like psychology’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. These guidelines, when married with government funding, lobbyist influence, or insurance payouts, can protect incomes but corrupt practice.

But perhaps the most significant methodological problem with science is overreliance on the peer-review process. Peer review can perpetuate groupthink, the cartelization of knowledge, and the compounding of biases.

The Problem with Expert Opinion

The problem with expert opinion is that it is often cloistered and restrictive. When science starts to seem like a walled system built around a small group of elites (many of whom are only sharing ideas with each other) — hubris can take hold. No amount of training or smarts can keep up with an expansive network of people who have a bigger stake in finding the truth than in shoring up the walls of a guild or cartel.

It’s true that to some degree, we have to rely on experts and scientists. It’s a perfectly natural part of specialization and division of labor that some people will know more about some things than you, and that you are likely to need their help at some point. (I try to stay away from accounting, and I am probably not very good at brain surgery, either.) But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t question authority, even when the authority knows more about their field than we do.

The Power of Networks

But when you get an army of networked people — sometimes amateurs — thinking, talking, tinkering, and toying with ideas — you can hasten a proverbial paradigm shift. And this is exactly what we are seeing.

It’s becoming harder for experts to count on the vagaries and denseness of their disciplines to keep their power. But it’s in cross-disciplinary pollination of the network that so many different good ideas can sprout and be tested.

The best thing that can happen to science is that it opens itself up to everyone, even people who are not credentialed experts. Then, let the checkers start to talk to each other. Leaders, influencers, and force-multipliers will emerge. You might think of them as communications hubs or bigger nodes in a network. Some will be cranks and hacks. But the best will emerge, and the cranks will be worked out of the system in time.

The network might include a million amateurs willing to give a pair of eyes or a different perspective. Most in this army of experimenters get results and share their experiences with others in the network. What follows is a wisdom-of-crowds phenomenon. Millions of people not only share results, but challenge the orthodoxy.

How Networks Contribute to the Republic of Science

In his legendary 1962 essay, “The Republic of Science,” scientist and philosopher Michael Polanyi wrote the following passage. It beautifully illustrates the problems of science and of society, and it explains how they will be solved in the peer-to-peer age:

Imagine that we are given the pieces of a very large jigsaw puzzle, and suppose that for some reason it is important that our giant puzzle be put together in the shortest possible time. We would naturally try to speed this up by engaging a number of helpers; the question is in what manner these could be best employed.

Polanyi says you could progress through multiple parallel-but-individual processes. But the way to cooperate more effectively

is to let them work on putting the puzzle together in sight of the others so that every time a piece of it is fitted in by one helper, all the others will immediately watch out for the next step that becomes possible in consequence. Under this system, each helper will act on his own initiative, by responding to the latest achievements of the others, and the completion of their joint task will be greatly accelerated. We have here in a nutshell the way in which a series of independent initiatives are organized to a joint achievement by mutually adjusting themselves at every successive stage to the situation created by all the others who are acting likewise.

Just imagine if Polanyi had lived to see the Internet.

This is the Republic of Science. This is how smart people with different interests and skill sets can help put together life’s great puzzles.

In the Republic of Science, there is certainly room for experts. But they are hubs among nodes. And in this network, leadership is earned not by sitting atop an institutional hierarchy with the plumage of a postdoc, but by contributing, experimenting, communicating, and learning with the rest of a larger hive mind. This is science in the peer-to-peer age.

Max Borders is Director of Idea Accounts and Creative Development for Emergent Order. He was previously the editor of the Freeman and director of content for FEE. He is also cofounder of the event experience Voice & Exit.

This article was published by The Foundation for Economic Education and may be freely distributed, subject to a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, which requires that credit be given to the author.

Reasons for the Evolution of Language in Humans (2004) – Article by G. Stolyarov II

Reasons for the Evolution of Language in Humans (2004) – Article by G. Stolyarov II

The New Renaissance Hat
G. Stolyarov II
July 27, 2014
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Note from the Author: This essay was originally written in 2004 and published on Associated Content (subsequently, Yahoo! Voices) in 2007.  The essay earned over 3,000 page views on Associated Content/Yahoo! Voices, and I seek to preserve it as a valuable resource for readers, subsequent to the imminent closure of Yahoo! Voices. Therefore, this essay is being published directly on The Rational Argumentator for the first time.  
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~ G. Stolyarov II, July 27, 2014

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The emergence of human language was one of the most important developments in the rise of human civilization and culture. An understanding of evolution can explain why natural selection in favor of language took place and how the use of language presents numerous advantages to humans.

Modern man exhibits a unique “wiring” pattern in his brain, a specific pattern of neurological connections that supports intelligence and volition. It was perhaps caused by an extremely recent mutation lacking in all other hominid species. Our species also has the largest brain-to-body ratio of all other hominids.

Modern man was first to realize that peaceful cooperation rather than domination by force can be an efficient means of social organization. Whereas other hominids and primates must resolve any clash within their groups by means of bodily force, our species has evolved the use of language and refined it into a powerful tool of peaceful persuasion that often removes unnecessary coercion and antagonism, therefore increasing the general standard of living and degree of cooperation within a society.

Possible evolutionary reasons for the development of human language include the transmission of technical skills; complex methods such as that required for the creation of a throwing spear, need more than visual demonstration to be transmitted accurately; they require the individual communication between a mentor and a student of the given skill.

Moreover, language served the role of coordinating actions between various members of a society, rendering tasks such as hunting or trade more efficient. Human beings could now communicate with one another without needing to resort to physical gestures or inferences of the other person’s intentions. As a result, there emerged a far more complex pattern of interaction that has been steadily improving as new means of quicker, more efficient, more sensible communication arose.

Newer theories concerning the origins of language also see it as a mechanism for communicating information about people within a given society. According to the scientists holding such a view, it is of evolutionary advantage for an individual to be among the first to access a given piece of information so as to be able to act on it prior to any of his competitors within the society. Thus, a widespread affinity for gossip may have prompted humans to devise a systematic means of communicating it.

After the emergence of language, and especially of written communication, technological progress could take off, thereby supplanting biological evolution as the dominant influence on the development of the human species. Because of language and technology, the human species in our time changes profoundly every year, despite experiencing minuscule biological evolution.

Tapping the Transcendence Drive – Article by D.J. MacLennan

Tapping the Transcendence Drive – Article by D.J. MacLennan

The New Renaissance Hat
D. J. MacLennan
June 2, 2013
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What do we want? No, I mean, what do we really want?

Your eyes flick back and forth between your smartphone and your iPad; your coffee cools on the dusty coaster beside the yellowing PC monitor; you momentarily look to the green vista outside your window but don’t fully register it; Facebook fade-scrolls the listless postings of tens of phase-locked ‘friends’, while the language-association areas of your brain chisel at your clumsy syntax, relentlessly sculpting it down to the 140-character limit of your next Twitter post.

The noise, the noise; the pink and the brown, the blue and the white. What do we want? How do we say it?

As I am a futurist, it’s understandable that people sometimes ask me what I can tell them about the future. What do I say? How about, “Well, it won’t be the same as the past”? On many levels, this is an unsatisfying answer. But, importantly, it is neither a stupid nor an empty one. If it sounds a bit Zen, that is only because people as used to a mode of thinking about the future that has it looking quite a lot like the past but with more shiny bits and bigger (and much flatter) flatscreens.

What I prefer to say, when there is more time available for the conversation, is, “It depends on what you, and others, want, and upon what you do to get those things.” Another unsatisfying response?

Where others see shiny stuff, I see the physical manifestations of drives. After all, what are Facebook, Twitter, and iPads but manifestations of drives? Easy, isn’t it? We can now glibly state that Twitter and Facebook are manifestations of the drive to communicate, and that the iPad is a manifestation of the desire to possess shiny stuff that does a slick job of enabling us to better pursue our recreational, organizational, and communicational drives.

There are, however, problems with this way of looking at drives. If, for example, we assume, based on the evidence we see from the boom in the use of communication technologies, that people have a strong drive to stay in touch with each other, we will simply churn out more and more of the same kinds of communication devices and platforms. If, on the other hand, we look at what is the overarching drive driving the desire to communicate, we can better address the real needs of the end user.

PongAs another example, we look back to early computer gaming. What was the main drive of the teenager playing Pong on Atari’s first arcade version of the game, released in 1972? If you asked this question to an impartial observer in 1972, they might well have opined that the fun of Pong stemmed from the fact that it was like table tennis; table tennis is fun, so a bleepy digital version of it in a big yellow box should also be fun. While not completely incorrect, such an opinion would be based solely upon the then-current gaming context. In following the advice of such an observer, an arcade-game manufacturer might have invested, and probably lost, an enormous amount of money in producing more and more electronic versions of simple tabletop games. But, fortunately for the computer-game industry, many manufacturers realized that the fun of arcade games was largely in the format, and so began to abandon the notion that they should be digital representations of physical games.

If we jump to a modern MMORPG game involving player avatars, such as World of Warcraft, we find a situation radically different from that which prevailed in 1972, but I would argue that many observers still make the same kinds of mistakes in extrapolating the drives of the players. It’s all about “recreation” and “role-playing”, right?

I think that many technology manufacturers underestimate and misunderstand our true drives. I admit to being an optimist on such matters, but what if, just for a moment, we assume that the drives of technology-obsessed human beings (even the ones playing Angry Birds, or posting drunken nonsense on Facebook) are actually grand and noble ones? What if we really think about what it is that they are trying to do? Now we begin to get somewhere. We can then see the Facebook postings as an individual’s yearning for registration of his or her existence; a drive towards self-actualization with a voice augmented beyond the hoarse squeak of the physical one. We can see individuals’ appreciation of the clean lines of their iPads as a desire for rounded-corner order in a world of filth and tangle. We can see their enjoyment of moving their avatar around World of Warcraft as the beginnings of a massive stretching of their concept of self, to a point where it might break open and merge colorfully with the selves of others.

E-Book Reader

One hundred and forty characters: I know it doesn’t look much like a drive for knowledge and transcendence, but so what? Pong didn’t look much like Second Life; the telegraph didn’t look much like the iPad. The past is a poor guide to the future. A little respect for, and more careful observation of, what might be the true drives of the technology-obsessed would, I think, help us to create a future enhanced by enabling technologies, and not one awash with debilitating noise.

D.J. MacLennan is a futurist writer and entrepreneur, and is signed up with Alcor for cryonic preservation. He lives in, and works from, a modern house overlooking the sea on the coast of the Isle of Skye, in the Highlands of Scotland.

See more of D.J.’s writing at extravolution.com and futurehead.com.