ad Silicon Tails: June 2008

Thursday, June 26, 2008

The End of Theory? I hope not!

Another good and provocative article by Chris Anderson in Wired this month (long version in print magazine) - and a surprisingly well thought through commentary on Valleywag (what's up with that level of journalistic quality on Valleywag?).

A central quote from Anderson's article:

"This is a world where massive amounts of data and applied mathematics replace every other tool that might be brought to bear. Out with every theory of human behavior, from linguistics to sociology. Forget taxonomy, ontology, and psychology. Who knows why people do what they do? The point is they do it, and we can track and measure it with unprecedented fidelity. With enough data, the numbers speak for themselves."

Scary stuff in my mind. Massive computation can be, and is, extremely useful to scientific endeavours, but to throw the baby out with the bath water is just plain wrong - even dangerous. Why? Because unlike what Anderson seems to argue, data never speak for themselves; as a matter of fact the mere act of collecting data tends to change the nature of what we are observing. This has been convincingly proven in Physics (The Heisenberg uncertainty principle) - and resulted in new models in quantum theory, notably Niels Bohr's principle of complementarity. Consider the extent to which the observer effect is even larger in the social sciences. If we do not interpret data in a context of hypotheses, models and theories we risk not only abandoning the cumulative nature of science, but opening up for a much more "politizised" version of science ruled by - most likely - commercial and religious interests. It's the equivalent of claiming that the syllogism is a way to arrive at truth, when in fact syllogistic reasoning bears no connection to the truth value of the argument (only to the logical "mechanics" of the argument). That is powerful in itself, obviously but would we want to assign a positive truth value (or any truth value for that matter) to the assertion that "my mother is a stone" (as in the play "Erasmus Montanus" by Ludvig Holberg) based on the mechanics of the argument alone? Of course not.

The fact that models and theories often fall short of explaining empirical phenomena - whether in biology, physics or the social sciences - should not make us abandon the quest for understanding and explaining. It would bring out the dogmatists and the fanatics, and it's not like we don't have enough dogmatism and fanaticism already.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

CHALLENGE: The Song You Never Want Written About You

Driving to work this morning, I was listening to Bob Dylan's "Positively 4th Street" thinking "Man, I'm glad he didn't write that song about me" (lyrics below). I always think the same thing when listening to the Danish Artist CV Joergensen's song "The Entertainer" (Danish lyrics here - click the link "Entertaineren" in the right pane).

Anyway, here is a fun challenge: List at least one song that you would NOT like to have been written about yourself, because it portrays personality traits that you would not like to be associated with: weakness, cowardice, falseness, selfishness, vainness - the list goes on.

Here is my contribution:

Positively 4th Street:

You got a lotta nerve
To say you are my friend
When I was down
You just stood there grinning

You got a lotta nerve
To say you got a helping hand to lend
You just want to be on
The side that's winning

You say I let you down
You know it's not like that
If you're so hurt
Why then don't you show it

You say you lost your faith
But that's not where it's at
You had no faith to lose
And you know it

I know the reason
That you talk behind my back
I used to be among the crowd
You're in with

Do you take me for such a fool
To think I'd make contact
With the one who tries to hide
What he don't know to begin with

You see me on the street
You always act surprised
You say, "How are you?" "Good luck"
But you don't mean it

When you know as well as me
You'd rather see me paralyzed
Why don't you just come out once
And scream it

No, I do not feel that good
When I see the heartbreaks you embrace
If I was a master thief
Perhaps I'd rob them

And now I know you're dissatisfied
With your position and your place
Don't you understand
It's not my problem

I wish that for just one time
You could stand inside my shoes
And just for that one moment
I could be you

Yes, I wish that for just one time
You could stand inside my shoes
You'd know what a drag it is
To see you