Saturday, November 24, 2007

Multiverses and Regress

Paul Davies and Dinesh D’Souza have much in common. Both have summoned Newton’s faithfulness that supported his belief in an ordered universe as a means for explaining how modern science is dependent on faith. D’Souza goes much further than Davies, however, in denying that any other culture other than Christian Europe could have developed science and reason as a central cultural pillar upon which liberalism and America ultimately emerged.

D’Souza’s flaw is primarily in his historical dismissal of the achievements of other cultures, like Islam, in the development of math and science. In his presentations and articles he tends to quote a single Islamic philosopher who believed that Allah could be as irrational as he wanted to be, as if that led all Islamic thinkers to dismiss as impossible any understanding of the universe beyond the ideas of the Koran. Of course we know that was not the case, and hence we get algebra through Aldebaron.

Ptolemy, Pythagoras, Democritus and Epicurus would be similarly shocked by D'Souza's claims.

Davies’ error is in his assumption that science must be a closed intellectual system, thus submitting the entire explanatory framework to an argument of infinite regress. If we see symmetry in forces, there must be an explanation for that symmetry. Then we need an explanation beyond that symmetry. If we assume that the existing laws are effective explanations, he declares that we have invoked faith that has the same essential character as the faith of the religious.

This, of course, dismisses the entire project of inference and abduction—the contingency of liberal rationalism—using a logical positivist conception of theory. We do not, as Davies declares, claim scientifically that there may be no explanation for the ordered nature of physical law. We simply hold that there is no clear theoretical construct and supporting evidence to provide such an explanation. We keep looking and constantly ask ourselves: are there any exceptions to relativistic conceptions of gravitation? We look for anomalous disconfirmation because it leads to conceptual revision. We tentatively hold forth multiple universes and ask whether there is any way to confirm or refute the idea, or whether the idea has consequences.

That, to my mind, is nothing like religious faith, and is only loosely allied with the grand ordered Deism of Newton.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Math, Science and Popular Culture

A digital video recorder (DVR) destroyed my evenings. I write that, though, with some guilty pleasure. I really was not much of a television viewer until I upgraded our technology stack, including an HD receiver with DVR pumping glorious time-shifted detail through an LCD television with a surround-sound system.

That was just over a year ago and my evening productivity has suffered. I spent probably six months just exploring features, programming a universal remote and capturing programming. Then I settled in to watch some specific programs in addition to movies and documentaries.

There are four network programs that I want to mention because of their unexpected cultural importance: the CSI franchise, House, Numb3rs and Criminal Minds. In each case, science or mathematics plays an essential role. In each case, the background material is actually well-researched, although the outcomes are almost always ridiculously neat in order to fit the format.

Numb3rs is the show closest to my background in terms of using algorithms and mathematics to solve problems. In a recent show, in fact, one mathematician used a classification and regression tree (CART) algorithm to do something. I’ve used CART before. Some of the other topics in social network analysis and covering algorithms also ring vaguely true, though they are distorted through a lens of excited elaboration that gets tiresome over time.

Northeastern University keeps track of some of the Numb3rs mathematics, here.

But more important, I think, is the cultural message that intelligent people with highly developed skill sets are heroes. Even Gregory House is a hero of sorts in his coldly analytical pursuit of truth, his anti-theism and dedication to correct diagnoses. I contrast this kind of programming with 90210, Dallas or other cultural phenomena that seemed to cater to baser ideas of wealth, power and privilege. Is the brain on the rise?

I have to admit that I am getting some kind of network television fatigue here after a year with the DVR and shows are stacking up on the hard drive. I may have to go back to a stricter media diet, but hope the science and math keeps a place on the television menu.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Folksonomics and Conceptual Metadata

I necessarily think about information design as a part of my professional duties. I also try to keep frosty on novel ways that information might be presented. So I naturally have been revisiting these notions in some avocational research I have been delving into concerning health care reform.

Health care reform is, of course, a deeply political topic that breaks down along several ideological and interest dimensions. In supporting the claims for all sides, basic research is mined and often cherry-picked to build a case. And my point in this entry is not to make an ideological or political claim but to describe in a way how that information is discovered, used and reused.

Now I was quite a novice on the topic of health care economics and reform ideas when I began researching the topic. I certainly had personal negative and positive experiences over the years. I also had heard the reviews and blowback over Michael Moore’s Sicko (though have not yet seen the film). But, beyond that, I had no real understanding of who the players were, what the research suggested, or what the counterclaims were.

My understanding built from a range of sources, most of which were simply not accessible even a decade ago to casual researchers like me. Instead, you had to be a Beltway insider who subscribed to think tank newsletters and research publications. But now I can download and read Commonwealth Fund reports, CATO news briefs, and a host of other resources and become a moderately well-informed amateur researcher. I can access huge swaths of blogs and commentary, reflecting different perspectives. I can even organize the information by collecting it together and then labeling it for easy recovery based on a recollection.

What I can’t easily do yet is to be able to answer specific questions that have not already been answered in some publication, but that emerge out of the collected information. For example, after I read how the German medical system did not have the kinds of rationing and waits for access that we associate with certain aspects of the British and Canadian systems in a Commonwealth Fund report, I wanted to know the details of the German system. Was it a single-payer or nationalized health service? Perhaps a hybrid? What was the role of doctors and information technology? It took quite a lot of searching to finally be able to answer those questions, ultimately using a Siemens Medical Technology prĂ©cis and market analysis of the German system.

Could approaches like structured metadata via Semantic Web technologies assist me in these tasks? Perhaps, but it seems to require that propositional information above the level of named entity extraction could be accurately indexed. For the first question, I would need documents labeled with “Structure of the German Medical System” or the equivalent rather than the many nuanced and varied ways that we write. Moreover, the proposition needs to express the timeliness of the resource, a problem I frequently encounter when trying to fix problems with my Linux computers. How timely is a given piece of information?

We can’t, however, expect individuals to be able to code that metadata in any consistent way, though I believe there is a folksonomic method that can lend a hand: a community of users can gradually improve the metadata structure and content in much the same way that Wikipedia is gradually improved. The Wikipedia model has also shown that quality can be maintained—with fits and starts—by a community of users and some policies in place.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Leftward and Magical Thinking

What if all of the beauty of the arts could be boiled down to a tendency to turn left? I’m not kidding, and I’m not making a political statement. I’m talking about the real thing: physical orientation.

So where to start?

There is a remarkable literature on the relationship between magical thinking and schizophrenic behavior. Not surprisingly, schizotypic ideation (delusional psychotic thoughts) correlates with magical thinking indexes. So, if you believe in mystical connections throughout the universe, you might also believe that forces are communicating with you.

But the connections are more interesting, still. If you ask people to grade the relationship between different words on a 1-5 scale, with 1 indicating the words are unrelated and 5 meaning they are nearly identical, people who rate highly on magical thinking indexes also tend to rate unrelated words more related than those with low index ratings.

The theory is as follows: semantic memory is tied to right-brain functioning and dopamine activity is abnormally high in both schizotypic and magical thinking people in the right hemisphere. Specifically, spreading activation is enhanced by dopamine. We slur ideas together when we have high levels of dopamine. We believe things are mystically connected and, at the extreme, we even get semantic relationships gated into perceptual memory and turned into hallucinations. But at lower levels of activation, we get the insanity of artistry.

And it is the right hemisphere action that results in the tendency to turn left because the right hemisphere controls left motor functions. So those with schizophrenia, those who damage their brains with amphetamines, and those with magical thinking tendencies will veer a bit left when asked to mark the center of a piece of paper. At the extreme, Parkinson’s patients with extreme dopamine issues will wander in leftward arcs. So will rats.

Leftward, always leftward. The artists all lingered to the left while finding patterns where the rest of us found only randomness. It is the source of gurus and mystics, artists and poets, and, perhaps, NASCAR drivers.