I was just reading a transcript of Benjamin Bratton’s takedown of TED, the immensely popular series of talks on science and innovation. Perhaps the word “talk” is a bit too specific. TED is more of a “format” for presenting ideas.
To be clear, I think that having smart people who do very smart things explain what they doing in a way that everyone can understand is a good thing. But TED goes way beyond that.
Let me tell you a story. I was at a presentation that a friend, an Astrophysicist, gave to a potential donor. I thought the presentation was lucid and compelling (and I’m a Professor of Visual Arts here at UC San Diego so at the end of the day, I know really nothing about Astrophysics). After the talk the sponsor said to him, “you know what, I’m gonna pass because I just don’t feel inspired… you should be more like Malcolm Gladwell.”
At this point I kind of lost it. Can you imagine?
Think about it: an actual scientist who produces actual knowledge should be more like a journalist who recycles fake insights! This is beyond popularization. This is taking something with value and substance and coring it out so that it can be swallowed without chewing. This is not the solution to our most frightening problems — rather this is one of our most frightening problems.
I couldn’t agree more. As scientists, we are required to be able to explain our research to the outside world. Aside from the important matter of justifying our existence and use of public funds, some of us would hope that our work improves the world. However, the process of explaining shouldn’t involve unnecessarily dumbing down or overstating the potential impact of our work.
TED demands that every presentation be centered around some success. We have to end the talk on some positive note, proudly declaring that our work went the way we wanted it to and had a profound impact on the world. We are there to create, innovate and inspire.
The trouble is that science is often hardly creative, sometimes not innovative and often wholly uninspiring. Mind you, I don’t consider these to be negatives.
Much of science involved the testing of previously held results, views and conclusions. We aren’t seeking to create something new, but rather to evaluate the validity of what has been created before or commonly assumed. We are pursuing knowledge with the hope of refining how the world sees itself using methods to create hypotheses, gather evidence and rigorous test our assumptions.
The outcome, of course, is that the road of science is paved with failure. We embark on our adventures with money in hand, a plan, the proper tools and the best intentions, but, in most cases, we find out that the money didn’t go as far as we would have liked, the plan was ill-conceived given the realities on the ground, the tools were insufficient and our intentions may have been misplaced. At least, that’s my experience of science.
Again, I don’t see this as a negative. In order to improve our ability to understand the world and potentially ameliorate it’s problems, we are required to fail. A child can’t learn to walk without falling down. I can’t learn how to not offend people in Japanese without offending people more than a few times. I can’t learn how not to bake a cake without creating an inedible mess.
TED talks overlook this process of failure, focusing exclusively on the positives and the successes and, more troubling, the inspirational nature of the work. But then, this is a problem that’s not unique to TED talks. I find that TED talks are really just symptomatic of a broader trend which discourages negative results to the point where scientists troll the data hoping to find at least something that can be labelled “successful.”
Most journals won’t publish papers with negative results and most people don’t want to read them. To me, though, there is as much to learn from a paper which found that the previously held view was correct than one which refutes it. There is as much to know from a project which failed miserably as one which was “successful.” At least in my discipline, where field work under pressing circumstances is the norm, it would be nice to hear where people went miserably wrong. We could waste a lot less time, money and experience a little less frustration.
This success driven culture isn’t, of course, limited to science. It permeates our culture, particularly our children. This young generation (and their parents) appears wholly frightened of failure, potentially to the point of paralysis. If we aren’t careful, we might turn into the stagnant Japan of the 00′s.
TED talks probably have to go. While they worked well in the Gates era where small technological fixes in isolated boxes were thought to solve mankind’s most pressing problems, we need to move on to a format which effectively looks to the process of exploration. We need to know and accept that we will fail and those potential sources of failure need to inform our current strategies.
We need to integrate people of many disciplines for mutual benefit. For example, as a quantitative scientist, I learn a lot from people in the humanities, who often hold viewpoints and perspectives completely different from my own but no less important.
In short, we need more discussion and less posturing. Failure is good because we learn from it. Let’s not let the the scientific forum, as Dr. Bratton noted, becomes like cheap, inspirational, yet myopic and wholly useless megachurches.
Lacking anything constructive to write about, I thought I’d list what’s been on my reading list today.
First was an article from the Guardian reporting on Mark Zuckerberg’s statements that internet connectivity is a “human right.”
I’m not sure we should go so far as to classify connectivity as a “human right,” given that there are other things like food, security, education and health care that many people around the world don’t have access to, but I do agree that communications are essential for all four. Anti-tech folks will, of course, be annoyed but fortunately powerless. Communications development in Sub Saharan Africa, fueled by intense and enthusiastic demand, is nothing short of impressive. It’s hard to measure, but from a recent survey I performed in Kenya, it would seem that people on the ground are enthusiastic about the technology.
Second was an article on cancer meds in India in the NYT. Drug makers are apparently worried that India will flour patent laws and produce expensive cancer drugs cheaply, pricing out US and European markets. I’m encouraged that anyone at all is talking of cancer in a developing country.
India, no stranger to ignoring onerous patent restrictions on meds, is right to move against the hard-headed pharma industry. While the noted concerns of drug makers are certainly legitimate, there have to be ways to accommodate demand in developing countries while still insuring profitable domestic and international enterprises. If they can’t think of a way to do it, they aren’t thinking hard enough.
Third was an article on GMOs from Henry Miller a molecular biologist at Stanford on the unreasonable hysteria surrounding genetically modified foods.
While it is right to be concerned about the safety of new technologies, the attention and regulatory backlash against GMOs is disproportionate. It is akin to a bizarre witch-hunt or maybe a good Christian book burning. I’m sure that many would not agree with Dr. Miller’s position but I found it to be an interesting article.
But then, maybe he’s just a paid stooge of Monsanto and we really all are slowly dying from “GMO poisoning”. It’s certainly possible; the credibility of academics is being called into question over connections with Wall Street. I’m interested in reading the work of the two academics interviewed here, which argues that price increases in commodities throughout the 00′s had little to do with speculation.
Just as I’m not an expert on biotech, I’m also not an expert on finance but the data shows that price increases seem to be slowing as regulation to control commodity futures speculation has been in the works.
I can’t help but thinking that the biggest winner of this shutdown debacle is the American right wing.
Major media outlets (that I read) are portraying the Tea Party minority and the greater Republican Party as mindless crazies, hell bent on getting their way, no matter how destructive the methods might be. To an extent, this is true, but one has to consider the larger picture.
The extreme American right hates government. They hate that money is taken from citizens and put to programs that benefit programs they don’t like which represent ideologies they don’t like. If the Tea Party were granted three wishes, they would use them all to completely shutter the entire US Government, outside of the military and those functions which preserve and enforce property rights.
The shutdown halted many of the programs that American right wingers hate most. Poor people were unable to access welfare benefits. The NSF and the NIH were shutdown which affected me personally as I am currently applying for grants from both. The EPA and the CDC were both shut down. In the latter case, disease monitoring ceased and lab testing for rare diseases, some of which are ONLY available at the CDC.
And here is where it all lies. Shuttering grant funding agencies and labs which exclusively provide testing services impacts us not merely in the short term. By demonstrating once that a shutdown is possible, and further showing that it can and will happen again in the near future, people who use lab testing services, for example, will begin to explore other options. Everyone wants a back up.
This is where the Tea Party wins. This particular section of American politics wishes that state services were privatized. In the case of labs and grant support, I think that researchers in 2013 are savvy enough that they might just get their wish. Since the US Government has shown that we can’t depend on it, we will naturally start looking to the private sector to provide support.
The trouble is that the private sector isn’t necessarily interested in providing costly and underutilized services to test for rare diseases. There is no profit in disease surveillance, and very few tangible, short term monetary rewards for doing things like malaria research or health problems of marginalized populations in the US. The private sector might step up to replace at least some of these services, but they’ll do it in a patchy, inefficient and very costly and indifferent manner.
True, there are some private foundations which support research (Gates would be an example) but their contribution and focus is limited compared to that of the NIH, NSF, HHS, CDC and a host of other government agencies which support research and monitoring.
So, while the Tea Party and the Republicans may have lost the poltical battle and may even lose a few seats in the mid terms next year and might not even get the executive in 2016, they’ve won the ideological battle simply by forcing Americans to look for options to government provided services.
In short, we lost and the world loses, too.
I was watching the mosh pit and thinking about two things. First, that mosh pits act like particle interactions. Bodies bounce off one another, and occasionally off innocent bystanders. Second, that pits tend to tire out as the night moves on, and fade out as more as the music gets more interesting.
To my surprise, a group at Cornell already ran with the first idea (why am I always late to the game?). They took an agent based approach, and modelled the mosh pit as particles that move and bounce off one another and are constrained by non-moshers around them. They even went to the trouble of creating a simulator!
Of course, I find out now that the national news even featured their work (so I admit, my observation may have been influenced by an article I don’t consciously remember reading in the past few weeks).
I like their model and it may have agreed well with mosh pits in reality, but it fails when crowds are small. Moshers in the simulator are allowed to leave the boundaries of the floor, where in reality they are constrained to the space they occupy. The model here assumes that there are sufficient non-moshers to constrain the mosher movements. Often, this is not true. Importantly, it appears to model the particles as having random movement (though there is a limited “flock” feature), when mosh pits are anything but random. Moshers tend to be attracted to other moshers.
As for the second, point, that moshers tend to run out of steam early and take frequent breaks, I’ll leave that to debate. I would like to consider how musical complexity and “interestingness” influence mosh pits. Moshers tend to care little for whatever they mosh to (could be Justing Bieber in the end), though better music might command more attention.
For the record, I’m too old to mosh.
I had one of those odd old man moments today where I’m watching a squirrel run up a tree. It goes half way up the tree in a split second, stops, then decides there’s nothing to run from after all. It then spends the next 10 seconds trying to get down. In short, the squirrel can climb a tree in a tenth the time it takes to get down. I realize this is a pretty silly observation.
Humans, too, are really good at running up hills, but terrible at getting down them. I remember climbing Mt. Mulanje in Malawi once. Going up was no problem at all. Getting down was dangerous as hell.
We pull better than we push, see right in front of ourselves better than beside ourselves, and have an easier time thinking of the concerns of a few proximal people, than a vast numbers of people who live far away. The latter, obviously, has important implications for global policy.
All of these things, though, are remnants of our evolutionary past and make complete sense when put in the context of our humble, though dangerous, beginnings. Arising in the savannahs of Kenya, humans would have been easy prey for all sorts of predators. When faced with a lion or hyena, a reasonable strategy is to run up the nearest tree and wait for the threat to pass. Thus, getting up the tree is critical for survival, particularly for children. Importantly, if they are eaten before they reproduce, the survival of the species is in question. Better climbers are survivors who are able to pass their climbing abilities on to their own children.
Getting down from the tree, of course, is not critical to survival. Thus, we can take our sweet time clumsily trying to get down, live and be able to pass our clumsy genes on to our children. So threats create effective adaptations and the lack of threat creates useless ones. The same is true for eyesight. Humans, as predatory omnivores, benefit from being able to focus on their prey while hunting, especially when they have the unique ability to run long distances while they wait for their prey (which likely has a serious head start) to tire out.
The Kericho region of Kenya is famous for producing long distance runners. I wonder if they maintained a particular hunting strategy that the Europeans or Asians no longer required.
Of interest to me is why humans might be so clan centric. It has been shown that humans are able to feel empathy for individuals close to them, but have a hard time imagining the sufferings of millions of unfamiliar people. This limitation, of course, allows us to wage wars far from home, and maintain indifference toward the millions living in poverty around the world.
Again, there are evolutionary roots here. Humans, being pack animals are adapted to be concerned about their immediately family and pack members, particularly children. This is important to survival. When any member of the group is threatened, all must be ready to ward off the threat, and protect children, who pass on similar traits to their children. A group of people indifferent to those aorund them would die out quickly. We are poor fighters on our own.
We have lived only in small groups until very recently. Thus, we never formed a need to be concerned with anyone else besides those closest to us. This state of having to care about the welfare of millions (or billions) is entirely new. We haven’t yet adjusted to it, though we make noble attempts. It is possible that we may never fully develop the ability to feel the pain of billions, unless something comes along and starts wiping out those who don’t. If that happened, we’d probably all be dead, though.
I had never thought of the problems of global policy in terms of evolutionary behavior. I guess, I have the squirrel to thank.
I was just checking out an article by Mark Buchanan on Bloomberg about the need to abandon the idea of economic markets as being inherently stable.
For several decades, academics have assumed that the economy is in a stable equilibrium. Distilled into a few elegant lines of mathematics by the economists Kenneth Arrow and Gerard Debreu back in the 1950s, the assumption has driven most thinking about business cycles and financial markets ever since. It informs the idea, still prevalent on Wall Street, that markets are efficient — that the greedy efforts of millions of individuals will inevitably push prices toward some true fundamental value.
Problem is, all efforts to show that a realistic economy might actually reach something like the Arrow-Debreu equilibrium have met with failure. Theorists haven’t been able to prove that even trivial, childlike models of economies with only a few commodities have stable equilibria. There is no reason to think that the equilibrium so prized by economists is anything more than a curiosity.
It’s as if mathematical meteorologists found beautiful equations for a glorious atmospheric state with no clouds or winds, no annoying rain or fog, just peaceful sunshine everywhere. In principle, such an atmospheric state might exist, but it tells us nothing about the reality we care about: our own weather.
This is true. Markets are inherently unstable beasts,as was proven by the crashes of 2000 and 2007/8. Personally, I am an advocate of free markets. The trouble is that no one can agree on what a free market is.
I recently watched a compelling lecture by development economist Ha Joon Chang, where he pointed out (rightly) that “free markets” are truly in the eye of the beholder, pointing out that even the most ardent of free market supporters in 2013 wouldn’t support the free marketers and libertarians who complained of the implementation of child labor laws in the early 20th century.
I should say, then, that I’m an advocate of the “freeest markets within reason” or “the freest markets as will support the moral ideals I hold to be important.” That is, the freeest markets as will support the protection of individual rights to freedom of expression and political thought, the preservation of equal opportunity through education and health, access to capital and social mobility.
Mr. Buchanan points put that where other sciences have accepted that there is no such thing as stability in the rest of the universe, desperate economists and their politically backward fans stick to the idea that, despite evidence of the irrationality of humans in every other space, markets are “self stabilizing.” That humans are rational (they are not) and customers can democratically select optimal prices vs. availability (untrue).
First, I am drawn to the incredible volatility of prices in areas that have the least power to influence them (developing countries).
If there were ever an example of the undemocratic nature of unbridled markets, food in developing countries would be it. Buyers and sellers are legion, yet bodies across the sea set prices with little regard to the demands of the many. In Sub Saharan Africa, stability is a fantastical dream.
Second, I am thinking of the work being done on complex systems in finance, specifically that coming out of Princeton at the moment.
SOME people aren’t waiting around with their heads in the sand, but rather are working to describe the phenomena of finance volatility, noting the increased complexity of financial markets in 2013. It would seem that deeper linkages between financial systems, though necessary, induce the very real problem of volatility. Ignoring it or pretending it doesn’t exist won’t make it go away.
Blaming government regulation and calling for a return to 19th century finance doesn’t work well either.
But that’s enough….