Monthly Archives: November 2013

Information Will Find a Way

In the movie Jurassic Park, chaos scientist Ian Malcolm remarks, “Life will find a way.” The rest of the movie proves him right. A population of dinosaur clones that was supposed to be all-female manages to reproduce anyway, turn aggressive and overrun the island.

That’s not so far-fetched. It’s more or less what has happened with life on our planet, just compressed into a 2-hour plot. As I blogged in the Selfish Gene series, a sterile pool was stirred by Sun and Moon for a few million years until a molecule arose that had the curious property of self-replication, drawing on materials in the surrounding prebiotic soup. Over unfathomable eons, such molecules fell together in increasingly complex but self-sustaining structures until what we would call life emerged. The process was so gradual that an observer would not be able to say, “Here is the first life” but here we are.

To say that “life has found a way” is an understatement. Life has ratcheted its way into the hellish, sulfer-based economy of deep-sea thermal vents; has eked out an existence 2 miles underneath Antarctic ice; and feeds on ammonia on Mount Everest.

Life, based on DNA (or RNA) is essentially information.

Like life itself, information is finding its way into every imaginable intellectual ecosystem. Some habitats are inhospitable, choked with dogma and prejudice. Others are more fertile and welcoming. However, information is resourceful. Its arguments and presentation continually mutate, and will continue to mutate, until truth penetrates every culture and sub-culture.

Why truth and not falsehood? In the world of information, truth is life and falsehood is death. Eventually, falsehood meets reality and is annihilated. The bigot gets to know enough people against whom he is prejudiced, discovers that they are as good as he is, and is forced to revise his views. Circumstances eventually force the biblical fundamentalist to double-check his views and he discovers they are unsupported.

Ways of looking at the world that are dedicated to seeking truth and discarding falsehood advance; backward cultures eventually wither. To see this, one only has to compare the march of science with the retreat of superstition.

This is happening with astonishing speed for, unlike biological life, information can survive and reproduce with almost no raw materials. Furthermore, while biological life consumes what it feeds on, information builds it up: As information is implanted in people, they want more of it, and are better equipped to host it. They even invent and support new habitats for it (the Internet being only the most recent example). The result is a growth of knowledge that is even more rapid than our growth in population.

Books Added to the British Library per Year

Books Added to the British Library per Year

United States Patent Applications

United States Patent Applications

Considered as a life-form, information is unrivaled. It requires almost no natural resources, can reproduce without limit, and re-engineers its hosts to want more of it.

The world of ignorance is doomed. May Truth live long and prosper!

Experts and the Availability Bias

You’ve heard the aphorism, A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. This week, I learned a new way that that’s true.

Thinking, Fast and Slow is a fascinating book about how the brain works. In one of the chapters, author Daniel Kahneman explores what makes us subject to the “availability bias.” This is the tendency to believe things because it’s easy to call supporting arguments to mind, rather than because those arguments are sound or because we’ve conducted thorough research and considered all sides.

According to Kahneman, one of the factors that makes us susceptible to this bias is being “knowledgeable novices on the topic … in contrast to true experts.”  Our knowledge makes it easy to cite a few arguments, and we lazily and happily believe we’re right, no matter what the experts say.

That is humbling. I think of areas where I have fancied myself so knowledgeable that I was qualified to dismiss the findings of experts, and later discovered that the experts had been right all along. The most egregious instance is my pooh-poohing of evolution, but there have been others.

In the 1980s, I attended a speech by the chief economist of CIGNA. He predicted that the 1990s would be an excellent decade for stocks, and he cited several reasons based on his research. He was a very impressive guy: brilliant, well-traveled, and well-connected, but I knew better than to be taken in by this so-called expert. I had read a book called Bankruptcy 1995, which made it very clear that America was headed for financial ruin — and soon — due to runaway national debt. I may have been a novice compared to Mr. Chief Economist, but I was a knowledgeable novice!

Of course, we know who turned out to be right. I missed one of the greatest market booms in history.

dow

Opportunities to be a knowledgeable novice abound. Do you find yourself saying any of these things? If so, you might be right, but be careful!

  • Doctors don’t know anything. This alternative/shamanic/new-age remedy is what really works.
  • Related to that… If I just take this fistful of pills that I got at GNC, I don’t have to loose weight or exercise.
  • Based on their research, most university professors say that a strong social safety net reduces poverty and increases general happiness. Of course they would say that! They’re biased liberals! They may have advanced degrees, but Rush Limbaugh has given me a real education!
  • I don’t need any fancy studies to prove it. I know that prayer to my God works! My holy book says so, and I’ve even seen some sick people get well after prayer.
  • So-called experts in foreign relations suggest a measured approach in the Middle East. I know how the world really works: if we just turned part of Saudi Arabia into molten glass, those A-rabs would start to pay attention real quick!

Once in a while, an opinion outside the expert mainstream is proven right. More often, it is the experts who have the expertise. If we disagree with them, let’s be humble enough to admit the possibility of our own availability bias. Let’s be even more careful than usual to practice shaphat.