Archive for the ‘SOCIETY’ Category

Science and Humanities: Can the twain meet?

Sunday, August 24th, 2014

Mint, 7 August 2014

Earlier this week, I wrote on the new novel In The Light of What We Know by Zia Haider Rahman, which I thought was an exceptionally fine piece of literature. I posted my piece on Facebook, and soon enough, came the first comment. “I started reading it but after 100 odd pages lost steam,” wrote a friend who claims her first love is history. “Also read reviews that were harsh if not downright insulting.”

So I looked for the bad reviews. And the first one I encountered was the one published in Mint! The reviewer, whose taste and writings I have always admired, has called In The Light “painfully overwritten, self-indulgent and pompous”. Which is fine, since every man is entitled to his opinion about a book or its writing style. But he also dismisses Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem, which underpins the entire novel, as an “obscure mathematical theory”.

I wrote back to my FB friend: “One reason for bad reviews may be (and it’s nobody’s fault, certainly not the author’s) that there is a huge gulf between the sciences and the humanities. Neither side can appreciate the other reasonably well. So someone with zero interest or minimal knowledge in mathematics or quantum physics may be unable to get the connections Rahman makes throughout the book between abstract scientific knowledge and real life. This can’t be helped. A pure scientist may be totally puzzled by great poetry. As for me, since I’ve dabbled a bit on both sides, I found these connections to be remarkable and profound, and that is what made me love the book so much.”

The Mint reviewer (I hasten to add again that I am an admirer of his work) has casually mentioned W.G. Sebald, Saul Bellow, Philip Roth and William Boyd in his piece, but believes that Godel’s theorem is “obscure”. Now I can lay a bet (all—OK, half—the money in my savings bank account) that if you take a random sample of scientists and mathematicians anywhere in the world, at least 80% would never have heard of Sebald or Boyd. Maybe 40% would have heard of Bellow or Roth, but few would have read them. On the other hand, asking a mathematician if he knew Godel’s theorem is like asking a Bengali if he is aware of Rabindranath Tagore.

This is the gulf.

This disconnect was first—or at least most famously—made public by British scientist and novelist C.P. Snow, in the prestigious Rede lecture in 1959, which he titled The Two Cultures. Snow posited that the intellectual life of “Western society” (in 2014, we can replace that with “the world”) was split between the sciences and the humanities. The literary elite, he said, was contemptuous of “the illiteracy of scientists”, yet were flummoxed when asked if they could describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics. “Yet”, said Snow, “I was asking something that was the scientific equivalent of: Have you read a word of Shakespeare?” “I now believe,” said Snow, “that if I had asked an even simpler question—such as, What do you mean by mass, acceleration, which is the scientific equivalent of saying, Can you read?—not more than one in ten of the highly educated would have felt that I was speaking the same language. So the great edifice of modern physics goes up, and the majority of the cleverest people in the Western world have about as much insight into it as their Neolithic ancestors would have had.”

The Second Law of Thermodynamics states that in a given system, entropy—disorder, in plain English—will keep on increasing. It is obvious that a keen mind could apply this as a metaphor to a lot of non-thermodynamical real-life situations, macro or micro.

The philosophical implications are immense. As they are for many theories of physics and mathematics—from Newton’s Laws of Motion and Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, to recursive mathematics and of course, Godel’s Theorem. They pertain as much to life as to the matters or abstractions they are ostensibly about.

People trained in the sciences suffer from the same syndrome. Especially in India, those who have studied science or applied science (medicine or engineering, for instance) naturally assume, on no empirical basis at all, that the rest of the populace is less intelligent than them. The vast majority of male engineers I know (and I know quite a lot of them) believe that poetry is strictly for “arts students” and women. When they read a work of fiction, they read purely for entertainment or to pass the time, and bring the same level of attention and expectation to Hamlet as they would bring to The Da Vinci Code.

Around a decade ago, I spent a year interviewing a large number of highly successful IITians. When I asked them what they now felt had been lacking in their IIT education, the most common answer was that they should have been exposed to the humanities far more in addition to the engineering stuff they did. They thought they emerged from their engineering schools with a real handicap, smug in the belief that every problem had one right answer which could be arrived at through quantitative methods. They had little knowledge of human life as it is, and the human mind as it works, which the humanities give you a much better feel for.

The other problem with an education that is exclusively limited to science is that it—at least overtly—does not impart any sense of ethics to the student. Today’s newspaper reveals that a bunch of hackers operating out of a small town in Russia have stolen 1.2 billion user IDs and passwords. I am quite sure that they did it simply because they took it as a challenge—to see if they were good enough hackers. I think they are quite incapable of thinking through the ethical or moral dimensions of what they have done. No wonder so many computer nerds have social lives that suck.

And of course there is that old accusation that science has wrought so much evil because the scientists were only bothered about solving a problem or inventing something new, without thinking through the consequences. Nuclear bombs, chemical warfare, the coming era of eugenics, and so on. However, this is where I draw a line. None of the three greatest butchers of the 20th century—Hitler, Stalin and Mao Zedong—were science students. Hitler tried his hand as a painter, and Stalin studied in a seminary. In fact, what I find astonishing is that so few of our world leaders have been science students. With the exception of Angela Merkel, who is a trained physicist, I don’t think the current leader of any significant world power is a science graduate.

I have no idea how many of them even have a more than rudimentary grasp of the big scientific issues or where technology is taking us. Britain of course has a long tradition of Oxbridge graduates who majored in PPE—Philosophy, Politics and Economics—as a direct route to entering politics and rising to the top. The current UK Cabinet has six PPEs, including Prime Minister David Cameron and foreign secretary William Hague. The leader of the Labour Party, Ed Milliband, is also a PPE. Former Prime Ministers include Harold Wilson (Labour) and Edward Heath (Conservative).

A principal problem with learning science or mathematics, I think, is that these are areas where everything builds on everything that came before it. So if you had a bad teacher who was unable to make you understand quadratic equations, you would never get the next step—factorization of polynomials. However, in, say, history, if you missed out on the Non-Cooperation Movement, it does not in any way hamper you from getting to know all about the Civil Disobedience Movement. So, one bad teacher, or one missed step can forever handicap you and even turn you completely against the subject itself.

This is a tragedy about which not much can be done. It’s just the nature of the beast.

The real problem of course is that no education system has been able to build a bridge between the “two cultures”. And the most galling part of this is that there need not be this gulf and this necessity of a bridge.

But the void exists and sometimes it can be extremely irritating. For instance, I was actually asked once, by a dear—and extremely humanities—friend: “If I offer you a kg of beauty and a kg of scientific knowledge, which would you take?” I felt like throwing up. Someone who is not dazzled by Van Gogh’s Sunflowers and someone who cannot appreciate the sublime beauty of an equation like e=mc2 (to give two very famous examples) are both missing out on a hell of a lot.

What a science education should finally instil in a person is a “scientific temper”—a rational way of looking at the world. If you emerge as a university gold medallist in chemistry, but filled to the brim with only formulae and no clue about the ethos of scientific thinking or the philosophy of inquiry, you will be a stunted human being.

Indeed, even a good humanities education should also end up providing you with a rational and logical way of looking at things. If you studied history, and did not learn from the mistakes and follies of those who have gone before you, what have you really learnt?

A scientific temper and a logical outlook in no way impedes either innovative thinking or inspirational leaps. The last steps of deriving most great mathematical theories, just like great works of art, come from epiphanies that the neurosciences cannot explain.

But, given that entropy will always keep increasing—just look around the world—rational thinking is perhaps the one thing humankind needs the most, and needs it desperately. If the two cultures meet and understand that they have much more in common and enormous treasures to share, if they agreed that a scientific temper is not just about not abusing your laboratory assistant, the world would be a far far better place.

This is true, and I think, this is the sort of truth that Godel’s Incompleteness theorem refers to: claims that are truths but cannot be proved.

This FB Fuss Is A Farce

Saturday, July 19th, 2014

Mail Today, July 4, 2014

This whole Facebook “mood manipulation” and “emotional contagion” business: I am sorry, but I really don’t know what the whole hullabaloo is about. I’m aware that I am in a minority here, given that in the UK, regulators are investigating whether the Facebook experiment violated data protection laws, privacy groups all over the world are up in arms, and there is much gnashing of teeth in all media about the giant social network company turning its users into guinea pigs to achieve its evil plans of world domination. But can we just cool down for a bit and check what really has happened?

For those who came in late, the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Scientists recently published by a report co-authored by FB data scientist Adam Kramer, which revealed details of a one-week experiment that the company conducted in 2012. What it did was, as The Guardian puts it, “Facebook filtered users’ news feeds – the flow of comments, videos, pictures and web links posted by other people in their social network. One test reduced users’ exposure to their friends’ ‘positive emotional content’, resulting in fewer positive posts of their own. Another test reduced exposure to ‘negative emotional content’ and the opposite happened.” This study involved about 700,000 users, who were not informed of the experiment beforehand.

This programme in “emotional manipulation” has been variously termed “scandalous”, “spooky” and “disturbing”. Commentators and politicians have expressed fears that this is “thought control” and that Facebook and others (like Google, for instance), firms that are sitting on gigantic amounts of data about people’s personal lives and choices, may begin influencing people’s thoughts on politics and other issues. That is, Facebook could one day just mess around its users’ minds and get anyone of its choice elected as US President, or make some country nuke another.

OK, now let’s step back a moment. We all know by now that the internet is an enormous collection of research studies, with us as the subjects. Buy a shirt from an e-commerce site, and for weeks afterwards, whichever site you visit, an ad from that e-store keeps popping up. Google constantly uses your search history and gmail content to serve up ads that they feel are relevant to you. Every internet firm of any worth uses algorithms to select content to show to users.

And this sort of research was hardly invented by the internet. Every consumer product marketer has been studying customer behaviour since time immemorial, and quite often without informing their customers or seeking their permission (When you signed up for a Google or Facebook account, you accepted their terms and conditions with a click, without bothering to read what you were agreeing to; that would have taken you a year to go through and make sense of. But with that click, you gave them permission to use your data for research, among other things). When Frank Capra was making his classic 1941 film Meet John Doe, he had no clue about how to end it. So it was released with four different endings in different cities simultaneously, and when we see the film today, the ending is the one audiences (who weren’t told about the experiment) seemed to like the most.

And finally, what did Facebook get out of its experiment? For language analysis of vast amounts of data (in this case, FB status updates made over a week by nearly 700,000 people) the go-to automated tool is the Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count application (LIWC 2007). But, it has two problems in the sort of experiment that FB did. One, LIWC works well only when each piece of text is of some reasonable length—at least 400 words. There is no software tool verified for accuracy that can analyse text of shorter lengths, and most FB posts would be much shorter. Two, as leading cyberpsychology expert Dr John Grohol has pointed out, LIWC does not analyse mood (negative or positive)!

Grohol gives a simple example. He considers two sample FB posts: “I am not happy,” and “I am not having a great day.” Both are expressing negative emotions—in text analysis terms, it would be +2 on the negative scale, and 0 on the positive scale. But LIWC would rate both posts as scoring +2 for positive (because of the words “great” and “happy”) and +2 for negative (because of the word “not” in both texts). How could this be? Because, according to LIWC developers contacted by Grohol: “LIWC doesn’t currently look at whether there is a negation term near a positive or negative emotion term word in its scoring and it would be difficult to come up with an effective algorithm for this anyway.”

From this, it would not be unfair to assume that there is no software available currently that can gauge mood accurately, at least for pieces of such short length! For lengthy pieces of text, LIWC can give an approximate sense of the tenor, because if the author is denouncing something strongly, the negatives will add up to a higher score than the positives. But even then, it would fail when it came up against subtleties of human communication like sarcasm, idioms, double negatives and so on.

So, FB’s research methodology could have been all wrong.

But even if you forget that (which you shouldn’t), FB’s research actually shows that posts have extremely tiny impacts on people’s emotions. For instance, the researchers found 0.07% —that is 7 parts of 10,000 — decrease in negative words in people’s status updates when the number of negative posts on their FB feed decreased. In fact, in their published paper, the authors admitted that the effect sizes were “small”. Yet, they thump their chests by proclaiming (and this is the line that has been quoted all over the media and struck panic into the hearts of millions): “These results indicate that emotions expressed by others on Facebook influence our own emotions, constituting experimental evidence for massive-scale contagion via social networks.”

If this is a contagion, we are a race of suicidal hypochondriacs.