The Informaticists – A take on the science of information

Just wanted to plug what looks like an interesting initiative:

What is information?

We’re The Informaticists, and we’re obsessed with that question.

Come find out with us through a podcast and materials from a very special Stanford University freshman seminar called EE 25N: Science of Information.

Truthlikeness and belief merging language dependence

This discussion note pushes against the purported problem of language translation variance for certain approaches to truthlikeness by showing that translation variance also fundamentally affects the areas of belief revision and merging. Perhaps demonstrating the fundamental presence of translation variance in these areas gives weight to positions that defend translation variant accounts of truthlikeness by shifting the problem to one of finding the right language/framework or some such. For some background articles on matter, see:

Disconnecting viewpoints from groups/ideologies

Our social/political spheres are undoubtedly hyper tribal, facilitated in no small part by the Internet and social media. A standard dichotomy for example is that of the left and right. Generally, one side is associated with a certain set of viewpoints and the other side is associated with an opposite set. It seems that when an individual who aligns with some group is determining which viewpoints should be included in their set of beliefs, rather than assessing each issue individually to decide where they stand, they are inclined to let the position taken by the group they affiliate with automatically determine their viewpoint.

Anyway, this is just a summary of a phenomenon that many would already understand. I was induced to write this post though because of a type of statement I have been seeing recently that really elucidates the matter. I forget where I saw it and forget what it was referring to, but here is an example statement:

I read it and have to agree with you. I hate to be on the same side as people like Ann Coulter but we have to have intellectual integrity.

I thoroughly dislike Ann Coulter due to her disagreeable attitude and viewpoints on many topics. However, is it rational for the position I adopt on some matter to be determined by the position someone I find disagreeable takes? Should one’s adopted position be determined from some set of predefined ‘axioms’ dictated by one’s affiliated ideology, or should each new question be freshly evaluated?

Of course, the former seems to often be the case in modern environments, where people let their affiliation automatically decide the position they adopt. Furthermore, in many cases affiliation loyalty means that they are likely to be intransigent in the light of evidence supporting an alternative view. I wonder if there is any legitimacy in one automatically basing their viewpoint on their affiliation. Perhaps at least to begin with? That is, rather than starting off with a suspension of judgement regarding some matter and adopting a position once some input has been received, initially adopt the position associated with the affiliation and if honest, update and change viewpoints if warranted by new information.

Spinoza, Newton and Feynman

Reading The Graphic Spinoza, I was reminded of some thoughts I had concerning a quote from physicist Richard Feynman:

My son is taking a course in philosophy, and last night we were looking at something by Spinoza – and there was the most childish reasoning! There were all these Attributes, and Substances, all this meaningless chewing around, and we started to laugh. Now, how could we do that? Here’s this great Dutch philosopher, and we’re laughing at him. It’s because there was no excuse for it! In that same period there was Newton, there was Harvey studying the circulation of blood, there were people with methods of analysis by which progress was being made! You can take every one of Spinoza’s propositions, and take the contrary propositions, and look at the world – and you can’t tell which is right.

As pointed out at Hummings in the Fly-Bottle, “of course you can’t tell which of Spinoza’s propositions is true by looking at the world; you are not supposed to! Spinoza was not doing bad science; he was doing metaphysics”.

While Newton’s work has undoubtedly been foundational for our bedrock that is science, we need not judge the merits of one enterprise by the merits of another. Yes it was Newton’s framework and not Spinoza’s that set the stage for scientific progress to be made, but still, despite issues with its rationalist metaphysics, there is still good to be extracted and derived from Spinoza’s work. I don’t think that Feynman exhibits enough care in such matters to analyze the work in context. Spinoza’s philosophical enterprise is of significant historical, sociopolitical and ethical importance, laying the groundwork for the 18th-century Enlightenment and modern biblical criticism, including modern conceptions of the self and our place within the universe.

Newton was an ardent Christian and spent much time preoccupied with studying and dealing with literal interpretation of the Bible. Given the progress that has been made on understanding religion, Christianity and the Bible over the last few centuries, I shall appropriate Feynman’s quote from above and say that

I read about Newton’s work on occult studies and religious tracts dealing with the literal interpretation of the Bible, and I started to laugh. Now, how could that be? Here’s this great English natural philosopher, and I’m laughing at him. It’s because there was no excuse for it! In that same period there was Spinoza ushering in the modern age, shattering religious superstitions and offering insightful biblical criticism!

Before finishing, this brings to mind another quote from Feynman that I thought could be turned on its head: “Philosophy of science is about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds”. Well, in a way ornithology is very useful to birds! Among other things, it plays an important role in avian conservation.

Minimum Viable Paper?

I recently read The Lean Startup for work. One idea central to the lean startup methodology is that of a minimum viable product (MVP): in product development, the MVP is a product with just enough features to satisfy early customers, and to provide feedback for future development.

This got me thinking about the possibility of a ‘minimum viable paper’ in academic writing. Appropriating the description of MVP above, a minimum viable paper would be something along the following lines: a paper with just enough material to expound the core ideas of the thesis and satisfy early reviewers, and to provide feedback for refining the paper and developing the details.

Could this save resources by reducing time and effort spent on papers that would ultimately be rejected, either because the thesis is not good enough or the reviewers are simply not inclined to accept it?

The Wit of Bertrand Russell

I have collected most of Bertrand Russell’s books over the years. Browsing through Dear Bertrand Russell recently, the following passage made me laugh and reminded me of how he is quite possibly the wittiest of all philosophers. A correspondent writes:

I am grateful for your autobiography. Thank you. I have already thanked God …

to which Russell replies

I am pleased that you liked my autobiography, but troubled that you thanked God for it, because that suggests that He has infringed my copyright.

Kardashian Index Calculator

The (amusing) Kardashian Index is a measure of the discrepancy between an academic’s social media profile and publication record based on the direct comparison of numbers of citations and Twitter followers.

I have whipped up an online Kardashian Index Calculator, largely because I have wanted to try out some website HTML scraping and Twitter API connecting.