Scientific Singularity?

A couple of weeks ago Kevin and I went around on the topic of whether or not science is “broken”.  We came to the point of agreeing that we have different basic assumptions of what constitutes “utility”.  And because of this, while we could agree that each of our arguments made sense logically, we ultimately end up with opposite conclusions.  After all, for something to be broken it means that it once served a purpose that it no longer is able to serve due to mechanical/structural failure.  And to have a purpose means that it has value (i.e. utility) to someone.

So whether science is broken or still works depends your definition of utility.  Kevin and I agreed on a measurement for scientific utility, based on (a) how well it explains observed phenomena, (b) how well it predicts new phenomena, and (c) how directly it leads to creation of technologies that improve human lives.  We can call it “explanatory power” or EP for short.  …

End of The Gene

Exhibit A: Reductio Ad Absurdum

Exhibit B: Genetic Dark Matter

“A fruit fly study suggests the whole-genome approach may be the way to go.”

Exhibit C: The Genome vs The Gene

Exhibit D: The Proteome vs The Genome

“you need to look at the things that the genes are producing, and what’s happening after the genetics.”

The New Scientific Enlightenment

There is a massive paradigm shift occurring: beliefs about the nature of scientific inquiry that have held for hundreds of years are being questioned.

As laypeople, we see the symptoms all around us: climatology, economics, medicine, even fundamental physics; these domains (and more) have all become battlegrounds with mounting armies of Ph.D.s and Nobel Prize winners entrenching in opposing camps.  Here’s what’s at stake:

. . .

Scientific Objectivity

In 1972 Kahneman and Tversky launched the study into human cognitive bias, which later won Kahneman the Nobel.  Even a cursory reading of this now vast literature should make each and every logically-minded scientist very skeptical of their own work.

A few scientists do take bias seriously (c.f. Overcoming Bias and Less Wrong).  Yet, nearly 40 years later, it might be fair to say that its impact on science as a whole has been limited to improving clinical trials and spawning behavioral economics.

In 2008, Farhad Manjoo poignantly illustrates …

A New Cancer Mentality

This interview was done as part of the New Cancer Mentality initiative:

New Cancer Mentality is a grassroots organization focused on giving cancer patients a virual townhall to ask their questions to leading oncologists and researchers about their work. Furthermore, New Cancer Mentality focuses on bringing about collaboration between researchers as well as giving researchers an online forum to share their views and what needs to be done to cure this disease.

If you’d like to learn more or join the movement, check out blog and contact David.…

Sunlight vs. Vitamin D

[This is part 3 of Epidemiology vs. Etiology]

You may have heard there is an epidemic of low vitamin D levels in the U.S.  An estimated 60% of Americans are at a level that has been correlated with increased risk of nearly all chronic diseases, including cancer, heart disease, diabetes, autoimmune diseases, and depression.  My personal belief is that the epidemiology is horribly flawed.  But perhaps not in the way you might think….

As most people know by now, we humans photosynthesize vitamin D in our skin when it is exposed to direct sunlight.  How fast depends on our ethnicity and amount of exposure.  Since I’m light skinned and get a lot of sun in my normal life, it came as a huge surprise when some routine bloodwork I had done about 9 months ago indicated I was “dangerously low.”

My doctor immediately prescribed large doses of vitamin D supplement, but I was convinced that the result was spurious.  Perhaps it was due to …

The Process

Imagine a multiverse, infinitely infinite.  There’s just infinity.  Or if you prefer, nothing.   There’s no space, no time, no matter, no energy.  There’s no structure whatsoever, and nothing “in” any of the universes that make up the multiverse.  it’s not even clear whether these individual universes are separate from one another or the same.  But since our minds seem finite and we have to start somewhere, let’s imagine them as separate: an infinite collection of universes with nothing in them, no dimension, and no relationship between them.

Now lets assume there is some process for picking out universes from the multiverse.  Since there’s no time in the multiverse, the process has no beginning and no end.  It’s like a computer program, but it’s infinitely complex.  Let’s call it The Process.

If The Process is infinitely complex and has no beginning and no end, what can we know about it?  We know that it picks some universes but not others, which effectively creates an “in …

The Technium

Here are the slides from his talk. My favorites are 3, 4, 8, 10, 15, 19, 21, 23, 26, 28, 29, 35, 37, 38, 53, 66, 68.

Synthesis of Complexity Theory

As careful readers of this blog will note, I’ve been obsessed with Alex Ryan’s visualization of the way new levels of organization come into being (e.g. atoms –> molecules –> cells, etc).  In an attempt to complement and extend his model, here’s a visualization of how I think of the various concepts coming together:

Evolution Emergence Synthesis

First off, I know that this may not make sense to most people.  The relationships implied by proximity, color, dimension, etc are not totally accurate.  The problem is, I’ve reached the limit of my personal ability to create a good visualization.  So I’m throwing this out there half-baked hoping that the crowd (that’s you) will help bring this together in a more coherent way.

I’m especially interested in hearing from people who have great design skills.  If you don’t, then at the least you can ask probing questions to suss out the sources of confusion, which will then feed into the redesign process.

A more detailed explication of these concepts can …

“Social Entrepreneurship has Complexity Written All Over It”

That’s the title and conclusion of this paper by Jeffrery Goldstein et al which was presented at  this talk at the Skoll Foundation International Social Innovation Conference 2009.  Here’s a slide from that talk that I like:


If you like the theme of “Social Entrepreneurship, Systems Thinking and Complexity” — and I know that you do because that’s what this blog talks about a lot of the time — then you may want to attend (or even submit a paper/talk abstract to) the eponymously named conference at Adelphi University in New York (April 30 – May 2, 2010).  Hope to see you there!

hat tip: Jerri Chou: @jchou

Comments on Human Cultural Transformation

This is a followup to Ben’s post on Human Cultural Transformation Triggered by Dense Populations.  Too many links for this to be accepted into the comments directly…

In thinking about these questions, it helps me to remind myself of the difference between evolution and emergence. Evolution happens whenever you have a population of agents with heritable variation and differential reproduction rates. There are at least two types of emergence, both of which can create new types of agents. Various self-reinforcing mechanisms lead to stronger and more stable agency. We may not even recognize the emergence of nascent agents for what they are until said agency (or coherence) becomes strong enough. For instance, many people have a hard time wrapping their head around cultural agency of any form.

Obviously none of us on here have a problem with the concept of non-human agency, but as Alex and Ben collectively point out, cultural agents depend on human agents for their very existence.  Yet …

Complex Systems Symposium

Should be of interest to everyone who reads this blog.  Here’s the program, here’s the website, and here’s some more info that you can’t get from either yet:

Dear all:

Just wanted to share with you all a couple of updates for our Fall Symposium.  We’re very pleased to have two invited speakers so far: John Christiansen of Argonne National Laboratory (ANL) and Mitchell Waldrop of Nature magazine.

John is the director of the Advanced Simulation Technologies Center at ANL, and has over 30 years of modeling and simulation experience across many fields, including: meteorology, ecology, botany, anthropology, archeology, healthcare, and more.  He will present some of his work on a recent NSF Grand Challenge in Biocomplexity, which created an agent-based model to study the rise and fall of Ancient Mesopotamia.  He will also use this work to illustrate different hardware and software platforms, with a particular focus on the challenges on going from the desktop to HPC.

Mitch is currently the editorial