Aeon - Paradigms lost 5-15min

Science is not a ‘body of knowledge’ – it’s a dynamic, ongoing reconfiguration of knowledge and must be free to change ... each scientific discipline is governed by an accepted set of theories and metaphysical assumptions, within which normal science operates. Periodically, when this rather humdrum ‘puzzle solving’ leads to results that are inconsistent with the regnant perspective, there follows a disruptive, exciting period of ‘scientific revolution’, after which a new paradigm is instituted and normal science can operate once more. ... When Newton said: ‘If I have seen farther, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants’, he wasn’t merely being modest; rather he was emphasising the extent to which science is cumulative, mostly building on past achievements rather than making quantum leaps. ... the accumulation process generates not just something more, but often something altogether new. Sometimes the new involves the literal discovery of something which hadn’t previously been known (electrons, general relativity, Homo naledi). At least as important, however, are conceptual novelties, changes in the ways that people understand – and often misunderstand – the material world: their operating paradigms. ... The world’s factual details are in continual Heraclitean flux, but the basic rules and patterns underlying these changes in the physical and biological world are themselves constant. ... Our insights, however, are always ‘evolving’. ... Science is a process, which, unlike ideology, is distinguished by intellectual flexibility, by a graceful, grateful (albeit sometimes grudging) acceptance of the need to change our minds, as our understanding of the world evolves. Most people aren’t revolutionaries, scientific or otherwise. But anyone aspiring to be well-informed needs to understand not only the most important scientific findings, but also their provisional nature, and the need to avoid hardening of the categories: to know when it is time to lose an existing paradigm and replace it with a new one. ... Holding still is exactly what science won’t do.

Aeon - What good is information? < 5min

The internet promised to feed our minds with knowledge. What have we learned? That our minds need more than that ... My point is not that we should return to some romanticised preindustrial past: I mean only to draw attention to contradictions that still shape our post-industrial present. The physical violence of the 19th-century factory might be gone, at least in the countries where industrialisation began, but the alienation inherent in these ways of organising work remains. ... When the internet arrived, it seemed to promise a liberation from the boredom of industrial society, a psychedelic jet-spray of information into every otherwise tedious corner of our lives. In fact, at its best, it is something else: a remarkable helper in the search for meaningful connections. But if the deep roots of boredom are in a lack of meaning, rather than a shortage of stimuli, and if there is a subtle, multilayered process by which information can give rise to meaning, then the constant flow of information to which we are becoming habituated cannot deliver on such a promise. At best, it allows us to distract ourselves with the potentially endless deferral of clicking from one link to another. Yet sooner or later we wash up downstream in some far corner of the web, wondering where the time went. The experience of being carried on these currents is quite different to the patient, unpredictable process that leads towards meaning.

Quartz - The most persuasive word you can use in a meeting is “yeah” < 5min

Words have power, especially in meetings. A new study from MIT’s Sloan School of Management finds that saying “yeah”, “give”, “start” and even “meeting” can boost a person’s persuasive powers among co-workers. … Statisticians Cynthia Rudin and Been Kim studied 95 meetings for the vocabulary used in proposals that were accepted by the group. They concluded that the most persuasive words are those that build consensus. … “Yeah” signals agreement with a previous idea, the authors posit. Using the word “start” in sentences like “I think we should start with the basics” is useful for building early alliances early; group participants want to appear interested in being productive. The word “give” indicates some benefit to the group.

Aeon - The empty brain 5-15min

The human brain isn’t really empty, of course. But it does not contain most of the things people think it does – not even simple things such as ‘memories’. ... Forgive me for this introduction to computing, but I need to be clear: computers really do operate on symbolic representations of the world. They really store and retrieve. They really process. They really have physical memories. They really are guided in everything they do, without exception, by algorithms. ... Humans, on the other hand, do not – never did, never will. Given this reality, why do so many scientists talk about our mental life as if we were computers? ... A wealth of brain studies tells us, in fact, that multiple and sometimes large areas of the brain are often involved in even the most mundane memory tasks. When strong emotions are involved, millions of neurons can become more active.

Atavist - The Great Library Rescue of Timbuktu < 5min

In the capital city of Bamako 800 miles away, the founder of Timbuktu’s Mamma Haidara Library, a scholar and community leader named Abdel Kader Haidara, saw the burning of the manuscripts as a tragedy—and a vindication of a remarkable plan he’d undertaken. Starting with no money besides the meager sum in his savings account, the librarian had recruited a loyal circle of volunteers, badgered and shamed the international community into funding the scheme, raised $1 million, and hired hundreds of amateur smugglers in Timbuktu and beyond. Their goal? Save books. ... Months earlier, Haidara had been pacing the courtyard at his home, pondering how to respond to the rebels’ seizure of Timbuktu. Largely thanks to Haidara, the city now had 45 libraries, ranging from small private archives to 10,000-volume collections. The libraries served as repositories for a total of 377,000 manuscripts—from 400-hundred-page, leather-encased volumes to single folios—including some of the greatest works of medieval literature in the world.

Aeon - Metaknowledge 5-15min

Wisdom of crowds is an old concept. It goes back to Ancient Greek and, later, Enlightenment thinkers who argued that democracy is not just a nice idea, but a mathematically proven way to make good decisions. Even a citizenry of knaves collectively outperforms the shrewdest monarch, according to this proposition. What the knaves lack in personal knowledge, they make up for in diversity. In the 1990s, crowd wisdom became a pop-culture obsession, providing a rationale for wikis, crowdsourcing, prediction markets and popularity-based search algorithms. ... That endorsement came with a big caveat, however: even proponents admitted that crowds are as apt to be witless as well as wise. The good democrats of Athens marched into a ruinous war with Sparta. French Revolutionary mobs killed the Enlightenment. In the years leading up to 2008, the herd of Wall Street forgot the most basic principles of risk management. Then there was my little Skittles contest. It was precisely the type of problem that crowds are supposed to do well on: a quiet pooling of diverse and independent assessments, without any group discussion that a single person might dominate. Nevertheless, my crowd failed.

The Atlantic - Searching for Lost Knowledge in the Age of Intelligent Machines 21min

Yet the mystery of the mechanism is only partly solved. No one knows who made it, how many others like it were made, or where it was going when the ship carrying it sank. ... What if other objects like the Antikythera Mechanism have already been discovered and forgotten? There may well be documented evidence of such finds somewhere in the world, in the vast archives of human research, scholarly and otherwise, but simply no way to search for them. Until now. ... Scholars have long wrestled with “undiscovered public knowledge,” a problem that occurs when researchers arrive at conclusions independently from one another, creating fragments of understanding that are “logically related but never retrieved, brought together, [or] interpreted,” as Don Swanson wrote in an influential 1986 essay introducing the concept. ... In other words, on top of everything we don’t know, there’s everything we don’t know that we already know. ... Discovery in the online realm is powered by a mix of human curiosity and algorithmic inquiry, a dynamic that is reflected in the earliest language of the internet. The web was built to be explored not just by people, but by machines. As humans surf the web, they’re aided by algorithms doing the work beneath the surface, sequenced to monitor and rank an ever-swelling current of information for pluckable treasures. The search engine’s cultural status has evolved with the dramatic expansion of the web. ... Using machines to find meaning in vast sets of data has been one of the great promises of the computing age since long before the internet was built.

The Guardian - How statistics lost their power – and why we should fear what comes next 17min

Statistics were designed to give an understanding of a population in its entirety, rather than simply to pinpoint strategically valuable sources of power and wealth. In the early days, this didn’t always involve producing numbers. In Germany, for example (from where we get the term Statistik) the challenge was to map disparate customs, institutions and laws across an empire of hundreds of micro-states. What characterised this knowledge as statistical was its holistic nature: it aimed to produce a picture of the nation as a whole. Statistics would do for populations what cartography did for territory. ... the aspiration to depict a society in its entirety, and to do so in an objective fashion, has meant that various progressive ideals have been attached to statistics. The image of statistics as a dispassionate science of society is only one part of the story. The other part is about how powerful political ideals became invested in these techniques: ideals of “evidence-based policy”, rationality, progress and nationhood grounded in facts, rather than in romanticised stories.

Aeon - This granular life 17min

What Leucippus and Democritus had understood was that the world can be comprehended using reason. They had become convinced that the variety of natural phenomena must be attributable to something simple, and had tried to understand what this something might be. They had conceived of a kind of elementary substance from which everything was made. Anaximenes of Miletus had imagined this substance could compress and rarefy, thus transforming from one to another of the elements from which the world is constituted. It was a first germ of physics, rough and elementary, but in the right direction. An idea was needed, a great idea, a grand vision, to grasp the hidden order of the world. Leucippus and Democritus came up with this idea. ... The idea of Democritus’s system is extremely simple: the entire universe is made up of a boundless space in which innumerable atoms run. Space is without limits; it has neither an above nor a below; it is without a centre or a boundary. Atoms have no qualities at all, apart from their shape. They have no weight, no colour, no taste. ... Atoms are indivisible; they are the elementary grains of reality, which cannot be further subdivided, and everything is made of them. They move freely in space, colliding with one another; they hook on to and push and pull one another. Similar atoms attract one another and join. ... We know of his thought only through the quotations and references made by other ancient authors, and by their summaries of his ideas.