Betere Dingen

| 29-05-2011 13:53Am I making myself clear?

Cornelia Dean (2009)

A lot of scientists have turned away from mass media because they tend to oversimplify and misrepresent science. Cooperating with journalists is frowned upon in some labs and may even be a bad career move because of this. This whole attitude towards mass media of course makes good scientific sources scarce to journalists and will lead to further misrepresentations and oversimplifications of good science. Cornelia Dean is a science journalist who has noticed that scientists have a peculiar way of communicating with journalists. Communicating results is an inherent part of scientific discours, and is done in ways suitable to science. There are evn differences between fields, for example the worth assigned to conference papers varies. However, all scientists (should) have one thing in common: they meticulously try to say true things. It is generally the meticulousness that is the 'problem'. It is the strength of science, but there is no room for it in mass media. There should be some room for truth in mass media though, so some sort of middle ground is available.

One of the problems I see is that scientists are expected to be just a as media-savvy as politicians and other public figures, and to be able to spout cool one-liners summarizing their research. This is never going to be the case. Scientists don't have a political agenda and do not expect trick questions, nor do they get media training. Cornelia Dean has some sound advice that enables scientist to partially alleviate this problem. Most of it comes down to being well prepared, which is something that scientists should be good at. So there is hope. ;)

The subtitle of this book is "a scientists guide to talking to the public". Most of the advice is however aimed at talking to journalists. Journalists also have some peculiar ways of communicating. If they cite you, they assume that any errors will be assigned to them as authors of the piece, though most people will instead assign the error to the quotee. That is of course the worst thing that can happen to a scientist. Nevertheless journalists will usually not allow you to check a piece for factual errors. And that is a major turn-off for most scientists. Perhaps something can change on the side of journalists as well?

This book is rather short, and the last few chapters deal with the situation in the USA specifically. It is a quick read (I read it on trainrides to and from Belgium) and I found it helpful, but others may feel it contains nothing but common sense.


| 07-10-2009 07:20Wider than the Sky: The Phenomal Gift of Consciousness

Gerald Edelman (2004)
Wikipedia: book, author

Gerald Edelman's short book on how the brain produces consciousness may convince a lot of people that consciousness is not a mystery, but a scientifically approachable phenomenon. There are three issues I have with Gerald Edelman's point of view.

First, he keeps insisting that the brain is not a computer. If he means that the brain is not a 21st century PC, he's right. However, if he means that all comparisons are misguided, he's wrong. Each neuron is a cell in which only genetically preprogrammed processes are going on. They read input and produce output. The brain then is a self-organizing network of 10 billion simple computers, which can - in theory - be simulated by a single computer. Also, the brain's 'task' is to make sense of multiple streams of complex sensory input to produce competent behavior as output. If we refuse to see the brain as a biological information processing device - bound by the laws of physics, there is no way we can make sense of what it does. In this light, reviewing the similarities and differences between computers and brains is necessary.

Second, Edelman repeatedly states that consciousness has no causal effect on what we do and think (he puzzlingly adds that consciousness is not an epiphenomenon). He also states that consciousness is the only way to access certain information, suggesting that we need this for some purpose. If this information is used then consciousness has causal effects.

Third, Edelman says that Qualia are high-order decicions. Qualia however are not arbitrary. Colour perception is tightly linked to light frequencies and characteristics of the environment we evolved in, and is pre-processed in brain centres (retina, LGN, V1) in mostly genotypically determined ways. There is nothing to decide there. Indeed there are striking similarities in colour-experience, making Qualia accessible for scientific inquiry.

That said, Edelman's hypothesis of what anatomy and interactions produce consciousness are at least thought provoking. The book is very short, so I'm hoping Gerald Edelman did not do his own theories justice for the sake of brevity.


| 06-06-2009 18:03Supersizing the Mind: Embodiment, Action, and Cognitive Extension

Andy Clark (2008)
Wikipedia: author

Andy Clark describes and defends his hypothesis of extended cognition in this book. This hypothesis sort of states that parts of cognitive processes can loop out of the brain, into the body or even into the world. This goes further than embodied cognition, but is completely compatible with the 'strange loop' view of Douglas Hofstadter. I am really convinced that minds are situated in bodies and worlds, but find it hard to swallow that when cognition is not a pure mathematical machine, but rather a mish-mash collection of efficient modules/loops that lean heavily on bodily and worldly properties, that the conscious experience of sensing and thinking with that mind (and body, and world) is not affected at all. And precisely this is proposed at the end of the book. Even if one does not agree with the hypothesis, the book brings together some classic and pretty recent neuroscience work and robotics and AI, which is inspiring in itself. So this book is not all pure philosophy (as in only thought-experiments and no real experiments) but there was one sentence where I though: "Ooo, here the philisopher is getting serious!" This was: "Now imagine a concrete case..."

Eleven comments

| 08-03-2009 14:51Freedom Evolves

Daniel C. Dennett (1991)
Wikipedia: book, author

Dennett explores how varieties of 'free will' that are worth wanting might be produced by evolutionary processes, both genetic and memetic. Thereby, making clear that determinism is the friend, not the enemy, of people that would like to have free will. It is at the heart of his work since many parts have been adapted from his other books and papers. What I found very interesting is that Dennett separates an absolutist view of free will - that makes it unattainable and something that can not be inquired - from a more realistic view of free will. The absolutist (or essentialist) needs myths - and will never actually have the kind of free will he claims is the only possible kind - whereas a realist (or gradualist) can actually study the kind of free will there is and at the same time have it. Different from Dennett I believe free will can only exist in a (mostly) deterministic world, since if there are no (or few) laws of nature, then all foreknowledge is useless and there will not be any reason to have free will, since there will not be anything to avoid or desire. Without determinism there is no reason to make choices. Another view of Dennett is that one only truly has free will if the choices one makes matter, or, as Spiderman's uncle Ben said: "With great power comes great responsibility."


| 08-03-2009 14:48The Quest for Consciousness: A Neurobiological Approach

Christof Koch (2004)
Wikipedia: author

In contrast to almost all other books in this list, Christoff Koch does not tackle consciousness from a philosophical viewpoint. He uses concrete experiments, many by himself and his partner: Francis Crick. This is refreshing and shows that the topic does not have to be so elusive as many people think. There are two minor issues I have with this book. First, he tries to change the meaning of the words 'zombie' and 'homunculus' by associating them with more concrete neuronal processes or networks than the philosophers do that usually use these terms. He only half succeeds, thereby increasing the confusion surrounding the terms. Second, Koch repeatedly states that it is necessary to experiment on monkeys and other animals in order to learn about (human) consciousness, while at the same time propagating the opinion that it is unethical to do this on humans. If these animals have such similar consciousnesses to ours, I would say it follows that it is unethical to perform those experiments on them as well. Because the book discusses a lot of hard science, it is not recommended for the casual reader, but it is an excellent startpoint or overview for (beginning) scientist, although it does not have surprises in store for vision researchers.


| 08-03-2009 14:42The Emperor's New Mind

Roger Penrose (1989)
Wikipedia: book, author

Only in the last of the ten chapters does Penrose discuss the reasons for introducing the reader to a wealth of physics in the first nine chapters; since mathematicians all understand new mathematical theories in the same way, the mind can not be an algorithm implemented in the brain. Not only is the premise a falsehood nor does it lead to the conclusion (perhaps because of my simplification). Penrose shows that he has a completely different understanding of algorithms than I think most people do. I doubt that under his definition evolution would be an algorithm, whereas I am certain it is. In addition he literally wrote that 'another magical ingredient' is needed (to explain consciousness), and I do not believe in magic or the need for magic to explain the world. Neither do I believe in the need for an abundance of exclamation marks, they do not make any statement more true! For me, all this made reading the book disappointing. However, Penrose painlessly introduced me to some concepts from physics and his view on the mind is different from what I have read before.


| 08-03-2009 14:38The Selfish Gene

Richard Dawkins (1976)
Wikipedia: book, author

The book argues that evolution is gene driven, or actually replicator driven and not vehicle driven. Vehicles would be the bodies of organisms or perhaps even groups of them. Natural selection acts on genes (or other replicators), not on anything else. Since genes exert a statistical influence on behavior this explains quite a lot of animal and human behavior. The author hastens to add the we are not strictly bound by the influence of the genes and can make (ethical) choices of our own. Vehicles that can make real-time decisions are generally useful for genes as are vehicles that cooperate to some extent (e.g., as opposed to vehicles that have to evolve decisions over many years).
The 30th anniversary edition I read, comes with two new chapters that add some modern insights to the book. The first tries to explain why altruism can be in the interest of the genes by looking at the Prisoners Dillema as a game where ESS's can develop (with the famous Tit for Tat solution). The second somewhat summarizes The Extended Phenotype by the same author.


| 08-03-2009 14:34Conversations on Consciousness

Susan Blackmore (2005)
Wikipedia: author

Twenty interviews with twenty-one scientists working on consciousness, including the last interview with nobel laureate Francis Crick. Very rapidly a lot of different views on consciousness and their proponents are described by asking the interviewees the same basic set of questions: What makes the problem of consiousness so hard? Can zombies exist? Does free will exist? Because the interviews are largely un-editted, some of the statements may not be supported (anymore) by the people that pronounced them. I could not stop reading the book and because it lists popular writings of each interviewee it is a good starting point for further reading on consciousness.


| 08-03-2009 14:32Darwin's Dangerous Idea

evolution and the meanings of life

Daniel C. Dennett (1995)
Wikipedia: book, author

In this controversial book Dennett tries to convinve the reader that Darwinism (the belief that evolution by natural selection is the sole explanation of the variety of species on earth) can be applied to many other fields of Research and Design. According to Dennett, it comes with assumptions on the workings of physics, the universe and of consciousness. The most interesting concepts are evolution as an algorithm without a goal, 'cranes' versus 'skyhooks' (feasible versus magical explanations of progress in evolution) and the undesirability of essentialism. Essentialism comes down to the belief that there are sharp categories, like 'human' vs. 'non-human' or 'conscious' vs. 'not consciousness'. According to Dennett all such categories are very fuzzy, not crisp, and have been introduced as a way to understand reality by us, but they are not truly there in the world.

Twenty comments

| 08-03-2009 14:27The Feeling of What Happens

body and emotion in the making of consciousness

Antonio Damasio (1999)
Wikipedia: author

Antonia Damasio describes how the accrual of autobiographic and emotionally loaded memories that star ourselves as actor can explain the emergence of consciousness. This of course requires agency and a body in the world. Severing certain neural pathways or damaging certain brain regions that hamper emotional input from the body or hamper the retrieval or storage of such emotional memories, changes the consciousness of people. The views of the neurologist Damasio are very compatible with the theories of Dennett and Hofstadter.


| 08-03-2009 14:21Gödel, Escher, Bach

an eternal golden braid

Douglas R. Hofstadter (1979)
Wikipedia: book, author

Hofstadter's grand epos is full of math, music and other codes, but also full of stories that make a lot of technical details graspable for laymen. I was actually excited about what was told while reading parts of the book. The main topic is self-reference: how it can acome about and what it means if a system (organism or artifact) can refer to itself.

Thirteen comments