Can I Take Your Spontaneous Order?

Sync: The Emerging Science of Spontaneous Order by Steven Strogatz

This is a fascinating book. Very well written providing a glimpse into the collaborative nature of research in science and of course the “emerging science of spontaneous order”. Strogatz begins by looking at fireflies and their ability/tendency to flash together when in large groups. He explores how this is possible and looks at analogous situations like the pacemaker cells of the heart. He discusses the problems in synchronizing oscillators, clock pendulums, entrainment and circadian rhythms. The science and mathematics involved are discussed on a level that can be understood by non-specialists which means someone like me gets a chance to explore these problems too. Of particular interest is the chapter on so-called ‘small-world networks’ which makes me wonder about how this science might play out in the social networking trends today. Recommended reading not only for the subject matter but for the excellent way he describes how scientific/mathematic problems are worked on and experiments designed to try and prove theories. Some good historical context with the work of Art Winfree featured and to which the book is dedicated. The synchronous moment that drew Strogatz into a neighborhood bookstore to discover Winfree’s book using terms the author had used in an early essay is a great coincidence.

Selective Information Overload

I read a column in a local paper by David Suzuki on the weekend; turns out it appeared a couple of months ago on the DS Foundation website. The local paper version has a much more engaging title though: ‘On crop circles, Atlantis, UFOs and alien abductions : proof of just about any theory can be found on the internet‘.

He’s talking about ‘selective information overload‘ and how this is used politically to devalue scientific evidence. Here’s the interesting bit:

I now believe we are experiencing a major problem in the early-21st century: selective information overload. And by this I mean that we can sift through mountains of information to find anything to confirm whatever misconceptions, prejudices or superstitions we already believe. In other words, we don’t have to change our minds. All we have to do is find something to confirm our opinions, no matter how misguided or wrong they may be.

Reminds me of the phrase, ‘lies; damn lies and statistics’; or, if it’s on the internet it must be true. How can politicians discredit science in this way? Science is not an opinion-based enterprise, it is based on research and careful observation of verifiable facts. Yes, the interpretation of these facts can be debated, but generally a ‘scientific consensus’ will emerge that presents the most reliable information. What’s that you say? Scientists can be wrong? To be sure, but I have to side with Suzuki here:

Scientific consensus does not mean we will always get the right answer. But if I were to bet on an issue, I’d put my money on scientific consensus over an observer’s hunch, a politician’s opinion, or a business leader’s tip.’