Freeman Dyson QOTD: On Information, Science and Wikipedia

The New York Review of Books has an interesting piece by famed physicist/mathematician Freeman Dyson. Dyson reviews a new book on the history of information and information theory by James Gleick, The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood.

Dyson reviews discusses the history of the definition of information, the theoretical mathematics injected into discussions of information in the 20th century, and the modern problem of info-glut.* Dyson jumps off from Gleick to discuss Wikipedia and how it works, and in particular, how WIkipedia is a better metaphor for science than the traditional accumulation of true facts story you get in K-12 education. I rather liked Dyson’s description of both Wikipedia and science:

Among my friends and acquaintances, everybody distrusts Wikipedia and everybody uses it. Distrust and productive use are not incompatible. Wikipedia is the ultimate open source repository of information. Everyone is free to read it and everyone is free to write it. It contains articles in 262 languages written by several million authors. The information that it contains is totally unreliable and surprisingly accurate….

Jimmy Wales hoped when he started Wikipedia that the combination of enthusiastic volunteer writers with open source information technology would cause a revolution in human access to knowledge. The rate of growth of Wikipedia exceeded his wildest dreams. Within ten years it has become the biggest storehouse of information on the planet and the noisiest battleground of conflicting opinions. It illustrates Shannon’s law of reliable communication. Shannon’s law says that accurate transmission of information is possible in a communication system with a high level of noise. Even in the noisiest system, errors can be reliably corrected and accurate information transmitted, provided that the transmission is sufficiently redundant. That is, in a nutshell, how Wikipedia works.

The information flood has also brought enormous benefits to science. The public has a distorted view of science, because children are taught in school that science is a collection of firmly established truths. In fact, science is not a collection of truths. It is a continuing exploration of mysteries. Wherever we go exploring in the world around us, we find mysteries. Our planet is covered by continents and oceans whose origin we cannot explain. Our atmosphere is constantly stirred by poorly understood disturbances that we call weather and climate. The visible matter in the universe is outweighed by a much larger quantity of dark invisible matter that we do not understand at all. The origin of life is a total mystery, and so is the existence of human consciousness. We have no clear idea how the electrical discharges occurring in nerve cells in our brains are connected with our feelings and desires and actions.

Science is the sum total of a great multitude of mysteries. It is an unending argument between a great multitude of voices. It resembles Wikipedia much more than it resembles the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

I think the next time I teach a class, I will point my students to this essay when explaining to them that, of course they should look at Wikipedia, but that they aren’t allowed to rely on it as an authoritative source. They should follow its links, and look to see who said what, why they said it, and what evidence they used to make their claims. Because that’s what science is, and that’s how science works – we collect mysteries**, and argue forever and ever about what they mean and where they come from. I’d be curious to know what y’all think about Dyson, and what differences you see between Dyson’s gloss of what science is and how it works from the vision presented in Popper, Kuhn, or Latour?

I highly recommend the whole essay, and I look forward to checking out the book.

* And I would be remiss not to mention that Dyson cites Borges’ “The Library of Babel”, though I’m not sure I quite agree with his reading. The Library of Babel shows that information is not simply in the possession of statements, texts (facts), but rather in the structure that maps between them (and is missing in that ill-fated library). The Library of Babel is a misnomer – a collection of every possible book is not a library, but rather an unordered chaos in the guise of shelves and books. It is the opposite of a library. This is a universe with too little information, not too much!

** In Representing and Intervening, Ian Hacking argues, persuasively I think, that the natural sciences are defined more by their ability to create new phenomena than by their access to ‘truth’. New phenomena, once created, never go away, even though our interpretations of them may radically change as we fit them into new theories, new paradigms, etc. What Dyson calls mysteries we might just as well call phenomena, I think. But mysteries is a bit more poetic!



  1. Strategist

     /  February 27, 2011

    I think Dyson is absolutely right about Wikipedia. However, in making a rhetorical point about science not knowing everything yet, he uses an unfortunate commonplace these days which actually is wrong:

    “Our atmosphere is constantly stirred by poorly understood disturbances that we call weather and climate.”

    The facts of course are that we understand many many things about our climate and weather very well. We know enough about it to predict tomorrow’s weather, which is really a very very difficult thing to do. And we know enough about climate to know that our actions now are warming the world up. Unfortunately some powerful interests want to persuade the people that we know virtually nothing about climate and can’t predict the outcome of business as usual on emitting carbon.

    Dyson of course will know all this, but this propaganda meme has gone so deep, it’s even got into his daily discourse to discount the achievements of our meterologists and climatologists, who in fact have done and do an amazing job.

  2. Adam Geffen

     /  March 3, 2011

    I was just taking about mining Wikipedia for sources the other day with Phil and my friend Andy, both advocates for using Wikipedia for its sources.

    I took a different position, I don’t use Wikipedia for its sources. I don’t trust Wikipedia to have the quality sources for a given topic. If I don’t already have some secondary sources in my library from which to mine further reading then I’ll ask a subject matter expert in my department for suggestions or failing that I’d ask on the relevant h-net email list for suggestions.

    Moreover, I can barely stand to read most Wikipedia articles. The writing and organization of the articles is beyond awful.

    Nonetheless, I’ll occasionally use Wikipedia for pop culture or trivia information but I find it useless for anything else.

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