Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Re: [Yasmin_discussions] art*science 2017 - The New and History

Dear Živa,

Thanks for your note. I have a few brief thoughts.

1) We can learn a great deal from fiction and fictional propositions. I am a great reader of Ursula LeGuin's work — both her science fiction (the Hainish novels) and her fantasy (the Earthsea cycle). What makes LeGuin's work so impressive is that she attributes deep motives that we can understand to creatures that are in some ways similar to us, and in some ways different. Then she places them in a serious setting in which they face challenges, and allows us to see how the actions of these very "real" imaginary characters unfolds.

I am aware of the direction in which we are now headed. It's not just William Gibson who portrays the world. So do Neal Stephenson, and many more. Most recently, Emmi Itäranta's Memory of Water and Emily St. John Mandel's Station Eleven show us the consequence of these worlds.

No one has been very good at showing us ways beyond these problems in fiction. There have been some responsible attempts in real life through the work of people like Elinor Ostrom and Jørgen Randers, but there is more to be done.

2) It is useful to distinguish between imaginary propositions and well argued proposals. Imaginary propositions help us to understand why something is important in terms of emotion, feeling, and ethics. In this sense, imaginary futures explain "Why." Well argued proposals offer responsible ways forward toward the world as we want it to be. In this sense, solid proposals explain "How."

3) The geological record of the planet, and the pre-human and human records of anthropology, archaeology, and history have a lot to tell us. So do the scientific literatures of the natural and social sciences.

Well argued proposals require reasoned argument from evidence. A great deal of what I've been reading in art-science lacks evidence. To the degree that imaginative propositions help us to think about what we want the world to be, much of this is interesting. But it does not help to show "how" to achieve that world.

A great deal of the serious work in art-science involves physical science, technology, biotechnology, computer science and the like. In these areas, it is possible for artists to make things that work.

My background is in the social and behavioral sciences. It is far harder to change the complex sociotechnical systems that constitute our real and very problematic world.

Since this conversation began, I spent some time reading some of the book chapters and articles in which Yasminers propose mechanisms for social change. These were imaginative propositions that had little hope of success in reality. The key missing element was an argument from evidence.

There are two ways to consider evidence — and its absence. The science writer and New York Times columnist Michael Shermer developed a Baloney Detection Kit not long ago for examine evidence and arguments — including flawed evidence and faulty arguments. Two smart students at High Tech Media Arts in San Diego name Deanna and Skylar turned this into a charming graphic:

Unfortunately, the kit and the sandwich overlooked the one kind of missing evidence that we see in a great many discussions by people with a PhD, including some people who work as professors.

This is the art of pretending to offer evidence by citing real books and articles in a way that makes it impossible for anyone to locate the supposed evidence within the cited documents.

I was amused and irked in reading one book chapter in a new art-science book that supposedly creates a substantive argument based on responsible evidence while it did no such thing. Nearly every reference was a loose or sloppy reference to a serious book or article, but the author of the book did not point to anything the cited sources actually stated, nor did the author show where in the cited documents I could find the assertions supporting the claims in the article I was reading. It would have taken me several days of work to read through nearly 15,000 pages of source material to uncover the truth or falsity of claims. To offer an exaggerated version of what I read, it was something like:

"Giraffe (2000) argues that human beings emerged from caves to begin the agricultural revolution (Zebra 1989). This left us living in cities (Antelope 2014) where we necessarily aggregate in marketplaces (Baboon 2008). According to Fox (2003) we can regenerate the social atmosphere by encouraging local festivals to reduce capital intensity and market churn (Hedgehog 2010)."

It may or may not be the case that any of these worthy authors made the stated claims. Since I'd have to read thousands of pages to find out, there is no possible way to test the claims of the author I read. I must either accept the author on faith or discard the whole thing. Worse yet, the author fails to make a clear argument in the chapter itself. On many points, the author points to an external source as though the cited source can make the argument on behalf of the author. It's like saying that an author can stack up a set of books and articles on one side of a scale to prove the conclusion on the other.

As the editor of an interdisciplinary journal of design, economics, and innovation, I put together a small guide to reference and citation that shows authors how to use cited sources responsibly.

IMHO, a great deal of what I'm seeing in the way of argumentation is a magic act, using smoke and mirrors to distract the audience from any reasonable argument while pretending to offer evidence in the form of citations to real documents that readers can't use.

4) There is a difference between imagining possible futures and running simulations. We need both. But it is not reasonable to suggest that Gibson, LeGuin, Itäranta, Stephenson, and St. John Mandel are running simulations. They are not, no more than Mary Shelley was running a simulation when she wrote Frankenstein or Isaac Asimov was running a simulation when he wrote the Foundation Trilogy.

I hope that I don't sound terribly stupid here, but I cannot see how artists "propose alternative parameters that run through the digital neural nets." Artists may make imaginative propositions, but I have yet to see an artist make rigorous use of digital neural nets to test and compare the outcomes of different parameters. It is true that some scientific disciplines don't overlap. We already know this.

At the same time, the principles of consilience and the relationships of physical law place limits on what we can do and what we can hope to achieve. We know a great deal less about social and behavioral forces, than we do about physical law, and we particularly know a great deal less about economics — but no one can demonstrate a way past entropy.

If someone has been running simulations in the way that climate scientists and economists run simulations to test multiple parameters, I'd be curious to see what they did and what they learned.

But I want to read the evidence for myself. I do not want to see a series of careless references to a stack of books by a zoo full of authors. If we're going to treat the interaction of art and science seriously, it is also important to recognize the responsibility to provide evidence in a responsible way. This involves more than argumentative claims. And it must allow readers to find Exhibit A, Exhibit B, Exhibit C, and so on without spending a month to read slowly through all the supposed documents to which the citing author refers.

5) As a brief footnote to Annick's comment on English, the answer is simple.

In the years just before the first millennium, and for much of the millennium and a half after, Latin was the universal language of scholarship and argument. Those of you who lived in lands bordering the Mediterranean would have been speaking one of your own languages — or at least the language of the empire that conquered your land. In those days, theology was the queen of the sciences and law the common language of courts and empires. For many people, universities were wrapped around the higher faculties of theology and law, so Latin worked well.

For a time, Arabic was also a central language around half the Mediterranean, and most of the best scientists and mathematicians used Arabic.

Following the Humboldt university reforms, German became the language of science. The reason is simple: the world's great universities of science were located in Germany, and many of the best journals were published in German.

The massive investment in science by American, British, and Australian universities saw the language of science and scholarship shift to English from the 1950s on. And that is why people who work in science speak English, even when they talk about the Mediterranean.

Don't worry, though. Nothing lasts for ever — not Rome, not the British Empire, and not English.

Over the past fifty years, North American universities have generally been among the world's best — they trained many of the world's scientists and scholars, while their graduates and researchers took a massive share of the Nobel Prizes, the Fields Medals, and the other top science awards. Given the current political climate in the United States, American universities are struggling to survive at this level.

China, on the other hand, is making massive investments in science, education, and research, while extending economic soft power through the One Belt,One Road initiative.

Fifty years from now, Yasminers may well be discussing the Mediterranean in Chinese.



> On May 22, 2017, at 6:13 PM, Ziva Ljubec <> wrote:
> Ken,
> thank you for "taking the risk" in a quite complicated debate. Katerina and
> I have pointed towards implications of economic and cultural game and
> whether innovation is rather renovation at all costs, in order to feed the
> narrative of future abundance, in order to keep the unsustainable present
> actions seem as if reasonably serving a sustainable future.
> You are asking "what kind of world we really want — and what it is that we
> want to contribute to in the art/science conversation," partly in reaction
> to Salvatore's proposal which, as briefly noted before, is quite
> reminiscent of Gibson's dystopian novels. But the fact is, this is where
> our current economic model is heading, and as you are well aware, it is
> impossible to just simply turn it off and reach utopia instead.
> To escape the blinding narratives, post- or pre- modern, I proposed an
> ideally impartial point of view, a multiplicity of viewpoints from which we
> run as many simulations as possible. In this sense science is not to be
> challenged, just for the sake of being challenged, as you expressed your
> concerns. The involvement of the artist in science here is to propose
> alternative parameters that run through the digital neural nets, parameters
> that could be overlooked in scientific disciplines that don't overlap,
> crucial parameters that an artist as a DEW radar spots from a
> distance.Through digital neural nets we just might be able to see the
> potential of our world more clearly.
> Živa Ljubec

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