21st Century Canada or 19th Century England, and "hyper-quantification" - Sri Lanka Guardian


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Wednesday, January 12, 2011

21st Century Canada or 19th Century England, and "hyper-quantification"

by Chandre Dharma-wardana
Ottawa, Canada.

In reality, the social science, be it in regard to Human-rights, politics or further evolution, will have to one day formulate its analyses in terms of the evolutionary theory of complex adaptive systems, because that is the only available game in town that has the breath and consistency to yield a useful, predictive and empirically testable theory. Here let me add a word about "complex adaptive systems".

(January 12, Ottawa- Canada, Sri Lanka Guardian) An article by Rebecca Buckwalter-Poza has been featured in the Sri Lanka Guardian (10-Jan-2011). In it Rebecca B-P criticizes the "new culture of hyper-quantification that attempts to schematize people and society using numbers. Academics, pollsters, and corporations use data and polling fields attempt to identify and quantify characteristics, traits, and actions in order to define an individual, predict behavior, and categorize him or her". Then Rebecca B-P harks back to the Victorian era when phrenology and physiognomy were formulated to replace the even more crude characterizations associated with old religious and ethnic prejudices. However, she regards this as a response to the rapid "social and technological flux" of the era and the need "to isolate and distance perceived social threats from the self to establish a sense of security". She then uses her thesis to attempt to explain the origins of a website of names of leading actors in the political activism associated with the Eelamist conflict in Sri Lanka. The suggestion is that the methods used are no better than those of phrenologists or physiognomists. In effect, it is implicitly argued that this is an area not amenable to the insensitive hand of scientific investigations which attempt to put an index on every thing.

As in most matters, this kind of assertions are not completely true, or completely false. In fact, they needed to be reviewed in the context of modern methodologies, and in a world increasingly dominated by electronic information whose nature is completely non-traditional. Cyber-phenomena (or Internet information) are also valid objects of empirical study. However, unlike more traditional information, Internet-information is like live objects which can change, replicate, multiply and morph. They can also have the property of self-correction, as implemented in the Wiki-principle whose action is similar to the principles behind Darwinian evolution. In the following we review these matters very briefly, in the context of the opening provided by Rebecca B-P's article.

Quantification and the epistemology of the social sciences.

Of course, instead of going to the Victorian Era, Rebecca B-P could have gone back to the more recent conflict in Ireland, where Catholics and Protestants clashed through many decades of the twentieth century. It has been reported (e.g., see Sloan Wilson's popular book on Evolution, 2007) that an anthropologist who studied that conflict found Catholics claiming that they can identify Protestants by their closely place eyes! Clearly, a short session with a pair of calipers or a measuring tape would have been enough to disprove this. In fact, almost always, quantification has been the best antidote to prejudices and misconceptions generated by qualitative-belief systems. The fears of quantification and mathematics have been a deep-rooted characteristic of Western culture. Art, music, poetry and philosophy were the much more "genteel", civilizing pursuits. In fact, women were discouraged from such quantitative studies because anything which causes a development of the brain was claimed to interfere with ovarian functions!

However, as Rebecca B-P has herself noted, quantification has made inroads even into the social sciences. Large parts of Economics, demographics etc., have become mathematical and statistical. But this has led to the evolution of several kinds of social scientists. Those who insist on "traditional standards", "intangibles", legalities etc., tend to reject quantification. Others go even further and reject the whole methodology of science (e.g., Bruno Latour, How to follow scientists and Engineers through society, 1987), while Feyerabend (Against Method, 1975) concluded that "anything goes"!.

These critics of quantification write learned tomes and give sceptical seminars. However, in their daily life they use computers and communication methods whose reality is based on the success and validity of the quantification and digitization schemes used in science. They get into air planes and ships without seriously doubting that the inventions of science and quantification would work.

Human societies

The doubt regarding scientific quantification schemes is mostly expressed when these methods are applied to human beings. This same doubt is found in regard to attempts to apply Darwinian theory to human affairs. This is already seen to be lurking in Rebecca B-P's thesis. Darwin's theory has been THE unifying theory of all theories of all biological systems, be it molecular genetics, neuroscience or population dynamics. And yet, applying evolutionary theory to the social sciences usually evokes strong negative reactions. Such applications are treated as irrelevant, misguided or even downright dangerous. This is because of the tendency of people to judge evolutionary theory with some of the company it attracted, especially during its early days. We are reminded of Eugenics, Lysenko, and other erroneous applications of the theory by individuals who forgot that science is a doubt system, and not a belief system. However, these same critics of Darwinian theory fail to remember that traditional belief systems could support slavery, caste systems or even infanticide (e.g., 1, Samuel, Ch. 15). Many social scientists who reject the application of evolutionary theory, quantitative methods etc., have no hesitation in using (the essentially qualitative) Marxist thought, in spit of the Gulags and killing fields that have come out of actual Marxist politics.

In reality, the social science, be it in regard to Human-rights, politics or further evolution, will have to one day formulate its analyses in terms of the evolutionary theory of complex adaptive systems, because that is the only available game in town that has the breath and consistency to yield a useful, predictive and empirically testable theory. Here let me add a word about "complex adaptive systems". Scientists think of systems which are sufficiently complex that, although they obey the deterministic laws of physics and chemistry, their behaviour cannot be predicted because their dynamics is chaotic. Living organisms are examples of complex adaptive systems. A discussion of such systems in popular form has been given by Murray Gellmann, Nobelist and Founder of the Santa Fe Institute, in the popular book The Quark and the Jaguar (1994). A perusal of that or similar writings would enable anyone to appreciate that Rebecca B-P's contention, viz., "define an individual, predict behavior, and categorize him or her" is NOT within the possibility of science. In fact, the study of complex systems has shown that we cannot say anything about an individual. We can only say things about the average behaviour of ensembles. Thus, much of the writings of anti-quantification lobbyists is based on their lack of appreciation of the objectives and capabilities of the scientific method.

Information and the Internet

A good part of the information on the Internet has many of the characteristics of living organisms - i.e., of complex adaptive systems. Unlike the information of the pre-Internet which had a certain inflexibility, the Internet's information replicates itself, and also gets modified by agents who change it in each generation. Of course, it can be claimed that the Internet is not a living thing because "it cannot live by itself". A human being too cannot live by himself without the millions of attendant bacteria in his gut and various other parts of the body. Except for the simplest unicellular beings, almost all organisms live in symbiosis with other life. The Internet lives in cyberspace in symbiosis with humans who interact with the cyber space. The adaptation of information in the Internet occurs as in the Wicki-principle where the cyber-material gets modified and adapted by interactions with human agents. This process is utterly Darwinian, and the mathematical equations of evolutionary biology can be applied here, with suitable formal modifications. Just as with living organisms, the Internet has its viruses, bacteria and antibiotics.

Rebecca B-P's raison d'etre for the discussion in her article was to look at a website we had evolved to understand the biggest cataclysm that had hit Sri Lanka in the last four decades. This "cataclysm" was a strong conflict between Sinhalese and Tamil groups which began gradually, but already in 1939, with the first Sinhala-Tamil riot. The World War II, as well as moderate politics delayed any further conflagrations. But ethnic polarization and horrendous developments arose before long. The process in which this occurred is that of a classic phase transition where the fluctuations became more and more violent, when finally only a select set of order parameters prevailed, while others decayed dramatically and rapidly. It would be interesting to determine if the time evolution of the fluctuations and the onset of the new order parameters could be described by some set of Landau-Ginzburg equations. But such sophisticated system modeling has not yet been attempted.

Meanwhile, we attempted to construct a sample list of some of the players who supported separatists politics, those who opposed it, as well as others who were "human-rights activists", journalists, academics etc. We did not even want a complete list. The cyberspace could provide an easy sample which may be reflective of the more serious show being played elsewhere, by the power groups on real-earth.

Thus we collected snippets of information on a group of "players", and hoped to improve on the collected information using the Wiki-principle. One of the mistakes was in our using the "off-hand" labels pro-LTTE, anti-LTTE, and HR to loosely categorize various snippets of information collected. We should have used more neutral words, like "alpha", "beta" and "gamma". However, we were lulled into complacency as many people wrote in and suggested corrections, additions or deletions etc., showing that the Wiki-principle was working. The adaptive evolutionary process was functioning. Even law-enforcing organizations who noticed us on their own accord did not express any dis-satisfaction -- quite the contrary. However, quite unknown to us, false, unauthorized information had been included in a rapid attack by hackers in regard to an entry on Mr. Basil Fernando. This too is similar to living organisms being attacked by their enemies. Here again we had erred in not taking the possibility of an attack as being likely.

When a bug attacks a living organism, the correct procedure is to quarantine it and prevent its spread. But the understandably very public reaction of Mr. Basil Fernando and friends, hurt by the vicious entry, led to the very opposite of a quarantine. The information, including the vicious entry, spread far and beyond,, replicating itself and probably even morphing into other forms, via electronic media. Thus we see that the sort of normal demand for retraction etc., valid and effective with old information systems, behaves in a very different manner with living organisms like Internet entities. If there is a reprehensible website, the mere mentioning of it or visiting it strengthens it, exactly as the nodes in a neural network are strengthened by stimuli. It is not loud retractions (which create more tracks in cyber space) that help. The only way to kill the organism is to prevent any nourishment to it, exactly as we do with a cancer cell. Thus, after trying a few plausible amputations, we have decided to completely kill the web page as its existence in the public domain will not lead to a satisfactory evolution of the material that we had hoped to evolve. In any case, if we cannot let the web page have relatively free access to even a limit set of editors, then the Wiki-principle does not hold.

Perhaps Rebecca B-P can say with satisfaction "I told you so".
We too can point out that what went wrong is not the quantification approach. What went wrong was malicious human intervention directed to attacking our website, and bystanders like Mr Basil Fernando et al, who became victims. Scientists have to go on trying, till the right formulation is found. However, as you can see, science is a self-corrective activity.

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