Thursday, September 20, 2007

Data and Vision

I have been very remiss in replying to the rather overwhelming and diversified posts that come my way via The Growlery and Jim Putnam. I am sure I am so far behind that I'll never catch up; but I'll try.

I owe the Growlery a reply to his recent post on data, and still to comment on the interesting exchange about racism last month.

The Growlery has some pithy comments concerning my rant questioning the commitment of young people, especially those that want to be scientists (a decreasing number, to be sure, too much work) to the gathering of data hands on. This is interesting in many ways because the fascination with the data processing step is a far cry from the fascination with data (collection) as exemplified by Darwin in his voyage of the Beagle. Of course there was an entire class of well to do Victorians who devoted their lives to doing nothing but collecting beetles (this thread runs through the Aubrey-Maturin sea series by Patrick O'Brien). On the other hand, I am sure that if a Victorian data collector had access to the mathematical analysis tools we have today they would have felt that they had died and found their 70 virgins (what an awful metaphor, bad boy, Dr. C.).

Then I got to thinking that human beings are essentially the quintessential data collectors. We collect billions of bits of data every minute via our senses. And, yes, The Growlery is right, this data collection that we call experience has been greatly blunted by the modern world. But, it is still true that students are in a daily data collection experience; teachers collect, distill, and distribute; doctors must rely on instantaneous interpretation of data. When it comes to data, though, scientists are supreme.

All of us learn data collection and interpretation on our mother's knees, or have it built into the neural circuits determined by our hox genes. Our ability as humans to do this, and to project the future, is why we have taken over the world. (I would cite this as the reason for our ascend ency rather than the ability to communicate as postulated by the author of "The Singing Neanderthal.) The Australian bushman lives so close to his data, and is so facile in its interpretation, that when he reflects, he considers it an entirely different world (c.f. the Aboriginal Dreamtime experience).

Many years ago I was asked to give a talk to a conference of teachers (professors) of Organic Chemistry at a well known school. The topic was one that really struck a nerve with these worthies. The question was, why the medical school establishment used the Organic Chemistry course to weed out prospective medical students causing Chemistry departments to become "service" departments for the hoards of premeds. I tried very hard and was very unsuccessful in conveying to them that to study Organic Chemistry was equally about thinking scientifically as much as it was about conveying the basics of biochemistry.

I won't bore you with any more anecdotes because the situation has changed so dramatically in the ensuing years. I'm sure that the remaining premeds still take Organic Chemistry. Hopefully, they learn to think. But the numbers of these students is so decreased and their orientation so changed from either our training, or even that of 25 years ago, that it isn't worth talking about.

Is this to to information overload? Possibly. Is the rise of the radical right and its trashing of science (particularly that inanity of "Intelligent" Design) a rebound effect? Probably. Is there anything to "do" about it? Not!

No comments: