Joho the Blog » relativity

October 17, 2011

[2b2k] Why this article?

An possible explanation of the observation of neutrinos traveling faster than light has been posted at by Ronald van Elburg. I of course don’t have any of the conceptual apparatus to be able to judge that explanation, but I’m curious about why, among all the explanations, this is one I’ve now heard about it.

In a properly working knowledge ecology, the most plausible explanations would garner the most attention, because to come to light an article would have to pass through competent filters. In the new ecology, it may well be that what gets the most attention are articles that appeal to our lizard brains in various ways: they make overly-bold claims, they over-simplify, they confirm prior beliefs, they are more comprehensible to lay people than are ideas that require more training to understand, they have an interesting backstory (“Ashton Kutcher tweets a new neutrino explanation!”)…

By now we are all familiar with the critique of the old idea of a “properly working knowledge ecology”: Its filters were too narrow and were prone to preferring that which was intellectually and culturally familiar. There is a strong case to be made that a more robust ecology is wilder in its differences and disagreements. Nevertheless, it seems to me to be clearly true (i.e., I’m not going to present any evidence to support the following) that to our lizard brains the Internet is a flat rock warmed by a bright sun.

But that is hardly the end of the story. The Internet isn’t one ecology. It’s a messy cascade of intersecting environents. Indeed, the ecology metaphor doesn’t suffice, because each of us pins together our own Net environments by choosing which links to click on, which to bookmark, and which to pass along to our friends. So, I came across the possible neutrino explanation at Metafilter, which I was reading embedded within Netvibes, a feed aggregator that I use as my morning newspaper. A comment at Metafilter pointed to the top comment at Reddit’s AskScience forum on the article, which I turned to because on this sort of question I often find Reddit comment threads helpful. (I also had a meta-interest in how articles circulate.) If you despise Reddit, you would have skipped the Metafilter comment’s referral to that site, but you might well hae pursued a different trail of links.

If we take the circulation of Ronald van Elburg’s article as an example, what do we learn? Well, not much because it’s only one example. Nevertheless, I think it at least helps make clear just how complex our “media environment” has become, and some of the effects it has on knowledge and authority.

First, we don’t yet know how ideas achieve status as centers of mainstream contention. Is von Elburg’s article attaining the sort of reliable, referenceable position that provides a common ground for science? It was published at Arxiv, which lets any scientist with an academic affiliation post articles at any stage of readiness. On the other hand, among the thousands of articles posted every day, the Physics Arxiv blog at Technology Review blogged about this one. (Even who’s blogging about what where is complex!) If over time von Elburg’s article is cited in mainstream journals, then, yes, it will count as having vaulted the wall that separates the wannabes from the contenders. But, to what extent are articles not published in the prestigious journals capable of being established as touchpoints within a discipline? More important, to what extent does the ecology still center around controversies about which every competent expert is supposed to be informed? How many tentpoles are there in the Big Tent? Is there a Big Tent any more?

Second, as far as I know, we don’t yet have a reliable understanding of the mechanics of the spread of ideas, much less an understanding of how those mechanics relate to the worth of ideas. So, we know that high-traffic sites boost awareness of the ideas they publish, and we know that the mainstream media remain quite influential in either the creation or the amplification of ideas. We know that some community-driven sites (Reddit, 4chan) are extraordinarily effective at creating and driving memes. We also know that a word from Oprah used to move truckloads of books. But if you look past the ability of big sites to set bonfires, we don’t yet understand how the smoke insinuates its way through the forest. And there’s a good chance we will never understand it very fully because the Net’s ecology is chaotic.

Third, I would like to say that it’s all too complex and imbued with value beliefs to be able to decide if the new knowledge ecology is a good thing. I’d like to be perceived as fair and balanced. But the truth is that every time I try to balance the scales, I realize I’ve put my thumb on the side of traditional knowledge to give it heft it doesn’t deserve. Yes, the new chaotic ecology contains more untruths and lies than ever, and they can form a self-referential web that leaves no room for truth or light. At the same time, I’m sitting at breakfast deciding to explore some discussions of relativity by wiping the butter off my finger and clicking a mouse button. The discussions include some raging morons, but also some incredibly smart and insightful strangers, some with credentials and some who prefer not to say. That’s what happens when a population actually engages with its culture. To me, that engagement itself is more valuable than the aggregate sum of stupidity it allows.

(Yes, I know I’m having some metaphor problems. Take that as an indication of the unsettled nature of our thought. Or of bad writing.)

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