Using the Computer to Empower Our Minds
This is a continuation of my posting The Only Important Thing in Our World Should be Us. I ended by wondering if some wild card in the deck could save us. Unexpectedly, I may have stumbled on to it, when reading Too Big to Know: rethinking knowledge now that the facts aren’t the facts, experts are everywhere, and the smartest person in the room is the room.
I have poo-pooed the idea that computers could help us think – not realizing that I had already been doing just this. This is what I use my blog for – a much better way of writing, and organizing my ideas. If the computer was only useful for that, it would be invaluable. But it is good for much else – enhancing our thinking. Let me explain.
For awhile I was interested in botany – but I could not understand why botanists did not use databases to store their botanical information. They do exist, but in my opinion they are pathetic, and do not begin to use their potential. The object of a database is to gather and store information in its raw form. The structure of a database can be used to organize its data – but one database can contain many different structures – and should. It should have many links tying everything together.
Botanists (and Zoologists) are still obsessed with the system invented by Carl Linnaeus. From Wikipedia:
The Swiss philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau sent him the message: “Tell him I know no greater man on earth.” The German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote: “With the exception of Shakespeare and Spinoza, I know no one among the no longer living who has influenced me more strongly.” Swedish author August Strindberg wrote: “Linnaeus was in reality a poet who happened to become a naturalist”. Among other compliments, Linnaeus has been called Princeps botanicorum (Prince of Botanists), “The Pliny of the North,” and “The Second Adam“.
They may have been impressed because his system relies on recognized experts – you have to spend some time around them to see how impressed they are with their experts. It also doesn’t take much time for someone like me (an outsider) to discover that these experts often disagree with each other – but that is overlooked.
A database system can use many experts – with links to their references and their areas of expertise. Each expert can have his own system – without caused the database any trouble at all. All this data can be examined in many different ways – depending on the examiner.
Computers (or their software, to be more accurate) can be used to develop models that consider far more than our brains can – because huge amounts of data can be considered, and very complex algorithms can be used on this data. Climate science is a case in point. Usually, several different models are developed, and greater credence is given to those whose predictions overlap.
Will this save us? Probably not, because people will simply misuse science’s findings, or ignore them. Instead of using the computer to help themselves, they will use it to destroy themselves instead – and it is very capable of doing that too.