Thursday, June 05, 2008

Intellectual Fads

Intellectual fads are interesting because, unlike the fad for Paris Hilton adopted by the lumpenproletariate (which my friend Pete Sattler is mocking daily at his new blog PromoteThisBlog), these are false or useless ideas adopted by very smart and educated people. A lot of times, this manifests itself in people overinterpreting the usefulness of a theory, or applying it somewhere else. For example, supposedly a pretentious older woman asked Einstein for his opinion on what his Theory of Relativity implied about ethics. He replied, "none that I can think of".

Claude Shannon wrote a mathematical definition of information based on the concept of entropy in thermodynamics, and this proved very useful for coding, data compression, encryption, and other aspects of information processing. But that's it. Some people thought it would be useful in linguistics, psychology, economics, biology, and even the arts. But Shannon stated to science writer John Horgan, "Somehow people think it can tell you things about meaning, but it can't and wasn't intended to".

In the 1960's, Rene Thom developed a mathematical theory that captured phase shifts, applicable to chrysalis, earthquakes and societal collapse. His 1972 book, Structural Stability and Morphogenesis, was reviewed by the Times of London as follows: "it is impossible to give a brief description of the impact of this book. In one sense the only book with which it can be compared is Newton's Principia. Both lay out a new conceptual framework for the understanding of nature, and equally both go on to unbounded speculation."[Nov 30, 1973]

You don't hear much about that anymore.


Anonymous said...

Was there a current example you were referring to? I half expected you to refer to global warming when I read the title of your post.

Eric Falkenstein said...

No, nothing current. I was re-reading Horgan's book, The End of Science, and this stuff came up.

Anonymous said...

For what it's worth, Shannon style information theory is currently being used in understanding meaning processing, see e.g. this guy's work:

Pete S said...

This is a very interesting observation. I can think of several reasons why this happens:
1) People are lazy. Teach them to use a hammer, and they'll try use a hammer for everything.
2) If you don't fully understand something, or don't understand it's intellectual origins and predecessors, then you might not know how to apply it.
3) Many people seem to be looking for something to deify and add some kind of universal meaning to. I'm reminded of the scene in "The Life of Brian" (Monty Python) when Brian's shoe falls off because he is in a hurry. Then one of his disciples intrepret this as divine guidance, and they should all wear only one shoe for ... some manufactured reason.
Pete S