The parts between talks are the best parts of conferences. Sure, it’s great to hear Greg Chaitin deliver his sermon about the ideal realm of pure mathematics being an infinite ocean of complexity, out of which we can only seize finite buckets — but Chaitin writes about that kind of thing, and you can read it for free online. It’s an altogether different experience to discuss during the coffee break Mike Stay and Cristian Calude’s paper, “From Heisenberg to GÃ¶del via Chaitin,” with one of the three men in the title.
Question-and-answer sessions after the presentations can also be quite good. Last night, for example, Barbara Jasny of Science Magazine explained how that publication is adapting to the whizbang modern world. It’s reassuring to hear that at least one person in the publishing community has a common-sense understanding of what cheap, open digital access means: journals can only justify charging prices if those prices reflect the actual value which those journals add. More interesting than that, however, was Jasny’s reaction to the question from Frannie Leautier, former Vice-President of the World Bank and currently head of the World Bank Institute. Leautier asked if Science would publish articles which used cartoons as illustrations (instantly endearing herself to all the Larry Gonick and Sid Harris fans in the audience).
Jasny’s reaction? If the cartoons were good enough and communicated the content well, then they could appear in the august pages of Science.
In the course of her talk, Jasny also mentioned that every month, the editors of Science find one or two papers whose pictures have been manipulated to such an extent that the paper has to be rejected. Checking for Photoshop skullduggery is now a routine part of their editorial process.
This morning, John Sterman (MIT Sloan School of Management) spoke about the perceptual problems which prevent people from grasping the magnitude of the climate change issue. This is just about the only hazard about which the scientists are more worried than the populace at large: the statisticians will reassure you, for example, that your chances of dying at Al Qaeda’s hands are pretty small, but when it comes to global warming, scientists are far more concerned than everybody else.
Even though Sterman’s talk included vanishing Arctic ice, collapsing fisheries and the brick-wall reality of unsequesterable CO2 emissions, it did, I’d say, leave a more optimistic impression than the presentation it followed, Philip Zimbardo’s talk on why human beings turn evil. Yes, he’s the fellow behind the Stanford Prison Experiment; he also — and this is a completely trivial observation — sports a beard which you’d expect a scientist named “Zimbardo” to wear, on his way to conquering the world with his Faustian Atomic Machine.
I just report my impressions; I don’t try to explain them.
In between sessions, I asked Zimbardo what he thought of Altemeyer’s The Authoritarians (2007). According to Zimbardo, studies of authoritarianism suffer the same problem as much of the rest of psychology, ascribing traits to the individual instead of studying the system in which those individuals act. A test can predict how people will perform on subsequent tests of the same type given under the same circumstances; it is more difficult to predict how people will behave when they actually find themselves in a radically different environment, facing unfamiliar demands from authority.
Zimbardo’s view of the “banality of evil” has an optimistic flipside, which he calls the “banality of heroism.” Somebody should tell David Brin about that. . . .
OK, now it’s time to scarf down some food and head to the next round of talks.