Friday, 14 October 2016

Scientific Communication, Information and Music

In discussing the problems of scientific communication and the pathologies of education, there are three fundamental distinctions which are important to draw. They are:

  1. The distinction between IS and OUGHT in arguments about scientific communication 
  2. The distinction between an EXPLANATION and a DESCRIPTION 
  3. Issues about ONTOLOGY and INFORMATION 

I want to discuss each of these in turn, and then to draw on a musical example to illustrate the issues further.


I have begun to see the pathologies that we have in education and publishing as a direct consequence of failures in scientific communication. The challenge is to describe the ontological mechanisms. Essentially I aim to describe how scientific communication should be conducted in the light of what we know about our science. I do not want to say how it 'ought' to be.

Hume's famous passage in dealing with the dichotomy of "is" and "ought" is worth reflecting on:
"In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remarked, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary ways of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when all of a sudden I am surprised to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, 'tis necessary that it should be observed and explained; and at the same time that a reason should be given; for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it." 

His complaint is about slippage from "is" to "ought" (he does not deny the possibility of deriving an ought from an is - the logical positivists misrepresented him). In my argument about scientific publishing I have tried to be careful in avoiding 'oughts' and ground an argument for a richer embrace of technological expression on the basis of describing how today's science is. I'm arguing (not much differently from David Bohm whose work on communication is new to me) that the nature of the science entails the need for new practices of communication.

There is a critical dimension (which I don't think is an Ought - it's just a warning): if we continue to communicate in the way that we did in the 17th century, then our communication won't work because it works against the scientific ontology. I'm speculating that this pathology feeds into financialisation processes which produce social crisis. In Hume's argument, communication between scientists and an ontology of regularity were tied together; now we have have to admit multiple contingencies in our scientific practices, the communication cannot be unchanged - can it?


Universal explanation is a common trait of scientific endeavour. This is clearly a very deep issue, but it fundamentally concerns our conception of causation. What is causation? What is causal explanation? For Hume, causal explanations are constructs produced in discourse (i.e. communication) between scientists in the light of regular successions of events produced in experiments. However, it is also worth considering that Hume was deeply sceptical about the articulation of any rational foundation which could underpin the production of regularities in nature. That cast doubt on assumptions about inductive reasoning (and for anyone who would champion Peirce's 'abduction', I think it suffers from the same problem at a different level)

Scientists certainly produce totalising explanations, cosmologies, etc, and these can be very useful to organise discourse and scientific activity, and also creating a sense of hubristic excitement which moves things on. But whilst universalist claims will be made, all we can safely say is that it is a "description of understanding". Scientific communication occurs when different scientist's "descriptions of understanding" coincide. I prefer to think of this as a recognition between scientists that they operate within related or shared constraints. We should inquire into the conditions when this happens. To describe phenomena, and one's understanding of phenomena is to reveal one's constraints. Describing doubt is a very important part of this. Explanation is to attempt to remove doubt - not just of the explainer, but of those they wish to convince.


Loet spotted a constraint in my understanding about redundancy and made an intervention which has (this time - sorry for not getting it until now!) really clarified things, and also opened up a connection between ontology, information and redundancy. Essentially, to calculate the redundancy one must have the maximum entropy, and the maximum entropy can only be gained from what Loet calls the "specification of the system": that, in my understanding, is an agreed ontology of what the system IS. 

I think this makes the relationship between Shannon information and redundancy recursive. In order to agree the ontology of the system, one must communicate; in order to communicate we must agree the constraints; in order to apprehend constraints, we must identify the redundancy... which can be identified through the maximum entropy, which entails agreeing an ontology. And so on. This makes me think my intuition about the importance of Lou Kauffmann's work isn't wide of the mark. 

Information appears like a recursive version of Wittgenstein's duck-rabbit, where there is a smaller duck-rabbit inside the larger duck-rabbit.

Of course, it is impractical to go to these recursive depths. Shannon's equations constrain us to a simple empirically observable domain. But I think it is important to recognise that the recursion is there, and that we are effectively 'cutting into it' (or constraining it) It may be that the point hangs on the identification of analogy, or identity: of what is counted as "the same as" or "another one".


I'm preparing a video to explore this which uses a musical example. I'll try and explain in text what I want the video to explain (you will at least have two descriptions!): Music analysts identify those features in a score or some other record of performance which are "the same" and "another" and produce their analyses which show how different combinations of categories change over time. But when we listen to a piece of music for the first time, we know little of what is about to come, except that our expectations are shaped as the music unfolds. What emerges over time is a multiplicity of what might be called "descriptions" (although they need not be verbalised, they can be expressed analytically to some extent). These concern many different dimensions of what we hear, including:

  • the rhythmic patterns 
  • melodic patterns 
  • timbral patterns 
  • dynamics (loud and soft) 
  • phrasing 
  • pitch 
  • intervals... and so forth. 

Each description exists within constraints which are partly produced by the other descriptions, and by other factors (like, for example, one's familiarity with the style). As the music unfolds, new descriptions (about form, climactic moments, harmonic progressions, etc) emerge and whose constraints will interact with (and transform) existing constraints - even (most powerfully in music) our emotional constraints.

I mention music because it is a form of communication which is extremely powerful and which does not make any external reference. Yet it tells us something about how we communicate, but there is an analytical puzzle here. The specification of the system is beyond reach, yet we sense the patterns, the repetition, the redundancy without having a sophisticated way of calculating it. We also identify that what we might consider to be "the same" at one moment in one context, we might later count as being fundamentally "different" in another (e.g. perhaps the same melody with a different harmony). Moreover, I suggest that at these moments of seeing something to be different that we once thought to be "the same" are moments of gaining deeper insight into the meaning being conveyed. My deepened understanding of the relationship between redundancy and the "specification of the system" explained by Loet is an example.

This, it seems to me, is the essence of what happens when we really communicate. The process, I suggest, is an emergent interaction of constraints. It requires multiple descriptions. As long as we attempt to convey singular descriptions in academic papers alone, communication in this sense is going to be very difficult - if not impossible.

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