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Thursday 21 May 2020

Categorising Things is “Evil”

We label things every day: that man is tall, this book a thriller, leaves are green. How tall? How thrilling? What shade of green? We take the relative and make it absolute, categorising the life out of it to streamline communication. Labels are the oil on a squeaky gate, and most people never question them.

When I was a child, I hated labels: they didn't make sense to me. Was a tall child tall, or short because they were a child? What if my eye colour wasn't an option on the list? Why did we need to classify books anyway, and where did one genre end and another begin? Wasn't it easier to just describe them? ...Surely that's what blurbs were for.

Categories lead to bad writing. If you learn that everybody can be described as a tall, frizzy-haired bossy woman, you always tell – and never show. Telling is boring. It loses the magic and the mystery of the woman who peers down between dark, raggedy fronds with a floating look and says tartly, "I told you to put the other end on first!"

I resisted for a long time. Declined to answer; drew an extra box on the multiple choice question. But eventually I was indoctrinated. How? Why?

...If you get told something often enough, again and again and again, it starts to sink in. Perhaps you don't understand the categories, but you can pick from them (even if you pick wrong). My teachers needed me to say that my character was bossy so they could prove I understood what adjectives were. Friends had to like the same genre of music. The NHS wanted to classify my growth rate. So I shut up and categorised for an easy life.

Science uses categories all the time. Species separate from species (did you know the only taxonomic difference between moths and butterflies is that butterflies are prettier?). This is incredibly useful for explaining the patterns and rules in science, but it's also limiting. As we discover more science, we have to revise our categories as they no longer make sense: such as the advent of DNA, which gives us new insights into how animals are related, or the discovery that electricity was the flow of negatively charged electrons, which revealed that our "conventional current" arrow went in the wrong direction!

In learning institutions, even the science subjects are carved up and divided: physics, chemistry, biology, maths… Perhaps, then, it should come as little surprise that so many of the unanswered questions in science take place at the intersection of these fields. To answer them, we need people who are experts in different fields talking and working together, but we actually need more than that: we need polymaths, people who are computational biologists, physical chemists, scientific philosophers, and so on…

I had a quick look at the Things We Don’t Know database, and picked out just a few very fascinating things that cross over scientific fields, from biology to physics to chemistry to computer science to geology to engineering to psychology… and so on ad infinitum. These are they:

Could robots soon have 'human-like' vision? 
Research has been carried out into replicating the muscle motion of the human eye using soft materials and pressure-sensitive piezoelectrics. This could allow robots to "perceive" the world in a way we find more intuitive, and may even help us learn about human visual processing.

Could we capture and store our waste carbon dioxide? 
Scientists think that up to 90% of carbon dioxide emissions could, instead of being released, be captured and stored underground or underwater, where, at great depths, high pressure cause it to liquefy. In the ocean, it shows “negative buoyancy”, sinking to the sea floor, whilst in rocks it can be drained into tiny natural pores in rocks: this is called geological sequestration. Scientists are still exploring where this could take place and how long the carbon dioxide could be stored.

Could we treat mental health problems with birdsong? 
Humans may get psychological benefits from listening to bird calls, including boosts to mood, attention and creativity. This “biophilia” – the idea that being amongst nature makes you happier and healthier – is sufficiently established that Alder Hey Children’s Hospital in Liverpool play birdsong in their corridors, as does an airport lounge in Amsterdam! It’s even been applied as a form of dementia treatment. New work led by the National Trust aims to explore how human brains are affected by birdsong.

How can we measure uncertainty? 
Entropy is a measure commonly used thermodynamics to assess the disorder of a system. However, computer scientists and cryptographers now talk about information entropy. The greater the uncertainty about something, the more information is needed to describe it – so the more entropy or disorder. How did photochirogenesis evolve? Photochirogenesis – the development of handedness in biological molecules (where all natural molecules are either left or right hand mirror images of asymmetric molecules), may have developed because of polarised light in meteorites. If this is true, the origin of life could be in stars.

Is time in our minds? 
Is time an illusion? How can we tell? And, if it’s just in our minds, why is it used in classical mechanics equations? Does time really only go in one direction, or is this an illusion of human perspective? Our current direction through time is always forwards by definition, but on what grounds do we define it like this? Underpinning this could help us understand the concept of time travel and the science behind what we really mean by it.

And on that philosophical note… If you or someone you know is working on one of these topics, we’d love to hear from you. Perhaps you can tell us more about how your research is going, or some of the challenges in the field!

I was inspired to write this post after hearing a talk by Dr Julia Shaw on the label “evil”. 'Evil' throws up all kinds of problems not only because it's a highly subjective category (like most), but also because it sticks. Once labelled evil, you are evil forever. You can live a good life, behave well, be compassionate, but screw up once and you are evil. Your misdeed will be carried with you forever and you can never shake off its label. Evil is immortal.

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