RULES DEFINE FREEDOM

Most of the world's carbon exists below the Earth's surface, far from anywhere you've ever been. Some people are keenly interested in studying it and  telling you all about what they learn. That process of communicating challenging science is important, but hard to do well. 

Most of the world's carbon exists below the Earth's surface, far from anywhere you've ever been. Some people are keenly interested in studying it and  telling you all about what they learn. That process of communicating challenging science is important, but hard to do well

It sounds Orwellian right off the bat, but hang in there.

In a recent science meeting of the Deep Carbon Observatory, a tectonic debate erupted between two camps. On one side were a group of scientists who argued that widely disparate, diverse types of data collected in the esoteric, complex fields of geophysics were not always conducive to aggregation into larger databases. Field scientists might have individualized data in shoe boxes on their shelves that simply didn’t conform to conventions, and they should be encouraged to keep it that way. 

On the other side were experts in large scale data simulation systems who insisted that most diverse data sources could be translated into some sort of organizationally standardized format, but ALSO that not every kind of data should be permissible. 

I’m paraphrasing here, but the science data purists argued that an infinite number of data essentially facilitated a biodiversity of ideas and observations, and that conformity to standards would be cutting the legs out of inventive research.

The simulation folks argued that infinite freedom in the presentation of data inhibited its ability to be assimilated into models. Assimilation of disparate data that nonetheless conformed to baseline, standardized formats had the potential to connect seemingly unrelated observations to larger frameworks, otherwise invisible due to the challenge of perspective.

In the opposition of viewpoints there is a ferocious tension, and the right answer is not easy. There are merits to both and good intentions too. But ultimately I must agree with the simulation experts: standards matter.

Don’t misunderstand: diversity of technique and observations should not simply be tolerated. It should be encouraged and applauded. But in freedom to explore, there must be a baseline agreement of how information should be organized. Think of it this way: dictionaries could be organized by parts speech rather than by alphabetization. (It’s a crude example, admittedly.) But that level of organization isn’t particularly efficient, even if the verbs and nouns are all in their own places. How information gets organized matters. 

Rules give creative people the license to operate from stable positions. By imposing structure and rules to which a disparate crowd must conform, standardization of formats  facilitates wider distribution of information. Once English began to standardize common spellings of words in the late 1700s and early 1800's the great promise of the printing press, already centuries old, could finally take on its full measure of influence. Commonality of rules enabled distribution of infinite ideas. After all, DNA only has four base nucleotides and look at the diversity of life!

Deep carbon is a tough subject, and it’s largely unknown to the mainstream. It’s scientific practitioners are a serious bunch and many are highly accomplished. Most are engaged in important research about a subject that deserves its day in the Sun. (If only it weren’t miles beneath the Earth…) But the point here is bigger than deep carbon, per se. In all communities, from science to arts to politics and more, a set of flexible rules must be in place before something can thrive. Those rules need to be just barely rigorous enough to hold the thing together without confining the ability of the core discipline to grow. Those rules must also be adaptable enough to change as warranted by new evidence. But without fundamental structure, creativity of all kinds simply splashes around in a sort of marginalized self-indulgent pool. 

To that I say, "C’mom in! The water’s fine."

@michaelstarobin

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