Monday, July 21, 2014

Missing the Point About (Mis)Information

So, last week my friend and fellow media ecologist Corey Anton contacted me, and asked me to take a look at a YouTube video that had got him all riled up. The title of the video is What is NOT Random? and it was posted by "Veritasium" which is described as "a science video blog featuring experiments, expert interviews, cool demos, and discussions with the public about everything science."

And it is very clear that there are a significant amount of resources and effort that went into this video. It has great production values, which requires skill, and funding. And it shows in the end product being a rather amusing ten minutes, but we all know what Neil Postman had to say about video as a medium and amusing ourselves to death.

But I will say that they do a good job, for the most part, in talking about the Laws of Thermodynamics, and the basic binary opposition within the physical universe between order and organization on the one hand, and chaos, entropy, and randomness on the other.

But they go off the deep end, and make a serious error, when they bring in the subject of information. You might say that, as scientists, the concept of information is outside of their comfort zone, indeed, outside of their territory, but after all, Claude Shannon was a mathematician and engineer, and his information theory was nothing if not a scientific understanding of the process of communication framed as the transmission of information.

So, I really don't see any excuse for making the kind of fundamental error regarding the relationship between information and randomness that Veritasium makes in the following video. If you care to, go ahead and watch it and see if you can recognize the obvious mistake in their thinking (you should be able to spot it if you know your information theory):


 So, depending on your background, you may or may not have recognized the misinformation about information  that Veritasium is expressing in this video. And even if you do, you may still want to see if your diagnosis of their problem matches up to ours, or you might be interested in hearing exactly how we identify and discuss Veritasium's error, or maybe you might just enjoy hearing our voices and the way that Corey and I interact via Skype. So I'll share the exchange that Corey recorded for uploading to YouTube, with the caveat that our video is not a slick, polished, professional production like Veritasium's. Indeed, it's pretty basic and low tech (by digital video standards). But here it is:

And you can see it over on YouTube, posted on Corey's channel, under the title, What does Veritasium mean by "information"? A Not Random Question.  I'll add that we both tried to post the link in the comments section for the Veritasium video, and either through some manual rejection or automatic setting, something prevented it from showing up. And I thought science was supposed to be a public activity in which theories and findings are open to critical assessment, refutation and falsification. Maybe Veritasium needs to brush up on more than just information theory?

A great place to start learning more about the subject is with the field of media ecology, and as we mention at the end of the video, the Media Ecology Association.  And for a media ecological approach to information, which is somewhat divergent from that of information theory, you can take a look at my 2012 open access article, Counting Electric Sheep: Understanding Information in the Context of Media Ecology, which you can download for free, along with Corey Anton's Terms for Talking about Information and Communication.

And let's hope that in the future, we can have more informed discussions about the concept of information than those that can be found in the Veritasium video.


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