Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Ziman on Information, Communication, and Knowledge

J. M. Ziman wrote in "Information, Communication, Knowledge" (Nature 224 (1969), 318-24:
the invention of a mechanism for systematic publication of fragments of scientific work may well have been the key event in the history of modern science." ... "a typical scientific paper has never pretended to be more than another little piece in a larger jigsaw -- not significant in itself but as an element in a grander scheme. This technique of soliciting many modest contributions to the store of human knowledge, has been the secret of Western science since the seventeenth century, for it achieves a corporate collective power that is far greater than any one individual can exert. ... [Published] papers are not meant to be final statements of indisputable truths; each is merely a tiny tentative step forward, through the jungles of ignorance.

He also said: "Our present system of scientific communication depends almost entirely on [literature with] three basic characteristics: it is fragmentary, derivative, and edited. These characteristics are, however, quite essential."

It seems true to me that similar things can be said about individual efforts at note-taking: collect many small fragments, rather than begin with one big effort. The understanding is that the "editor" will make changes later and supervise the process. This, essentially, is the notebook method. I am not sure how important communication is, however, unless we include the notion of communication with a future self (which is, perhaps, not unimportant).

I came across Ziman in Lewis Thomas, (1978) The Lives of the Cell. Notes from a Biology Watcher (New York: Penguin Books, 1978), in the essay "On Societies as Organisms" (p. 15).


Star Pilot said...

Isn't one of the purposes of note taking to communicate whatever facts, thoughts, trivia, etc to your future self? In some usage, this is the primary objective--- such as when a person takes notes about an interaction with a client so they can find that information in future searches related to that client. In other instances, communication is secondary, such as when a person takes notes to study a subject (in this case, the act of taking the note helps reinforce the material being learned).

MK said...

I am more and more inclined to think that as well. That is, what seemed as a mere after-thought when I wrote it, seems to me much more central now.

Thanks for re-enforcing this idea.