The metaphors of neuroscience – computers, coding, wiring diagrams and so on – are inevitably partial. That is the nature of metaphors, which have been intensely studied by philosophers of science and by scientists, as they seem to be so central to the way scientists think. But metaphors are also rich and allow insight and discovery. There will come a point when the understanding they allow will be outweighed by the limits they impose, but in the case of computational and representational metaphors of the brain, there is no agreement that such a moment has arrived. From a historical point of view, the very fact that this debate is taking place suggests that we may indeed be approaching the end of the computational metaphor. What is not clear, however, is what would replace it.
Every map is infused with its maker’s decisions, which ultimately present a pattern, story or argument. Sometimes those choices of design, labeling, data selection, and data slicing show up as obvious biases, as in the case of Donald Trump’s infamously augmented 2019 map of Hurricane Dorian. More often, though, this inherent “truthiness” flies under the radar of a map’s tidy, matter-of-fact visual presentation, as in the many maps and models being made now of semi-reliable Covid-19 case data.
So while it’s relatively easy to make a map in an age of abundant data and digital tools, it isn’t always easy to read them. How can you tell what’s real, and what’s a distortion?
Link to the museum exhibit referred to in the article linked below
Artist Zach Weinersmith teams up with FiveThirtyEight to break down and explain the challenges in building accurate models for the pandemic from differing assumptions, data collection, and just a general lack of information.
Interesting quote from the cartoon: “Every variable is dependent on a number of possible choices and gaps in knowledge.”
Click on the images for the full cartoon.
Reminds me of a funny tweet I saw, “Using the right denominator is 50% of data science.”
All the data that we trust and believe on a daily basis, is only accurate in a specific context, at a specific time, and at a specific level. If you dig deep enough, ultimately all of the data in the world that drives major and minor decisions alike is built on wobbly foundations.
The maps are their own territory, their own objective reality, not just a reflection of the real world but a branch of it. Weckert was showing us all how data and maps can affect the world they’re meant to chart. “Maps have the potential as an instrument of power,” he said. “They substitute political and military power in a way that represents the state borders between territories and they can repeat, legitimate, and construct the differences of classes and social self-understandings.”
The initiator of these observations was the Polish-American scholar Alfred Korybski. He most likely influenced Magritte’s art. Korzybski said “The Map is Not the Territory”. What he means is that the territory is the world and the map a generalization we use to make sense of it. It also proposes that we don’t have unmediated contact with the external world/reality (Expand your World). Korybski saw that language was at the same time the thing that made possible cultural development of the human race and at the same time the one that harmed it’s perception (Expand your World). When we communicate an experience, we often use generalizations in our words, and those generalizations leave out the things that made that event unique; they leave out the concrete experience, which results in a small abstraction of things out of a whole.
For more on the concept, “the map is not the territory”
The Map Is Not the Territory
The quote, “The map is not the territory,” demonstrates a profound thought, and also a useful prompt for the TOK class. Before getting into connections between the quote and idea of models and metaphors, I wanted to put together a lesson on NYC subway maps (my school is in NYC). While doing so, I came across a bunch of different, and lovely, maps, each with its own representation of “reality.”
Download handout: NYC Map Handout
Click each image for a full size file.
1. Modern Day Subway Map
This is the map you see posted on the trains and subway platforms.
2. “Accurate Subway Map”
This map includes more accurate representations of distance and other features. Notice also it is more accurately oriented according to a traditional North-South map axis. The one above unintentionally (intentionally?) reorients the map around Manhattan.
3. NYC Station Map
This map focuses on the subway lines themselves and erases all other features.
4. 1972 Massimo Vignelli Map
Much has been written about this map and the response it got. It put into practice the design principles (started in the London Underground Map designed by Harry C. Beck) that are used in many of the world’s systems. This map, though, did not receive a particularly positive reaction and was soon abandoned.
This site will morph the subway map into the actual geographic map for various metros around the world including New York. Really cool.
If you’re interested in this topic, you can find a lot more maps and more information at: https://www.nycsubway.org/wiki/New_York_City_Subway_Track_Maps (Click on the “Maps” tab at the top of that page).