'Information Theory' Is Misinforming Us (Because The Meaning Isn’t In The Message).

Information Theory explicitly ignores meaning. Its focus on messages makes it uninformative about their effects. And limits the usefulness of its way of quantifying information. 


“Information theory” is misnamed. And information operates differently in physics versus biology.

1. Gregory Chaitin applies “information theory” to biology by casting DNA as “a universal programming language found in every cell.”

2. But information theory is misnamed — it covers only symbolically encoded messages, not information generally. It quantifies information by explicitly ignoring meaning. It can do this because usually the meaning of a message isn’t in the message. It’s in what the message refers to (or causes).

3. To a signaling engineer, the messages “set” and “ant” have equal amounts of information, three symbols each. Yet the Oxford English Dictionary needs 60,000 words to describe the meanings of “set” versus less than 60 for “ant.”  

4. Information theory’s engineering mindset presumes simple semantics — clean 1:1 mappings from message components to looked-up meaning — but evolved systems like language have more complex semantics — e.g., the 430 verb senses of “set.” Hence the amount of information in a message often doesn’t relate simply to its meaning (or the complexity of its effects).

5. Saying the human genome’s 3 billion base pairs contain ~770 MB of information isn’t the whole story. Much else (including other information) is needed for DNA’s messages to be effective. As Richard Lewontin notes, DNA isn’t “self-replicating”; it needs a vast molecular machinery and a very particular environment (context) to work (express its meanings).

6. Much quality is lost in quantifying loose types. Comparing genes numerically — as in “humans and chimps share ~99 percent of their DNA” — effectively ignores gene semantics. Texts with 99 percent of the same words can have very different meanings (word combinations matter more than word counts).

7. DNA’s “language of life” has even higher complexity. Its meanings (its sentences) aren’t all statically predefined — they’re built dynamically. After DNA completes its parental message transmission and developmental “recipe” roles, its genes enjoy an active social life. Their modular functions (protein-making “subroutines”) are orchestrated by environmental messages.

8. Despite some laxity, statements like, “Our bodies are full of software,” and, “All biological events are programmed,” highlight how processes in biology can handle information differently than those of physics.

9. Do objects in physics process information? A thrown ball’s path is somehow computed/followed, so at least metaphorically, that’s information processing. And in that sense, information and causality are related.

10. Physics never needs what programmers call exception handling. Its patterns don’t have exceptions. There’s a 1:1 directness to physics’ cause-effect structure. Or, where a cause has many effects, they have a stable, or predictable, distribution. So probability and statistics apply.

11. Biology’s information processing is more complex (more software-like, more algorithmic). Somewhere between its low-level biochemical cause-effect interactions and life’s higher-level decision processes, different kinds of logic emerge. In some contexts, cause and effect aren’t direct; they’re mediated by semantics (see Charles Darwin's “Hindoo,” on belief and biochemistry interacting).

Logic structures and information processing appear to vary by domain.

 

Stand up against religious discrimination – even if it’s not your religion

As religious diversity increases in the United States, we must learn to channel religious identity into interfaith cooperation.

Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
  • Religious diversity is the norm in American life, and that diversity is only increasing, says Eboo Patel.
  • Using the most painful moment of his life as a lesson, Eboo Patel explains why it's crucial to be positive and proactive about engaging religious identity towards interfaith cooperation.
  • The opinions expressed in this video do not necessarily reflect the views of the Charles Koch Foundation, which encourages the expression of diverse viewpoints within a culture of civil discourse and mutual respect.
Keep reading Show less

Moon landing astronauts reveal they possibly infected Earth with space germs

Two Apollo 11 astronauts question NASA's planetary safety procedures.

Credit: Bettmann, Getty Images.
Surprising Science
  • Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins revealed that there were deficiencies in NASA's safety procedures following the Apollo 11 mission.
  • Moon landing astronauts were quarantined for 21 days.
  • Earth could be contaminated with lunar bacteria.
Keep reading Show less

NASA's idea for making food from thin air just became a reality — it could feed billions

Here's why you might eat greenhouse gases in the future.

Jordane Mathieu on Unsplash
Technology & Innovation
  • The company's protein powder, "Solein," is similar in form and taste to wheat flour.
  • Based on a concept developed by NASA, the product has wide potential as a carbon-neutral source of protein.
  • The man-made "meat" industry just got even more interesting.
Keep reading Show less

Where the evidence of fake news is really hiding

When it comes to sniffing out whether a source is credible or not, even journalists can sometimes take the wrong approach.

Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
  • We all think that we're competent consumers of news media, but the research shows that even journalists struggle with identifying fact from fiction.
  • When judging whether a piece of media is true or not, most of us focus too much on the source itself. Knowledge has a context, and it's important to look at that context when trying to validate a source.
  • The opinions expressed in this video do not necessarily reflect the views of the Charles Koch Foundation, which encourages the expression of diverse viewpoints within a culture of civil discourse and mutual respect.
Keep reading Show less