Consciousness: How Do You Study What You Can't Define?

Without question, it’s the desire to “know” that drives scientific inquiry. But as scientists at the forefront of physics or biology will tell you, the more we learn, the more simplistic earlier frameworks seem and the more complex the puzzles become. 

What's the Big Idea? 


What is the purpose of science? A common yet misleading answer is that science enables us to understand how things work – to make sense of the natural world. Within this framework, everything is knowable if you ask the right questions and are sufficiently persistent and rigorous in pursuit of the answers. 

Without question, it’s the desire to “know” that drives scientific inquiry. But as scientists at the forefront of physics or biology will tell you, the more we learn, the more simplistic earlier frameworks seem and the more complex the puzzles become. 

Michael Gazzaniga, a pioneer in the study of the brain’s left and right hemispheres – their separate functions and how they interact – argues that consciousness is one of the key scientific puzzles of our time. Science, he says, is a long way even from defining what consciousness is, let alone understanding in any comprehensive sense how it works. Instead, neuroscientists, philosophers are nibbling away at the fringes of the question, illuminating this or that aspect of biological mechanism and experience of awareness and self.  

In a recent Big Think interview, Gazzaniga emphasized the importance of investigating (and funding scientific research into) complex and possibly undefinable questions like the nature of consciousness: 

Michael Gazzaniga: The common complaint about the field is “how can you study something that you can’t define?”, but I would say “Well no, wait a minute.” I mean we should all reflect on the fact that it was only 1954 that we figured out the molecular basis of hereditary material, DNA and the gene and we had a very simple idea.  It was like beads on a string and they produced proteins and then from there into disease and the world was simple and everything was orderly.  Well, in 2012 our concept of the gene is actually totally argued about.  It’s a totally complex thing with all kinds of feedback and other systems involved and so forth.  So what you would call a gene today is kind of maybe a computational moment.  It’s not a thing that’s in a place..

So for the intervening 60 years there have been incredible advances in molecular biology . . . the whole basis of modern medicine, has been a matter of working with material and concepts that really aren’t yet defined.  

What’s the Significance? 

In a Big Think interview, philosopher Daniel Dennett explained that consciousness is simply the name we give to a collection of interacting biological processes. Explained another way, consciousness dissected will resemble any other physiological process –excretion, for example. For many people, who would prefer to think of the self as something more elusive and magical, this might be a bit of a letdown. 

From the perspective of biology, the complexities even of excretion, a relatively straightforward biological process, are a wonder to behold. But who can say that a complete and accurate neurobiological explanation of consciousness would conclusively answer the question of what consciousness is? 

It is at the fringes of the knowable that science, art, and philosophy all must proceed on the basis of a kind of educated faith in the tools of their respective disciplines. Scientists don’t generally use the word faith in a professional context, but what besides a belief that you’ll discover something useful could motivate bold investigation into the unknown?  

Recognizing this fact, and the fact that our most valuable discoveries are often fringe benefits of the kind of ambitious exploration exemplified by the Large Hadron Collider (a 30 year, $6.4 billion dollar collaboration between 11 countries for the purpose of studying theoretical particles), we are wise to fund investigation into precisely the kinds of questions that scientists agree are fundamental, yet impossible to define. 

And we are foolish – or at least suicidally shortsighted – whenever risk aversion or lack of vision restricts us to safe, yet incremental refinements of what we’re convinced we already know. 

Follow Jason Gots (@jgots) on Twitter 

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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Maps show how CNN lost America to Fox News

Is this proof of a dramatic shift?

Strange Maps
  • Map details dramatic shift from CNN to Fox News over 10-year period
  • Does it show the triumph of "fake news" — or, rather, its defeat?
  • A closer look at the map's legend allows for more complex analyses

Dramatic and misleading

Image: Reddit / SICResearch

The situation today: CNN pushed back to the edges of the country.

Over the course of no more than a decade, America has radically switched favorites when it comes to cable news networks. As this sequence of maps showing TMAs (Television Market Areas) suggests, CNN is out, Fox News is in.

The maps are certainly dramatic, but also a bit misleading. They nevertheless provide some insight into the state of journalism and the public's attitudes toward the press in the US.

Let's zoom in:

  • It's 2008, on the eve of the Obama Era. CNN (blue) dominates the cable news landscape across America. Fox News (red) is an upstart (°1996) with a few regional bastions in the South.
  • By 2010, Fox News has broken out of its southern heartland, colonizing markets in the Midwest and the Northwest — and even northern Maine and southern Alaska.
  • Two years later, Fox News has lost those two outliers, but has filled up in the middle: it now boasts two large, contiguous blocks in the southeast and northwest, almost touching.
  • In 2014, Fox News seems past its prime. The northwestern block has shrunk, the southeastern one has fragmented.
  • Energised by Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, Fox News is back with a vengeance. Not only have Maine and Alaska gone from entirely blue to entirely red, so has most of the rest of the U.S. Fox News has plugged the Nebraska Gap: it's no longer possible to walk from coast to coast across CNN territory.
  • By 2018, the fortunes from a decade earlier have almost reversed. Fox News rules the roost. CNN clings on to the Pacific Coast, New Mexico, Minnesota and parts of the Northeast — plus a smattering of metropolitan areas in the South and Midwest.

"Frightening map"

Image source: Reddit / SICResearch

This sequence of maps, showing America turning from blue to red, elicited strong reactions on the Reddit forum where it was published last week. For some, the takeover by Fox News illustrates the demise of all that's good and fair about news journalism. Among the comments?

  • "The end is near."
  • "The idiocracy grows."
  • "(It's) like a spreading disease."
  • "One of the more frightening maps I've seen."
For others, the maps are less about the rise of Fox News, and more about CNN's self-inflicted downward spiral:
  • "LOL that's what happens when you're fake news!"
  • "CNN went down the toilet on quality."
  • "A Minecraft YouTuber could beat CNN's numbers."
  • "CNN has become more like a high-school production of a news show."

Not a few find fault with both channels, even if not always to the same degree:

  • "That anybody considers either of those networks good news sources is troubling."
  • "Both leave you understanding less rather than more."
  • "This is what happens when you spout bullsh-- for two years straight. People find an alternative — even if it's just different bullsh--."
  • "CNN is sh-- but it's nowhere close to the outright bullsh-- and baseless propaganda Fox News spews."

"Old people learning to Google"

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox News search terms (200!-2018)

But what do the maps actually show? Created by SICResearch, they do show a huge evolution, but not of both cable news networks' audience size (i.e. Nielsen ratings). The dramatic shift is one in Google search trends. In other words, it shows how often people type in "CNN" or "Fox News" when surfing the web. And that does not necessarily reflect the relative popularity of both networks. As some commenters suggest:

  • "I can't remember the last time that I've searched for a news channel on Google. Is it really that difficult for people to type 'cnn.com'?"
  • "More than anything else, these maps show smart phone proliferation (among older people) more than anything else."
  • "This is a map of how old people and rural areas have learned to use Google in the last decade."
  • "This is basically a map of people who don't understand how the internet works, and it's no surprise that it leans conservative."

A visual image as strong as this map sequence looks designed to elicit a vehement response — and its lack of context offers viewers little new information to challenge their preconceptions. Like the news itself, cartography pretends to be objective, but always has an agenda of its own, even if just by the selection of its topics.

The trick is not to despair of maps (or news) but to get a good sense of the parameters that are in play. And, as is often the case (with both maps and news), what's left out is at least as significant as what's actually shown.

One important point: while Fox News is the sole major purveyor of news and opinion with a conservative/right-wing slant, CNN has more competition in the center/left part of the spectrum, notably from MSNBC.

Another: the average age of cable news viewers — whether they watch CNN or Fox News — is in the mid-60s. As a result of a shift in generational habits, TV viewing is down across the board. Younger people are more comfortable with a "cafeteria" approach to their news menu, selecting alternative and online sources for their information.

It should also be noted, however, that Fox News, according to Harvard's Nieman Lab, dominates Facebook when it comes to engagement among news outlets.

CNN, Fox and MSNBC

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox (without the 'News'; may include searches for actual foxes). See MSNBC (in yellow) for comparison

For the record, here are the Nielsen ratings for average daily viewer total for the three main cable news networks, for 2018 (compared to 2017):

  • Fox News: 1,425,000 (-5%)
  • MSNBC: 994,000 (+12%)
  • CNN: 706,000 (-9%)

And according to this recent overview, the top 50 of the most popular websites in the U.S. includes cnn.com in 28th place, and foxnews.com in... 27th place.

The top 5, in descending order, consists of google.com, youtube.com, facebook.com, amazon.com and yahoo.com — the latter being the highest-placed website in the News and Media category.
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