Conceptions of Information as Evidence

by Marcia J. Bates

Talk given Nov. 20, 2002 at the
American Society for Information Science and Technology Annual Meeting, Philadelphia, PA.

Copyright © 2002 by Marcia J. Bates

This should be an interesting session, with each speaker conceptualizing--as I believe we will--information as evidence in a different way. I know Anne and I have had many interesting encounters in classes where we have both been guest speakers.

To see how information functions as evidence, we need to start with an understanding of what information is. So I will start with that grounding and build from there.

I believe that a full understanding of information suitable as a foundation for our field requires us to start at the very beginning, with a definition of Information as "The pattern of organization of matter and energy." This is the physical sense of information as all non-random patterns. In other words, only entropy lacks information, is uninformative. Everything else has pattern, everything else thus is information. Now, before you react, saying, "What is informative is socially constructed, how can you just talk about this physical level?", please, be patient. We’ll get there!

Further, all information exists in some material, physical form--as the pattern of organization of sound waves, as the organization of a rock, a tree, a table, a human body. Even human thought, which we cannot normally touch, is nonetheless coded in our brains physically, materially, by complex networks of billions of neurons. Thus, anticipating my colleague Michael Buckland, all information is thing, that is, all information has material existence--(which I know he would acknowledge, but he handles it in a different way). I do not believe in abstract Platonic planes, whereon perfect versions of ideas or objects reside. We human beings can think very abstractly, but that thinking is still manifested in physical brain cells, is communicated through physical sound waves, etc.

From very early in the history of life on earth, there have developed capacities in organisms, particularly in the animal kingdom, to respond to information--that is, patterns of organization of matter and energy--in their environment. Let us imagine the most primitive sort of organism; even it may be able to respond to light and turn toward the light. Maybe its nervous system can do only those two things: experience light in some sense, and turn toward it.

It’s not hard to understand why an organism would develop this capacity. According to evolutionary theory, whatever random mutations promote survival will lead to the retention of the capacities coded for by the mutated genes. If moving toward light means, say, that the organism will find more food (because the things it eats need light to grow), then the light-sensing organism will more likely flourish and reproduce. Similarly, the ability to detect food or danger at a distance--through the development of hearing, vision, smell, etc.--means that animals will more quickly be able to take advantage of positive possibilities and avoid negative situations.

So at the very most basic levels, "evidence," if you will, comes to us through the capacity to sense. Now, normally, we think of evidence as some sort of proof. It is socially mediated in that in law, for example, some kinds of information are considered to be evidence and others not. "I just had a bad feeling about him" doesn’t count; 0the results of DNA tests do. The law provides criteria by which types of informatio0n may be adjudged to be evidence or not.

But we are still back with the sensing animal in this discussion. Animals take the "evidence of their senses" all the time in their daily lives. Much of this sensing response is "hard-wired," that is, is so time-tested in the evolutionary experience of that animal species, that certain classes of stimuli lead to automatic and instinctual readings of the sensory input, often followed by automatic responses. The field mouse "reads" the bird-shaped shadow overhead as danger and races to escape it, because the field mice that survived to reproduce over many generations, were able to take such shadows as a threat.

So there is a kind of "sweat equity" in the physical, sensory, sense of evidence. Detection of patterns of certain types, whether sounds, smells, sights, etc. have promoted survival in one way or another over the millennia, so the capacity to detect those patterns, however accidentally developed through mutations, genetic drift, etc., is the proof of the pudding, so to speak. These forms of sensory evidence-taking are validated by the fact that the animals with those capacities, that read those patterns in their sensory experience in a certain way--survive.

Does this mean that these animals see the world "as it really is"? No, I would argue that there is a physical existence of the universe, but each species, and each individual within a species has its own sense of that reality. However, except in cases of severe mental illness or other brain defect, the sense of reality held by an animal is also not totally its own fantasy or own invention. All these millions of years of evolution have led to sensory capacities that provide good, workable evidence suitable for the activities--especially those related to survival--of the various species and individuals.

So, even though our human eyes and a fish’s eyes may work somewhat differently, and we may see the underwater world differently, we will still probably both be able to detect the presence of a rounded rock ahead of us underwater, if such detection has been valuable over the millennia of evolution. Each species will detect the rock in ways that are useful for its survival. However, as most species do not want to bump into things while moving, both of us, we and the fish, will probably have some detection means that are pretty similar and lead to pretty similar awareness of "obstacle ahead."

Thus, even while there is always considerable uniqueness to each individual’s experience, and considerable differences between species, the fact remains that--because it promotes survival--sensory capacities provide a pretty good awareness of what is around oneself--variable, but not wildly variable from one individual or species to another. There are thus good reasons, most of the time, to trust the "evidence of our senses." Our experience of the world is a useful match, though certainly not any perfect match with what’s "really" out there.

Indeed, there is probably no such thing as a perfect match with reality, in principle--only matches that are optimal for a species at a given time in a given set of ecological conditions. Animals evolve sensory capacities to meet their needs. Thus eagles can see at 100 yards what a human being must be ten feet away from to see. Eagles need that fabulous resolving power to see rodents far below them on the ground; humans haven’t needed sight with that level of granularity, and haven’t developed it. It is as hard for us to imagine what the world must look like to that eagle, as it is for a colorblind person to visualize what a world with colors in it must look like.

With a complicated animal like us, our experiences are so varied, as are our physical sensory capacities, that each of us must experience our lives in importantly different way. Nonetheless, those differences are not wild and random--there is a reasonable, useful connection between what we experience and what is "out there."

Now when we get to humans, we find that there is a very significant difference between us and other species. We have LOTS and LOTS of spare mental storage and processing space. Some researchers think this capacity originated during the ice ages. At that time, wild, whipsawing swings between glaciers and deep cold on the one hand, to warm, rainy weather, on the other, rewarded animals with big brains that could think of solutions in real time to the changing environment. We didn’t have to wait to evolve over tens of generations to respond to an environmental pressure.

Remember, there are now thought to have been as many as a half dozen big-brained hominid species. Homo Sapiens just happened to be the one that survived, and it is thought that we survived just barely. At some point in the past there was an choke-point, when all but a few of us died out--leaving the genetic variety of Homo Sapiens far less than that of the typical chimpanzee tribe.

So, here we are, with these big brains and lots of spare capacity. We have been able to develop symbolic behavior, to create representations that stand for something else to us. Then we manipulate the representations instead of the objects represented. We have been able to develop whole systems of symbolic meaning, such as cultures, religions, science, law, medicine, warfare, etc. We’ve had so much spare capacity, in fact, that when we create these elaborate systems, sooner or later, the systems become so developed that they carry with them their own epistemologies. For the human beings creating and re-creating them in their daily actions, these systems begin to develop a world view, a sense of what is valid and not valid within the system, as well as mechanisms within those social systems for admitting or delegitimating new ideas and experiences.

For instance, it has been a source of astonishment to me in recent years, that as methods of testing for DNA have been refined, in many cases the law has refused to consider this evidence. Trained as a scientist, I am dumbfounded. But the criteria for validity of new knowledge in science are different from those in the law. The law is, above all, a social system, and judges consider that the law has spoken once a case is adjudicated, therefore, new evidence later is, at least in some cases, considered irrelevant, no matter how good that evidence.

I think that this shows that human beings can get carried away with our symbol-making and system-making. One reason why great civilizations die may be that though we respond to environmental change faster than evolution allows, we nonetheless may become so invested in one social structure that we do not allow substantial changes in it in time to salvage old social structure. We generally let the old structure fall, then build a new one.

Many of the deepest conflicts in our world currently are conflicts between these epistemological systems. The scientific way of taking in evidence vs. the religious; the legal vs. the scientific, the market economy--for example, the illegal drug industry--vs. the law, democracy vs. authoritarianism. All these social systems have many other characteristics as well, of course. But perhaps we have not paid enough attention to the way each system recognizes and admits new information.

Nor have we paid enough attention to the biological substrate underneath our social behavior--the drive to reproduce and to survive. It is as if, in a modern, complex world, every human being expresses these root drives through the complexity of whatever mix of social systems and epistemological values they believe in. I would argue that to truly understand information as evidence, we need to attend to these biological and evolutionary factors as a grounding for everything that gets loaded on top of those levels--all the social and spiritual levels above.