Touching Vs. Understanding

On the plane home last week I talked to a sharp Yale historian, and realized we devote far more resources to preserving historical sites, and to making history available via museums, than we do to funding professional historians to make sense of it all.  That reminded me of complaints that NASA spends far more on sending instruments into space to collect data than it does on funding scientists to analyze that data.  In both cases we collect far more data than ever gets carefully analyzed.

Now part of the explanation must be that the public can more easily see historical sites, museums, and space instruments than historians and data analysts.  But that doesn’t seem to me a sufficient explanation – I suspect we are also just more interested in touching the past, and in touching space, than in understanding either.  We talk about understanding because that is a modern applause light, but really we just like to touch exotic things.  The more we can touch, the further is our reach, and the more important and powerful we must be.  I wonder how much more this explains.

Added: We have related desires to see art and sport events in person, up close, and to meet and touch celebrities in person. 

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  • Caio

    An interesting point, but I don’t agree with your assessment of its being about importance and power, at least in the case of historical sites. Touching exotic things is not about power. It’s about wonder and experiencing something different. The past, just like foreign countries, becomes a more real place when you see and “touch” something from it. You can read all the Roman history there is to read, but seeing the ruins put it in the real world, real places built brick by brick and inhabited by real people. It’s the same with zoos: people can read about different ecosystems and animals, but seeing them, moving right in front of you, gives us a different understanding of what that means that’s beyond intellectual, so that “hippopotamus” and “African savannah” become more than just words. I’m not anti-intellectual by any means, but there’s more to understanding, as a mental phenomenon, than scientific understanding.

  • claudio

    Perhaps it has to do with the fact that many people, I am one example, buy more books that they are able to read.

  • Sociology Graduate Student

    Taking great joy in understanding is both a cause and a consequence of intelligence.

    I guess some people would argue that what you are calling “touching” is just another type of understanding.

  • http://knol.google.com/k/james-miller/james-miller/1j9f9ffxxeue5/1# James Miller

    Don’t forget about public choice theory. The interest groups that benefit from building space instruments are more concentrated, better organized, have superior public relations departments, and spend far more money on lobbying than are the people who benefit from analyzing space instrument data.

  • Matt Huang

    Seems like the marginal cost of understanding equals the marginal increase in status. The interesting part is that the marginal increase in status often depends on society’s absolute level of understanding – learning/understanding accrues more status when people are able to recognize it. At the frontier of understanding then, we should expect to see stagnation until some discovery comes along whose importance is easy to understand. Then the marginal increase in status spikes and we see a flurry of development and understanding of that discovery.

  • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

    Caio, do you think that is why people like to meet and touch celebrities too, just so that they seem “more real”?

    Claudio, yes buying more books than we read seems a related example.

    James, Caplan has convinced me public opinion dominates – concentrated interests only get their way on aspects the public doesn’t care about.

    Matt, you lost me.

  • Tim

    Preserving history lets future historians attempt to understand it also. This makes overspending on preservation more attractive.

  • Matt Huang

    My point is that ‘we collect far more data than ever gets carefully analyzed’ because the benefit of most of this data is relatively uncertain. Hence to understand the data is costly (relative to the expected status gain). Not until a discovery is made whose benefit is obvious to everyone, does an extraordinary amount of analysis occur.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/jonathansfox/ Jonathan S. Fox

    Agreed with Tim’s point on preservation. Additionally, museums and other tangible and accessible information have educational benefits as they do more to produce future historians and analysts than analyzing existing data will. New collection also enables us to stumble upon highly unusual phenomena that demand closer analysis and so force shifts of our understanding in broad strokes, while detailed analysis of large amounts of information that don’t contradict our expectations will only refine the picture and fill in the details despite the far greater amount of man-hours. The question then becomes how much we care about getting a highly detailed picture.

    I tend to agree that the public doesn’t care all that much about it; for example, more people would be interested in seeing images from the hubble space telescope than would care to read more than a paragraph explaining what they’re looking at. This may be in part because it’s less tangible, but I also think it may just not matter. Even if we don’t know what we’re looking at, there’s probably very little long-term benefit or glamour in analysis of the vast majority of the data collected.

    It’s also easy enough to assume someone else will analyze the data if it’s released to the public. But without robust collection and preservation, analysis is impossible. Since collection and preservation are the prerequisite to analysis, and the data can always be stored and examined later, it’s easier to err on the side of collecting and preserving too much data than it is to risk having too little.

  • Douglas Knight

    The two examples seem very different to me.
    Watching a launch and having schoolchildren plant seeds that have been in space do seem much like historical preservation; it is dispersed and so mere quantity benefits a dispersed public. But most data is not interesting to the public and is concentrated. The public wants to know (and touch) that we can go into space, but doesn’t know, thus doesn’t care, how much data we collect.

  • Max M

    This may in fact be rational behavior if it is more efficient to use tomorrow’s technology and analytical techniques to analyze today’s data. If that is true, then we should always be collecting new “difficult to analyze” data today, while going back and drawing conclusions from the data we collected years ago that we have now developed the tools to analyze more easily or more cheaply. A good example would be the SETI project, where both the cost of collecting data and the cost of analyzing data are going down, though the latter is getting cheaper at a faster rate. This might be interesting to look into empirically.

  • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

    It might make sense to spend a bit more on preserving history that would otherwise go away, if future budgets for history analysis will be much larger. But this doesn’t explain collecting too much space data vs analysis, as that data will also be cheaper to collected in the future. And I don’t believe it explains much history touching excess.

  • Caio

    “Caio, do you think that is why people like to meet and touch celebrities too, just so that they seem ‘more real’?”

    I think that’s altogether different, but in a sense, yes. People form one-sided relationships with celebrities through mass media, and the desire to meet celebrities is, I think, the desire to make that relationship more real. There’s definitely also a desire for fame by association, just like seeing historical locations gives you some sort of intellectual bragging rights. But I don’t think that’s the whole story, and I don’t think the analogy works that well, mostly because people’s ideas about celebrities are largely, if not entirely, fictional and idealized, and firsthand experience is likely to be at odds with that. Firsthand experience of historical sites, however, is complementary to history.

  • Kat

    I agree with Jonathan and Tim about collecting now in order to be able to analyze later — and collecting and preserving is importantly to do properly and quickly or information is lost, while analysis can take its sweet time provided the same materials are available to work from.

    But other than that — touching is easy to explain, to “have something to show for it”. Everyone accepts that it’s expensive to get a bunch of shiny machines and collect a heap of data; they can see what it is. Does everyone accept that it’s expensive to get a 300-page report explaining it? Or, worse, to get a report on why that data doesn’t tell us what we hoped it would? How many people would consider the money spent to fund that analysis wasted?

    Fetishizing objects (or objects of attention) in general is easy. You need to get physically close to them and then immediately you have something that not everyone has. And then you check it off and move on to the next thing. Really knowing about what they are is hard; you sink effort into it and it takes more time than going on a whirlwind tour. Traveling, too, seems to be more about “seeing the sights” than knowing the city. Checking the checkboxes, contrasted with facing the unfamiliar. Surface interactions, that take money and time and physical effort but less deep understanding, either to get them yourself or to show others.

    (When I was a kid I loved to find signed books — an object that was once touched by someone I admired. People who wrote books were distant to me and that was the only way I knew to get close to them. Now I think signed books are silly; I know real live authors! “I had a great conversation with X about his book” is much more thrilling than “I have a signed book”. But there’s nothing I can display, even though what I actually have is more valuable.)

    We’re also saying by such choices that there’s value in objects themselves, and that the information is not as valuable — asserting there is something special about the object even if enough information exists to indistinguishably recreate it, or at least to transmit everything important about it. It’s the sort of thought that finds mind uploading abhorrent because it would never be the real thing — that think what’s real is what we can sense directly, and what can’t be copied or recreated; being reproducible, or reducible to parts we can reproduce, lessens its value, so we insist there is no way to replace the original. People feel cheated if they see a celebrity impersonator in place of the star even if they couldn’t tell while she was performing, or to receive a perfect diamond created in a lab rather than one mined from the ground.

    (Hm, longer braindump than I started out intending…)