Data, with and without meaning

Every night on the BBC World broadcasts that fill the overnight hours on my public radio station, the news is punctuated by announcements of the time GMT. I notice these announcements, but up until last week, they really didn't have any meaning for me. Yes, I was vaguely aware that GMT is some hours later than EDT, my time, but I wasn't really sure how many hours later, and I didn't have any reason to figure it out, since I could determine my local time more easily by glancing at the clock radio from which the broadcast was emanating than by doing the math.

Occasionally there might be a story for which figuring time zones could add a bit of meaningful information, as in breaking news from somewhere in Asia broadcast in the wee small hours of the east coast USA morning, for example, when a sense of what time it is there might illuminate the difference between "today" and "yesterday," or convey whether the event being described is happening in the normal course of business or else absurdly early or late. But these are subtle details that might add nuance to one's grasp of the activity, not essential facts for understanding the description of events intoned over the airwaves.

Now, however, GMT has a definite meaning for me: it's the time zone where Mike and Mindee live. GMT therefore tells me information that makes a difference in my life, in terms of scheduling phone calls or calibrating my expectations about how long it might take to get a reply to an e-mail. Even apart from communicating with MBEM2, hearing the time announced in their time zone serves as a mental trigger, a prayer reminder, just as hearing the announcement that it is 102 degrees out reminds me that they don't have reliable air conditioning. Ugh!

I've been noticing the potential divorce between data and meaning in my recent toying with a sort of AI game. Because the interface of the game is similar to playing 20 questions with a human being, it's easy to take for granted that the game "knows" what it's talking about. In human discourse, you generally need to have a baseline of understanding about the topic of hand in order to even ask an intelligible question, unless you've been fed the question itself from an outside source, as with the young child put up to asking where babies come from by older cousins who think it would be amusing to watch the parents sputter. But 20Q has been fed ALL of its questions, and thus has no prior understanding of what any of them mean. The words in the questions are meaningless to the asker -- the question is nothing other than a mechanism for generating a response, which can be compared with the set of responses in the game's knowledgebase to eventually narrow the possibilities down to one.

20Q doesn't know that being in Slytherin and being in Gryffindor are mutually exclusive -- at least, not until enough players "teach" it this fact. It doesn't know that certain questions in its database don't really apply to certain categories of objects -- e.g., that a Place is never going to be a teacher of a Hogwarts subject -- although perhaps if a sequence of questions consistently enough fails to narrow down the pool of possibilities, it will "learn" to stop asking them. It may or may not have learned by now that the category of persons who are in Slytherin and the category of persons who are ghosts overlap at one and only one point (the Bloody Baron), but even if it "knows" this, it may ask a few more questions in order to build its knowledgebase.

The game can give the illusion of knowing what it's talking about by asking a string of relevant questions in a row -- aha! you think it's on to me! But then it throws something completely out of left field, and you realize again that you are playing against a computer, not a person.

So the experience is markedly different than playing 20 questions with human intelligences. For me, at least, part of the fun in yes/no answer guessing games is discerning the meaning in the manner of the answering. If my interlocutor answers quickly, definitively, and enthusiastically, I surmise that I have hit upon an important point about the entity in question. On the other hand, some of the most informative questions can be the ones that the other person is not able to answer at all -- the hemming and hawing of trying to apply the question to a mismatched object can speak volumes.

The challenge is not just to ask questions in the right sequence in order to narrow down the possibilities, it is to come up with the right questions that will reveal valuable and distinctive information about the object of your questioning. In the search for meaning, formulating the right questions is often the biggest part of the task.

I have at various times had the experience of hearing a teacher ask "any questions?" and remaining silent -- not because I completely grasp the material, but because I am so far from grasping it that I can't even articulate what it is I don't understand. I need to go home, think hard, reread the chapter, and pore over my notes, and then maybe I'll understand enough to recognize what it is that I don't understand.

I have great admiration for my colleagues who are able to interpret these silences and offer some bit of interpretation that gives the learner something to hold on to, a starting point for figuring out enough to ask the next question. This task -- if they recognize and embrace it -- often falls to the more advanced students in the room -- the upperclassmen in a college course, the doctoral students in a mixed masters/Ph.D. seminar. It is also a key part of the job of the Teaching Assistant, who serves as an interpreter of sorts between the professor and the students.

When I am teaching, I think that nothing delights me more than a well-asked question. I cannot overstate the value for the whole class of those students who are on top of the material enough to follow the gist of what I am saying and savvy enough to recognize what they still don't understand, whether because I have not articulated it clearly, or because it is a particularly complex point, or (usually, I think) some combination of the two. If my students come away from my instruction with an enhanced ability to recognize and ask the right kind of questions, I will feel that I have succeeded in my task.

The semester starts up again sooner than I want to admit, and I am not particularly looking forward to returning to the classroom. But when I think of the task before me as the chance to raise and explore important questions with a small group of people who care about pursuing truth and understanding their faith more deeply, some of the excitement starts to return. (Just don't remind me that grading will also be involved.)

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