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December 16, 2008

Does Wisdom Really Come With Age?

Will $2 million dollars worth of research unlock the age-old saying that if you are older you are in fact wiser?

A four-year initiative called Defining Wisdom at the University of Chicago - supported by the Templeton Foundation - hopes to answer the question through the help of 23 scholars.

Definitions of wisdom have varied throughout history, and throughout the scholars interviewed for this story.

A communications scientist says wisdom involves intelligence that is sensitive to the needs of others and makes a good use of judgment. A computer scientist says wisdom involves being able to quickly access information from compressed datasets. While the historian refuses to impose a definition and prefers to draw it out of the historical contexts she studies.

Each scholar is taking a stab at analyzing how wisdom can be understood and measured.  

Barnard College's Deborah Coen says earthquakes, of all things, have offered significant opportunities for society to figure out what constitutes wisdom. She currently studies the history of science and is interested in wisdom as the capacity to navigate the rough waters between technical expertise and what the rest of us know and experience.

Coen's new research focuses on how normal people's observations helped scholars and others make sense of earthquakes during a period from 1857 to 1914. This era was the "hey-day of human observation of earthquakes," Coen said.

Scholars of the time thought it vital to observe earthquakes scientifically, and relied on eyewitnesses to answer questions about an earthquake's duration.

During the same time some thinkers ironically believed that people who experienced earthquakes repeatedly had their rationality destroyed, leaving them incapable of contributing to higher science or culture.

Therefore, a contradiction emerged between common sense and scientific experts who redefined a modern form of wisdom.

Coen pointed out that now lay people are excluded from the scientific process, but in the late 19th century, there was a "moment of opportunity for collaboration, negotiation and communication between experts and lay people. Experts needed lay people's eyes, ears, and hands."

There is no more or less wisdom today about earthquakes than before, but we have missed an opportunity, she said. "We have cut off options for ourselves," Coen said. "The technocratic age has limited the modes of communication between experts and lay people."

Ankur Gupta, a computer scientist at Butler University in Indiana, is trying to quantify wisdom.

His latest project investigates data compression, which is the process that transforms a high-fidelity digital music file and reduces it to a much smaller mp3-format file that you can play on your iPod or other music player. The data has changed but the file still sounds like the original to most listeners.

"The goal is to try to use data compression as a mathematical measure of wisdom," Gupta said.

Gupta's idea would digitize the entire universe or one's perception of it at least, and then study what information is contained in that digital representation.

"The process of data compression is the process of categorizing the information that is there," Gupta said, adding that the wisdom achieved is implicit. "I may not tell you what that wisdom is in an explicit form, but I'll give you a compressed representation of that wisdom. Then I'll allow you to search that compressed representation very quickly."

His project would address the speed of wisdom, and Gupta points to Sherlock Holmes as a metaphor. 

"If you go back and read Sherlock Holmes tales, he does not make every decision in a purely logical way," Gupta said. "He employs some undefined cognitive process along with logic ... Moreover; the value of what he does it would be irrelevant if he gave you the answer 40 years later."

Holmes' genius was partly his ability to access compressed data quickly, one might argue.

"I think the wisdom that I'm talking about isn't as much about human experience but more about how to deal with the massive amount of data that we have available," he said.

"It's a compelling goal to attempt to quantify wisdom in any domain, even if the initial approaches in this project may not be immediately applicable to readers," Gupta said.

A third researcher, Jean Gordon of the University of Iowa, is a communications scientist who has done a lot of work in the past on aphasia. She plans to use the Templeton money to study how our perception of wisdom varies with how others use language and how that relates to age.

She will test 48 subjects using a variety of language measures. She wants to discover if wisdom is in the ear, or really, the mind, of the beholder.

"People's perceptions are very tied up in speakers' competence with language. It's the way that we maintain social connections and maintain our identity," Gordon said.

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