Noise vs. evil

written on November 18, 2016

I still remember this cold morning of May 2011, 8am, reading over and over these words:


(Durée : 4 heures)

« Le Mal semble saisissable, mais c’est dans la mesure où le Bien en est la clé. Si l’intensité lumineuse du Bien ne donnait sa noirceur à la nuit du Mal, le Mal n’aurait plus son attrait. Cette vérité est difficile. Quelque chose se cabre en celui qui l’entend. »

which, poorly translated to English, would give:

Evil seems seizable, but only to the extend that Good is its key. If the brightness of Good would not bring darkness to the night of Evil, Evil would not lure us. This truth is uneasy. Something rears inside those who understand that.

All across France, 3426 students spent four hours trying to explain and discuss these quote of George Bataille from La Littérature et le Mal (1957). Painful time for me; after one hour I had only written three sentences. Nothing reared up inside me.


Five years after, I came back to these words. Many things have changed, many things have not. Around me, I experienced the terrorist attacks in Boston, Paris, and Brussels. The aftermath. I tried to understand why we’ve lost so much: insouciance, freedom of speech, individual rights.

Populist and xenophobic movements are on the rise. Technology and access to Internet has become cheaper, yet information and science has failed to outmatch hate speech, “fake news”, and science deniers. We have failed to see the Brexit happening. We have failed to predict the Trump election. An election that will likely bring heavy tax cuts, end of social and healthcare programs, a climate disaster, and more censorship.

According to the Pew Research Center, only 50 percents of American believe that “the earth is getting warmer because of human activity”. 57% think Genetically Modified Foods is generally unsafe. 31% think humans and other living things have existed in present form since the beginning of time. More worrisome, many Americans still think than scientists have no clear understanding nor consensus about GM crops, the Big Bang, climate change, and evolution.

As a scientist, I strongly believe in the accumulated knowledge leading to climate change evidence. I know the damage we’ve done to the planet, the consequences on the ecosystem and on the future of humanity. Ruling out what is good and what is bad seems easy, yet it does not bring anything. In 2016, we now have a leading country with an elected President who doesn’t trust science. And an large majority of citizens for who these issues do not matter.

How did we manage to build massive projects such as Wikipedia but failed to address access to information? Why do we get lured by cheap TV channels and obscure websites? Digital voting platforms, online discussion boards, and social media haven’t made us more aware of the world around us. Facebook news feed and its recommendation algorithms are not the cure. These platforms, driven by profit and advertisement, tie us into our own echo chamber.

Seven billion shades of noise

Looking at the world with a scientific eye is beautiful. In limestone cliffs and Romanesco cauliflower, you see the deep infinity of fractals. In human interactions, you see complex networks and stochastic models. Understanding how more than seven billion people communicate, share, and live together is terribly complex yet incredibly beautiful.

When you try to measure signals, such as the frequency of a lightbulb or music on the radio, you don’t always manage to get it correctly. Your instruments measure the frequency blue then red then yellow, the music is distorted, inaudible. That’s noise, random fluctuations in your measurements. If you look at the world and imagine the seven billion people, there is so much noise that it’s hard to understand what they do and where they go.

But we too often think the world is rational, clear and simple. We cheer politicians who promise the impossible, who know what to do without even watching. “Give them a chance” they say, as I remember the words of George Bataille. What do we have to loose?