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Personal Science Week - 02 Mar 2023
Note-taking tips and tools
Personal Scientists use science for personal, rather than professional reasons. This is a weekly summary, delivered each Thursday, with tips and ideas we hope will be helpful to anyone who wants to be a Personal Scientist.
This week we summarize some note-taking suggestions and short thoughts about AI.
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Note-Taking and Personal Science
A good Personal Scientist is a lifelong student, always learning, which inevitably means a constant search for better ways to do things. After all, the type of person who tracks daily step counts will want to track daily output on other things as well.
But there is a danger implicit with being too obsessive about self-improvement: the temptation to let the perfect be the enemy of the good. To that end, here are a few basic suggestions to keep you on your toes.
Before contemplating any Personal Science project, whether it’s tracking something like sleep, or assembling a collection of references and thoughts about a particular subject:
Write stuff down. Anything is better than nothing. Pencil and paper is fine.
Write every single day. Your writing quantity is more important than quality.
Do it yourself. Stuff you generated manually is more valuable than something collected passively or effortlessly through some automated collection system.
Beware of “productivity porn”. It’s easy to waste time mastering some fancy new software package. Don’t fall into that trap. Complicated note-taking systems often aren’t worth the investment in time it will take to master them.
You are the expert of you, and most of the time you should focus on tools you already know. It’s rarely worth it to master a brand new tool just because somebody you respect has raved about it. If you already use Word, or Notepad, or Google Docs, keep using it. The most important rule is to write stuff down.
That said, here are two simple, but practical tools that I use for my own note-taking:
For note-taking and tracking of scientific papers, we discussed the open source Zotero app in Personal Science Week - 22 Sep 2022. The commercial alternative, Mendeley, is good too but not worth the money or lock-in if someday you want to move to another system.
To find useful scientific papers in the first place, I’m finding real value in Elicit. This free web app offers a short AI-generated summary when you search among its 175 Million scientific papers. For example, recently when a friend asked me about the parasitic disease Echinococcosis, I could quickly filter to just the results of randomized controlled trials on the condition performed since 2019
Science and AI
We’re heavy users of ChatGPT and similar technologies which we’ll discuss at more length in future newsletters, but meanwhile consider the thoughts of machine-learning pioneer Michael I. Jordan. In an interview with IEEE Spectrum, Stop Calling Everything AI, he explains why today’s artificial-intelligence systems aren’t actually intelligent:
[W]hen people talk about social science, it sounds appealing, but the term social engineering sounds unappealing. The same holds true for genome science versus genome engineering.
“I think that we’ve allowed the term engineering to become diminished in the intellectual sphere," he says. The term science is used instead of engineering when people wish to refer to visionary research. Phrases such as just engineering don’t help.
“I think that it’s important to recall that for all of the wonderful things science has done for the human species, it really is engineering—civil, electrical, chemical, and other engineering fields—that has most directly and profoundly increased human happiness."
Much of his insights apply to interpretations of Personal Science as well. Maybe what're really practicing should be called “Personal Engineering”?