Oxford, England — Matthew Jordan spends most of his days contemplating the past, or rather the lessons that history can teach us about our world today. From the quiet town of Thornhill, Ontario, the curious academic and passionate musician has spent his life connecting the dots between old and new, absorbing the world’s knowledge, and communicating complex concepts in ways that anyone can understand. Now nearly 6000km from home, he’s found himself at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, where he’s received a Masters in experimental psychology and now studies the history and science of human thought, “to understand how the heck anyone ever figured anything out.” Dara Oke, Interact’s Director of Community, caught up with Matthew in December.
DO: Hey Matthew. How would you describe yourself and what you like to do?
MJ: I would typically describe myself as an eclectic and indecisive person who is extremely curious to learn many things in realms that are disparate from each other. I am an enthusiastic deep diver into all of the world’s knowledge, from math and physics to history, philosophy, and psychology. I also spend most of my days playing music.
Simply put, I love learning. But everything I learn is for the purpose of teaching and passing along knowledge to others. I’d feel selfish otherwise.
Where are you from?
I’m from Thornhill, Ontario, a little suburb to the north of Toronto. I grew up attending French Immersion schools and then went to university 45 min away in Hamilton, a town halfway between Toronto and Niagara Falls.
I loved undergrad, I really loved it. I was doing a very interdisciplinary program at McMaster. McMaster has this program called Arts and Science, which might be one of the few truly interdisciplinary liberal arts programs in Canada. It was a very small program and I really got to take advantage of everything it had to offer.
I’m now a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, where I’ve studied experimental psychology and now, the history of science.
Those aren’t typical choices. How did you decide on those fields of study?
I initially planned on studying theoretical physics but switched to psychology my first week in school. I had an emerging interest in psychology because of Steven Pinker, who is one of the greatest science communicators of our age. I admired how he was able to effortlessly weave together difficult ideas in cognitive science, psychology, and philosophy.
My first year at Oxford, I studied psychology as a bridge to focus on the science of science communication. This year, my thesis focuses on the history of artificial intelligence and cognitive science in the 1950s.
How do you balance effective science communication without being reductive?
This is the eternal struggle. If you could say anything is my main focus, it’s this. I’ve been a teacher for much of my life, and I’ve found that in every topic I’m interested in, there’s a way to get it into the listener’s ear in a way that’s engaging.
It’s possible to strike a balance: you don’t need to assume that your audience has that much background information in order to tell them something interesting, concrete and technically rigorous.
Steven Pinker and Douglas Hofstadter are probably the best examples of this. They don’t have what I would call a Bill Nye or Neil deGrasse Tyson approach of saying “science is beautiful, science is amazing” while obfuscating the fact that science is tricky, a human endeavor, and error-prone. Science is a messy enterprise, but you don’t have to forego that to appreciate what’s beautiful about it.
Was this the basis of your first year’s research?
Somewhat. My focus on the science of science communication was more on why some people believe in climate change and others don’t. I wanted to understand why climate change is polarizing, but the pasteurization of milk is not. Essentially, what are the combination of factors that lead some scientific questions to be hotly contested while others are not?
The entire field of nanoscience publishes research without much fanfare, but topics like genetically modified food or nuclear power cause a stir. So, I evaluated the ways certain topics play on our psychological or moral intuitions and how stakeholders have vested interests in sowing seeds of doubt on certain scientific questions.
You attended your first Interact retreat last year. Do you have a favorite memory from that experience?
One thing that stood out to me was that it was my first time being in a community of doers: people who had ideas and then just went ahead and pursued them. I think about this often. As someone who’s always been in the academic realm, where we think about things, criticize, read and read, write and write. We move slowly, and there’s definitely a place in life for that.
Coming to Interact and meeting young people who were starting on this trajectory of doing, who had these big visions and were trying to execute on them, that was very, very inspiring to me.
Everyone comes from extremely diverse backgrounds and interests and it was truly incredible to witness the level of curiosity everyone had for each other and the eagerness to be open and share. In many ways, I felt like an ambassador for academia and my areas of study. I could provide a different lens around topics I love — moral philosophy and psychology.
Is there anything fascinating that you’ve discovered this year?
I’ve been studying about the history of artificial intelligence and have been intrigued by how so much of what was said in the ’50s and ’60s mirrors what we say today. I’ve been pulling up quotes from those decades that are utterly indistinguishable from a lot of the conversations that are happening today. For instance, looking at checkers program in the fifties, and then reading descriptions of AlphaZero, the DeepMind chess and Go engine, if you change a few words here and there, they are relatively indistinguishable.
Learning about these early AI problems gives a massive sense of perspective that we’ve been here before, we’re facing many of the same challenges. But now, we have better tools, better hardware, better infrastructure, better communities.
We’re very prone to ignoring many of the lessons of the past. I think that there’s a lot to learn from history.
Any interesting reads you’d like to recommend?
The best thing I read this year was The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes. The level of historical depth and rigor that Rhodes uses in telling the story of the atomic bomb is fascinating. He places scientists as the protagonists and surrenders nothing in beauty, depth, precision, and grace. It’s truly a miracle of a book. I listened to it by audio read by Grover Gardner who is by far the best narrator out there.
Other books I enjoyed this year are The Beginning of Infinity by David Deutsch and The Lessons of History by Will and Ariel Durant. On the earlier topics of moral psychology and polarizing scientific topics, I’d recommend The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt and Merchants of Doubt by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway.
What’s next for you, after Oxford and Rhodes?
There’s still a lot of in flux, but so far I’m planning on taking a few years off to play music, and I’ll be spending some time at McMaster, teaching courses on math, physics, and the history of science.
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