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2018 Predictions: Calibration Results

At the beginning of every year, I make predictions. At the end of every year, I score them. Here are 2014, 2015, 2016, and 2017.

And here are the predictions I made for 2018. Strikethrough’d are false. Intact are true. Italicized are getting thrown out because I can’t decide if they’re true or not. Please don’t complain that 50% predictions don’t mean anything; I know this is true but there are some things I’m genuinely 50-50 unsure of.

1. Donald Trump remains president at end of year: 95%
2. Democrats take control of the House in midterms: 80%
3. Democrats take control of the Senate in midterms: 50%
4. Mueller’s investigation gets cancelled (eg Trump fires him): 50%
5. Mueller does not indict Trump: 70%
6. PredictIt shows Bernie Sanders having highest chance to be Dem nominee at end of year: 60%
7. PredictIt shows Donald Trump having highest chance to be GOP nominee at end of year: 95%
8. [This was missing in original]
9. Some sort of major immigration reform legislation gets passed: 70%
10. No major health-care reform legislation gets passed: 95%
11. No large-scale deportation of Dreamers: 90%
12. US government shuts down again sometime in 2018: 50%
13. Trump’s approval rating lower than 50% at end of year: 90%
14. …lower than 40%: 50%
15. GLAAD poll suggesting that LGBQ acceptance is down will mostly not be borne out by further research: 80%

16. Dow does not fall more than 10% from max at any point in 2018: 50%
17. Bitcoin is higher than $5,000 at end of year: 95%
18. Bitcoin is higher than $10,000 at end of year: 80%
19. Bitcoin is lower than $20,000 at end of year: 70%
20. Ethereum is lower than Bitcoin at end of year: 95%
21. Luna has a functioning product by end of year: 90%
22. Falcon Heavy first launch not successful: 70%
23. Falcon Heavy eventually launched successfully in 2018: 80%
24. SpaceX does not attempt its lunar tourism mission by end of year: 95%
25. Sci-Hub is still relatively easily accessible from within US at end of year (even typing in IP directly is relatively easy): 95%
26. Nothing particularly bad (beyond the level of an funny/weird news story) happens because of ability to edit videos this year: 90%
27. A member of the general public can ride-share a self-driving car without a human backup driver in at least one US city by the end of the year: 80%

28. Reddit does not ban r/the_donald by the end of the year: 90%
29. None of his enemies manage to find a good way to shut up/discredit Jordan Peterson: 70%

30. SSC gets more hits in 2018 than in 2017: 80%
31. SSC gets mentioned in the New York Times (by someone other than Ross Douthat): 60%
32. At least one post this year gets at least 100,000 hits: 70%
33. A 2019 SSC Survey gets posted by the end of the year: 90%
34. No co-bloggers make 3 or more SSC posts this year: 80%
35. Patreon income less than double current amount at end of year: 90%
36. A scientific paper based on an SSC post is accepted for publication in real journal by end of year: 60%
37. I do an adversarial collaboration with somebody interesting by the end of the year: 50%
38. I successfully do some general project to encourage and post more adversarial collaborations by other people: 70%
39. New SSC meetups system/database thing gets launched successfully: 60%
40. LesserWrong remains active and successful (average at least one halfway-decent post per day) at the end of the year: 50%
41. LesserWrong is declared official and merged with 80%
42. I make fewer than five posts on LessWrong (posts copied over from SSC don’t count): 70%
43. CFAR buys a venue this year: 50%
44. AI Impacts has at least three employees working half-time or more sometime this year: 50%
45. Rationalists get at least one more group house on Ward Street: 50%
46. No improvement in the status of (either transfer to a new team or at least one new feature added): 70%

47. I fail at my New Years’ resolution to waste less time on the Internet throughout most of 2018: 80%
48. I fail at my other New Years’ resolution to try one biohacking project per month throughout 2018: 80%
49. I don’t attend the APA National Meeting: 80%
50. I don’t attend the New York Solstice: 80%
51. I travel outside the US in 2018: 90%
52. I get some sort of financial planning sorted out by end of year: 95%
53. I get at least one article published on a major site like Vox or New Statesman or something: 50%
54. I get a tax refund: 50%
55. I weigh more than 195 lb at year end: 60%
56. I complete the currently visible Duolingo course in Spanish: 90%
57. I don’t get around to editing Unsong (complete at least half the editing by my own estimate) this year: 95%
58. No new housemate for at least one month this year: 90%
59. I won’t [meditate at least one-third of days this year]: 90%
60. I won’t [do my exercise routine at least one third of days this year]: 80%
61. I still live in the same house at the end of 2018: 60%
62. I will not have bought a house by the end of 2018: 90%
63. Katja’s paper gets published: 90%
64. Some other paper of Katja’s gets published: 50%

SECRET: (mostly speculating on the personal lives of friends who read this blog; I don’t necessarily want them to know how successful I expect their financial and romantic endeavors to be. I’ve declassified the ones that now seem harmless to admit.)

65. My partner and I come to a decision about whether to have children: 80%
66. My partner and I are engaged by the end of the year: 70%
67. My partner and I do not break up by the end of the year: 70%
68. [Secret prediction]: 60%
69. [Secret prediction]: 70%
70. [Secret prediction]: 60%
71. [Secret prediction]: 50%
72. [Secret prediction]: 50%
73. [Secret prediction]: 50%
74. [Secret prediction]: 90%
75. [Secret prediction]: 90%
76. [Secret prediction]: 60%
77. [Secret prediction]: 70%
78. [Secret prediction]: 60%
79. [Secret prediction]: 50%
80. [Secret prediction]: 60%
81. I lose my bet against Duncan about Dragon Army Barracks: 80%
82. Dragon Army Barracks is still together at the end of the year: 70%
83. I will visit Greece: 50%
84. I will visit Germany: 70%
85. [Secret prediction]: 70%
86. [Secret prediction]: 70%
87. [Secret prediction]: 60%
88. [Secret prediction]: 50%
89. [Secret prediction]: 50%
90. [Secret prediction]: 70%
91. [Secret prediction]: 90%
92. [Secret prediction]: 50%
93. Still working at my current job at the end of 2018: 90%
94. Working 30 hours/week or less at the end of 2018: 50%
95. Have switched to practicing entirely in the East Bay: 60%
96. [Secret prediction]: 60%
97. Will not finish first section of a difficult calligraphy project: 60%
98. Will not finish all sections of difficult calligraphy project: 95%
99. I will not do work for AI Impacts by the end of the year: 70%
100. I will not finish more than 25% of a new novel: 70%

Calibration chart. The blue line represents perfect calibration, the red line represents my predictions. The closer they are, the better I am doing.

Of 50% predictions, I got 6 right and 16 wrong, for a score of 27%
Of 60% predictions, I got 8 right and 7 wrong, for a score of 53%
Of 70% predictions, I got 14 right and 4 wrong, for a score of 78%
Of 80% predictions, I got 10 right and 3 wrong, for a score of 77%
Of 90% predictions, I got 17 right and 1 wrong, for a score of 94%
Of 95% predictions, I got 6 right and 2 wrong, for a score of 75%

50% predictions are technically meaningless since I could have written them either way – which makes it surprising I managed to get such an imbalance between right and wrong. I think I’m more wrong than should be statistically possible. I’m not sure what to think about that.

After that, things go okay until the 95% level, where I get a very poorly calibrated 75%. This is partly the fault of not having very many 95% predictions this year, but even so I should have done better than this.

Two things happened that screwed with a lot of my predictions. First, cryptocurrency crashed (remember, I made last year’s prediction during the height of the boom, when Bitcoin was around $15,000). I expected it would go down, but not this much. Since I made a lot of predictions about cryptocurrency and all of them were correlated, this went badly. I can hear the ghostly sound of Nassim Nicholas Taleb laughing at me.

The other thing that happened was that my partner unexpectedly broke up with me, changing all of my life plans and precipitating a move to a different house. Again, this was a black swan that affected a lot of correlated predictions. In this case, my move took a lot of money, which meant I didn’t have enough money to be worth investing, which means I didn’t bother doing any fancy financial planning like I had been dead set on doing in January 2018. I’m usually pretty good at following through on important things, so I was 95% sure I would get the financial planning done, but black swan = spend savings = no point in financial planning was something I hadn’t considered.

I’m not sure how to deal with those sorts of correlations here except to not make too many correlated predictions.

I’ll post my 2019 predictions later this week. If you’ve made some of your own, post a link in the comments and I’ll link them along with mine. And while you’re waiting, I also made some predictions last February for the next five years.

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Highlights From The Comments On Kuhn

Thanks to everyone who commented on the review of The Structure Of Scientific Revolutions.

From David Chapman:

It’s important to remember that Kuhn wrote this seven decades ago. It was one of the most influential books of pop philosophy in the 1960s-70s, influencing the counterculture of the time, so it is very much “in the water supply.” Much of what’s right in it is now obvious; what’s wrong is salient. To make sense of the book, you have to understand the state of the philosophy of science before then (logical positivism had just conclusively failed), and since then (there has been a lot of progress since Kuhn, sorting out what he got right and wrong).

The issue of his relativism and attitude to objectivity has been endlessly rehashed. The discussion hasn’t been very productive; it turns out that what “objective” means is more subtle than you’d think, and it’s hard to sort out exactly what Kuhn thought. (And it hasn’t mattered what he thought, for a long time.)

Kuhn’s “Postscript” to the second edition of the book does address this. It’s not super clear, but it’s much clearer than the book itself, and if anyone wants to read the book, I would strongly recommend reading the Postscript as well. Given Scott’s excellent summary, in fact I would suggest *starting* with the Postscript.

The point that Kuhn keeps re-using a handful of atypical examples is an important one (which has been made by many historians and philosophers of science since). In fact, the whole “revolutionary paradigm shift” paradigm seems quite rare outside the examples he cites. And, overall, most sciences work quite differently from fundamental physics. The major advance in meta-science from about 1980 to 2000, imo, was realizing that molecular biology, e.g., works so differently from fundamental physics that trying to subsume both under one theory of science is infeasible.

I’m interested to hear him say more about that last sentence if he wants.

Kaj Sotala quotes Steven Horst quoting Thomas Kuhn on what he means by facts not existing independently of paradigms:

[Kuhn wrote that]:

A historian reading an out-of-date scientific text characteristically encounters passages that make no sense. That is an experience I have had repeatedly whether my subject is an Aristotle, a Newton, a Volta, a Bohr, or a Planck. It has been standard to ignore such passages or to dismiss them as products of error, ignorance, or superstition, and that response is occasionally appropriate. More often, however, sympathetic contemplation of the troublesome passages suggests a different diagnosis. The apparent textual anomalies are artifacts, products of misreading.

For lack of an alternative, the historian has been understanding words and phrases in the text as he or she would if they had occurred in contemporary discourse. Through much of the text that way of reading proceeds without difficulty; most terms in the historian’s vocabulary are still used as they were by the author of the text. But some sets of interrelated terms are not, and it is [the] failure to isolate those terms and to discover how they were used that has permitted the passages in question to seem anomalous. Apparent anomaly is thus ordinarily evidence of the need for local adjustment of the lexicon, and it often provides clues to the nature of that adjustment as well. An important clue to problems in reading Aristotle’s physics is provided by the discovery that the term translated ‘motion’ in his text refers not simply to change of position but to all changes characterized by two end points. Similar difficulties in reading Planck’s early papers begin to dissolve with the discovery that, for Planck before 1907, ‘the energy element hv’ referred, not to a physically indivisible atom of energy (later to be called ‘the energy quantum’) but to a mental subdivision of the energy continuum, any point on which could be physically occupied.

These examples all turn out to involve more than mere changes in the use of terms, thus illustrating what I had in mind years ago when speaking of the “incommensurability” of successive scientific theories. In its original mathematical use ‘incommensurability’ meant “no common measure,” for example of the hypotenuse and side of an isosceles right triangle. Applied to a pair of theories in the same historical line, the term meant that there was no common language into which both could be fully translated. (Kuhn 1989/2000, 9–10)

While scientific theories employ terms used more generally in ordinary language, and the same term may appear in multiple theories, key theoretical terminology is proprietary to the theory and cannot be understood apart from it. To learn a new theory, one must master the terminology as a whole: “Many of the referring terms of at least scientific languages cannot be acquired or defined one at a time but must instead be learned in clusters” (Kuhn 1983/2000, 211). And as the meanings of the terms and the connections between them differ from theory to theory, a statement from one theory may literally be nonsensical in the framework of another. The Newtonian notions of absolute space and of mass that is independent of velocity, for example, are nonsensical within the context of relativistic mechanics. The different theoretical vocabularies are also tied to different theoretical taxonomies of objects. Ptolemy’s theory classified the sun as a planet, defined as something that orbits the Earth, whereas Copernicus’s theory classified the sun as a star and planets as things that orbit stars, hence making the Earth a planet. Moreover, not only does the classificatory vocabulary of a theory come as an ensemble—with different elements in nonoverlapping contrast classes—but it is also interdefined with the laws of the theory. The tight constitutive interconnections within scientific theories between terms and other terms, and between terms and laws, have the important consequence that any change in terms or laws ramifies to constitute changes in meanings of terms and the law or laws involved with the theory (though, in significant contrast with Quinean holism, it need not ramify to constitute changes in meaning, belief, or inferential commitments outside the boundaries of the theory).

While Kuhn’s initial interest was in revolutionary changes in theories about what is in a broader sense a single phenomenon (e.g., changes in theories of gravitation, thermodynamics, or astronomy), he later came to realize that similar considerations could be applied to differences in uses of theoretical terms between contemporary subdisciplines in a science (1983/2000, 238). And while he continued to favor a linguistic analogy for talking about conceptual change and incommensurability, he moved from speaking about moving between theories as “translation” to a “bilingualism” that afforded multiple resources for understanding the world—a change that is particularly important when considering differences in terms as used in different subdisciplines.

Syrrim offers a really neat information theoretic account of predictive coding:

Suppose you have an alphabet composed of 27 letters (the familiar 26 plus a space). You are interested in encoding it in binary for transmission. Of course you want to use as few bits as possible. How might you go about doing this? The first suggestion would be to assign each letter a bit patter of equal length. In this case, your transmission will take 4.76 bits each. You realize that in english some letters occur much more frequently than others, and to devote the same number of bits to each is wasteful. You find a table recording letter frequencies in common english texts, and reassign the bit patterns to give shorter values to more common letters. In this way, you reduce the number of bits needed to 4.03 per letter on average. Next you realize that some letters are followed by others even more commonly than they appear in normal text. Encoding the bit patterns based not only on the letter in question, but also the previous one reduces your usage to 3.32 bits per letter.

Now we play a game. A person is asked to guess what the current letter is. We tell them if they got it right or wrong. The right answer advances the current letter. They might initially guess the letter ‘t’. If they are right, they might further guess ‘h’. Getting that wrong, they could try ‘a’, and so on. The answer to each question, being yes or no, encodes a single bit. We record how many questions they ask over some long text, and therefore find the number of bits per letter to be 1.93.

(This example derived from Science and Information Theory by Leon Brillouin)

In this latter game, we ask the participants to guess (predict) what a letter is, and therefore define an encoding (coding) for each letter. The method by which a person performs this prediction is twofold. First, they have some idea what the text is saying, and therefore what it will say next. Second, every time they receive a negative response, they realize the text is saying something slightly different than they guessed, and so change their prediction for future letters.

The use of bits highlights an important practical application of all this. When you see some text as I am writing here, you see 4.76 bits for every letter (more, because of capitalization and punctuation and what not). And yet you require only 1.93 bits in order to know what is being said. The extra 2.83 bits take the form of redundancy. If I made some spelling error, or you read what I said particularly quickly, you might miss one of the letters I intended to convey. Yet because you have so many extra unnecessary bits, you can recover what is lost. This is done the similarly to how it was done in our game. As you read, you expect some letter to come next. When you encounter a slightly unexpected letter, you would update your expectation to account for it. When you encounter a completely unexpected letter, you might ignore it and continue as if your expectation was met.

To tie into the card example. A playing card contains log2(52) = 5.7 bits of information. If you are flashed a playing card very quickly, you might only have enough time to get 5.7 bits of information out of it. In this case, you would be forced to assume it is a playing card. If you have more time to look at it, you might be able to extract more bits, but even then, you might so heavily expect a playing card, that you ignore other possibilities.

Going back to the game: A person is allowed to ask which letter is next. But what makes the answer a single bit doesn’t depend on the nature of the question, only the binary nature of the answer. We could permit any yes or no question and still count bits by the number of questions. We then get into the interesting game of what question to ask. If someone had no clue what letter would follow, and wanted to determine it as quickly as possible, they might ask if it appeared in a particular half of the possible letters or the other. Or if they feel sufficiently confident in their guess, they might guess two or more letters at a time. (Brillouin points out the value 1.93 for the number of bits per letter must be too high because we force the player to ask for the letter even when it is obvious)

Now the playing card. You ask: “is it red or no?”, (no), “is it spades or no?”, (no). The prevailing paradigm implies that you now have complete information on the suit. “then it must be clubs?” (no). Once you realize that these are fake playing cards, you ask about the color and the suit independently. One could do a treatment of paradigms in science in a similar way: “is it a particle?” (yes) “then it isn’t a wave?” (no). “wait what?”…

Michael Watts writes:

I find [the quote about dormitive potency] very interesting, because the paradigm everyone mocks (according to this) is the same paradigm current in medicine today.

Years ago, I started to have a problem with the skin on my fingertips peeling off. This got to the point where I consulted a doctor, and he told me “we call this desquamation, which means “it’s peeling”. We don’t know why, and there’s nothing you can do about it.” Eventually, it cleared up by itself. We don’t know why.

There’s an old joke among doctors (at least I hope it’s a joke) that if you don’t know what a patient has, you just repeat their symptoms back to them in Greek or Latin:

“I get headaches at night and I don’t know why.”

“You have idiopathic nocturnal cephalgia.”

“Wow, you figured that out so quickly! Modern medicine really is amazing!”

JP corrects some of my terminology:

It would be better to distinguish more clearly between schools and paradigms. Copernican astronomy, Newtonian mechanics and Predictive Coding are all schools. Only the former two were paradigms; that is, largely unchallenged and generally accepted. In the non- or prescientific stage medicine, psychology, … are currently in, there’s plenty of competing schools, and therefore no paradigm. What is required is an exemplar that sets the stage for a consolidation: a paradigmatic, i.e. paradigm-building, explanation for a phenomenon, after which everyone models their own explanations from hereon. For example (my example, not Kuhn’s), Darwin proposed a particular explanation for how the birds he found on the Galapagos islands got to have their beaks. Since then, a story about how something is in biology counts as an answer if and only if it has the same form as Darwin’s explanation.

Constructing such explanations following the form of the exemplar is the process of Normal Science, which a truly scientific discipline is mostly engaged in: solving puzzles. That sounds dismissive, but solving a puzzle might be as interesting as explaining how birds came about – not just on Galapagos, but in general – that is, they’re dinosaurs. Exciting!

I think the summary is also light on some of what Kuhn in particular was most interested in: in particular, incommensurability. Yes, Kuhn did indeed claim that we can make statements about the falsity of something only from within a certain paradigm (or school). Now Kuhn has plenty of inventory for talking about how a particular school might be thoroughly useless (i.e., it can be inconsistent and utterly fruitless) , but “empirically false from an objective, out-of-paradigm point of view” is not amongst them. In fact, it is inherent especially to a science following the highest standards that it is deeply embedded in one particular worldview, or one might say, ideology.

From John Nerst:

Kuhn gets overinterpreted a lot by people who like to push various species of relativism. As I see it, such overinterpretaton results from taking conclusions that only apply cleanly in the limit case and generalizing them to the whole domain. In this view the parts of a paradigm are all precisely dependent on each other for meaning to such an extent that if a paradigm is only somewhat different from another it is completely different and therefore not comparable at all and the distance between them is not meaningfully traversable. Paradigms are internally integrated and coherent, and insulated from each other. You have to pick one because it’s impossible to mix them, and outside of a particular paradigm a concept means nothing at all. In or out.

Real science isn’t like this, and therefore conclusions that follow from this don’t necessarily apply. Kuhn uses examples that suggest it, but as many have said since then he kind of cherry picks and generalizing the pattern and using it to draw far-reaching and radical conclusions of science as a whole is, well, an overinterpretation.

In real life concepts are both a bit vague and meaningfully more-or-less different (instead of just “the same” or “different”, full stop) in a way that makes it possible and in fact common to compare paradigms and pieces of paradigms (pieces that can be moved around without losing all of their meaning). This is because what we have are typically paradigm-like structures that overlap partially and are at least somewhat reconcilable. This is pretty true in the physical sciences and very true in the social sciences.

The ideas in TSOSR are valuable not because they describe science perfectly but because they work as a corrective to the prevailing view at the time. It’s one pole, and adding it to what we already had creates a new space (a spectrum where there used to be a point) which is great, but it’s important to remember that the new pole isn’t the whole space. To understand science you need both that side of the story and the fact-gathering/positivist/naive inductivist/whatever one. Generalizing only that facet gets you to the wrong place just as much as generalizing only the logical positivist side (or the falsificationist one if you want to get all multidimensional) does.

Virgil Kurkjian gives some eamples of Kuhn explaining how words have different meanings across paradigms:

Revolutionary changes are different and far more problematic. They involve discoveries that cannot be accommodated within the concepts in use before they were made. In order to make or to assimilate such a discovery one must alter the way one thinks about and describes some range of natural phenomena. The discovery (in cases like these “invention” may be a better word) of Newton’s second law of motion is of this sort. The concepts of force and mass deployed in that law differed from those in use before the law was introduced, and the law itself was essential to their definition. A second, fuller, but more simplistic example is provided by the transition from Ptolemaic to Copernican astronomy. Before it occurred, the sun and moon were planets, the earth was not. After it, the earth was a planet, like Mars and Jupiter; the sun was a star; and the moon was a new sort of body, a satellite. Changes of that sort were not simply corrections of individual mistakes embedded in the Ptolemaic system. Like the transition to Newton’s laws of motion, they involved not only changes in laws of nature but also changes in the criteria by which some terms in those laws attached to nature […]

One brief illustration of specialization’s effect may give this whole series of points additional force. An investigator who hoped to learn something about what scientists took the atomic theory to be asked a distinguished physicist and an eminent chemist whether a single atom of helium was or was not a molecule. Both answered without hesitation, but their answers were not the same. For the chemist the atom of helium was a molecule because it behaved like one with respect to the kinetic theory of gases. For the physicist, on the other hand, the helium atom was not a molecule because it displayed no molecular spectrum. Presumably both men were talking of the same particle, but they were viewing it through their own research training and practice. Their experience in problem-solving told them what a molecule must be. Undoubtedly their experiences had had much in common, but they did not, in this case, tell the two specialists the same thing. As we proceed we shall discover how consequential paradigm differences of this sort can occasionally be.

John Schilling notes that I left out part of the story in my explanation of Copernicanism and stellar parallax. The problem wasn’t just that the medievals assumed the stars were close. It was that they appeared to be discs rather than points, which ought to imply close proximity.

absence of parallax isn’t a “glaring flaw” in Copernican theory; it’s only the combination of immeasurably small parallax and large apparent diameter of the fixed stars that is a glaring flaw. A finite diameter implies a finite distance, particularly with the reasonable assumption that stars are the same class of object as the Sun, and the stellar diameters measured by 16th and 17th-century observers corresponded to distances incompatible with the parallax measurements of those observers.

This discrepancy could be resolved by better parallax measurements, or by better measurements of stellar diameter. And in fact, it was in 1720 that Halley used stellar occultation to show that the observed disks were optical anomalies and stellar angular diameter was immeasurably small – thus stars were immeasurably distant and could have immeasurably small parallax.

As you note, it was not long after this (but see also James Bradley and aberration) that the Tychonic model was finally done away with and the Heliocentric model became dominant.

Frog-Like Sensations writes:

It’s natural to find Kuhn’s metaphysics unclear since he was completely unclear about his metaphysics in Structure, and he spent much of the remainder of his career attempting to get clearer on it. Here’s one of the last things he wrote about this:

By now it may be clear that the position I’m developing is a sort of post-Darwinian Kantianism…Underlying all these processes of differentiation and change, there must, of course, be something permanent, fixed, and stable. But, like Kant’s Ding an sich, it is ineffable, undescribable, undiscussible. Located outside of space and time, this Kantian source of stability is the whole from which have been fabricated both creatures and their niches, both the “internal” and the “external” worlds. Experience and description are possible only with the described and describer separated, and the lexical structure which marks that separation can do so in different ways, each resulting in a different, though never wholly different, form of life. Some ways are better suited to some purposes, some to others. But none is to be accepted as true or rejected as false; none gives privileged access to a real, as against an invented, world. The ways of being-in-the-world which a lexicon provides are not candidates for true/false. (“The Road Since Structure”, 12)

Now, you may wonder how you can possibly make something clearer by saying it is a form of Kantianism, and as a non-Kant-scholar, I understand the feeling. But here’s my best stab at what’s going on here.

The most distinctive feature of Kant’s metaphysics is that he claims that a large number of things that are ordinarily claimed to be features of mind-independent reality — that is, of the world as it is in itself as opposed to how it is as represented by minds — are actually features of how our minds must represent the world. This includes both the obvious things, like color, and some really surprising things, like causality and the nature of space and time. So things in themselves do not enter into causal relations or exist in space and time, but they still exist and ultimately ground the nature of the world as it appears to us.

Kant’s view is not relativistic because (1) he thinks that the particular facts that are part of the world of appearance are (non-causally) determined by the nature of mind independent things (the “Ding an sich” mentioned above), and (2) he thinks that all minds impose the same kind of structure on the world (e.g., causal and with space and time).

Kuhn’s proposal is to reject the second claim. Instead of minds all imposing the same type of structure on the world, Kuhn suggests that changing paradigms can impose their respective structures on the world. There is still a mind-indpendent reality that in some way determines how things appear to us and also constrains how successful a given paradigm can be. But all the things that differ between paradigms concern only the features of our representation of reality. Mind-independent reality does not contain any of the relevant properties and so does not settle things one way or another, except insofar as it somehow renders one paradigm more useful than another at solving particular puzzles.

Anyway, I don’t find this view particularly appealing, but it’s the most coherent thing I’ve managed to get out of Kuhn.

I have to admit I have some of the same confusions about Kant as I do about Kuhn. I understand Kant as saying that because we see the world through the mediating influence of our mind, we can never know anything about true reality.

I agree that we see the world through mediating influences, but I’m not sure how far he wants to go with the “never know anything about true reality” piece. For example, I believe I have a car. Can I say with some confidence that true reality contains an object corresponding to my car? That it really and truly has four wheels? That its gas tank is half full? That its interaction with my sense organs explains why I so consistently get such nicely-structured car-related sense-data?

Sure, you can say something boring like “wheels are a social construct, really there are just rubber molecules in a cylindrical pattern”, or even “rubber molecules and shapes are both social constructs, in reality there’s only blobs of quantum amplitude on a holographic boundary entity”, or even “in reality there’s something as far beyond quantum amplitude blobs as quantum amplitude blobs are beyond wheels”. But you can say this kind of thing without Kant, and we just shrug it off as “Yeah, on one level that’s true, but I’m right about the wheels too.” Does Kant have anything to add to this?

One nice thing about the subreddit’s karma system is that it makes it easier for me to figure out who to highlight here. The top-voted comment was by ArgumentumAdLapidem:

This book is near and dear to my heart. As a young ArgumentumAdLapidem, a undergraduate physics major, I was really feeling my oats, and taking some upper-level history classes, just to prove I could do it. For some reason, some poor post-doc was assigned to do recitations, and got me, and I was STEMlording, as young STEMlords are wont to do. He gave me Kuhn to read. I read it, then bought it, then read it again. I had the same conclusion as SSC’s initial premise: this book is a fairly trivial description of the history of science. Lots of dirty laundry, to be sure, but nothing earth-shattering. He, of course, disagreed, and thought the book decisively proved that science was dethroned as the one-true-pursuit-of-Truth. Sadly, this story ends here, there was never a meeting of the minds. Reality intervened, there were finals to study for, and a wildly-overambitious lab project to complete.

But I still have that book. Actually, I have two copies, as someone else, unbidden, gave me a copy as well. Apparently history-of-science grads and philosophy-of-science grads hand them out to physics grads like garlic to vampires. (I readily admit, this might be a commentary on my former and/or current arrogance.) Over the years, I’ve thought about how I would have had that conversation differently. Here’s the current iteration:

To build a skyscraper, we need a foundation. The ultimate weight, volume, and height of the skyscraper is limited by the strength and soundness of the foundation. Science operates in a similar manner … the scope, accuracy, and detail of the scientific project is ultimately limited by the fundamental soundness of the model. The overall history of science, then, is the successive abandonment of one skyscraper for a bigger and better one, one with a stronger foundation, which allows the tower to reach greater heights.

But the devil is in the details, and Kuhn lays them out.

— There are people who have corner offices in the old skyscraper who don’t want to leave. They like their social status in this building, and they discourage (or punish) people who leave the building. They belittle people trying to build a new one.

— It’s not obvious, when the new foundation is being laid, that it will be any better or stronger than the existing one. You have to build the skyscraper (run the experiments) to find out.

— There are a lot of abandoned foundations laying around. They developed cracks, were built on unsuitable ground, or were otherwise deficient in some way that wasn’t discovered until they actually tried to build something on top of it. Most new scientific models fail. There are fads – some hot new model will attract a lot of attention, but begins to fade when it doesn’t show results. The scions of the current building can point to all the failure around them and confidently predict this new attempt will fail as well.

— As the skyscraper is being built, it’s not a smooth process. There will be mistakes and partial rebuilds. Most of the the time, the new building will be a piecemeal framework of exposed structural beams, and will spend most of its time being shorter and less comfortable than the old building. The corner offices of the old building will look out their windows, see a tangle of metal and sweat in the construction site below them, and chuckle at their naive enthusiasm.

— The old building does still grow. There are remodels, things get slicker, more polished, expansions are added, maybe another floor is added. But the foundation can still only take so much, and can only be reinforced to a certain extent. Epicycles.

— The new building has new problems the old building didn’t have. The fire suppression system needs more powerful pumps to push water to ever higher floors. The doorman who just knew everybody has been replaced by a keycard authentication system that is confusing and annoying. These look like flaws to people in the old building, rather than the necessary scaffolding for a bigger, better building. The flat-earther model “Earth must be flat because look how far I can see”, which is simple, must be replaced with the more powerful “Earth is round, and, in a vacuum, you wouldn’t be able to see that far, but we must account for atmospheric refraction, here’s some corrections.” Annoying. But it isn’t just replacing one problem for another. The old problem was a fundamentally-limiting contradiction in the basic model that couldn’t be solved without scrapping the model. The new problem might be solvable. You won’t know until you try. You have to build the building to know.

— There’s a perception problem. The old building holds the height (truth) record basically until the new building reaches the height of the old one. Then the record goes to the new building, and the perception shifts – if you want to be in the game, you got to be in the new building. Some observer, watching the endless parade of people suddenly moving their boxes to the new building, concludes this is all just fad-chasing, like socialites flocking to the hottest club. They’re just doing whatever is popular with the other scientists.

So yes, all this is true. But, after all those failed attempts, all that drama, all that sneering and popularity-games, the skyscrapers still do get taller. As SSC notes, Kuhn barely admits this, in a whisper, on the last page. It is no wonder then, that this book has been used to represent claims far beyond what Kuhn actually claims.

And MoreDonuts on Kuhn vs. Popper:

The other simplistic view [Kuhn] was arguing against was Popper’s notion of falsification. In fact, falsification was the legal precedent for the definition of science at the time, in spite of the fact that philosophers of science never considered it very seriously.

Kuhn’s view also answers the question of why falsification has always been popular among scientists on the ground. When a field is performing “normal science” under a particular paradigm, the acceptance of particular facts or pieces of theory largely does resemble falsification: either the new proposal fits the evidence under the paradigm, or it does not. Kuhn (and Feyerabend) show how this simplistic model falls apart when comparing between paradigms, because there is no way to agree upon what constitutes falsification.

Philosophy of science is controversial because the core conclusion is largely unavoidable: “science” is simply a set of human institutions. There is no hard philosophical grounding for scientific truth. This was an unpopular conclusion historically because Christians were still trying to push Creationism, and progressives needed some argument for why scientific institutions were right and Christian institutions were wrong (the real answer, unironically: our people are smarter and less biased).

A couple of people commented that Kuhn was overstating things because Einstein just expanded upon Newton – a friendly amendment, if you will. Kingshorsey explains (using similar arguments to Kuhn himself) why this isn’t quite right:

I think there are two important lessons to take away from Kuhn: 1) the gap between our ability to model phenomena and our ability to explain those phenomena can be uncomfortably large; and 2) the perceived amount of empirical advantage provided by a new paradigm is not necessarily commensurate with the amount of conceptual adjustment its adoption will require.

A user on the SSC site said that the move from Newtonian to Einsteinian physics is more of a paradigm shuffle than a paradigm shift, because Newtonian equations still work perfectly well for all kinds of calculations. To reframe this user’s statement in terms of point 2, this user thinks that because Einstein’s calculations empirically differ from Newton’s in only certain restricted cases, Einstein’s paradigmatic/theoretical challenge to Newton must be similarly small.

But that’s taking an unreasonably narrow view of what constitutes Newtonianism and Einsteinianism. Neither Newton nor Einstein produced equations in a conceptual vacuum. Rather, both embedded them within a cosmology that rendered them intelligible.

To Newton, space was absolute and yet non-substantive, just the distance between objects. Time was uniform and absolute. Gravity operated instantaneously apart from mediation. Newton believed that these cosmological assertions were necessary for his physics, and that in turn his physics supported these cosmological assertions.

When Einstein comes along, he overturns everything Newton thought about the nature of the universe. Space and time are no longer to be regarded as merely formal properties “within” which things move. Time is relative, space and time are intertwined, and space-time is the very “thing” of which gravity consists.

If we accept both that Einstein’s cosmology is better and that Newton’s math is still pretty good (rather than junk science), we are left with an uncomfortable conclusion. Newton’s degree of success at modeling phenomena in motion did not correlate strongly with his degree of success at explaining the structures or characteristics of reality responsible for that phenomena.

This in turn should lead us to question how much the success of Einstein’s math really supports the cosmology that is bound up with it. After all, what’s to stop a future physicist from saying, “Thanks for these equations, Einstein, I’ll use them where I can, but it’s a shame your model of reality was all wrong”?

And that’s why Kuhn is interesting, and comforting, and frightening. The conservation of certain observations through paradigm shifts forces us to reckon with the possibility that our own scientific successes may one day find a home in a model of reality entirely other than what we imagine now.

Jadagul has a whole blog post worth of comment.

And SpinyStellate doesn’t have much to say about the book, but recommends to us their project SciDash, “rigorous, reproducible, extensible, data-driven model validation [and visualization] for science”. I haven’t looked at it enough to entirely get what’s going on, but at least check it out for its cool visualization of geocentrism vs. heliocentrism (complete with p-values)!

Kernel Of Doubt: Testing Math Preference Vs. Corn-Eating Style

In 2010, Ben Tilly of the blog Random Observations wrote Analysis Vs. Algebra Predicts Eating Corn?, which said:

I like learning about odd connections between disparate things. This probably is the oddest example that I know.

Broadly speaking, mathematicians can be divided into those who like analysis, and those who like algebra. The distinction between the two types runs throughout math. Even those who work in areas that are far from analysis or algebra are very aware of the difference between them, and usually are very clear on which their preference is. I’ll delve into this in more depth soon, but for now let’s just take it for granted that this is a well-known distinction, and it has meaning for mathematicians.

Back when I was in grad school there was a department lunch with corn on the cob. Partway through the meal one of the analysts looked around the room and remarked, “That’s odd, all of the analysts are eating corn one way and the algebraists are eating corn another!” Everyone looked around. In fact everyone was eating the corn in one of two ways. One way was to munch over the length of the corn in a straight line, back up, turn slightly, and do another row across. Kind of like how an old typewriter goes. The other way was to go around in a spiral. All of the analysts were eating in spirals, and the algebraists in rows.

There were a number of mathematicians present whose fields of study didn’t make it clear whether they were on the analysis or algebra side of things. We went around and asked, and in every case the way they ate corn matched their preference. Since then I’ve made a point of amusing myself by asking mathematicians I meet whether they prefer algebra or analysis, and then predicting which way they will eat corn. I’m probably up to 40 or so by now, and in every case but one I’ve been able to correctly predict how they eat corn. The one exception was a logician who claimed to be exactly on the fence between the two. When I explained the corn thing to him he looked surprised, and said that he had an unusual way of eating corn. He went in loose spirals! In other words he truly was a perfect combination of algebra and analysis!

If you have even a passing familiarity of probability, it is clear that despite how unbelievable it initially is that the type of mathematics you prefer is connected to how you eat corn, it is pretty much certain that there actually is a very strong connection. If you believe, as I do, that this difference is connected to how we think about other things, then there must be some odd connection between how we like to understand the world and how we eat corn.

The post later went viral on Hacker News, r/math, and Twitter; it was even the subject of a keynote speech at a math conference.

I couldn’t find any record of it being formally tested, so I included two relevant questions in the 2019 Slate Star Codex reader survey:

These were separated by three unrelated questions, so that most participants would not realize that they were meant to be connected. An informal survey of participants suggested that although some of them had read the Tilly article and realized that the survey was testing it, most did not.

8,171 people answered the survey, of whom 2,683 expressed both a math preference and a corn preference. Here’s what I found:

A chi-square test confirmed that there was no significant difference between the two groups.

Is it possible that participants were not mathematically advanced enough to understand the question? Beginner math students could have interpreted “algebra” to mean the sort of high school algebra where you solve for x if x+1=5, and “analysis” to mean analyzing difficult problems. In order to prevent this, I ran the test again, limiting it to people with PhDs in Math (Degree = “Ph D.” & Profession = “Mathematics”). Here are the results:

Again, chi-square test confirmed there was no significant difference between the two groups (and notice also that the non-significant trend is in the opposite of the predicted direction).

Why might my results be so different from Tilly’s? I found a discussion of this question on Quora, where Daniel McLaury gives an answer that rings true to me:

Now, for the only data point I have: I am decidedly an algebraist and not an analyst, and as best as I can recall I might eat corn in either of these ways, or in a combination of both ways, on any given day. I would imagine the same is true of most people.

As to why he gets such consistent answers, I’ll note that when I read the assertion “algebraists do this, analysts do that,” I thought, “Oh, yes, I do eat corn that way.” After thinking a bit more carefully, making the interpretation I describe in the second paragraph, and then envisioning eating corn each way, it became clear to me that I’ve eaten corn both ways. So I imagine this whole thing is some combination of the power of suggestion and, perhaps, a selective memory on the part of the author.

But do some people genuinely eat corn more one way or the other? If so, what determines this? I analyzed this question by gender, race, ethnicity, subethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, social class, neurotype, and political affiliation (I love this dataset so much). I’m not going to do this rigorously because there are too many comparisons and it’s not worth it, but just eyeballing things it looks like eating-in-rows came to America with the earliest English colonists, and eating-in-spirals is more common among more recent immigrant groups, especially Hindu Indians. I don’t have great data for most countries, but the few European countries where I have a decent sample size seem somewhere in between.

I would make a joke about Western linear thinking vs. Eastern cyclic thinking, but I’m worried someone would take me seriously. I have no good explanation for why these groups eat corn the way they do, or why there’s so much variability even within them.

If you want to confirm or expand these results, you can download the original dataset at the bottom of this post.

[EDIT: A commenter brings up this previous investigation, which also finds no effect.]

Too Many People Dare Call It Conspiracy

[Content warning: References to anti-Semitic and anti-Catholic canards]

I feel deep affection for Gary Allen’s None Dare Call It Conspiracy, a bizarre screed about the Federal Reserve/Communist/Trilateral Commission plot for a one world government. From its ridiculous title to its even-more-ridiculous cover image, this is a book that accepts its own nature. In the Aristotelian framework, where everything is trying to be the most perfect example of whatever it is, None Dare Call It Conspiracy has reached a certain apotheosis.

But my problem is the opposite of Allen’s. Too many people dare call too many things conspiracy. Perfectly reasonable hypotheses get attacked as conspiracy theories, derailing the discussion into arguments over when you’re allowed to use the phrase. These arguments are surprisingly tough. Which of the following do you think should be classified as “conspiracy theories”? Which ones are so deranged that people espousing them should be excluded from civilized discussion?

1. Donald Trump and his advisors secretly met with Russian agents to discuss how to throw the 2016 election in his favor.

2. Donald Trump didn’t collaborate with any Russians, but Democrats are working together to convince everyone that he did, in the hopes of getting him indicted or convincing the electorate that he’s a traitor.

3. Insurance companies are working to sabotage any proposal for universal health care; if not for their constant machinations, we would have universal health care already.

4. The ruling classes constantly use lobbyists and soft power to sabotage tax increases, labor laws, and any other policy that increase the relative power of the poor.

5. America’s aid to Israel is not in America’s best interest, but is maintained through the power of AIPAC and other pro-Israel groups mainly supported by America’s Jewish community.

6. The Jews are behind Brexit as a plot to weaken Western Europe.

7. Climate scientists routinely exaggerate or massage their studies to get the results they want, or only publish studies that get the results they want, both because of their personal political leanings and because they know it is good for their field to constantly be discovering exciting things that their funders and their supporters among the public want to hear.

8. As above, except with replace climate science with “race science”, with “power posing“, with “the side effects of some drug that earns a pharma company a lot of money”, or your own favorite example.

9. When European trains get bombed, with leaflets distributed near the scene repeating jihadist propaganda, it’s actually a false flag by a rightist trying to discredit Islam.

10. When several prominent Trump critics receive bombs in the mail, it’s actually a “false flag operation” by a leftist trying to discredit Trumpism.

11. Bernie Sanders’ whole campaign is a “false flag operation” by capitalists who are trying to prevent other socialists from entering the race; if Sanders ever shows any signs of winning, he will withdraw under mysterious circumstances.

12. The entire Democratic Socialist movement in America is a “false flag operation” by the CIA, intended to create a wishy-washy Americanized form of socialism that sucks the oxygen away from more aggressive Soviet-style Marxism.

13. The CIA has fixed elections in dozens of foreign countries over the past seventy years or so.

14. The CIA is plotting to fix the 2020 US elections.

15. The Catholic Church spent decades covering up the extent of sexual abuse by its priests.

16. A UFO cult has taken over the government and is using it as a base through which to carry out the designs of its extraterrestrial masters.

17. The patriarchy privileges men over women in a variety of ways, excludes women from positions of influence, and suppresses their efforts to win equality.

18. The Bilderberg Meeting secretly plots ways to create a one-world government.


The Basic Argument Against Conspiracy Theories goes: “You can’t run a big organization in secret without any outsiders noticing or any insiders blowing the whistle.” If we keep this in mind, I think we can resolve some of the awkward tensions above.

For example, the CIA definitely has fixed elections in foreign countries. Is this a conspiracy theory? No. The CIA is not secret. Everyone knows the CIA exists and does nefarious things, even if we don’t know exactly which nefarious things it does. There is no need to keep the CIA secret. It can advertise in public “Wanted: people who are good at doing nefarious things”. And if somebody whistleblows, they will not receive the thanks of a grateful country. They’ll probably just be arrested for leaking classified information, while everybody snoozes. “CIA discovered to have fixed Gabonese elections” is probably a page 5 story at best.

I think “The CIA is plotting to fix the 2020 US elections” is a conspiracy theory, with all the unlikeliness that implies. Although the CIA exists openly, fixing US elections would take a powerful conspiracy within the CIA. You would have to hide it from the idealistic young recruits who come in hoping to make the world safe for democracy. You would have to convince all the other CIA agents to hide it from Congress, from the other intelligence services, and from any CIA agent who wasn’t on board. And a whistleblower really would receive the thanks of a grateful country. Although the CIA gets the advantage of existing publicly, the intra-CIA conspiracy to fix elections doesn’t, and so the Basic Argument strikes it down.

(The CIA does work on lots of things the public wouldn’t approve of, like MKULTRA. But the bigger and more controversial they are, the more likely they are to get leaked, which I think supports this theory. At some point the CIA recruits start saying “This isn’t what we signed up for”, and then the usual conspiracy dynamics apply.)

During the 1960s, the CIA sponsored various socialist magazines and organizations with exactly this justification – better direct the sort of people who would be socialist anyway to moderate socialism instead of more violent or Soviet-aligned groups. So why dismiss that they’re behind the modern Democratic Socialists, or Bernie Sanders? As far as I can tell, no reason except the end of the Cold War decreasing their motives, plus it seems like too big a deal to pull off secretly.

Keeping the Basic Argument in mind also helps understand Jews supporting Israel, insurance companies opposing universal health care, scientists sticking to various flawed paradigms, the patriarchy suppressing women, and elites controlling the government. None of these are conspiracy theories, because they’re all obviously in the self-interest of the group involved, so each member can individually decide to do it. That removes the need for the secret coordinating organization, which is the part it’s hard to hide. This means we can dismiss “the Jews caused Brexit” as legitimately a conspiracy theory; if there’s some good reason for Jews to cause Brexit, it’s not obvious to anybody (including the Jews), so you would need the secret centralized organization to convince and coordinate everybody.

This isn’t to say no coordination happens. I expect a little coordination happens openly, through prosocial slogans, just to overcome free rider problems. Remember Trivers’ theory of self-deception – that if something is advantageous to us, we naturally and unconsciously make up explanations for why it’s a good prosocial policy, and then genuinely believe those explanations. If you are rich and want to oppress the poor, you can come up with some philosophy of trickle-down or whatever that makes it sound good. Then you can talk about it with other rich people openly, no secret organizations in smoke-filled rooms necessary, and set up think tanks together. If you’re in the patriarchy, you can push nice-sounding things about gender roles and family values. There is no secret layer beneath the public layer – no smoke-filled room where the rich people get together and say “Let’s push prosocial slogans about rising tides, so that secretly we can dominate everything”. It all happens naturally under the hood, and the Basic Argument isn’t violated.

I think Trump probably met with the Russians. But even if he didn’t, I don’t think that positing “the Democrats are working hard to make the case that he did” qualifies as “conspiracy theory”. People are tempted to genuinely believe whatever puts them on top; that means Democrats probably genuinely believe Trump is guilty. Once they all genuinely believe it, they can talk openly – “How do we help coordinate to reveal the truth to everyone and bring this traitor to justice?” – rather than violating the Basic Argument by meeting secretly to figure out how to best delude the American people. Likewise, I believe climate change is real, but if it isn’t, the way scientists went wrong looks more like this than like a smoke-filled room.

We may have to bring in all of these (and more) to explain why the Catholic Church covering up sex scandals isn’t the kind of conspiracy theory we should automatically reject (or should have automatically rejected before the evidence came in). The Church is a public-facing organization that is known to occasionally keep secrets (like the CIA), but covering up sex scandals seems as far from their stated mission as the CIA fixing US elections. I think we just have to appeal to the Church hierarchy having a culture where this seemed like the obvious thing to do, as natural as insurance companies opposing universal health care. On the other hand, that could be used to justify anything. After all, the Bilderberg Group is known to exist, and maybe it has a culture where plotting a one world government sounds reasonable from the inside. I don’t know what principle rules in the Catholic case but keeps the Bilderberg case out. Maybe we just have to accept that even the most explosive conspiracy theories are sometimes true, and the Church’s sex scandals are one of those times.

As far as I know no UFO cult has ever taken over the federal government. But Scientology did take over the government of Clearwater, Florida. I think this reinforces some of the points above. Scientology is known to exist and known to do nefarious things. Taking over a town government…actually isn’t too far away from what the average member of the public expects them to do. If everyone knows you exist, and everyone knows you’re bad, you’re not a conspiracy, any more than the Nazis were a conspiracy during World War II (and they, too, sometimes secretly manipulated things they weren’t overtly in control of). I think “UFO cult takes over the government” sounds conspiracy-ish only because we read in an implied “…and nobody has heard of this cult or considers it very powerful”.

The train bombing false flag story is true. So why would it have been a conspiracy theory to speculate that the anti-Trump bombs were sent by a leftist? A technical objection: it shouldn’t count as a conspiracy theory because only one person was involved. A more serious take: it’s not impossible that these are false flags, but your prior should be pretty low. Most terrorist bombings by people spouting jihadi propaganda are by Muslims; most letter-bombing of leftists is done by rightists. To jump right away to calling these false flag may not be a “conspiracy theory” in the technical sense, but it’s doing the very conspiracy-theory-ish thing of replacing a simple and direct picture of the world with a more complicated one without having enough evidence to justify such a move. I’m reluctant to say that too strongly, because there have been a few false flags that I called (correctly) before the evidence came in – for example, a few years ago 4Channers pretending to be feminists started a campaign to #EndFathersDay, and I wasn’t fooled. I’m not sure I can verbalize how I figured this out – feminists often do controversial and outrageous things that are not false flags – but sometimes about this one just seemed off. I realize that by giving myself permission to say this I risk everyone else saying “Something about this bombing seems off to me, so I conclude it’s a false flag!” So it goes.


There’s a story about Winston Churchill bothering a certain high society lady. Churchill asked if she would sleep with him for five million pounds; she said such an offer would be hard to resist. Then he asked if she would sleep with him for five pounds; she asked “What kind of a person do you think I am?” Churchill answered “We’ve already established what kind of a person you are; now we’re just haggling over the price.”

I think the above examples prove that this is not the right way to think of conspiracy theories. Imagine Winston Churchill asking you whether a UFO cult secretly controls the government of Clearwater. You say yes. Then he asks if a UFO cult secretly controls the US federal government. “What kind of crazy conspiracy theorist do you think I am?” “We’ve already established there’s a conspiracy, now we’re just haggling over the size”.

Instead, the Basic Argument Against Conspiracy Theories gives some heuristics for when conspiracies might be more or less plausible. The typical Illuminati-style theory violates all of them; other theories that only violate a few might still be true. Some of these heuristics might be things like:

A. You generally can’t keep the existence of a large organization that engages in clandestine activities secret. If you have an overt large organization that engages in clandestine activities, and everybody knows about it, they can sometimes accomplish conspiracies compatible with their public-facing mission statement (like the CIA destabilizing enemies of America) but are unlikely to accomplish conspiracies very far outside the range of that statement (like the CIA destabilizing America itself).

B. When a group has an obvious interest in an outcome, its members can coordinate upon that outcome without their being any conspiracy. For example, Jews like Israel for reasons that don’t come as a surprise to anybody, so it’s not a conspiracy theory to posit that Jews are involved in supporting Israel; each Jew can make that decision individually for personal reasons. But if Jews wanted a one-world government, that would be surprising and require some secret effort to convince them; claiming that Jews are working for a one-world government is a conspiracy theory. Likewise, it’s unsurprising that the rich don’t like policies that lower their relative standing, so we can figure rich people are influencing the government towards pro-rich and anti-poor policies in some way without it being a conspiracy theory.

C. When a group is able to form an internal culture in which their nefarious goals seem reasonable and prosocial, they can coordinate upon them in ways that might look like a conspiracy to outsiders. For example, rich people say that taxing the rich would punish innovation and reduce dynamism, and probably actually believe this. This lets them coordinate think tanks to lower taxes on the rich without needing smoke-filled underground lairs where they meet and plot against the poor. Likewise, social scientists all liked “power posing” studies because they were exciting, reinforced the standard social science paradigm, and offered a way to reduce gender bias. So for a while lots of studies came out showing power posing was true, and the studies showing it was false never got published, without anyone having to meet in an underground lair and figure out ways to manipulate the science; probably every social scientist who signal-boosted one study and not another believed they were just making the truth slightly more apparent and making the world a better place.

D. All else being equal, small conspiracies are likelier than big conspiracies. A cult may take over a town without the average person knowing it; it would be more surprising for them to take over a country.

E. There is no royal road. Sometimes you can just plead “intuition”, and you’ll be right.

SSC Survey Results 2019

Thanks to the 8,171 people who took the 2019 Slate Star Codex survey. Some of the links below will say 13,171 people took the survey, but that’s a bug – sometimes Google just adds 5,000 to things. You can:

See the questions for the SSC survey.

See the results from the SSC survey.

I’ll be publishing more complicated analyses over the course of the next year, hopefully starting later this week.

If you want to scoop me, or investigate the data yourself, you can download the answers of the 7000 people who agreed to have their responses shared publicly. The public datasets will not exactly match the full version, nor will they include some of the sensitive sections like illegal drug use and sexual partners.

Download the public data (.xlsx, .ods)

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | 346 Comments

OT119: Openny Thread

This is the bi-weekly visible open thread (there are also hidden open threads twice a week you can reach through the Open Thread tab on the top of the page). Post about anything you want, but please try to avoid hot-button political and social topics. You can also talk at the SSC subreddit or the SSC Discord server – and also check out the SSC Podcast. Also:

1. Popular posts this week on the subreddit: Dormin111 reviews Hillbilly Elegy; werttrew reviews some of CS Lewis’ ideas (heavily related: Screwtape’s advice on tempting rationalists)

2. Comments of the week: Paul the Fossil shares his experiences from a lifetime in the environmentalist movement; andrewgillen shows off his web tool that lets you examine how the prices of different resource bundles have changed over different time periods.

3. I’m going to keep the newest-first comment order for another two weeks, to give everyone a chance to form an opinion. Then I’ll probably make a poll the next visible Open Thread on whether people want to keep it or switch back. I’ve heard some people say they want oldest-first for real posts and newest-first for Open Threads. This seems like a good idea to me but I don’t think WordPress natively supports having different comment orders on different posts. If that’s what we decide on, I might beg or commission one of you programmers to make me a plugin.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | 760 Comments

Paradigms All The Way Down

Related to: Book Review: The Structure Of Scientific Revolutions

Every good conspiracy theorist needs their own Grand Unified Chart; I’m a particular fan of this one. So far, my own Grand Unified Chart looks like this:

Philosophy Of Science Paradigm Anomaly Data
Bayesian Probability Prior KL-divergence Evidence
Psychology Prediction Surprisal Sense-Data
Discourse Ideology Cognitive Dissonance Facts
Society Frames & Narratives Exclusion Lived Experience
Neuroscience NMDA Dopamine AMPA

All of these are examples of interpreting the world through a combination of pre-existing ideas what the world should be like (first column), plus actually experiencing the world (last column). In all of them, the world is too confusing and permits too many different interpretations to understand directly. You wouldn’t even know where to start gathering more knowledge. So you take all of your pre-existing ideas (which you’ve gotten from somewhere) and interpret everything as behaving the way your pre-existing ideas tell you they will. Then as you gradually gather discrepancies between what you expected and what you get (middle column), you gradually become more and more confused until your existing categories buckle under the strain and you generate a new and self-consistent set of pre-existing ideas to see the world through, and then the process begins again.

All of these domains share an idea that the interaction between facts and theories is bidirectional. Your facts may eventually determine what theory you have. But your theory also determines what facts you see and notice. Nor do contradictory facts immediately change a theory. The process of theory change is complicated, fiercely resisted by hard-to-describe factors, and based on some sort of idea of global tension that can’t be directly reduced to any specific contradiction.

(I linked the Discourse and Society levels of the chart to this post where I jokingly sum up the process of convincing someone as “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then they fight you half-heartedly, then they’re neutral, then they grudgingly say you might have a point even though you’re annoying, then they say on balance you’re mostly right although you ignore some of the most important facets of the issue, then you win.” My point is that ideological change – most dramatically religious conversion, but also Republicans becoming Democrats and vice versa – doesn’t look like you “debunking” one of their facts and them admitting you are right. It is less like Popperian falsification and more like a Kuhnian paradigm shift or a Yudkowskian crisis of faith.)

Why do all of these areas share this same structure? I think because it’s built into basic algorithms that the brain uses for almost everything (see the Psychology and Neuroscience links above). And that in turn is because it’s just factually the most effective way to do epistemology, a little like asking “why does so much cryptography use prime numbers”.

Book Review: The Structure Of Scientific Revolutions

When I hear scientists talk about Thomas Kuhn, he sounds very reasonable. Scientists have theories that guide their work. Sometimes they run into things their theories can’t explain. Then some genius develops a new theory, and scientists are guided by that one. So the cycle repeats, knowledge gained with every step.

When I hear philosophers talk about Thomas Kuhn, he sounds like a madman. There is no such thing as ground-level truth! Only theory! No objective sense-data! Only theory! No basis for accepting or rejecting any theory over any other! Only theory! No scientists! Only theories, wearing lab coats and fake beards, hoping nobody will notice the charade!

I decided to read Kuhn’s The Structure Of Scientific Revolutions in order to understand this better. Having finished, I have come to a conclusion: yup, I can see why this book causes so much confusion.

At first Kuhn’s thesis appears simple, maybe even obvious. I found myself worrying at times that he was knocking down a straw man, although of course we have to read the history of philosophy backwards and remember that Kuhn may already be in the water supply, so to speak. He argues against a simplistic view of science in which it is merely the gradual accumulation of facts. So Aristotle discovered a few true facts, Galileo added a few more on, then Newton discovered a few more, and now we have very many facts indeed.

In this model, good science cannot disagree with other good science. You’re either wrong – as various pseudoscientists and failed scientists have been throughout history, positing false ideas like “the brain is only there to cool the blood” or “the sun orbits the earth”. Or you’re right, your ideas are enshrined in the Sacristry Of Settled Science, and your facts join the accumulated store that passes through the ages.

Simple-version-of-Kuhn says this isn’t true. Science isn’t just facts. It’s paradigms – whole ways of looking at the world. Without a paradigm, scientists wouldn’t know what facts to gather, how to collect them, or what to do with them once they had them. With a paradigm, scientists gather and process facts in the ways the paradigm suggests (“normal science”). Eventually, this process runs into a hitch – apparent contradictions, or things that don’t quite fit predictions, or just a giant ugly mess of epicycles. Some genius develops a new paradigm (“paradigm shift” or “scientific revolution”). Then the process begins again. Facts can be accumulated within a paradigm. And many of the facts accumulated in one paradigm can survive, with only slight translation effort, into a new paradigm. But scientific progress is the story of one relatively-successful and genuinely-scientific effort giving way to a different and contradictory relatively-successful and genuinely-scientific effort. It’s the story of scientists constantly tossing out one another’s work and beginning anew.

This gets awkward because paradigms look a lot like facts. The atomic theory – the current paradigm in a lot of chemistry – looks a lot like the fact “everything is made of atoms and molecules”. But this is only the iceberg’s tip. Once you have atomic theory, chemistry starts looking a lot different. Your first question when confronted with an unknown chemical is “what is the molecular structure?” and you have pretty good ideas for how to figure this out. You are not particularly interested in the surface appearance of chemicals, since you know that iron and silver can look alike but are totally different elements; you may be much more interested in the weight ratio at which two chemicals react (which might seem to the uninitiated like a pretty random and silly thing to care about). If confronted with a gas, you might ask things like “which gas is it?” as opposed to thinking all gases are the same thing, or wondering what it would even mean for two gases to be different. You can even think things like “this is a mixture of two different types of gas” without agonizing about how a perfectly uniform substance can be a mixture of anything. If someone asks you “How noble and close to God would say this chemical sample is?” you can tell them that this is not really a legitimate chemical question, unless you mean “noble” in the sense of the noble gases. If someone tells you a certain chemical is toxic because toxicity is a fundamental property of its essence, you can tell them that no, it probably has to do with some reaction it causes or fails to cause with chemicals in the body. And if someone tells you that a certain chemical has changed into a different chemical because it got colder, you can tell them that cold might have done something to it, it might even have caused it to react with the air or something, but chemicals don’t change into other chemicals in a fundamental way just because of the temperature. None of these things are obvious. All of them are hard-won discoveries.

A field without paradigms looks like the STEM supremacist’s stereotype of philosophy. There are all kinds of different schools – Kantians, Aristotelians, Lockeans – who all disagree with each other. There may be progress within a school – some Aristotelian may come up with a really cool new Aristotelian way to look at bioethics, and all the other Aristotelians may agree that it’s great – but the field as a whole does not progress. People will talk past one another; the Aristotelian can go on all day about the telos of the embryo, but the utilitarian is just going to ask what the hell a telos is, why anyone would think embryos have one, and how many utils the embryo is bringing people. “Debates” between the Aristotelian and the utilitarian may not be literally impossible, but they are going to have to go all the way to first principles, in a way that never works. Kuhn interestingly dismisses these areas as “the fields where people write books” – if you want to say anything, you might as well address it to a popular audience for all the good other people’s pre-existing knowledge will do you, and you may have to spend hundreds of pages explaining your entire system from the ground up. He throws all the social sciences in this bin – you may read Freud, Skinner, and Beck instead of Aristotle, Locke, and Kant, but it’s the same situation.

A real science is one where everyone agrees on a single paradigm. Newtonianism and Einsteinianism are the same kind of things as Aristotelianism and utilitarianism; but in 1850, everybody believed the former, and in 1950, the latter.

I got confused by this – is Aristotelian philosophy a science? Would it be one if the Aristotelians forced every non-Aristotelian philosopher out of the academy, so that 100% of philosophers fell in line behind Aristotle? I think Kuhn’s answer to this is that it’s telling that Aristotelians haven’t been able to do this (at least not lately); either Aristotle’s theories are too weak, or philosophy too intractable. But all physicists unite behind Einstein in a way that all philosophers cannot behind Aristotle. Because of this, all physicists mean more or less the same thing when they talk about “space” and “time”, and they can work together on explaining these concepts without constantly arguing to each other about what they mean or whether they’re the right way to think about things at all (and a Newtonian and Einsteinian would not be able to do this with each other, any more than an Aristotelian and utilitarian).

So how does science settle on a single paradigm when other fields can’t? Is this the part where we admit it’s because science has objective truth so you can just settle questions with experiments?

This is very much not that part. Kuhn doesn’t think it’s anywhere near that simple, for a few reasons.

First, there is rarely a single experiment that one paradigm fails and another passes. Rather, there are dozens of experiments. One paradigm does better on some, the other paradigm does better on others, and everyone argues over which ones should or shouldn’t count.

For example, one might try to test the Copernican vs. Ptolemaic worldviews by observing the parallax of the fixed stars over the course of a year. Copernicus predicts it should be visible; Ptolemy predicts it shouldn’t be. It isn’t, which means either the Earth is fixed and unmoving, or the stars are unutterably unimaginably immensely impossibly far away. Nobody expected the stars to be that far away, so advantage Ptolemy. Meanwhile, the Copernicans posit far-off stars in order to save their paradigm. What looked like a test to select one paradigm or the other has turned into a wedge pushing the two paradigms even further apart.

What looks like a decisive victory to one side may look like random noise to another. Did you know weird technologically advanced artifacts are sometimes found encased in rocks that our current understanding of geology says are millions of years old? Creationists have no trouble explaining those – the rocks are much younger, and the artifacts were probably planted by nephilim. Evolutionists have no idea how to explain those, and default to things like “the artifacts are hoaxes” or “the miners were really careless and a screw slipped from their pocket into the rock vein while they were mining”. I’m an evolutionist and I agree the artifacts are probably hoaxes or mistakes, even when there is no particular evidence that they are. Meanwhile, probably creationists say that some fossil or other incompatible with creationism is a hoax or a mistake. But that means the “find something predicted by one paradigm but not the other, and then the failed theory comes crashing down” oversimplification doesn’t work. Find something predicted by one paradigm but not the other, and often the proponents of the disadvantaged paradigm can – and should – just shrug and say “whatever”.

In 1870, flat-earther Samuel Rowbotham performed a series of experiments to show the Earth could not be a globe. In the most famous, he placed several flags miles apart along a perfectly straight canal. Then he looked through a telescope and was able to see all of them in a row, even though the furthest should have been hidden by the Earth’s curvature. Having done so, he concluded the Earth was flat, and the spherical-earth paradigm debunked. Alfred Wallace (more famous for pre-empting Darwin on evolution) took up the challenge, and showed that the bending of light rays by atmospheric refraction explained Rowbotham’s result. It turns out that light rays curve downward at a rate equal to the curvature of the Earth’s surface! Luckily for Wallace, refraction was already a known phenomenon; if not, it would have been the same kind of wedge-between-paradigms as the Copernicans having to change the distance to the fixed stars.

It is all nice and well to say “Sure, it looks like your paradigm is right, but once we adjust for this new idea about the distance to the stars / the refraction of light, the evidence actually supports my paradigm”. But the supporters of old paradigms can do that too! The Ptolemaics are rightly mocked for adding epicycle after epicycle until their system gave the right result. But to a hostile observer, positing refraction effects that exactly counterbalance the curvature of the Earth sure looks like adding epicycles. At some point a new paradigm will win out, and its “epicycles” will look like perfectly reasonable adjustments for reality’s surprising amount of detail. And the old paradigm will lose, and its “epicycles” will look like obvious kludges to cover up that it never really worked. Before that happens…well, good luck.

Second, two paradigms may not even address or care about the same questions.

Let’s go back to utilitarianism vs. Aristotelianism. Many people associate utilitarianism with the trolley problem, which is indeed a good way to think about some of the issues involved. It might be tempting for a utilitarian to think of Aristotelian ethics as having some different answer to the trolley problem. Maybe it does, I don’t know. But Aristotle doesn’t talk about how he would solve whatever the 4th-century BC equivalent of the trolley problem was. He talks more about “what is the true meaning of justice?” and stuff like that. While you can twist Aristotle into having an opinion on trolleys, he’s not really optimizing for that. And while you can make utilitarianism have some idea what the true meaning of justice is, it’s not really optimized for that either.

An Aristotelian can say their paradigm is best, because it does a great job explicating all the little types and subtypes of justice. A utilitarian can say their paradigm is best, because it does a great job telling you how to act in various contrived moral dilemmas.

It’s actually even worse than this. The closest thing I can think of to an ancient Greek moral dilemma is the story of Antigone. Antigone’s uncle declares that her traitorous dead brother may not be buried with the proper rites. Antigone is torn between her duty to obey her uncle, and her desire to honor her dead brother. Utilitarianism is…not really designed for this sort of moral dilemma. Is ignoring her family squabbles and trying to cure typhus an option? No?

But then utilitarianism’s problems are deeper than just “comes to a different conclusion than ancient Greek morals would have”. The utilitarian’s job isn’t to change the ancient Greek’s mind about the answer to a certain problem. It’s to convince him to stop caring about basically all the problems he cares about, and care about different problems instead.

Third, two paradigms may disagree on what kind of answers are allowed, or what counts as solving a problem.

Kuhn talks about the 17th century “dormitive potency” discourse. Aristotle tended to explain phenomena by appealing to essences; trees grew because it was “in their nature” to grow. Descartes gets a bad rap for inventing dualism, but this is undeserved – what he was really doing was inventing the concept of “matter” as we understand it, a what-you-see-is-what-you-get kind of stuff with no hidden essences, which responds mechanically to forces (and once you have this idea, you naturally need some other kind of stuff to be the mind). With Cartesian matter firmly in place, everyone made fun of Aristotle for thinking he had “solved” the “why do trees grow?” question by answering “because it is in their nature”, and this climaxed with the playwright Moliere portraying a buffoonish doctor who claimed to have discovered how opium put people to sleep – it was because it had a dormitive potency!

In Aristotle’s view of matter, saying “because it’s their essence” successfully answers questions like “why do trees grow?”. The Cartesian paradigm forbade this kind of answer, and so many previously “solved” problems like why trees grow became mysterious again – a step backwards, sort of. For Descartes, you were only allowed to answer questions if you could explain how purely-mechanical matter smashing against other purely-mechanical matter in a billiard-ball-like way could produce an effect; a more virtuous and Descartes-aware doctor explained opium’s properties by saying opium corpuscles must have a sandpaper-like shape that smooths the neurons!

Then Newton discovered gravity and caused an uproar. Gravity posits no corpuscles jostling other corpuscles. It sounds almost Aristotelian: “It is the nature of matter to attract other matter”. Newton was denounced as trying to smuggle occultism into science. How much do you discount a theory for having occult elements? If some conception of quantum theory predicts the data beautifully, but says matter behaves differently depending on whether someone’s watching it or not, is that okay? What if it says that a certain electron has a 50% chance of being in a certain place, full stop, and there is no conceivable explanation for which of the two possibilities is realized, and you’re not even allowed to ask the question? What if my explanation for dark matter is “invisible gremlins”? How do you figure out when you need to relax your assumptions about what counts as science, versus when somebody is just cheating?

A less dramatic example: Lavoisier’s theory of combustion boasts an ability to explain why some substances gain weight when burned; they are absorbing oxygen from the air. A brilliant example of an anomaly explained, which proves the superiority of combustion theory to other paradigms that cannot account for the phenomenon? No – “things shouldn’t randomly gain weight” comes to us as a principle of the chemical revolution of which Lavoisier was a part:

In the seventeenth century, [an explanation of weight gain] seemed unnecessary to most chemists. If chemical reactions could alter the volume, color, and texture of the ingredients, why should they not alter weight as well? Weight was not always taken to be the measure of quantity of matter. Besides, weight-gain on roasting remained an isolated phenomenon. Most natural bodies (eg wood) lose weight on roasting as the phlogiston theory was later to say they should.

In previous paradigms, weight gain wasn’t even an anomaly to be explained. It was just a perfectly okay thing that might happen. It’s only within the constellation of new methods and rules we learned around Lavoisier’s time, that Lavoisier’s theories solved anything at all.

So how do scientists ever switch paradigms?

Kuhn thinks it’s kind of an ugly process. It starts with exasperation; the old paradigm is clearly inadequate. Progress is stagnating.

Awareness [of the inadequacy of geocentric astronomy] did come. By the thirteenth century Alfonso X could proclaim that if God had consulted him when creating the universe, he would have received good advice. In the sixteenth century, Copernicus’ coworker, Domenico da Novara, held that no system so cumbersome and inaccurate as the Ptolemaic had become could possibly be true of nature. And Copernicus himself wrote in the Preface to the De Revolutionibus that the astronomical tradition he inherited had finally created only a monster.

Then someone proposes a new paradigm. In its original form, it is woefully underspecified, bad at matching reality, and only beats the old paradigm in a few test cases. For whatever reason, a few people jump on board. Sometimes the new paradigm is simply more mathematically elegant, more beautiful. Other times it’s petty things, like a Frenchman invented the old paradigm and a German the new one, and you’re German. Sometimes it’s just that there’s nothing better. These people gradually expand the new paradigm to cover more and more cases. At some point, the new paradigm explains things a little better than the old paradigm. Some of its predictions are spookily good. The old paradigm is never conclusively debunked. But the new paradigm now has enough advantages that more and more people hop on the bandwagon. Gradually the old paradigm becomes a laughingstock, people forget the context in which it ever made sense, and it is remembered only as a bunch of jokes about dormitive potency.

But now that it’s been adopted and expanded and reached the zenith of its power, this is the point at which we can admit it’s objectively better, right?

For a better treatment of this question than I can give, see Samzdat’s Science Cannot Count To Red. But my impression is that Kuhn is not really willing to say this. I think he is of the “all models are wrong, some are useful” camp, thinks of paradigms as models, and would be willing to admit a new paradigm may be more useful than an old one.

Can we separate the fact around which a paradigm is based (like “the Earth orbits the sun”) from the paradigm itself (being a collection of definitions of eg “planet” and “orbit”, ways of thinking, mathematical methods, and rules for what kind of science will and won’t be accepted)? And then say the earth factually orbits the sun, and the paradigm is just a useful tool that shouldn’t be judged objectively? I think Kuhn’s answer is that facts cannot be paradigm-independent. A medieval would not hear “the Earth orbits the sun” and hear the same claim we hear (albeit, in his view wrong). He would, for example, interpret it to mean the Earth was set in a slowly-turning crystal sphere with the sun at its center. Then he might ask – where does the sphere intersect the Earth? How come we can’t see it? Is Marco Polo going to try to travel to China and then hit a huge invisible wall halfway across the Himalayas? And what about gravity? My understanding is the Ptolemaics didn’t believe in gravity as we understand it at all. They believed objects had a natural tendency to seek the center of the universe. So if the sun is more central, why isn’t everything falling into the sun? To a medieval the statement “the Earth orbits the sun” has a bunch of common-sense disproofs everywhere you look. It’s only when attached to the rest of the Copernican paradigm that it starts to make sense.

This impresses me less than it impresses Kuhn. I would say “if you have many false beliefs, then true statements may be confusing in that they seem to imply false statements – but true statements are still objectively true”. Perhaps I am misunderstanding Kuhn’s argument here; the above is an amalgam of various things and not something Kuhn says outright in the book. But whatever his argument, Kuhn is not really willing to say that there are definite paradigm-independent objective facts, at least not without a lot of caveats.

So where is the point at which we admit some things are objectively true and that’s what this whole enterprise rests on?

Kuhn only barely touches on this, in the last page of the book:

Anyone who has followed the argument this far will nevertheless feel the need to ask why the evolutionary process should work. What must nature, including man, be like in order that science be possible at all? Why should scientific communities be able to reach a firm consensus unattainable in other fields? Why should consensus endure across one paradigm change after another? And why should paradigm change invariably produce an instrument more perfect in any sense than those known before? From one point of view those questions, excepting the first, have already been answered. But from another they are as open as they were when this essay began. It is not only the scientific community that must be special. The world of which that community is a part must also possess quite special characteristics, and we are no closer than we were at the start to knowing what these must be. That problem— What must the world be like in order that man may know it?— was not, however, created by this essay. On the contrary, it is as old as science itself, and it remains unanswered. But it need not be answered in this place.


A lot of the examples above are mine, not Kuhn’s. Some of them even come from philosophy or other nonscientific fields. Shouldn’t I have used the book’s own examples?

Yes. But one of my big complaints about this book is that, for a purported description of How Science Everywhere Is Always Practiced, it really just gives five examples. Ptolemy/Copernicus on astronomy. Alchemy/Dalton on chemistry. Phlogiston/Lavoisier on combustion. Aristotle/Galileo/Newton/Einstein on motion. And ???/Franklin/Coulomb on electricity.

It doesn’t explain any of the examples. If you don’t already know what Coulomb’s contribution to electricity is and what previous ideas he overturned, you’re out of luck. And don’t try looking it up in a book either. Kuhn says that all the books have been written by people so engrossed in the current paradigm that they unconsciously jam past scientists into it, removing all evidence of paradigm shift. This made parts of the book a little beyond my level, since my knowledge of Coulomb begins and ends with “one amp times one second”.

Even saying Kuhn has five examples is giving him too much credit. He usually brings in one of his five per point he’s trying to make, meaning that you never get a really full view of how any of the five examples exactly fit into his system.

And all five examples are from physics. Kuhn says at the beginning that he wished he had time to talk about how his system fits biology, but he doesn’t. He’s unsure whether any of the social sciences are sciences at all, and nothing else even gets mentioned. This means we have to figure out how Kuhn’s theory fits everything from scattershot looks at the history of electricity and astronomy and a few other things. This is pretty hard. For example, consider three scientific papers I’ve looked at on this blog recently:

Cipriani, Ioannidis, et al perform a meta-analysis of antidepressant effect sizes and find that although almost all of them seem to work, amitriptyline works best.

Ceballos, Ehrlich, et al calculate whether more species have become extinct recently than would be expected based on historical background rates; after finding almost 500 extinctions since 1900, they conclude they definitely have.

Terrell et al examine contributions to open source projects and find that men are more likely to be accepted than women when adjusted for some measure of competence they believe is appropriate, suggesting a gender bias.

What paradigm is each of these working from?

You could argue that the antidepressant study is working off of the “biological psychiatry” paradigm, a venerable collection of assumptions that can be profitably contrasted with other paradigms like psychoanalysis. But couldn’t a Hippocratic four-humors physician of a thousand years ago done the same thing? A meta-analysis of the effect sizes of various kinds of leeches for depression? Sure, leeches are different from antidepressants, but it doesn’t look like the belief in biological psychiatry is affecting anything about the research other than the topic. And although the topic is certainly important, Kuhn led me to expect something more profound than that. Maybe the paradigm is evidence-based-medicine itself, the practice of doing RCTs and meta-analyses on things? I think this is a stronger case, but a paradigm completely divorced from the content of what it’s studying is exactly the sort of weird thing that makes me wish Kuhn had included more than five examples.

As for the extinction paper, surely it can be attributed to some chain of thought starting with Cuvier’s catastrophism, passing through Lyell, and continuing on to the current day, based on the idea that the world has changed dramatically over its history and new species can arise and old ones disappear. But is that “the” paradigm of biology, or ecology, or whatever field Ceballos and Lyell are working in? Doesn’t it also depend on the idea of species, a different paradigm starting with Linnaeus and developed by zoologists over the ensuing centuries? It look like it dips into a bunch of different paradigms, but is not wholly within any.

And the open source paper? Is “feminism” a paradigm? But surely this is no different than what would be done to investigate racist biases in open source. Or some right-winger looking for anti-Christian biases in open source. Is the paradigm just “looking for biases in things?”

What about my favorite trivial example, looking both ways when you cross the street so you don’t get hit by a bus? Is it based on a paradigm of motorized transportation? Does it use assumptions like “buses exist” and “roads are there to be crossed”? Was there a paradigm shift between the bad old days of looking one way before crossing, and the exciting new development of looking both ways before crossing? Is this really that much more of a stretch than calling looking for biases in things a paradigm?

Outside the five examples Kuhn gives from the physical sciences, identifying paradigms seems pretty hard – or maybe too easy. Is it all fractal? Are there overarching paradigms like atomic theory, and then lower-level paradigms like organic chemistry, and then tiny subsubparadigms like “how we deal with this one organic compound”? Does every scientific experiment use lots of different paradigms from different traditions and different levels? This is the kind of thing I wish Kuhn’s book answered instead of just talking about Coulumb and Copernicus over and over again.


In conclusion, all of this is about predictive coding.

It’s the same thing. Perception getting guided equally by top-down expectations and bottom-up evidence. Oh, I know what you’re thinking. “There goes Scott again, seeing predictive coding in everything”. And yes. But also, Kuhn does everything short of come out and say “When you guys get around to inventing predictive coding, make sure to notice that’s what I was getting at this whole time.”

Don’t believe me? From the chapter Anomaly And The Emergence Of Scientific Discovery (my emphasis, and for “anomaly”, read “surprisal”):

The characteristics common to the three examples above are characteristic of all discoveries from which new sorts of phenomena emerge. Those characteristics include: the previous awareness of anomaly, the gradual and simultaneous emergence of both observational and conceptual recognition, and the consequent change of paradigm categories and procedures often accompanied by resistance.

There is even evidence that these same characteristics are built into the nature of the perceptual process itself. In a psychological experiment that deserves to be far better known outside the trade, Bruner and Postman asked experimental subjects to identify on short and controlled exposure a series of playing cards. Many of the cards were normal, but some were made anomalous, e.g., a red six of spades and a black four of hearts. Each experimental run was constituted by the display of a single card to a single subject in a series of gradually increased exposures. After each exposure the subject was asked what he had seen, and the run was terminated by two successive correct identifications.

Even on the shortest exposures many subjects identified most of the cards, and after a small increase all the subjects identified them all. For the normal cards these identifications were usually correct, but the anomalous cards were almost always identified, without apparent hesitation or puzzlement, as normal. The black four of hearts might, for example, be identified as the four of either spades or hearts. Without any awareness of trouble, it was immediately fitted to one of the conceptual categories prepared by prior experience. One would not even like to say that the subjects had seen something different from what they identified. With a further increase of exposure to the anomalous cards, subjects did begin to hesitate and to display awareness of anomaly. Exposed, for example, to the red six of spades, some would say: That’s the six of spades, but there’s something wrong with it— the black has a red border. Further increase of exposure resulted in still more hesitation and confusion until finally, and sometimes quite suddenly, most subjects would produce the correct identification without hesitation. Moreover, after doing this with two or three of the anomalous cards, they would have little further difficulty with the others. A few subjects, however, were never able to make the requisite adjustment of their categories. Even at forty times the average exposure required to recognize normal cards for what they were, more than 10 per cent of the anomalous cards were not correctly identified. And the subjects who then failed often experienced acute personal distress. One of them exclaimed: “I can’t make the suit out, whatever it is. It didn’t even look like a card that time. I don’t know what color it is now or whether it’s a spade or a heart. I’m not even sure now what a spade looks like. My God!” In the next section we shall occasionally see scientists behaving this way too.

Either as a metaphor or because it reflects the nature of the mind, that psychological experiment provides a wonderfully simple and cogent schema for the process of scientific discovery.

And from Revolutions As Changes Of World-View:

Surveying the rich experimental literature from which these examples are drawn makes one suspect that something like a paradigm is prerequisite to perception itself. What a man sees depends both upon what he looks at and also upon what his previous visual-conceptual experience has taught him to see. In the absence of such training there can only be, in William James’s phrase, “a bloomin’ buzzin’ confusion.” In recent years several of those concerned with the history of science have found the sorts of experiments described above immensely suggestive.

If you can read those paragraphs and honestly still think I’m just just irrationally reading predictive coding into a perfectly innocent book, I have nothing to say to you.

I think this is my best answer to the whole “is Kuhn denying an objective reality” issue. If Kuhn and the predictive coding people are grasping at the same thing from different angles, then both shed some light on each other. I think I understand the way that predictive coding balances the importance of pre-existing structures and categories with a preserved belief in objectivity. If Kuhn is trying to extend the predictive coding model of the brain processing information to the way the scientific community as a whole processes it, then maybe we can import the same balance and not worry about it as much.

Open Thread 118.5

This would normally be a hidden open thread, but I’m hijacking it for some announcements:

1. This is your ABSOLUTE LAST CHANCE to take the 2019 SSC survey. Don’t wait! Do it! DO IT NOW! [EDIT: Closed now, sorry]

2. There’s still a Bay Area meetup today (1/6) at 3:30. Due to rain the location has changed and it will be held indoors at 3045 Shattuck Ave, Berkeley.

3. Got the first comment on this new thread? Too bad! This week I’m going to be testing newest-first comment order. Tell me what you think.

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Bay Meetup 1/6 Update

Due to rain, we’re switching to holding the meetup indoors at 3045 Shattuck Ave, Berkeley, 94705. There will be several floors of space available for overflow, so hopefully it won’t be too crowded. Thanks to Claire, REACH, and Event Horizon for setting this up.

Time is still 3:30 PM on Sunday, 1/6. There’s also a Facebook event here.

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