Re: Another tedious hypothetical

From: rmiller <>
Date: Wed, 08 Jun 2005 22:27:32 -0500

At 05:22 PM 6/8/2005, Jesse Mazer wrote:
>rmiller wrote:
>>At 02:45 PM 6/7/2005, Jesse Mazer wrote:
>>>Of course in this example Feynman did not anticipate in advance what
>>>licence plate he'd see, but the kind of "hindsight bias" you are
>>>engaging in can be shown with another example. Suppose you pick 100
>>>random words out of a dictionary, and then notice that the list contains
>>>the words "sun", "also", and "rises" it so happens, that particular
>>>3-word "gestalt" is also part of the title of a famous book, "the sun
>>>also rises" by Hemingway. Is this evidence that Hemingway was able to
>>>anticipate the results of your word-selection through ESP? Would it be
>>>fair to test for ESP by calculating the probability that someone would
>>>title a book with the exact 3-word gestalt "sun, also, rises"? No,
>>>because this would be tailoring the choice of gestalt to Hemingway's
>>>book in order to make it seem more unlikely, in fact there are 970,200
>>>possible 3-word gestalts you could pick out of a list of 100 possible
>>>words, so the probability that a book published earlier would contain
>>>*any* of these gestalts is a lot higher than the probability it would
>>>contain the precise gestalt "sun, also, rises". Selecting a precise
>>>target gestalt on the basis of the fact that you already know there's a
>>>book/story containing that gestalt is an example of hindsight bias--in
>>>the Heinlein example, you wouldn't have chosen the precise gestalt of
>>>Szilard/lens/beryllium/uranium/bomb from a long list of words associated
>>>with the Manhattan Project if you didn't already know about Heinlein's story.
>>>RM wrote:
>>In two words: Conclusions first.
>>Can you really offer no scientific procedure to evaluate Heinlein's story?
>>At the cookie jar level, can you at least grudgingly admit that the word
>>"Szilard" sure looks like "Silard"? Sounds like it too. Or is that a
>>coincidence as well? What are the odds. Should be calculable--how many
>>stories written in 1939 include the names of Los Alamos scientists in
>>conjunction with the words "bomb" , "uranium. . ."
>>You're shaking your head. This, I assume is already a done deal, for you.
>>And that, in my view, is the heart of the problem. Rather than swallow
>>hard and look at this in a non-biased fashion, you seem to be glued to
>>the proposition that (1) it's intractable or (2) it's not worth analyzing
>>because the answer is obvious.
>I think you misunderstood what I was arguing in my previous posts. If you
>look them over again, you'll see that I wasn't making a broad statement
>about the impossibility of estimating the probability that this event
>would have happened by chance, I was making a specific criticism of *your*
>method of doing so, where you estimate the probability of the particular
>"gestalt" of Szilard/lens/beryllium/uranium/bomb, rather than trying to
>estimate the probability that a story would anticipate *any* possible
>gestalt associated with the Manhattan Project. By doing this, you are
>incorporating hindsight knowledge of Heinlein's story into your choice of
>the "target" whose probability you want to estimate, and in general this
>will always lead to estimates of the significance of a "hit" which are
>much too high. If you instead asked someone with no knowledge of of
>Heinlein's story to come up with a list of as many possible words
>associated with the Manhattan Project that he could think of, then
>estimated the probability that a story would anticipate *any* combination
>of words on the list, then your method would not be vulnerable to this
>criticism (it might be flawed for other reasons, but I didn't address any
>of these other reasons in my previous posts).

Good starting premise. But words have meaning, and while "the sun also
rises" may be interpreted to presage the bomb, it in fact is about
bullfighting. No nukes there. Heinlein's story is clearly about energy
being derived from uranium--*and* has the name "Silard." These can not be
compared with random number associations, simply because these words
involve more information. To use a crude example, in the science community
the name "Szilard" conjures up one prime association.

>Look over the analogy I made in my last post again:
>Suppose you pick 100 random words out of a
>dictionary, and then notice that the list contains the words "sun", "also",
>and "rises" it so happens, that particular 3-word "gestalt" is also
>part of the title of a famous book, "the sun also rises" by Hemingway. Is
>this evidence that Hemingway was able to anticipate the results of your
>word-selection through ESP? Would it be fair to test for ESP by calculating
>the probability that someone would title a book with the exact 3-word
>gestalt "sun, also, rises"? No, because this would be tailoring the choice
>of gestalt to Hemingway's book in order to make it seem more unlikely, in
>fact there are 970,200 possible 3-word gestalts you could pick out of a list
>of 100 possible words, so the probability that a book published earlier
>would contain *any* of these gestalts is a lot higher than the probability
>it would contain the precise gestalt "sun, also, rises".

To repeat, Heinlein's story is about uranium energy, the possibility of the
factory blowing up, etc. The context is fairly clear. Hemingway's story
is about Spain, bullfighting and affairs of the heart. No nukes there.

>To simplify things even further, let's say you simply make a list of ten
>random numbers from 1 to 100, and before you make the list I make the
>prediction "the list will contain the numbers 23 and 89". If it turns out
>that those two numbers are indeed on your list, what is the significance
>of this result as evidence for precognition on my part? Your method would
>be like ignoring the other 8 numbers on the list and just finding the
>probability that I would hit the precise target of "23, 89" by chance,
>which (assuming order doesn't matter) would be only about a 1 in 5025
>shot, if my math is right. But the probability that both the numbers I
>guess will be *somewhere* on the list of ten is significantly higher--I
>get that the probability of this would be about 1 in 121. So if this
>experiment is done in many alternate universes, then if in fact I have no
>precognitive abilities, in about 1 in 121 universes, both numbers I guess
>will happen to be on your list by luck. But then if you used the method of
>tailoring the choice of target to my guess, in each such universe you will
>conclude that I only had a 1 in 5025 chance of making that guess by
>chance. Clearly, then, you get bad conclusions if you use hindsight
>knowledge to tailor the choice of target to what you know was actually
>guessed in this way. But it's also clear that this example is sufficiently
>well-defined that I would have no general objection to estimating the
>probability that my "hit" could have occurred by chance, it's just that
>the correct answer is 1 in 121, not 1 in 5025.
>Sorry. In the raw sense, numbers merely represent values---unless you want
>to get into that weird set of coincidences about 1/139--i.e. Enrico
>Fermi's hospital room, etc. (And I sincerely hope you *don't*.)
>Again, my concern is that scientists are too willing to prejudge something
>before diving into it. This sort of behavior doesn't do the conduct of
>inquiry any favors at all. (Abe Kaplan wrote a terrific book by that name
>in 1964. Very quotable--and, I believe, pertinent.) While some
>scientists on this list complain about Heinlein's story being essentially
>unworthy of study, other scientists think the issue of global warming is
>settled (depending whether you're in the WH or not, that is), and there
>are (believe it or not) guys getting tobacco money who *still* think the
>smoking-lung cancer link hasn't been proven--and never will be. And so on.

Even when we debunk using flawless logic, we can still end up with a Beta
at infinity and be completely wrong. Worse, we can be right for wrong or
(often) imperfect reasons. I recall someone mentioning the publication
bias. There's another one among peer-reviewed articles: the bias against
replication studies. As a result, once a concept has been published, it's
often taken as fact (except when scandals like the David Baltimore debacle
happens). In other words, it appears to me that the common urge to debunk
the new is more the result of belief than science.

Prove me wrong: Submit a good reliable protocol that will properly evaluate
the kind of conditions associated with the Heinlein story. While science
often seems like a religion to some scientists (Sagan comes to mind)
science itself is a remarkably flexible engine capable of taking the
scientist down just about any path he or she chooses. Those that
endlessly tinker with the components can help that engine become even more
powerful. But at some point, I think it would be a good idea to close the
hood, fire it up and take the damn vehicle off the beaten path.

Received on Wed Jun 08 2005 - 23:35:30 PDT

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