Thursday, August 30, 2007

Randomness And Narrative

Let's see how much sense I can make before the Vicodin ES kicks in (wisdom teeth).

A major point of Taleb's The Black Swan is that we attribute causation much too willingly, seeking explanations for our comfort but not illumination. Though I haven't read it, his Fooled By Randomness is likely about the same topic. He makes a very convincing case, both theoretically and from empirical data. You know it's convincing, because I really don't want this to be all that true, but he has turned my thinking around on this. Observing events and attributing cause is one of the things I do really well. It's part of my stock-in-trade at work, e.g. The MHC is ticked at us for sending Jeremy out when they thought he should stay, so they've been quick on the draw for revoking all young males for the last two weeks. It's not so much revenge or punishment as it is an illustration to us how hard their job is out there and how they really do try with these guys. It will pass. Or also, She's protesting that she wants to leave the hospital but all her actions say just the opposite. She's saying "Please don' throw me into that briar patch, Br'er Fox" but not on purpose. She is unable to admit to herself that she wants to stay, so she makes it our decision.

I do this with everything. If there is a conventional wisdom about a period in history I'm always on the lookout for possible alternative explanations. Usually there is an Old Conventional Wisdom about anything in history, then a New Conventional Wisdom spouted by people who believe they are independent thinkers because the "don't accept the conventional wisdom." It's pretty irritating, yeah.

Religious questions: Why does Paul write this advice to this particular group? Parenting questions: This is a great illustration of how John-Adrian's strengths and weaknesses are intertwined. He avoids conflict, which is usually a good thing.

Now Taleb wants to take my bread-and-butter away from me, just after search engines started to make me obsolete. I'm not good-looking enough to weather too many more of these abilities of mine being devalued.

We make up narratives without even trying. It in fact takes energy not to make a narrative. One interesting experiment Taleb reports: subjects were presented with the numbers 2, 4, 6 and asked to figure out by trial-and-error what the pattern was, by giving other examples, to which the administrator would say yes or no. When they thought they had it, they were to state an hypothesis. Almost everyone got it wrong. They jumped to the conclusion that the pattern was "the even numbers" or some variation of that and would provide other examples in the pattern for the yes/no response. 10, 12, 14. Yes. 98, 100, 102. Yes. I'm going to guess that you add two to the last number to make the patter. No. Next. The pattern was simply "numbers in ascending order, so 9, 17, 101 would also work.

Taleb believes that 9-11 was a Black Swan, an unpredictable event that we retrospectively try to say was predictable. We have blamed agencies, politicians, and airline safety experts for what we think in retrospect they should have anticipated. But there is powerful evidence to the contrary. After the first tower was hit, people didn't evacuate the second tower, and most people thought this wasn't strange at the time. Very few people left the second tower. The people on Flight 93 needed three other planes to go down, and their own plane to be captured, before the full weight of what was happening sunk in. Even with a powerful concrete example right in front of them, people did not immediately recognise what was happening. They weren't stupid. Only in retrospect did everyone start moaning about what we should have seen coming.

One of the hindrances to seeing the truth is that we already have a narrative in place, and try to fit the events we see into it, against all sense. The people on Flight 93 knew what highjackers did: they made plans land somewhere else and took people hostage. Except these didn't.

Similarly, a lot of commenters have taken potshots at the CIA for the last 20 years for not seeing the fall of the Soviet Union coming. I think I've done that myself. After the fact it looks so obvious, so inevitable - how could the experts be so dim as to miss it? What if it wasn't inevitable at about that time? It was an unstable situation, and may have approached collapse a dozen or a thousand times over the last fifty years. And if it had not happened then it might still not have happened now. Instability might rise and recede, but we could still be talking about a seemingly-impregnable Soviet Union. Life is much more uncertain and unstable than we like to think. To say that Gorbachev was the cause (as liberals do) or that Reagan, Thatcher, and Pope John Paul were the cause (as conservatives do) or that German economic pressure did (as Germans do, and I'm sorry, that's ridiculous) is to tell ourselves tales of predictability that aren't fully so. Reagan might well have increased the instability, making a fall more likely. That's all. Things change too quickly.

It's worth remembering when considering something as inherently unstable as war and foreign policy. If we would only do X, then Y would happen. Maybe not. Two months ago the narrative was that we weren't making progress in Iraq, it was a failure, people are still dying, let's leave. A month ago the new narrative was the Surge is working, but the Iraqis are never going to get their act together. I think the new, new, narrative is that hey, the Iraqis are doing some good things, but maybe the Surge is only working about 75% as well as we thought - which is still good/not enough, depending on your original narrative. These are not only the firmly held beliefs of people like us who hardly know anything, these are the firmly (for now) held beliefs of those who we have elected or hired to know what's really going on. Even they are narrative-bound. The danger isn't that those foolish hawks/Democrats/neocons/antiwar activists/Republicans won't change their minds, but that they won't recognize that narrative is misleading in unstable situations. And warfare is always an unstable situation. Not that there is no cause and effect or no tendency, but that random events can change everything so quickly and adjustments must be made.

Next up on this topic: silent evidence.


jackscrow said...

You write so beautifully.

That said, can I have the rest of your Vicodin?

Anonymous said...

One of the arguments against the possibility of extraterrestrial intelligent beings/star-faring aliens is that there must not be any if they haven't already contacted us--which I see as an expression of the type of logic which says "if it hasn't happened, then it can't happen."

I recall there was supposed to be a saying in Russia, "We pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us", which I took to mean the people's lack of faith in the value of the ruble and the lack/lousy distribution of consumer goods. After the fall of the USSR, I thought that it indicated the rottenness and hollowness of the structure of the USSR, and that all it required was a push (by Reagan) to bring it down. Now I think--could be, might not.

Causes, effects--could be coincidence.

Anyway, ain't that Vicodin-ES good stuff?