While this does seem like a useful tool, it still leaves us with the problems of null hypothesis testing. One problem is that the null hypothesis is sometimes not very plausible. Arguing from a point of total randomness is an odd thing to do. What would we expect to see if the world was a chaotic place with no patterns? Hm, reality doesn't match that? Ok, well, our hypothesis is better than maximum entropy. Good!
Scott Alexander makes this error in a post which he explicitly predicted he'd regret writing. (Epistemic Warning: This is, perhaps, among the smaller problems with the post. A larger problem is that it makes readers think in simplistic tribes. Another possible problem is that it risks the same error it calls out. There's a reason he said he'd regret it.) He's discussing how strongly our friends and acquaintances are filtered in terms of beliefs:
And I don’t have a single one of those people in my social circle. It’s not because I’m deliberately avoiding them; I’m pretty live-and-let-live politically, I wouldn’t ostracize someone just for some weird beliefs. And yet, even though I probably know about a hundred fifty people, I am pretty confident that not one of them is creationist. Odds of this happening by chance? 1/2^150 = 1/10^45 = approximately the chance of picking a particular atom if you are randomly selecting among all the atoms on Earth.He goes on to use this number a couple more times as an indication of the strength of filtering:
I inhabit the same geographical area as scores and scores of conservatives. But without meaning to, I have created an outrageously strong bubble, a 10^45 bubble. Conservatives are all around me, yet I am about as likely to have a serious encounter with one as I am a Tibetan lama.And:
A disproportionate number of my friends are Jewish, because I meet them at psychiatry conferences or something – we self-segregate not based on explicit religion but on implicit tribal characteristics. So in the same way, political tribes self-segregate to an impressive extent – a 1/10^45 extent, I will never tire of hammering in – based on their implicit tribal characteristics.The problem is that this is a world-of-chaos-and-fire hypothesis he's comparing to. The number makes the strength of the filter incredible-sounding, almost physically implausible. But, that's just what you get when you use a bad model! Note that the "strength" would keep getting more extreme as we examine more data (just as a p-value gets extreme with more data, unless the null hypothesis is actually true).
It's not like there is a baseline world where everything is completely random, and an extra physical force on top of this which puts things into nonrandom configurations. (Except, perhaps, in the sense that everything is heading toward thermodynamic equilibrium.) We do not form associates with people randomly. It would be much more meaningful to compare possibly-realistic models and the level of friend filtering which they imply.
I'm not trying to call out Slate Star Codex here. That particular post happened to be an epistemic landmine, yes, but this mistake is easy to make and fairly common. What's interesting to me is the difference between what arguments feel meaningful vs actually are meaningful.