Monday, March 16, 2015

The Ordinary Web of Lies

One of the basic lessons in empiricism is that you need to consider how the data came to you in order to use it as evidence for or against a hypothesis. Perhaps you have a set of one thousand survey responses, answering questions about income, education level, and age. You want to draw conclusions about the correlations of these variables in the United States. Before we do so, we need to ask how the data was collected. Did you get these from telephone surveys? Did you walk around your neighborhood and knock on people's doors? Perhaps you posted the survey on Amazon's Mechanical Turk? These different possibilities give you samples from very different populations.

When we obtain data in a way that does not evenly sample from the population we are trying to study, this is called selection bias. If not accounted for, selection effects can cause you to draw just about any conclusion, regardless of the truth.

In modern society, we consume a very large amount of information. Practically all of that information is highly filtered. Most of this filtering is designed to nudge your beliefs in specific directions. Even when the original authors engage in intellectual honesty, we usually see something as a result of a large, complex filter imposed by society (for example, social media). Even when scientists are perfectly unbiased, journalists can choose to cite only the studies which support their perspective.

I have cultivated what I think is a healthy fear of selection effects. I would like to convey to the reader a visceral sense of danger, because it's so easy to be trapped in a web of false beliefs based on selection effects.

A Case Study

Consider this article, Miracles of the Koran: Chemical Elements Indicated in the Koran. A Muslim roommate showed this to me when I voiced skepticism about the miraculous nature of the Koran. He suggested that there could be no ordinary explanation of such coincidences. (Similar patterns have been found in the Bible, a phenomenon which has been named the Bible Code.) I decided to try to attempt an honest analysis of the data to see what it led to.

Take a look at these coincidences. On their own, they are startling, right? When I first looked at these, I had the feeling that they were rather surprising and difficult to explain. I felt confused.

Then I started to visualize the person who had written this website. I supposed that they were (from their own perspective) making a perfectly honest attempt to record patterns in the Koran. They simply checked each possibility they thought of, and recorded what patterns they found.

There are 110 elements on the periodic table. The article discusses the placement (within a particular Sura, the Iron Sura) of Arabic letters which correspond (roughly) to the element abbreviations used on the Periodic Table. For example, the first coincidence noted is that the first occurrence of the Arabic equivalent of "Rn" is 86 letters from the beginning of the verse, and the atomic number of the element Rn is 86. The article notes similar coincidences with atomic weight (as opposed to atomic number), the number of letters from the end of the verse (rather than the beginning), the number of words (rather than number of letters), and several other variations.

Notice that simply looking at the number of characters from the beginning and the end, we double the chances of corresponding to the atomic number. Similarly, looking for atomic weights as well as atomic numbers doubles the chances. Each extra degree of freedom we allow multiplies the chances in this way.

I couldn't easily account for all the possible variations the article's author might have looked for. However, I could restrict myself to one class of patterns and see how much the data looked like chance.

Even restricting myself to one particular class of patterns, I did not know enough of the statistics of the Arabic language to come up with a real Bayesian analysis of the data. I made some very, very rough assumptions which I didn't write down and no longer recall. I estimated the number of elements which would follow the pattern by chance, and my estimate came very close to the number which the article actually listed.

I have to admit, whatever my analysis was, it was probably quite biased as well. It's likely that I added assumptions in a way which was likely to get me the answer I wanted, although I felt I was not doing that. Even supposing that I didn't, I did stop doing math once the numbers looked like chance, satisfied with the answer. This in itself creates a bias. I could certainly have examined some of my assumptions more closely to make a better estimate, but the numbers said what I wanted, so I stopped questioning.

Nonetheless, I do think that the startling coincidences are entirely explained by the strong selection effect produced by someone combing the Koran for patterns. Innocently reporting patterns which fit your theory, with no intention to mislead, can produce startling arguments which appear at first glance to very strongly support your point. The most effective, convincing versions of these startling arguments will get shared widely on the internet and other media (so long as there is social incentive to spread the argument).

If you're not accounting for selection bias, then trying to respond to arguments with rational consideration makes you easy to manipulate. Your brain can be reprogrammed simply by showing it the most convincing arguments in one direction and not the other.

Everything is Selection Bias

Selection processes filter everything we see. We see successful products and not unsuccessful ones. We hear about famous people, which greatly biases our perception of how to get rich. We filter our friends quite a bit, perhaps in ways we don't even realize, and then often we trick ourselves into wrong conclusions about typical people based on the people we've chosen as friends.

No matter what data you're looking at, it was sampled from some distribution. It's somewhat arbitrary to think that selecting from university students is biased, but that selecting evenly from Amaricans is not. Indeed, university professors have far more incentive to understand the psychology of the student population! What matters is being aware of the selection process which got you the data, and accounting for that when trying to draw conclusions.

Even biological evolution can be seen as a selection effect. Selective pressure takes a tiny minority of the genes, and puts those genes into the whole population. This is a kind of self-fulfilling selection effect, weirder than simple selection bias. It's as if the rock stars in one generation become the common folk of the next.

The intuition I'm trying to get across is: selection effects are something between a physical force and an agent. Like an agent, selection effects optimize for particular outcomes. Like a physical force, selection effects operate automatically, everywhere, without requiring a guiding hand to steer them. This makes them a dangerous creature.

Social Constructs

Social reality is a labyrinth of mirrors reflecting each other. All the light ultimately comes from outside the maze, but the mirrors can distort it any way they like. The ordinary web of lies is my personal term for this. Many people will think of religion, but it goes far beyond this. When society decides a particular group is the enemy, they become the enemy. When society deems words or concepts uncouth, they are uncouth. I call these lies, but it's not what we ordinarily mean by dishonest. It's terrifyingly easy to distort reality. Even one person, alone, will tend to pick and choose observations in a self-serving way. When we get together in groups, we have to play the game: selecting facts to use as social affirmations or condemnations, selecting arguments to create consensus... it's all quite normal.

This all has to do with the concept of hyperstition (see Lemurian Time War) and hyperreality. Hyperstition refers to superstition which makes itself real. Hyperreality refers to our inability to distinguish certain fictions from reality, and the way in which our fictional, constructed world tends to take primacy over the physical world. Umberto Eco illustrates this nicely in his book Focault's Pendulum, which warns of the deadly danger in these effects.

The webcomic The Accidental Space Spy explores alien cultures as a way of illustrating evolutionary psychology. One of the races, the Twolesy, has evolved strong belief in magic wizards. These wizards command the towns. Whoever doubts the power of a wizard is killed. Being that it has been this way for many generations, the Twolesy readily hallucinate magic. Whatever the wizards claim they can do, the Twolesy hallucinate happening. Whatever other Twolesy claim is happening, they hallucinate as well. Twolesy who do not hallucinate will not be able to play along with the social system very effectively, and are likely to be killed.

Similarly with humans. Our social system relies on certain niceties. Practically anything, no matter how not about signaling it is, becomes a subject for signaling. Those who are better at filtering information to their advantage have been chosen by natural selection for generations. We need not consciously know what we're doing -- it seems to work best when we fool ourselves as well as everyone else. And yes, this goes so far as to allow us to believe in magic. There are mentalists who know how to fool our perceptions and consciously develop strategies to do so, but equally well, there are Wiccans and the like who have similar success by embedding themselves in the ordinary web of lies.

Something which surprised me a bit is that when you try to start describing rationality techniques, people will often object to the very idea of truth-oriented dialog. Truth-seeking is not the first thing on people's minds in everyday conversation, and when you raise it to their awareness, it's not obvious that it should be. Other things are more important.

Imagine a friend has experienced a major loss. Which is better: frank discussion of the mistakes they made, or telling them that it's not really their fault and anyway everything will work out for the best in the end? In American culture at least, it can be rude to let on that you think it might be their fault. You can't honestly speculate about that, because they're likely to get their feelings hurt. Only if you're reasonably sure you have a point, and if your relationship is close enough that they will not take offense, could you say something like that. Making your friend feel better is often more important. By convincing them that you don't think it's their fault, you strengthen the friendship by signalling to them that you trust them. (In Persian culture, I'm given to understand, it's the opposite way: everyone should criticize each other all the time, because you want to make your friends think that you know better than them.)

When the stakes are high, other things easily become more important than the truth.

Notice the consequences, though: the mistakes with high consequences are exactly the ones you want to thoroughly debug. What's important is not whether it's your fault or no; what matters is whether there are different actions you should take to forestall disaster, next time a similar situation arises.

What, then? Bad poetry to finish it off?

Beware, beware, the web of lies;
the filters twist the truth, and eyes
are fool'd too well; designed to see
what'ere the social construct be!

We the master, we the tool,
that spin the thread and carve the spool
weave the web and watch us die!

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