Friday, August 28, 2015

The problem of irreproducibility and the falling mask of (some) pseudo science

This week the “scientific world” (I’ll explain the quotes later on) was all abuzz with the publication, in Science, of the results of a group led by Brian Nosek that attempted to replicate 100 of the more salient experiments in the field of psychology (most of them in social psychology, a subfield that has been itself quite glamorous and attention grabbing in the last decade), and failed to do so in more than 60% of the cases. You can find the NYT take on here (Whoops, most psychology is make believe! ), the WaPo here (Jeepers, as replicable as the Horoscope!), the Economist (Hey! at least they are honest enough to recognize it publicly ) and Vox’s here (Add a sophisticated sounding word to your vocabulary: irreproducibility ). So it’s been kind of the big thing of the week, now that the Great China Slowdown seems to be receding from the public consciousness. Putting it charitably, if I can say I’m surprised at all is because they still found so many they could replicate (now when you go to the nitty gritty of what the studies purported to show you realize that they are pretty inconsequential, although in some cases the most fantastic extrapolations on how the mind works have been made using them as a fig leaf).

This resonates so much with how I think that it turns me a bit solipsistic: when the Universe corresponds so minutely with your preconceived ideas about it, it is difficult to avoid the suspicion that may be the only possible explanation is that it is just a product of your imagination. Just kidding, of course.
It is difficult to convey how much this assessment of the current state of the “scientific papers publishing industry” (that’s what most humanistic disciplines that aspire at a “scientific” status have effectively become) understates the magnitude of the problem, as it only looked at experiments and results published in the three most prestigious journals (prestige supposedly comes with being rigorous and exigent in the peer reviewing) of the field, and it had previously selected those that had both reached notoriety and… well, seemed comparatively easy to replicate. Had a random sample of articles in those same reviews been attempted, the “failure rate” would have been undoubtedly higher. Had the sample been widened to include more journals (necessarily with less cachet), the rate would have been (I’m guessing here, but “educatedly” so) astronomically higher. So I feel vindicated in my original belief that 90% of what passes for “psychological experimental science” today is a sad joke.
Not that I needed this confirmation, just reading the books written by their practitioners, and then checking the details of the original experiments they base them on should be more than enough to give any critical thinker pause. The most idiotic experiments are performed (make subjects inadvertently smell freshly baked bread and see if they report being more well inclined towards their fellow beings… crash rudely with them and see how that affects how friendly they seem to be towards an old lady having troubles with a copying machine… make them read a bloody paragraph about free will and measure if they are more prone to cheating in a subsequent exam! Really, you couldn’t make up all this idiocy), with tiny samples (between 20 and 30 subjects is considered normal) of amazingly homogeneous populations (it is not like the “researchers” work very hard to ensure the representativeness of their samples… 90% of experiments are done with students in the same universities where the experimenters work), which happen to be extremely poor representations of the whole of humanity (what has been called the WEIRD problem, as the subjects of western psychology experiments almost unfailingly come from a Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic background… which puts them in a tiny sliver of a minority of how most of the world lives today, or has lived for most of its history).

I traced the origin of that problem to none other than the notorious F, that from observations (and pretty edited ones at that) of a tiny bunch of Viennese Jewish wives of well-to-do liberal professionals towards the end of the XIX century purported to have discovered universal truths about how the mind of every single human being from the beginning of the species worked. He had a crush on his mom, held all his life a pissing contest with his dad (long after poor Jakob died and could piss no more young Sigmund was still hard at it), after telling his friends they were not totally taken aback by such revelations and, after being pressed enough, admitted to have maybe harbored similar feelings themselves, so, Presto! We could legitimately infer that  Old Gronk the Neanderthal had exactly the same feelings, and indeed they explain enormously why he painted all those bulls in Lascaux! And so did only slightly less old Schplink which most likely killed the old man and invented religion in the process!  And so did the Hebrew twelve tribes during the exodus (which repeated the killing taking not one Moses’ life, but two!) And, closer to our days, so did Leonardo da Vinci (who dreamed of vultures putting their feathers in his mouth, such transparent metaphor, the old fag! Only he never talked of vultures, but of small falcons, Ziggy just got his translation all jumbled, but that didn’t impede Pfister from “seeing” the shape of a vulture in the garments of the virgin of the rocks… never mind!), and so did that poor bastard Dostoievski, damned be his Slavic soul (and don’t give me that the guy was epileptic! It is all mental, psychological, he really was a hysteric!) Seen with some perspective, it is pretty silly to think that by projecting his prejudices (quite bigoted for our modern sensibilities) formed by observing that minimal bunch he could arrive at any truly universal knowledge… but that is exactly what he did, what he spent the rest of his life furiously defending. Oh, the stupendous amounts of vitriol in the attacks to whoever doubted the soundness of his methods! They were all small-minded, philistines, hypocrites and not clear-eyed enough; they clung to old fantasies like religion, nationalism, militarism, or any discredited philosophy; they were too simpleton, too unsubtle to appreciate the greatness of the scientific project that culminated in his theories.

And it is sad to report that for decades the educated world swallowed that drivel hook, line and sinker (well, Stalinism was the de facto only political truth for almost all of Continental Europe’s intelligentsia, so psychoanalysis was not the only kool aid the educated classes were busily consuming then). So it can’t come as a surprise that, even long after the abandonment of psychoanalysis the poor souls educated in psychology departments in Western universities cling to the idea that observing any casual behavior of a bunch of guys suspiciously similar to yourself is a perfectly valid application of the scientific method to confirm any ludicrous hypothesis you fancy to hold, as long as such hypothesis conforms to what the dominant reason tells you are the basic tenets of the only acceptable worldview:

·         The only substance that is really out there is matter
·         The only valid objects of knowledge are the (hopefully simple) laws that determine how matter evolves
·         There is no such thing as free will
·         There is no such thing as value, only pleasurable or displeasing states of mind

You would think that given those constraints the best thing to do for a honest, coherent student of psychology (or sociology, or politics, or economics for that matter) would be to claim for the closure of the corresponding department, to save unnecessary expenses to the public and spare other unfortunate souls like him (or her) the sheer waste of time. Not that this is an entirely novel idea, I humbly recognize that (half-jokingly, as they are wont to do) the guys at The Onion beat me to this by almost a year: Psych recognizes it is bogus and calls it quits
Of course, nothing of the sort will happen. Hapless boys and girls will continue attending to lectures where endless platitudes of dubious epistemic status will be hurled at them as if they were well established scientific facts. And in turn they will first participate as subjects (for some “beer money”) and afterwards design and carry out silly “experiments” themselves that will only be able to validate whatever theoretical construction they are supposed to buttress, without realizing that rather than expanding the landscape of solidly founded human knowledge all they are doing is adding more and more tautological constructions to an edifice (the dominant reason of the age) that admits of no such thing. By definition the dominant reason is impervious to empirical (or scientific) validation. Societies accept it because it happens to have some influence in how their members behave that gives them some advantage in an environment of inter-societal competition. Our current (desiderative) reason is not dominant because it somehow reflects better how things “really” are, but because it helped our society win two wars, first against fascism and afterwards against communism. And it did it by being better than the alternative models they used (one of which –communism– was an embodiment of the previously dominant reason in our society, the bureaucratic reason, and the other –fascism– of the one previous to that, the sentimental or romantic reason) at making its people (us) work longer hours and devote more of our energies to the production of material goods, material goods which in turn allowed us to have bigger, deadlier armies, better equipped, superior enough that in the end we didn’t even have to deploy them in the battlefield.

Now my most astute readers may have noticed that we do not inhabit a scenario of inter-societal competition any more, as there is a single, hegemonic, homogeneous world-system that is accepted as valid everywhere, from Beijing to New York, from Mogadishu to Canberra. There are some fringe elements within that single system that purportedly oppose it (Islamic extremist would be the most belligerent example), and some currents equally within the system that may show some minor discrepancies with the established theoretical discourse (both nominally communist China and crony Russia may defend their peculiarities as alternatives to the predominantly Western model), but I would argue that none of them is either extended enough or different enough as to imply a real threat to our (and theirs) current rationality. So, if that were the case, the whole edifice may come crumbling down, as its final justification is that it enables the societies espousing it to more effectively compete against other societies of similar might (as the production of more material goods showed itself to be a successful strategy against fascism and communism, but doesn’t seem to work all that well against either jihadism or softer versions of totalitarianism), so if there are none of the latter the former losses all meaning. Indeed. That’s why I’ve been announcing that the days of this flavor of dominant reason (which I call desiderative reason) are already numbered, and why I have started thinking in how it may evolve (that is, what the features of the successor rationality may be). What I can share is that there will most likely not be any place in the new rationality for the most cherished tenets of what today constitutes psychology. It will be abandoned, and future generations will look with a mixture of amusement and disdain towards what today passes as a “science”, much as we look to Aristotelian physics and smile thinking how could our forebears be so naïve, and believe that such amount of mumbo jumbo and gibberish was fit to keep adults engaged. 

Thursday, August 27, 2015

From our crappy present to our sunny future (what happens between now and then)

Last month I had a lot of fun finally putting to paper my idea of how a future society (the first truly global, and hopefully truly humane) may look like (you can find it here: Sunny future and here Politics of sunny future and here Economy of sunny future and finally here -it was quite long even for my verbosity standards, but describing a whole viable social arrangement is no small potatoes: loose ends of sunny future ). It was a pretty old project I’ve been engaged on and off with for the last five years, which I intended to use for a “popular” book of mild Sci Fi. Something in the line of the “new age utopia” supposedly penned by one of the main characters of Martin Amis The Information (that I may still some day develop, the main plot and the ending are already written, all that was missing was a credible background that now I consider fully fleshed out, or at least with consistent enough guidelines to allow for the fleshing out). For those following this blog regularly, I may come back to this every now and then, as I play with some feature that requires an explanation, or want to expand on some critique of our current society by describing a potential alternative, as this is what the exercise was about from the beginning: accepting that every society is improvable, how would my version of a “better” society look like was for me important to spell out, as I was (and still am) a bit tired of so many interwebz warriors talking crap about capitalism and accusing everybody who doesn’t share their radical agenda of being a sellout without being able to define what they would like to see in its place. What I describe in those posts is what I would like to see.

Of course, the fact that I would like to see it is not by itself a great indicator of its plausibility. We humans have an abysmal record estimating probabilities (as this wonderful post in the Slate Star Codex reminds us of: On overconfidence ), and even worse when we let our desires weigh in the issue. So I do not pretend to believe that such future is very probable, although I do consider it both viable and more likely than not. Now, what are the big unknowns that may render this little exercise in prediction entirely off the mark?, I can think of the following events, each of them with a very low probability but with a potentially huge impact in the final outcome:

·        Total nuclear war (not causing the annihilation of the human race, I always believed that fear was irrational and overblown, but it may still cause severe societal breakdown in the northern hemisphere all the same, and back to the inter state race for survival that puts a premium on reproduction rates sky high above replacement, and all the intra societal competition maladies that come with it)
·        Limited nuclear war (detonation of nuclear device in a major Western city most likely by a stateless actor with likely retaliation towards the most likely sponsor of such action) and reinforcement of totalitarian tendencies in current “open” societies… leading to completely “administered” lives in giant macro-states, where the level of population and economic activity are dictated by centralized bureaucrats
·        Scientific breakthrough that enables space travel, colonization of Mars, the Moon and beyond (and new demographic push to populate new peripheries and new frontiers, with societies cranking up again the demographic and economic arms race to colonize the new lands in what would amount to a new imperialist expansion)
·        Scientific breakthrough that enables immersive, two directional virtual reality (VR) with simulated tactile feedback, and massive retreat of humanity into virtual worlds, once the tiny problem of feeding the bodies we left behind in this one is solved (which doesn’t seem all that difficult, synthetic food is already cheap to produce, and not having to worry about taste and texture would make it even more so)
·        Inability of society to adapt to massive climate disruption caused by continued pumping of Green House Gasses in the atmosphere (worst case scenario) and either extinction of human species after famines, riots and total war or retreat into fortified states that survive the turmoil in the remaining habitable zones, probably heavily armed and oriented towards hegemony at any price (thus nationalistic-jingoistic and in my humble opinion not very conductive to the flourishing of their unlucky subjects)
You may notice I have not included the singularity, the advent of post-humanity (by our merging with machines to enhance our capabilities until we end up becoming a different species) or the wiping out of humanity by an evil (or simply not that fond of us) AI. I just don’t believe any of those fancy things are going to happen. Technological progress is going to quietly come to a halt, without much fuss, without fanfare, without anybody much noticing it. Two or three hundred years from now somebody will look back and say “wow, for three or four generations we have been living exactly as our parents, Isn’t that weird?” but it won’t be (in fact, it will be the culmination of the reversal to the historical average). Not that there won’t be lots of innovation: people will create wonderful stories, great art (I don’t know through which means of expression), daring theories of why we are here and how nature works… it will just not have that much influence in how we live (what we dress, how we build our houses, what we eat, how we cure ourselves when ill). But that is an interesting topic for a separate post (why I think Artificial Intelligence is just not going to happen), although I’ll leave my readers with a hint: the interesting question is not if there will be artificial intelligence fifty years from now (or if there is extraterrestrial intelligence anywhere in the Universe outside of Earth right now, or if there ever was), the interesting question is if there is intelligence (natural or otherwise) here and now. And the fact that we can meaningfully pose such a question, and be uncertain about its answer tells us a lot about why it is premature to think of “building” something we understand so imperfectly (if at all).

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

About the current turmoil in China (storm in a teacup or a harbinger of things to come?)

Back home after a wonderful three week vacation I´ve used to reload and recharge (not that I was either unloaded or discharged), plus putting the finishing touches on my dissertation, time for the Vintage Rocker to get back behind the keyboard and dispense more internet wisdom and thoughtful content for the thought starved masses (yep, all three or four of you guys).

And what better moment to put back the thinking cap than the current market meltdown, apparently driven by the fear that the much awaited GCS (“Great China Slowdown”, never heard of it? Come on! There probably isn’t a single self-respecting pundit  that hasn’t predicted it at least once in the last decade… hell, some of us have been predicting it almost monthly for all of that time) has finally arrived. It may have and it may have not, I’m not yet fully convinced. If I had to give a probability spread, I’d say there is a 70% chance this will end up being a minor bump in the road (meaning that China still manages to grow around or slightly above 5% this year, and that their stock market recovers so in two to three months is no lower than  60-70% its previous maximum in July), a 20% it is a significant bump (China’s grow comes to a halt, and may even enter into a mild recession, and the main index for its stocks is still less than half of what it was in July three months from now –which, given it had more than doubled in the first half of the year, would simply mean that it finishes 2015 roughly where it started) and a 10% it is a crash for the history books (with contraction of GDP above 30%, shares below 10% of their July value, massive unemployment, major social unrest, and eventual toppling of the Chinese Communist Party, or at a minimum of their current leadership, to be substituted by a new strongman followed by the imposition of much harsher and stricter emergency laws).

I’m following the events with great interest (understatement of the week!), as China for the last decade seems to be a fine scale model (1:10 scale to be precise) of the whole capitalist world-economy, based on monopoly rent extraction by those well connected with a nominally independent government (in their case it is not democratically elected, but see what happened with supposedly democratic ones in Greece and Italy, and what percentage of the eligible population votes in the American elections that end up deciding the sign of both Congress and the Senate). In no particular order, these are some of the most salient features of the situation that are catching my attention:

·         China accounts for 90% of the World’s poverty reduction for the last 20 years (neither Africa, nor India, have managed to reduce much their absolute number of destitute people, although at least they’ve managed to make all the population they added “not desperately poor”, which is already a substantial improvement over their historical trend). The whole capacity of “free markets” (the highly bastardized version we call by that name) is put into question if China becomes unable to keep playing catch-up to the Western democracies (as they have been doing those same twenty years)

·         We may be exploring the limits of such catch-up development. China has been importing technology (in a wide sense that includes not only machinery and power plant designs, but also management techniques and software to run ever more complex, more sophisticated corporations) and leveraging their cheap labor force to attract capital (either in the form of direct investment –over which it has always exercised a high degree of control, and by selling huge quantities of low-quality goods to the rest of the world, which created an enormous trade surplus). That has enabled the country to invest at a staggering pace, moving from an average GDP per capita of roughly 1,000 $ in 1980 to 12,700 $ in 2014 (in PPP, in nominal dollars it’s closer to 7,000), which has required a phenomenal rate of growth of almost 10% per year for more than three decades. Impressive? Let’s not forget the GDP per capita of the USA in 2014 was roughly 55,000 $ (again in PPP, which obviously in this case coincides with the amount in nominal dollars). So the average Chinese has gone, after three decades of breakneck enrichment, from being dirt poor to being only moderately poor (the poverty threshold in the USA for a single adult is 11,700 $ a year).  It may sound discouraging that just copying other people’s innovations can only take you a tad above being on average 20% as wealthy as them, but for India (or any sub-Saharan country) it’s a great piece of news, as they still have spare room to quadruple their current wealth before getting there

·         Keynesianism can only take you so far (the state can step in and spend instead of the private sector up to a point, but finally there is no way to keep building infrastructure nobody will use or houses nobody will live in, as we Spaniards know all too well). We will probably have ample opportunity to explore not only the limits of catch-up (see previous point), but of Keynesianism as a whole and of state investment and its ability to reinvigorate a sagging economy, as my hunch is that the central committee is about to go bananas with the former, but is going to barely improve the latter. Why? Think about it, the reason China is finding it difficult to keep growing at previous speed is not for lack of machinery or infrastructure (they have unused capacity galore) that may give them additional productivity gains to outprice their competitors (they have almost none), but for lack of people that can buy their trinkets, not only in China, but in the rest of the world. China has been saying it was shifting from an export oriented growth model to an internal consumption dominated one for almost twenty years, but they haven’t been able to do It, and I’m ultra skeptical they will be able to do it now

·         That leaves internal consumer spending as the only component of aggregate demand that may offer a way to resume the growth path. When the rest of the world is stagnant, it stands to reason that you can not grow an economy without growing the consumer spending, BUT you can not grow the consumer spending when a) there are less consumers every passing year (only Africa is growing its population at this point, but they have no money to consume) and b) salaries are stagnant or decreasing (except the top 1%, with very low marginal propensity to consume). The most astute observers are already linking the secular stagnation with the (equally secular) reversal of demographic trends and slowdown in technological innovation. Of course, less people means less consumers of everything. It is very difficult to grow the total output of an economy with less producers, although via productivity gains it could be done. But why would you pursue those productivity gains if the additional production will sit forever in your warehouses for lack of consumers? (well, you could make your products perishable in a shorter time span, so the dwindling number of consumers would still need to buy more of them… it has been tried, it is called programmed obsolescence and in the consumer electronics and automotive markets it has worked wonders, but more and more people seem to be wising up to it and it doesn’t seem to be working so well any more).

·         China is a fascinating social experiment of the psychological consequences of extreme materialism, after sixty years of state propaganda relentlessly denying the possibility of any transcendent reality, and the kind of familial structures associated with such mentality (Russia would be another shining example, and you can easily spot some troubling similarities regarding the shape of familial structures). You can find there the most extreme version of the most corroding tendencies affecting most capitalist nations: every man for himself (don’t sell me Confucian values and collectivism in a society without siblings, which constitute the first and paradigmatic schooling in living and working within a collective), hyper competitiveness, crony capitalism and corrupt allocation of resources... The party cadres reaching the upper echelons of the Country are the product of the one child policy (officially started in 1979, but being followed in practice by the educated urban classes that formed the top tier of the CCP since at least a decade before), what the Chinese press dubbed “little emperors”, and thus one of the most spoiled children ever to be granted government responsibilities…

So whatever happens in the following weeks it is going to teach us a lot about the shape of things to come. I’ll leave you with a final thought: In the nineties Giovanni Arrighi thought that the latest accumulation cycle of capitalism (dominated by the USA) was coming to an end, the stagflation of the 70’s being what he called the “signal crisis”, and waiting only for the termination crisis that would confirm the demise of the old hegemon and the rise to dominance of a new one. He was always cautious about who that successor superpower would be, but he strongly hinted that China was one strong candidate. For the last decade we have been hearing (from left and right, with admiration and distrust) about the rise of China as one of the most significant geopolitical developments of our times, and the question widely posed was always if China would rise to the level of the USA (both in terms of economic power and of military might, as it is well understood that both variables cannot be decoupled) or if it would effectively surpass it. For many, given its sheer size and population, it was a question of when, not if. We may have an inkling of the answer to both questions in the next days.