A Lazy Sunday’s Blogging

From a comment that I left here:

Human behavior has too many complex variables to be plotted out neatly in graphs and charts and equations, and besides, humans beings lie. To themselves and to each other.

So the data points you may enter into any equation will always be colored by human fallibility.

What we want is to predict human behavior. We may be able to predict certain behaviors in very narrow circumstances but even that is fraught with difficulty. Why do people tend to buy a certain type of toothpaste or why do IEDs tend to be placed at certain times of day, etc? But even if we plot a graph and it fits a set of variables, we still don’t really know how or why we got the graph and whether it is related or a statistical fluke. For example, we may predict what toothpaste a category of persons likes to buy, but it’s a lot harder to predict why person A bought toothpaste B in country C at noon on a Sunday. Even if person A buys toothpaste in the same way every single time we have studied that person, maybe one day an old friend calls up out of the blue and says, “meet me for coffee.” No shopping that day.

Did your linear progression have the variable for a friend calling up out of the blue in it? Adam Smith’s “the invisible hand” and all of that.

Take for instance, historical examples of good and bad campaigns: sometimes two leaders within an organization just didn’t get along and that affected decision making. How does an equation explain such a human intangible?

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try and predict behavior, it just means that we must understand the limitations of the tools that we use and be willing to reexamine the tools as experience dictates.

Good discussion!

*I posted this previously, but in the late 90s the Sokol hoax was a push back from the scientific community (in this case, a physicist) against the use of post-modern literary theory to understand science.

There were several criticisms:

1. The post modern theorists didn’t really understand the scientific terms that they were using and were simply decorating their prose with scientific terminology in order to sound more impressive.

2. An analogy is simply an analogy. When you say something in human behavior is like fluid dynamics, it doesn’t mean that the equations for fluid dynamics can be used on human behavior. An analogy is not the same thing as, well, the same thing.

I believe the misuse of scientific analogies is discussed in the following:

Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science

By the way, all of this is not against using narratives or constructs to understand the world but against the misuse of science. That was the real center of the discussion.

Tell me what I’ve got wrong in the comments. Tell me a little something about human fallibility….

11 thoughts on “A Lazy Sunday’s Blogging”

  1. Actually, auto traffic does follow some of the rules of fluid dynamics so that traffic studies can be quite accurate in predicting the effects of changes in street design.

  2. I added your comment over there too. Thanks for the correction MK :)

    And now I really have to get back to work!

    – Madhu

  3. I could not agree more. I went on a minor rant over at Zenpundit’s site about a paper that used Quantum Mechanics as a metaphor for Counterinsurgency. Joseph Fouche made a good comment that made me think a bit; he noted the sheer quantity of physics metaphors that have infested military theory (kinetic action, center of gravity, etc.).

    It wasn’t enough to make me rethink my active dislike of Quantum Mechanics metaphors (listen, you may or may not understand counterinsurgency, but I can all but guarantee that you don’t understand Quantum Mechanics). I still feel that, however counterintuitive some of classical mechanics can be, it is much more intuitively intelligible (watch highlights of tacklers bouncing off of Maurice Jones-Drew, and you’ll see the concept of center of gravity incarnate) than QM. Bohr and Einstein had problems with Quantum Mechanical paradoxes.

  4. Mike K,

    I agree with you re: Fluid Dynamics and traffic. That said, perhaps even there one can follow the theories a little far. The linked article on the Weekly Standard site describes a traffic engineering concept called “induced demand.” Basically, if you add lanes to traffic corridors, you may not reduce congestion. The article argues that this is not true.

    The author lives in Northern Virginia, as I do. This quote is priceless: “In 2008 the Virginia Department of Transportation began work adding a fourth lane to the six-mile stretch of I-95 between the Springfield interchange and the exit for Virginia State Road 123. This is likely of very little consequence to you, but it was a life-changing moment for me: I live not far from State Road 123. And my daily commute along that stretch of I-95 had been slowly killing everything that was once good inside me.” I can recall one instance where I almost starting foaming at the mouth (the Norse would have called me a “berserker) in I-95 traffic, so I can sympathize.

  5. My impression is that human consciousness is associative, constructed through analogy. Symbols are the basic unit of representation and then they’re associated together with some symbols as keys and other symbols as values. Metaphors and narratives are more complex aggregations of symbolic associations.

    If we look at CvC’s use of a Newtonian science term like “friction” , in the original Klingon it came heavily qualified with lots of heavy Teutonic qualifications. When a modern English-speaker reads On War, some of the machine tooled precision of the original was lost as Graham, Howard, and Paret whittled CvC’s “friction” into English. Even then it remains qualified. However, if Graham-Howard-Paret’s use of the term is removed from the English translation and slapped in a textbook or PowerPoint slide, more context is lost and “friction” becomes even more context-free.

    CvC’s use may have looked like:

    (‘friction’, ‘metaphor’, ‘figurative’, ‘not Newtonian’, …) = (‘summation’, ‘danger’, ‘murphy’s law’, ‘difficulty’, …)

    The PowerPoint version might look like this:

    ‘friction’ = ‘military static cling’

    Learning is the destruction of one set of associations related through analogies and replacing them with another. Hopefully it’s a better set but there’s no guarantee.

    The brain is a giant information compression mechanism and the transmission of knowledge from one brain to another means that knowledge communicated is more compressed than knowledge stored in the brain. The right association accurately transmits knowledge from one who really knows to others. If it fails, the knowledge transfer may be more harmful than good.

    I may have committed the sin of overuse of physics jargon in a recent document:


    but sometimes crimes against metaphor in pursuit of clarification is no vice.

  6. Metaphors are dangerous.

    “Consciousness”, “mind” and “association” are vague metaphors. Computer metaphors have been popular for the past several decades, and now database metaphors are popular. (In the old days clockwork metaphors and pneumatic-tube metaphors were common. Cycle and electrical metaphors are always in vogue.) “Hard wired” is a currently fashionable metaphor that usually means the speaker/writer 1) attributes some behavior to an organism’s genotype and 2) asserts that that behavior is immutable. It’s easy to substitute inaccurate metaphors for logical argument and get away with it.

    People who don’t study (I don’t necessarily mean formally study) rhetoric are especially vulnerable to misleading metaphors used by charlatans and demagogues. It helps to study scientific method too. But everyone is vulnerable to bad arguments, and bad arguments come in countless forms. Maybe the only universal defense against them is an attitude of rigorous empiricism.

  7. Interestingly enough, many scientific ideas are themselves metaphors taken from human interactions.

    Prior to Newton, “gravity” was something a powerful and influential individual had. We still retain this original meaning of gravity in the word “gravitas”. Newton used gravity as metaphor liking the movement of the planets toward the sun as being the same as the way that high status individuals attracted people to themselves. “Force” likewise originally meant a action taking by a human.

    One of my chemistry professors observed that we often anthropomorphisize elements and chemicals e.g. saying that halogens like Chlorine “badly” want that last electron to complete their outer shell. Some alien listening to human scientific dialog could well believe that scientist were just another form of animistic shamans who believed the world motivated by little spirits.

  8. Sure, metaphors may be useful and scientific theories may be based on them. Scientists need to be as careful as anyone else not to misuse metaphors.

  9. Thanks for the comments, everyone!

    Here is something I found on scientific metaphors and analogies (it looks like a book treatment?):

    One can’t argue that metaphor should not be used in scientific analysis. Metaphor is one of the fundamental ways we understand the world; we could no more give it up than we could volunteer never to use our eyes. The comparison between DNA and language, for example, provided a crucial insight: that DNA ought to have punctuation. The analogy provided the prediction, and subsequent analysis proved it quite true. But other inferences from the same metaphor have not held up; DNA has no “sentences”, and even “words” are a troublesome concept in that context. What’s more, DNA actually represents only a fraction of the information needed to make a growing child.

    There is an important contrast to make between a scientific paradigm–the framework within which explanations are offered–and the use of scientific metaphors, a more literary exercise. The progress of physics during the 1920’s advanced largely in spite of the lack of available metaphors for the disturbing findings of the quantum mechanics revolution. Contrast this with the comparable revolution in genetics during the 1950’s, when the field became so taken with the literary value of the metaphor that contributions from people like Barbara McClintock were ignored at least in part because they couldn’t be accommodated by the language.

    The thesis presented here does not argue, as several post-modernist theories of science and language do, that reality is a construct of the ideologies and predispositions of the observer. The Computer Between My Ears is about how accurately certain metaphors reflect the underlying reality. That is, some constructs are demonstrably wrong, a point that eludes many theorists. The reality is there, the issue is how we talk about it, and the inferences we make from the language we use.



    – Madhu

  10. “The post modern theorists didn’t really understand the scientific terms that they were using and were simply decorating their prose with scientific terminology in order to sound more impressive”

    This is true as far as it goes, but not sufficient to explain what is observed. Understanding that postmodernism is an aspect of leftism, and leftism is basically the politics of narcissism, it follows that the postmodernists who do this do so because they feel entitled, by virtue of their credentials/tribal membership/inherent superiority, to redefine and re-purpose the terms as they see fit. Because language is something that belongs to them and them alone, and in their minds, scientists have no right to attach fixed meanings to terms.

Comments are closed.