Tag Archives: being and seeming

Conferences and seminars as cargo cults

I wrote about the wastefulness of physically travelling to conferences or to give seminars, because one could give a presentation via a video call over the internet (http://sanderheinsalu.com/ajaveeb/?p=442). Other than habit or tradition, why would scientists organise conferences and seminars with physical attendance? One explanation I offered was that physical presence is a commitment device. Herding is another justification to any tradition. Irrationality is a third, which complements herding.

Holding conferences and seminars may be rational if top researchers are presenting and providing feedback, because there is much to learn from them. Such workshops may not be useful if the participants are not on the research frontier. Nonetheless, the low-achievers may organise such gatherings, because they want to publish like the high-achievers, and they perceive that the high-achievers benefit from the research meetings of large groups. A cargo cult means imitating someone’s behaviour to reach the same goals as them, but without understanding the reason why their actions lead to the results they do. The lack of comprehension of the underlying mechanism leads the imitation subtly astray, so it does not obtain the desired results. The conferences and seminars of low-achievers are a cargo cult if the following hold: only the participation of high-achievers makes research meetups useful, the high-achievers do not attend low-prestige meetups, and the low-achievers do not understand the above. It is difficult to test the usefulness of any action in research, because publication success is noisy, influenced by many factors and with long delays. Thus it is difficult to test whether there is a cargo cult in the less advanced levels of the research community.

Besides improving quality, the feedback of top researchers can increase publication chances by making the research of those lower in the scientific hierarchy conform to the tastes of the top. This is a horizontal differentiation effect – matching idiosyncratic tastes. It is not vertical differentiation (improving quality). If top people as referees and editors favour a certain field of research or ideology, then presenting work to them may uncover their biases and enable an author to pander to them.

Another way that presenting helps with publication is the familiarity effect. When the referee or editor has seen the paper presented before reading it, then the content is familiar and thus easier to understand. The reader may interpret the ease of comprehension as clarity of the paper, not familiarity of the material. Clear writing and well-structured ideas are a positive signal to the referee and increase the publication chances.

If the second-best people imitate the highest-achievers, then the third-best may imitate the second-best, etc. The cargo cults may be multilayered. Such imitation of imitators is called herding. It may sometimes be individually rational, but may lead to socially suboptimal ignoring of later information in favour of imitating the decisions of those who acted based on earlier info. Herding strengthens the effects of mistaken imitation, thus worsening cargo cult effects.

Cargo cults occur widely – any time there is a fad, fashion or bubble, some people jump on the bandwagon because their role models did, without asking why the role models did so. The personal situation of the trailbreakers may make it rational for them to act in a certain way, but the different circumstances of the followers may make imitation counterproductive for them. An example is creating a financial bubble to profit from it (pump-and-dump strategy). The starters profit from the amount invested by the followers. The last people to become followers lose their investment when the bubble bursts. I am not the first to compare the research community to a pyramid scheme – search „Profzi scheme” online.

Remembering the sacrifice

Many times and in many places I have seen a call to remember the sacrifice of the soldiers who died in some past conflict. Often, this call seems an attempt to direct attention away from the misguidedness of the particular conflict or the incompetence and selfish motives of the leadership who decided to enter the war. It tries to make people focus on the noble courage of the soldiers, not the sordid power-hunger of the rulers. The bravery of soldiers is discussed in another post (http://sanderheinsalu.com/ajaveeb/?p=595); here I would like to clarify this sacrifice business.

If the soldiers volunteered under reasonably accurate information about the reasons for the conflict and the chances of success, then indeed they chose to sacrifice themselves for the cause. Then we should remember their sacrifice. If, however, they were conscripted (dictatorships often call this volunteering) using the threat of punishment for them or their family, then they did not make the sacrifice any more than a sacrificial animal sacrifices itself. Others sacrificed the conscripts to further their own ends.

These ends are unlikely to prioritize defeating an evil regime and making the world a better place, although the propaganda claims this was the objective. Mostly the goal of leaders is to preserve and expand their power, whether by defending the country against takeover or conquering additional subjects and wealth. Even if this is acknowledged, current propaganda may point out some good side effect of sacrificing the soldiers, e.g. defeating an old enemy. This is again a distraction attempt. The world is complex and interconnected, so every event, including a mass death, has some beneficial side effects, just like every event has some negative side effects. One should consider the overall consequences of an event, not just one side effect.

If the soldiers genuinely volunteered, but due to being misled by propaganda, then they wanted to sacrifice themselves for one cause, but their leaders sacrificed them for another. Usually volunteers underestimate the length of the war and the probability of dying. Thus even when they know the true goal of the conflict, the sacrifice they are led to is larger than the one they intended to make.

The most clear and direct self-sacrifice is made by suicide bombers. They probably think that their bombing serves a good purpose, but such belief is almost always misguided. Religious indoctrination of the bombers manipulates them into believing in a noble cause, hiding the true goals of the leaders ordering the bombing.

I have not heard many calls to remember the sacrifice of present-day child soldiers. Rather there are calls to pity and save them. The situation of many soldiers in many wars has been similar to children forced to fight – ignorance and fear of punishment. Obeying the conscription order often offers a greater survival probability than refusal.

Instead of remembering the sacrifice of conscripts, we should remember them being sacrificed. Remember with pity. Remember to prevent.

On military bravery

All countries and armed groups emphasize the bravery of their soldiers for propaganda purposes. Such claims are made regardless of whether there is any actual valour. Going to a dangerous situation or even certain death is not necessarily courageous, in particular if there is no knowledge of the danger or no choice. Are sheep going into a slaughterhouse brave? They are calmly walking to certain death, after all. But usually this is not ascribed to courage, but to ignorance. Analogously, soldiers used in early tests of the physiological effects of radiation exposure who were marched through an area of a recent nuclear explosion are not considered brave. They did not know the cancer risk.

If there is no choice, which usually means there are only perilous choices, then putting oneself in danger is not usually accounted brave. Jumping out of a burning building offers a higher probability of survival, so people do it despite the substantial risk of falling to death. When a sufferer of a painful terminal disease chooses euthanasia, this early death is commonly not considered brave. Some cultures even believe suicide to be a sign of cowardice. If a military has a well organized system for catching deserters and administering the death penalty to them (and their family in some regimes), then a soldier charging enemy machineguns is merely maximizing his survival probability. The enemy might miss, the firing squad rarely does.

The greater the probability of victory for one’s own side, the less attractive desertion becomes, because being caught is more likely. This explains the propaganda emphasis on own victories and the punishment of “defeatist talk” in wartime. The greater the military advantage of a party in an armed conflict, the less bravery its soldiers need.

Genuine bravery exists, but it is rare. Evolution favours cowardly bullies who attack the weaker (prey) and run from the stronger (predators). People who face no compulsion to fight in a war and know the dangers, yet still join, are brave. Freedom fighters (insurgents from the other side’s viewpoint) against a dictator qualify. With the caveat that only joining the fight initially requires bravery – after that, losing would mean being tortured to death by the dictator, so continuing the war is the safer option. Similarly, volunteering for the military requires some bravery (the more the greater the likelihood of being sent into danger), but once military law applies, desertion is usually more dangerous than the duty.

Military courage is proved for those who start the war as a weaker side against a stronger, if a continuing peace is not a slow death. Peasant revolts were often driven by hunger, meaning the participants may have perceived the probability of death from starvation as higher than the probability of being killed by the aristocrats.

People who have never faced an informed choice between a safe and a dangerous option may be “latently brave”, in the sense that given such a choice, they may exhibit courage. They are not proved brave, however, until they have made the choice. There are likely to be some latently brave people in the world’s militaries and armed groups. Probably a greater percentage than among the general population.

There are some proven brave folks even in the militaries of powerful countries, but the proof requires knowingly choosing a dangerous option when there is no future punishment for cowardice. For example, when nobody would know of the choice.

A topical question is whether suicide terrorists and other fighting religious fanatics are brave. Their behaviour may be driven by the fear of punishment either in the afterlife or by their fellow fanatics. It may also be due to ignorance – believing in an afterlife is like believing that one cannot really die and thus the danger is not real. In both cases, no courage is required for choosing death.

The belief in the impossibility of dying may even be literal – W.E.B. Griffin had a story of a witch doctor convincing the fighters of his tribe that his magic had made them immune to bullets. Great was the fighters’ surprise later… Their charge with spears against guns was not due to bravery, however.

On backpackers and low-spending tourists

Countries encourage tourism to make money. The same goes for local governments, tourism industry associations and tour firms. Some places provide options for low-spending tourists like backpackers, despite not making much money from them. These options may be cheap campsites, backpacker hostels, allowing hitchhiking and work-travel visas. At first sight, any positive revenue from poorer tourists would justify welcoming them. This simple revenue calculation, however, neglects the substitution effect and dynamic demand.

Substitution means that if cheaper travel options are available, then some tourists who would have spent more in the absence of these options now spend less. For example, a person who would stay in a hotel if there was no other accommodation, stays in a backpacker hostel instead. On the other hand, if all options are expensive, then the poorest tourists do not come at all. There is a tradeoff between the number of tourists and the average tourist’s spending. If introducing cheaper options leads to many tourists switching to these, but does not attract many additional low-spending people, then creating these cheaper options reduces total profit.

Dynamic demand means that a person who has toured a particular location once changes his or her likelihood of going there in the future. For example, having seen a tourist site, a person does not visit it again. Or someone going on vacation and liking the location starts going there year after year. If a region encourages young, low-income people to visit as backpackers, then it may increase or decrease future visits by these people when they are older and wealthier. In particular, if people do not tour the same location again (and spend more when older), then encouraging them to visit when young reduces the total profit from them over their lifetime.

The fact that some regions welcome backpackers has several possible explanations. There may not be much substitution, or a visit may increase future visits. The tourism industry may not have thought this through and may be reducing their own profit inadvertently. Or the government may have other objectives than taxes from the tourism industry. For example, allowing people from other countries to visit cheaply may make these people friendly to the host country, which may yield some nonmonetary benefit in international relations.

 

Deflation of academic publications

The top journals publish a similar number of articles as decades ago, but there is a much larger number of researchers competing to get their work into a top journal. Correspondingly, it is more difficult over time to get a paper into a given journal. If articles are analogous to currency in the academic world, then this would be deflation: the value of the currency rises over time. If articles are like goods and services, but research effort is the currency that buys them, then there is inflation, because the amount of currency required to buy a given good rises.

The correct comparison between publications in different decades would take into account the increasing difficulty of publishing in a given journal. Instead of comparing papers in the top n journals, a better metric is papers in the top x percent of journals (accounting for the possibly expanding size of each journal). Similarly, being the number one researcher among a thousand in 1901 is less impressive than being the best among a million in 2001. Again the right comparison is by percentile rank, not by “top n” status.

The norms and metrics in academia are largely made by senior, established researchers. If people do not completely account for the deflation, then the top academics benefit from the increasing difficulty of publishing in the top n journals combined with the metric that counts the top n, not the top x percent. The research of old academics that was published in the top n long ago looks the more impressive the more difficult it is nowadays to get a paper into the top n. Comparison by percentile rank would correct for this artificial advantage, so the established members of the profession would not seem as high-achieving relative to new entrants.

A similar change in difficulty has occurred in getting accepted as a student in the top n universities, or getting hired as faculty in these. The right comparison to the students or faculty decades ago would compare the top x percent of universities, with the appropriate correction if the universities have expanded their enrollment or number of jobs.

On photos at tourist attractions

At every tourist attraction, there are numerous people taking pictures of the attraction, themselves and their companions. The same photos have been taken thousands of times before and are available on the internet. It would save a lot of time for people overall if someone wrote a computer program that photoshops a person or group into these pictures. Basically, pick a location of which there are photos available online and load some pictures of yourself into the program, which returns photos of you at this place. With this, everyone can skip the photoshoot at the tourist sites, save money on the camera(phone) and still obtain all the generic tourist photos they would have had under the current system.

The next step for attractions that consist of sight and sound only is to experience them through virtual reality goggles instead of actually going there. It is more environmentally friendly, safer and cheaper this way. Most tourist attractions fall into the visual-auditory category, e.g. architecture, museums, monuments, some of nature tourism.

Technological advances are required before tourist attractions that rely on smell, taste or touch (physically doing something, e.g. surfing) are replaced with virtual reality.

Teaching and research and division of labour

Universities usually prefer that the same person both teaches and does research. There are some purely teaching or purely research-focussed positions, but these are a minority. Both teaching and research achievements (and service as well) are required for tenure. This runs counter to Adam Smith’s argument that division of labour raises overall productivity. One possible cause is an economy of scope (synergy), meaning that teaching helps with research, or research helps to teach. In my experience, there is no such synergy, except maybe in high-level doctoral courses that focus exclusively on recent research. Revising old and basic knowledge by teaching it does not help generate novel insights about recent discoveries. Complex research does not help explain introductory ideas simply and clearly to beginners.

Another explanation is that universities try to hide their cross-subsidy going from teaching to research. The government gives money mainly for teaching, and if teachers and researchers were different people, then it would be easy for the government to check how much money was spent on each group. If, however, the same person is engaged in both activities, then the university can claim that most of the person’s time is spent teaching, or that their research is really designed to improve their teaching. In reality, teaching may be a minor side job and most of the salary may be paid for the research. This is suggested by the weight of research in hiring and tenuring.

The income of universities mostly comes from teaching, so they try to reduce competition from non-university teachers and institutions. One way is to differentiate their product by claiming that university teaching is special, complicated and research-based, so must be done by PhD holders or at least graduate students. Then schoolteachers for example would be excluded from providing this service. Actually the material up to and including first year doctorate courses is textbook-based and thus cannot consist of very recent discoveries. With the help of a textbook, many people could teach it – research is not required, only knowing the material thoroughly. For example, an undergraduate with good teaching skills who was top of the class in a course could teach that course next semester. Teaching skill is not highly correlated with research skill. The advantage someone who recently learned the material has in teaching it is that they remember which parts were difficult. A person who has known something for a long time probably does not recall how they would have preferred it taught when they first learned it.

Researchers forget the basics over time, because they rarely use these – there are more advanced methods. The foundations are learned to facilitate later learning of intermediate knowledge, which in turn helps with more complicated things and so on up to research level. Similarly in sports, musical performance, sewing, the initial exercises for learners can be quite different from the activity that is the end goal. A sports coach is rarely an Olympic athlete at the same time, so why should a teacher be a researcher simultaneously?

Research articles may have negative value

Falsified, plagiarized or plain junk research is not considered here. The effort of the author and the cost to the funders are considered sunk and similarly ignored.

After a research article is published, it may still have negative value for humanity. How is this possible if the cost of creating it is considered zero and the results are not junk? Doesn’t every discovery, however small, contribute a little to the corpus of knowledge? It does, but the cost it imposes on other researchers may outweigh this. Every publication increases the number of articles that researchers of related topics have to look at, however briefly, to write their literature review and check that their idea is not already taken. It may take a few seconds to read the title and decide that the article is irrelevant to one’s work, but this small cost is paid by many. If the publication makes a small enough contribution to knowledge, then the total cost to other academics outweighs the benefit from this contribution. The researchers whose time the article wasted could have done something useful with that time.

Local and organic food is wasteful

The easiest measure of any good’s environmental impact is its price. It is not a perfect measure. Subsidies for the inputs of a product can lower its price below more environmentally friendly alternatives that are not favoured by the government. Taxes, market power, externalities and incomplete information can similarly distort relative prices, as introductory economics courses explain. However, absent additional data, a more expensive good likely requires more resources and causes more environmental damage. Remembering this saves time on debating whether local non-organic is better than non-local organic fair trade, etc.

Local and organic are marketing terms, one suggesting helping local farmers and a lower environmental impact from transport, the other claiming health benefits and a lower environmental impact from fertilizers. Organic food may use less of some category of chemicals, but this must have a tradeoff in lower yield (more land used per unit produced) or greater use of some other input, because its higher price shows more resource use overall. From the (limited) research I have read, there is no difference in the health effects of organic and non-organic food. To measure this difference, a selection bias must be taken into account – the people using organic are more health-conscious, so may be healthier to start with. On the other hand, those buying organic and local may be more manipulable, which has unknown health effects. Local food may use less resources for transport, but its higher price shows it uses more resources in total. One resource is the more expensive labour of rich countries (the people providing this labour consume more, thus have a greater environmental impact).

If one wants to help “local farmers” (usually large agribusinesses, not the family farms their lobbying suggests), one can give them money directly. No need to buy their goods, just make them a bank transfer and then buy whichever product is the least wasteful.

There are economies of scale in farming, so the more efficient large agricultural companies tend to outcompete family farms. The greater efficiency is also more environmentally friendly: more production for the same resources, or the same production with less. Helping the small farms avoid takeover is bad for the environment.

Fair trade and sustainable sourcing may be good things, if the rules for obtaining this classification are reasonable and enforced. But who buying fair trade or sustainable has actually checked what the meaning behind the labels is (the “fine print”), or verified with independent auditors whether the nice-sounding principles are put into practice? When a term is used in marketing, I suspect business as usual behind it.

Statistics with a single history

Only one history is observable to a person – the one that actually happened. Counterfactuals are speculation about what would have happened if choices or some other element of the past history had differed. Only one history is observable to humanity as a whole, to all thinking beings in the universe as a whole, etc. This raises the question of how to do statistics with a single history.

The history is chopped into small pieces, which are assumed similar to each other and to future pieces of history. All conclusions require assumptions. In the case of statistics, the main assumption is “what happened in the past, will continue to happen in the future.” The “what” that is happening can be complicated – a long chaotic pattern can be repeated. It should be specified what the patterns of history consist of before discussing them.

The history observable to a brain consists of the sensory inputs and memory. Nothing else is accessible. This is pointed out by the “brain in a jar” thought experiment. Memory is partly past sensory inputs, but may also depend on spontaneous changes in the brain. Machinery can translate previously unobservable aspects of the world into accessible sensory inputs, for example convert infrared and ultraviolet light into visible wavelengths. Formally, history is a function from time to vectors of sensory inputs.

The brain has a built-in ability to classify sensory inputs by type – visual, auditory, etc. This is why the inputs form a vector. For a given sense, there is a built-in “similarity function” that enables comparing inputs from the same sense at different times.

Inputs distinguished by one person, perhaps with the help of machinery, may look identical to another person. The interpretation is that there are underlying physical quantities that must differ by more than the “just noticeable difference” to be perceived as different. The brain can access physical quantities only through the senses, so whether there is a “real world” cannot be determined, only assumed. If most people’s perceptions agree about something, and machinery also agrees (e.g. measuring tape does not agree with visual illusions), then this “something” is called real and physical. The history accessible to humanity as a whole is a function from time to the concatenation of their sensory input vectors.

The similarity functions of people can also be aggregated, compared to machinery and the result interpreted as a physical quantity taking “similar” values at different times.

A set of finite sequences of vectors of sensory inputs is what I call a pattern of history. For example, a pattern can be a single sequence or everything but a given sequence. Patterns may repeat, due to the indistinguishability of physical quantities close to each other. The finer distinctions one can make, the fewer the instances with the same perception. In the limit of perfect discrimination of all variable values, history is unlikely to ever repeat. In the limit of no perception at all, history is one long repetition of nothing happening. The similarity of patterns is defined based on the similarity function in the brain.

Repeated similar patterns together with assumptions enable learning and prediction. If AB is always followed by C, then learning is easy. Statistics are needed when this is not the case. If half the past instances of AB are followed by C, half by D, then one way to interpret this is by constructing a state space with a probability distribution on it. For example, one may assume the existence of an unperceived variable that can take values c,d and assume that ABc leads deterministically to ABC and ABd to ABD. The past instances of AB can be interpreted as split into equal numbers of ABc and ABd. The prediction after observing AB is equal probabilities of C and D. This is a frequentist setup.

A Bayesian interpretation puts a prior probability distribution on histories and updates it based on the observations. The prior may put probability one on a single future history after each past one. Such a deterministic prediction is easily falsified – one observation contrary to it suffices. Usually, many future histories are assumed to have positive probability. Updating requires conditional probabilities of future histories given the past. The histories that repeat past patterns are usually given higher probability than others. Such a conditional probability system embodies the assumption “what happened in the past, will continue to happen in the future.”

There is a tradeoff between the length of a pattern and the number of times it has repeated. Longer patterns permit prediction further into the future, but fewer repetitions mean more uncertainty. Much research in statistics has gone into finding the optimal pattern length given the data. A long pattern contains many shorter ones, with potentially different predictions. Combining information from different pattern lengths is also a research area. Again, assumptions determine which pattern length and combination is optimal. Assumptions can be tested, but only under other assumptions.

Causality is also a mental construct. It is based on past repetitions of an AB-like pattern, without occurrence of BA or CB-like patterns.

The perception of time is created by sensory inputs and memory, e.g. seeing light and darkness alternate, feeling sleepy or alert due to the circadian rhythm and remembering that this has happened before. History is thus a mental construct. It relies on the assumptions that time exists, there is a past in which things happened and current recall is correlated with what actually happened. The preceding discussion should be restated without assuming time exists.