Darwin’s Theorem

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Science, religion, evolution, romance, action, siphonophors!

Darwin’s Theorem is a story about stories(the working title for a long time was “Metastory”) that’s also a mystery, a romance, an adventure, and various other things besides. Not quite science fiction, excessively didactic… think of it as “Dan Brown meets ‘Origin of Species’.”

If you like to see plot, action and strong characters deployed in the pursuit of big, speculative ideas, you should check it out!

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The Narrative of Fire

I’m a very lucky person. I was born in the best nation at the best time in the best place on Earth, into circumstances that at once gave me a certain degree of humility (although I often keep it well-hidden) and the opportunity to do pretty much whatever I want.

One of the things I grew up with was fire, and my luck being what it is, I am now renting a place with a real fireplace.

I’m pretty sure everyone reading this knows what I mean by “real”: it burns wood, not gas.

I mostly burn prefab logs in it, for a variety of reasons. The chimney hasn’t been swept in a good long time, for example.

Contemplating the difference between gas fireplaces and real fireplaces, even real fireplaces burning fake logs, I am struck by this: real fire has a narrative. Every real fire tells as story. It grows from almost nothing–or perhaps a spectacular initiation ceremony of the kind Scout leaders used to put on–and goes through a complex evolution until you wake beside the quiet ashes in the morning, the girl from the night before still warm against your body even though the fire has gone cold.

This is the narrative of fire, and it is older than humankind.

Our Homo Erectus ancestors knew the narrative of fire, a million years ago. We evolved from them, and brought fire with us.

It told its tale in the night time, survived as a pale shadow through the day, and spoke again in the evening.

Hominids watched the fire burn, and listened to the stories it told, and became human.

Is this the ultimate source of our narrative proclivity? Is this where the stories come from? Not from the tales told in the circle of firelight, but from the fire itself?

A fire is a process of combustion in three acts. It begins with a small flame, grows to the point where it is no longer tentative but inevitable, unstoppable, beyond the point of accidental extinguishment, and as it burns through the second act it plays upon the wood until a midpoint is reached… it is a mature fire, fulfilled in all its potentials. The last log has been fed into it but is not consumed, not homogenized. The fire and the wood now fight for longevity, consuming and defending until, inevitably, we reach the third act, when all is hot, the totality is ready for whatever end awaits. The sparks rise up, the climax is reached, the denouement is reached and the ashes die down toward the grey light of dawn.

This is the narrative of fire: eternal, beyond the realm of human life, fundamental to all that comes after.

So long as there is fire, there is life. So long as there is fire there is something human in the world, telling its stories to the empty sky, warding off the darkness and the rain.

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Some Notes on Case-Control Studies

Case-control studies do the following:

  1. Find a bunch of entities that have instances of the effect you are interested in. These are the “cases”.
  2. Find an equal or greater number of entities that are matched with your cases in every respect except the factors that you think might be the causes of the effect you are interested in. These are the “controls”.
  3. Compare the size of the purported causes in the two populations and see if they are significantly different.
  4. Publish before doing any further investigation, sanity-checking, or corrections for multiple experiments.
  5. Have your institution give out the most hyperbolic press-release that your conclusions can be tortured into confessing support for, because torture works so well

Admittedly, the last two steps are not strictly required for a well-designed case-control study. They are just extremely popular. I’m being insensitive to people who conduct case-control studies here. Hopefully none of them will murder me. Because I hear that’s a thing now, killing people who mock your irrational beliefs. [*]

And thinking case-control studies are a good idea is nothing if not an irrational belief. That very nice article on 538 takes the case-control results from Swedish studies and applies it to the American population over the past couple of decades. Since cell phone use has increased dramatically, you can compute an expected increase in the rare brain cancer that the Swedes say is increased by cell phone use, and you can see trivially that no such increase has occurred.

Ergo, cell phones don’t cause brain cancer.

But why would anyone believe they did in the first place?

The problem with case-control studies is that you are attributing any difference between your cases and your controls to the causes you don’t control for. And for rare events there will almost always be differences. There are ways around this that I’ll get to below, but let’s first look at how it happens.

To illustrate it I wrote a little Python code:

import numpy as np
import random

import scipy.stats.mstats

# a bunch of characteristics with mean 10 and width 5
fMean = 10.0
fWidth = 5.0
nCharacteristics = 10

# one characteristic is going to have a trivial boost
# in the case population, just 'cause randomness happens
fCorrelation = 1.05

# three match criteria, three possible "causes"
nTestCriteria = 3
nMatchCriteria = 3

nPatients = 500
nControls = 2*nPatients

for nShots in range(0, 100):
	lstIndices = range(0,10)
	random.shuffle(lstIndices)

	lstPatients = []
	for nI in range(0, nPatients):
		lstPatients.append(np.random.normal(loc = fMean, scale = fWidth, size=nCharacteristics))
		for nIndex in lstIndices[-nTestCriteria:]: # causes are tweaked
			lstPatients[-1][nIndex] *= fCorrelation
		
	lstControls = []
	while len(lstControls) < nControls:
		lstTest = np.random.normal(loc = fMean, scale = fWidth, size=nCharacteristics)
		for lstPatient in lstPatients:
			nCount = sum([abs(lstTest[nI]-lstPatient[nI]) < 1 for nI in lstIndices[0:nMatchCriteria]])
			if nCount == nMatchCriteria: # match on uncorrelated criteria
				lstControls.append(lstTest)
				break

	lstRatio = [] # odds of rare events are based on tails of distributions!
	for nIndex in lstIndices[-nTestCriteria:]:
		nPatientCount = 0
		for lstPatient in lstPatients:
			if lstPatient[nIndex] > fMean+2*fWidth:
				nPatientCount += 1
		nControlCount = 0
		for lstControl in lstControls:
			if lstControl[nIndex] > fMean+2*fWidth:
				nControlCount += 1

		lstRatio.append((float(nPatientCount)/nPatients)/(float(nControlCount)/nControls))

	nJMax = 0 # now take the BIGGEST difference in effect!
	fRatioMax = 0
	for (nJ, fRatio) in enumerate(lstRatio):
		if fRatio > fRatioMax:
			nJMax = nJ
			fRatioMax = fRatio

	# compare the distributions... are they different?
	nJMax -= -nTestCriteria
	lstPatientData = []
	for lstPatient in lstPatients:
		lstPatientData.append(lstPatient[nJMax])
	lstControlData = []
	for lstControl in lstControls:
		lstControlData.append(lstControl[nJMax])
	
	fT, fProb = scipy.stats.mstats.ttest_ind(lstPatientData, lstControlData)

	print fRatioMax, fT, fProb

This is an illustrative cheat, nothing more. I could have built a fancier model but there’s only so much time you can spend on irrational nutjobs, like people who believe in case-control studies.

The results of the simulation are shown below:

Odds Ratio vs T-Test Results

Odds Ratio vs T-Test Results

The point is that with an undetectably small tweak to the underlying distribution (the T-test p-values are almost all > 0.05) it is trivially easy to get factors of two or more difference between case and control groups.

This is possible in part because I’ve allowed multiple possible causes and selected and reported on the one that showed an effect. This is a criminally bad thing to do, utterly illegitimate and wrong. If you’re going to do it, you need to a) define the categories of cause beforehand and b) correct all your p-values for the fact that you’ve gone on a fishing expedition. The odds of something being correlated with your effect are as near as anything to a certainty. The more different things you look at as “possible causes” the more likely it is that you will find one that is correlated by chance.

The importance of the stunt I’ve pulled here is that by any ordinary statistical standard (and the T-test is as ordinary as you can possibly get) the distributions are not different, but the specific procedure used to tease out the effect results in an apparently dramatic consequences. Statistically identical distributions are generating factors of two or more differences!

This is another way of saying: if you need a case-control study to detect the effect you are looking for, it is probably so small as to be irrelevant to public policy. The money spent on all those case-control studies on cell phones and brain cancer would have saved far more lives had it been spent on almost anything else: auto safety, anti-smoking campaigns, etc.

One of the reasons I don’t work in radiotherapy any more, after a brief and productive stint in the field in the early ’90’s, is that I realized all the money we were spending would be far better put into anti-smoking and other campaigns against the small number of things we knew pretty well caused cancer, instead of marginally improving radiotherapy treatment, which was a) already pretty good and b) showed no significant likelihood of improving much (spoiler: it didn’t.)

There are ways case-control studies can be improved to generate results that are more reliable guides to reality. In particular, any decent case-control study should look at exactly one possible cause, or correct very aggressively for multiple experiments. It is hard to overstate how rapidly the statistical power of data decreases as hypotheses multiply, particularly if they are allowed to work in combination, or if the data are sub-setted, so instead of looking at “brain cancer” you end up looking at “this particularly rare form of brain cancer”.

Secondly, additional non-causal variables should be investigated that have similar scope to the potentially causal ones, and their distributions should be analyzed and reported alongside the purportedly causal ones. Ideally this should be done blindly.

That is, if you’re investigating cell phone use and brain cancer, you should also question participants on how often they talk to their mother, or how often they go out with friends, or what their favourite colour is, and so on. Everything is correlated with everything else, of course, so it’ll be difficult to find truly independent variables… which should give you pause when executing a hyper-sensitive test for correlations. Because maybe cell phone use correlates with how often you talk to your mother, or how often you go out with friends, or what your favourite colour is (seriously: colour preferences exhibit age and cultural differences that could easily correlate with cell phone use.)

By measuring and reporting nominally unrelated variables, the ridiculousness of supposedly positive results will be highlighted.

Thirdly, in the “Methods” section, the rate at which case-control studies produce results that are later shown to be nonsense should be mentioned. A simple sentence like, “Case-control studies have been used in this area of research for the past 20 years. We have found 253 studies in the literature. Only three of them identified effects that were later confirmed by less problematic forms of investigation.”

If you expect me to believe a result, you need to show me that the method you are using has a good track record of confirmed results in the past. It is true that because of their hyper-sensitivity it will be very difficult to confirm many results from case-control studies by other means, but again: that suggests perhaps redirecting scarce research funding toward areas that have a big enough impact on human life to actually measure.

Fourthly: commit to publishing all results, and get a commitment from your institution’s PR people to make the same amount of noise when you find no association as when you do find an association. Put that message, “New study shows no correlation between cell phone use and scurvy!” out there. Try to ensure the same amount of money is spent promoting negative results as positive. Yeah, I know, I’m into the realm of total fantasy here.

Finally: case-control studies should where possible focus strongly on the dose-response curve. In the absence of randomized controlled trials, the dose-response curve is by far the best indicator of causation. If the effect can be graded by levels of severity then the level of severity should be correlated with the level of the cause. If it is not, then the results are probably noise. This may not be possible in all cases, but when it is, not doing it is inexcusable.

Case-control studies do have a use in guiding future research, but they are so fraught with problematic aspects that they should never be used to imply causation without a strong dose-response result. This review is rather more generous to them than I am. I am not aware of any research into how often case-control studies are confirmed on follow-up, and any evidence-based researcher (and what other kind is there?) should be bothered by that.

Here is a nice example of a case-control study that doesn’t do everything wrong. They have a single hypothesis, they have a causal account, they do what they can to poke at their results within the limits of their data, and they don’t draw grandiose conclusions (I’d like to see the press release associated with the work, though, which probably says something about mothers taking anti-depressants killing babies.)

Even so, tests that are hyper-sensitive to correlations should come with an outsized warning regarding the lack of correlation between correlation and causation, and whenever you read about a case-control study you should think, “This is more likely than not due to random chance and poor research methods, and even if the effect is real it is so small they had to use a test that was hyper-sensitive to correlations to find it, and in any case they don’t show any dose-response data so it doesn’t constitute more than the tiniest incremental evidence in favour of the proposition under test.”


[*] Yes, I am still pretty much incandescently angry regarding the murders by blasphemophobes last week in Paris, and am likely to remain so for a good long time. I get that way when irrational people take it upon themselves to kill people specifically because of characteristics I have. That means I’m still a monkey underneath, rooting for members of my troop, and I won’t deny it. Oook. That said, I have also been angry for a long time at the killings perpetrated by the US and others against innocents in the Middle East and elsewhere–being more-or-less an innocent myself–and have written and spoken about it extensively, so this is not cherry-picking. Dropping the innocent and focusing just on the largest monkey-troop of all–human beings–here’s something I wrote on Facebook after the death of Osama bin Laden: “I do not celebrate the death of a human being. The impulse to solve our problems by killing people is what got us into this mess. It will not get us out of it.” But though I do not support killing, I reserve the right to be absolutely furious with killers.

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Reification Revisited

I think very slowly and I’m not very smart. Unlike every other human being on Earth, who “just knows” exactly what is the right thing to do in all circumstances and is never, ever wrong about it, I sometimes make mistakes. Sometimes I even figure them out and correct them.

This is unique to me: no one else ever makes a mistake, so no one else is ever under any circumstances required to change their mind. It’s quite remarkable, really, and I’ve never understood how people manage it. How they are so damned sure all the time about what is right (what they believe) and what is wrong (what I believe.)

It’s a trick I’ve never mastered, despite being willing to put forward opinions on many things. I’ve learned that it’s a good way to figure out stuff, because if you put forward any opinion whatsoever someone will always tell you why it’s wrong. Since I am the person with the least intelligence and least knowledge of everything on the entire planet, this allows me to get the benefit of the far more intelligent and knowledgeable people who all just know the truth.

It is a little weird that they never agree with each other, though.

In any case, as I analyzed my own argument about religious reification in my slow and rather unintelligent way, I found a contradiction with other arguments I have made.

Unlike every other human being on the planet, who can hold an infinite number of disparate facts in mind at once, I can only manage five or ten. Therefore as I plod methodically through my thinking, I often miss stuff on the first pass, and therefore take up positions that are contradictory to other positions that I hold.

Although I’m extremely slow and stupid, I do value consistency. Perhaps this is what makes me slow and stupid, as I’ve noticed that all the people who tell me how much smarter and more knowledgeable they are than me are rarely much interested in consistency. And while I like that joke about an unhealthy consistency being the hobgobblin of small minds, I do think consistency is worth a little brain power, even for someone who has as little to spare as I do.

I’ve argued here that the doctrinaire feminist analysis of rape as a “man/woman” problem is wrong, and it is better addressed as a “predator/citizen” problem. Because the vast majority of men are a) not rapists and b) not like rapists in the relevant respects and c) often (we don’t have much knowledge of how often, but “often” definitely covers it) the victims of rape themselves… because of all these things it makes more sense to analyze rape using a model in which “people who rape” are the target of our wrath, not “men”.

Applying the same logic to Muslims and blasphemophobes and homophobes and transphobes, it is likewise true that many–perhaps most, but certainly many–Muslims are not those things. Irshad Manji is none of those things, I’m sure, and she describes herself as a Muslim. Irfan Wasara, the major Sufi character in my novel is none of those things, and he is based on a lot of research into the diversity of Muslim beliefs.

Does the existence of Quakers mean that the statement “Christianity is a violent, intolerant religion” is false?

Why am I even asking that?

It isn’t a particularly useful or interesting question. It isn’t even well-formed in a Bayesian sense.

What is interesting is the following: many Muslims use particular arguments to justify their blasphemophobia, transphobia and/or homophobia. Many other Muslims use different arguments to oppose one or in some cases all of those things.

My interest is two-fold.

First off, because I am a blasphemer and I have gay and trans friends, it is in my interest to promote interpretations of Islam that are on the lower end of the blasphemophobic, homophobic and transphobic scales. This is consistent with my general mission to increase the amount of human decency in the world, although I try not to sully myself with the gibberish arguments of scripturalists.

Secondly, because there is a clear causal association between believing any variant of Islam and being blasphemophobic, homophobic and/or transphobic, it is in my interests to reduce the number of Muslims and the degree to which they adhere to their faith. This is fully consistent with my general mission to reduce the amount of faith in the world.

While “being a Muslim” is causally associated with being blasphemophobic, transphobic and homophobic, this does not mean that it is sufficient to focus on that causation, any more than the undoubted causal association between “being a man” and “being a rapist” is sufficient to justify an exclusive focus on that causation.

Being a Muslim is neither necessary nor sufficient to being blasphemophobic, homophobic or transphobic, although it does help in each case.

The more interesting question is why do some Muslims become blasphemophobic, transphobic and homophobic, just as it is more interesting to ask why some men become rapists. It is simply not “the fact of being a man”, despite the petulant screeds of misandric feminists to that effect.

With regard to Islam, as with regard to Christianity, there are cultural rather than scriptural components in play. Biblical and Quaranic guidance on these matters is inconsistent, which is why there is a diversity of belief across their communities.

Curiously, I am reminded of my arguments with feminists in this regard, as they often insist that misandric feminists–who exist–are not “real feminists”, just as some Muslims argue that homophobic, transphobic and blasphemophobic Muslims aren’t “real Muslims”.

As is usually the case with questions of reification, it’s pretty much a matter of taste what you call such people. The interesting question, the important question, is what to do with them.

How does one argue a Muslim of any kind out of their faith-based commitment to homophobia, transphobia or blasphemophobia?

That is the question that matters. I have a few ideas as to the answers, and will explore some of them in the fullness of time.

In the meantime, in my slow, stupid, ignorant way, I’ve brought myself back into a state of something like consistency. It must be much easier to simply never question whether or not one’s beliefs make sense relative to reality or each other. I suppose this is why everyone else is so much smarter than I am: they have all the brain-power that I use to laboriously think things through to power their amazing insights into the minds of people they have never met based on words they have not bothered to properly read.

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Religious Reification

I’ve written about our tendency to treat certain ways of putting people in to abstract groups as “real” before, and how this can distort our relationship to reality, often in socially and personally negative ways.

Scott Lynch tweated today:

“Humans” or “sapient hominids” is the highest available level of abstract category when discussing morality and behaviour in our current context, although one day hyper-intelligent shades of blue may cause us to rethink our stance on inclusive language.

I’m generally an advocate of talking about humans in these situations, but over the past few days I’ve found myself talking about Muslims.

Is this remotely justified, or am I simply being an asshole, reifying the most convenient group and othering the hell out of them?

The rest of this is totally self-serving and may be entirely hypocritical. It’s hard to tell, when you’re close to the issues, but after casting about a bit I think I’ve come up with a justifiable reason for my choice to focus on Muslims rather than humans in this case.

I will say that it took me a few minutes to do this. I did what I usually do in such cases, which is to “cover the ground” around the question, asking myself what I’ve thought about such things before, digging up possibly relevant facts and arguments to see how and in what respects my current position differs from my previous one. I really have argued that judicious choice of what to reify can make the world a better place, and that we too often reify based on anger and hostility.

There is no doubt that in my monkey brain I am angry and hostile toward Muslims. Oook. And I want to destroy their religion as much or more as I want to destroy any religion. Faith is wrong, and it is an enormously destructive force in the world. But all people have faith, so why am I getting all in a knot about Islam in particular just now? What is it to me?

I figured it out eventually, because it is exactly the argument I’ve already made: I am a blasphemer, and Islam is a hotbed of blasphemophobia.

If I say, “The Prophet had an extremely rudimentary grasp of a few Bible stories and the theology of the Quran is childish and stupid”, some nutjob might take it upon themselves to kill me for it. It behooves me to pay particular attention to such a group.

If I say, “Jesus was a Jewish revolutionary whose temporal mission failed and whose spiritual position was hijacked and distorted almost beyond recognition by Pauline intellectual mercenaries invading Roman society” I might get a few arguments, angry words and dirty looks, but in decades of engaging with Christians of all stripes that’s the worst that has happened.

If I say, “Marx was a wanker and his theory was responsible for the death of millions” I might get pushed around a bit, but that’s the most physically threatening I’ve ever seen a Lefty get.

If I say, “Misandric Feminism is unhelpful to men, stifling of free debate, and a bigger danger to the construction of a new and more healthy–for men–masculine identity than all the MRAs in the world combined” I am likely to get some extremely strident screaming and calls for my castration (misandric feminists are kind of monotonic and predictable) and various attempts to ban me from $CAMPUS_OF_YOUR_CHOICE as a speaker, but for all that I think doctrinaire feminism in general is tendentious, overblown and stupid, the number of feminists actually killing people is small.

I am a blasphemer. Give me an orthodoxy and I’ll heterdox it.

There are lots of people who take umbrage at that. A century or three ago I would have to be on the lookout for Christians coming after me. If I lived in India today I’d have to worry about Hindu fundamentalists coming after me. If I lived in Burma it might be Buddhist fundamentalists I’d have to worry about.

Lefty nutjobs still rule China, and you can be killed there for speaking your mind. Russia is not doing so well in that regard either.

And yet despite that there is empirical evidence that blasphemophobia is more prevalent amongst Muslims than any other group today.

I might be wrong about that. It might be that over the past thirty years there has been a spate of blasphemophobic attacks on Western blasphemers that I have missed.

But under the circumstances, I don’t think it’s unreasonable for me to focus on Muslims, because I am a blasphemer, and where and when I am Islam is by far the biggest threat to blasphemers. Hatred and fear of blasphemy is embedded in Sharia law, which is supported by a substantial minority of Muslims world-wide, including well-regarded, prominent Muslims in Canada.

In the same way, I worry about Lefties who want to nationalize industries, and will continue to do so as long as the most prominent left-wing party in my home province continues to have “public ownership of the means of production” in their constitution. It isn’t entirely illegitimate to reify such groups, who have unified themselves around a organizing principle that is inherently hostile to my way of life. Particularly not when a some group members are apt to take the law into their own hands.

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Blasphemophobia

I have always had unpopular opinions, and argued for them forthrightly, vigorously and–I like to think–honestly. I have sought out the weaknesses of my own positions and done my best to modify them in the face of new evidence. I’ve learned a lot as the years have passed, and changed my mind about many things. Some propositions I argued for passionately in my youth I now believe to be quite wrong.

I have learned.

I am the only person on Earth to ever admit he was wrong on the Internet, and in fact may be the only person on Earth to have ever been wrong about anything.

This has never won me friendship, respect or admiration. I have lost friends, been subject to denigration, insult and anger. I have been told I am a fool, and given simple-minded lectures on banal trivialities as if I’d never heard them before. Maybe I’m just not a very nice person. But I have learned.

The cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo were members of my tribe, or at least a tribe in the next valley to mine, who my people didn’t go to war with very often.

They lived, by all accounts, pretty lonely, marginal lives, Charb most of all: “I have no kids, no wife, no car, no credit. It may sound a bit pompous, but I’d rather die standing than live on my knees.”

His colleague Ris: “”We do not want to be afraid, but to laugh, to take life lightly. We’re just trying to make something funny. Humor is a language that fundamentalists do not understand… no. They rely on fear.”

And Charb again: “I don’t think I harm anyone with a pen. I do not put lives in danger. When activists need excuses to justify their violence, they always find them.”

I’ve lived a life more about knowledge than humour, but by the same token, I don’t think I harm anyone with ideas. I do not put lives at risk.

And I know the difference between words and killing.

I am by education and experience both an engineer and an experimental and computational physicist. I have worked in pure physics and in medical physics in various capacities, as well as robotics and embedded systems. I have deliberately stayed away from anything that will kill people. But I know about such things. In my business they are part of the landscape. I’ve turned down jobs, left money on the table, because it would have meant building machines that kill people. And I have had come unbidden in the night ideas, thoughts, designs for machines whose primary use would be killing people. I have let them quietly pass away in the silence of my mind, undeveloped, unborn.

I know what killing is.

And I know what words are. Mocking, caring, angry, loving, silly, stupid, thoughtful, beautiful words. Words in all shapes, sizes and uses. Words for every occasion.

Words do not kill.

Anyone who suggests otherwise has never actually done the job and seen the body.

But there are hundreds of millions of people alive today, mostly Muslims but some unreconstructed Soviets as well, plus the odd Maoist here and there, and certainly a Christian, Sikh and Hindu or two, who are so afraid of words that they support laws that impose the death penalty for speaking them.

This is not a slur against Muslims but rather a statement of perfectly ordinary fact: most Muslims world-wide support Sharia law and many forms of Sharia law in practice include the death penalty for blasphemy or the closely-related crime of apostasy.

I am aware that there are many Muslim scholars who argue Sharia should not contain the death penalty for blasphemy, or any penalty at all. I am also aware that Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, amongst others, have the death penalty for blasphemy under various forms of Sharia, so scholarly insistence to the contrary, this is a real thing.

Saying “not all Muslims” are in favour of the death penalty for blasphemers does not change the fact that hundreds of millions of Muslims are. If you want to argue against the point I am making here it will not do to say–truthfully–that something like 70% of Muslims are perfectly fine with me calling the Prophet an ignorant psychopath. The fact remains that the other 30% or so are more-or-less supportive of a legal system that would make me a criminal for saying that, and likely on the order of 10%–still comfortably over a hundred million people–would be quite happy with the penalty being death.

Pakistan alone has almost 200 million people, a corrupt but still sort-of functional democratic government, 84% support for Sharia law, and a blasphemy clause in its criminal code that is very broad. Beyond lesser forms of blasphemy such as hurting anyone’s religious feelings (including non-Muslims), any utterance or writing that directly or indirectly defiles the name of Muhammad, upon conviction, carries an automatic death penalty. There are 17 people on death row for blasphemy in Pakistan right now.

They are being killed for speaking words. For expressing opinions. For being of the wrong religious persuasion, or none at all.

Just like Charb.

So it is not wrong to say that there are hundreds of millions of Muslims who are in favour of the death penalty for blasphemy, and again: pointing to any number of Muslims who are not does nothing to change this fact.

And that’s a problem, because when people like Charb blaspheme, some Muslims decide to take the law into their own hands.

The distance between “this is an act that ought to be illegal and punishable by death” and “it is right to kill a person committing this act even in the absence of such a law” is not as large as one might like.

We have seen this with fundamentalist Christians in the US who bomb abortion clinics, and those actions make anyone who believes that abortion is a crime deserving of the death penalty rightly suspect as a potential murderer or arsonist, and the whole pro-life movement is routinely treated as suspect: “Yet every time that happens we instantly have congressional investigations, Justice Department press conferences, Presidential denunciations, round-ups of pro-life activists, new federal laws passed, non-violent pro-life groups investigated, United States Marshals assigned to protect abortion clinics, and front-page coverage in every newspaper in America.”

Anyone writing against the kind of commentary I am making on Muslims here: please point me to your comparable writings against the vilification of all conservative Christians as potential murderers, because the two are based on precisely the same logic and I see no reason why anyone would defend Muslims but not conservative Christians in this regard.

I find it quite reasonable to question any American Christian with regard to their support for clinic bombers and killers, and I’ve done so. For the same reason I find it quite reasonable to question any Muslim–certainly any Muslim outside of Canada–with regard to their support for killing blasphemers. There is a significant minority within each group who believe such killings are, if not precisely justified, only wrong because they were not carried out under the auspices of a properly constituted religious court.

Outside of the US, Christians are much less conservative, so the question is less reasonable there. Inside Canada Muslims are pretty liberal, although I’ve met ones whose views on homosexuality disgust me, and even “pretty liberal” Muslims are frequently my enemies when it comes to blasphemy laws.

Just as homophobia is widespread within the Muslim community, so is blasphemophobia: fear of blasphemers. Fear of words. Fear of ideas.

I am a blasphemer.

Always have been, always will be.

Name your religion, I will denigrate it.

Identify your god, your prophet, your holy scriptures, I will question them, poke fun at their implausibility, ridicule their inconsistencies, impossibilities, idiocies. I will do it carefully, thoughtfully, annoyingly and thoroughly. I will learn more about your religion just so I can criticize it–and you–more deeply and accurately.

I will treat nothing–absolutely nothing–as sacred, or above and beyond questioning, investigation and publicly testing by systematic observation, controlled experiment and Bayesian inference.

I even wrote a book that posits the Christian God is an evolved non-human entity bent on using us for its own ends–because I think that’s not a bad metaphor–and includes an evil villain who is a Christian fundamentalist. He has a Biblical-literalist minion who understands that on a literal reading the Bible contains, amongst other things, a manual for how to properly rape your prisoners of war. Is saying that blasphemy, or blasphemous libel?

I’m not always particularly nice about my criticism of faith because I am not a particularly nice person, and haven’t always been treated particularly nicely by religious people–or non-religious people for that matter. Maybe I was just born this way. But “not being a particularly nice person” is not a crime, and certainly not a crime worthy of the death penalty.

I am a blasphemer, and I’m fed up with people like me being killed by people who are afraid of us.

It’s time to talk about blasphemophobia.


[Edited slightly for clarity and shilling my book, and additional link from my friend Scott on what a bunch of marvelously cantankerous bastards Charlie Hebdo was constituted by.]

Posted in death, ethics, life, politics, religion | Comments Off

The Prophet and the Carpenter

The Peaceful Prophet’s followers
were shooting infidels,
beheading them with axes
and flinging them down wells
proclaiming, “I’m for Paradise!”
while making Earth a Hell.

Apologists snapped angrily
because they thought the war
against Enlightenment and law
was all of that and more–
“How rude of people to point out
religion’s blood and gore!”

The desert sands were dry as dust
the blood of Jews ran red.
You could not see an apostate
because they’d lost their heads.
There were no living people there
just crows upon the dead.

The Prophet and the Carpenter
were walking hand in hand;
they wept like anything to see
the bodies on the sand:
“If only they were living souls!
Now wouldn’t that be grand!”

“With AK-47’s poised
they’d shoot each other down.
Do you suppose,” the Prophet asked,
“they’d scream before they drown…”
“…in their own blood?” the Carpenter
completed with a frown.

“O corpses, come and walk with us!”
the Prophet ordered then,
while the Carpenter reached out
to snatch them from Death’s ken.
“Lazarus, come forth!” he cried,
“Leave Purgatory’s fen.”

The oldest corpse picked up its head
and turned it to and fro
then set it down upon the sand.
Its black lips whispered “No,
I cannot lift my head up high;
I’m full of shame and woe.”

But four young bodies teetered up
headless and uncertain:
one like fire, another air,
one water and one earthen.
They wavered in the burning day
miraged by desert’s curtain.

Then many corpses raised themselves
and gathered in three groups.
The right, the left, the foremost:
believers, soldiers, dupes.
Each one was armed with proper arms
to fell with proper swoops.

The Prophet and the Carpenter
marched on a hundred leagues
while the dead came shambolling
behind with great fatigue
until they reached the battlefield
where smokeless fires intrigued.

“Alif lam mim,” the Prophet said,
for reasons now obscure,
“There’s no compulsion, you must kill
the Infidel impure,
now start to fight and live in peace
or you will burn for sure.”

“How can we know,” the corpses asked,
“what words we must obey?
Mere mortal minds cannot work out
what contradictions say!”
“God’s secret!” said the Carpenter
as peacefully they slayed.

“The Moon is cleft,” the Prophet spoke,
“The Hour of Doom is come!
I’ve ordered up a feast of thorns
and hellfire by the tonne
to greet the unbelievers
whose day is finally done!”

“Bashful virgins in the green
and growing garden groves
were promised us for our true faith!
Pears and treasure troves!”
the corpses cried as still they fought
and died again in droves.

“Fire and sword I promised them,”
the Carpenter opined
“But did they listen, no siree!
O well. I don’t much mind.
It makes no matter if the words
are clear or undefined.”

“It seems a shame,” the Prophet said,
“to play them such a trick.
They simply didn’t get the point.
I think they’re rather thick:
if even scholars disagree
the meaning’s what you pick!”

“Not in the written word at all,
but in the human heart,”
the Carpenter confirmed, then made
the sea of corpses part:
“A test to tell the ones who love
from those who think hate’s smart.”

“O humans,” said the Carpenter,
“Go now to your long home.”
“God’s tried you with afflictions,”
said the Prophet with a groan,
“Yet none so harsh as what you’ve done
to each other on your own!”

This poem may offend some people. That’s kind of the point.

Today–yesterday now, in France–twelve brave, decent people were murdered for expressing opinions some nitwits didn’t like. Here are some examples of what nitwits will kill you for (caption translations from Attila Iskander, who commented before I shut commenting off, used with my thanks):

"Charlie Hebdo must be veiled (covered/censored)"

“Charlie Hebdo must be veiled (covered/censored)”

"It’s hard to be loved by assholes"

“It’s hard to be loved by assholes”

"If Mohammed returned" "I'm the prophet, you moron"/"Shut up, infidel."

“If Mohammed returned”: “I’m the prophet, you moron”/”Shut up, infidel.”

"100 lashes of the whip, if you don’t die laughing…"

“100 lashes of the whip, if you don’t die laughing…”

Not really to my taste for the most part, but who cares? I’d never heard of Charlie Hebdo or the people behind it until they were made famous–immortal, legendary–today by the murderous nitwits who attacked them.

This is my initial response to those nitwits, based on Lewis Carol’s nonsensical original. I’m not sure why it came to me as a model this morning, but it turned out to be quite suitable for mocking the repetitive (and repetitive, and repetitive…) semi-gibberish that is the Quran (why yes, I have read it, thanks).

The poem ended up being more tasteful than it might have done. There are about an equal number of Biblical and Quranic references, for anyone who’s petty enough to be keeping score. I’m a much better Biblical than Quranic scholar, so there may be nits to pick, but it’s good enough for going on with.

The satire will continue until the killing stops. The more killing there is, the more satire there will be, and from more people.

Moderate Muslims won’t like that, I’m sure, but at this point it just kind of sucks to be them, much the way it sucks to be a Bayesian in a profoundly anti-Bayesian culture that has whole industries dedicated to promoting and profiting from anti-Bayesian beliefs and practices. Ask me how I know this.

Moderate Muslims are fighting the radicals in their midst, and that’s a good thing, so it makes me kind of sad if this offends them. But really, their comfort takes a very distant second place to defending democracy and free expression by, you know, actually freely expressing ourselves, even when it offends others.

If Islamists want to stop (or at least reduce to a bare minimum) the satire, there is a very simple way to do it: stop killing people.

In the meantime, the tiny minority of radical nutters can’t kill all of us, and every one of us they kill creates a dozen more. In the end, their children will grow up reading our words, thinking their own thoughts, breathing the air of freedom and knowledge and uncertainty and questioning. And the radical nutjobs will lose. All of them. Forever.

[I’ve turned off comments because there was some ugliness, and edited a bit for pretentiousness and snark. Second edit to add link to Ayaan Hirsi Ali link.]

Posted in pastiche, poem, religion | Comments Off

Books of 2014

This is a pretty scattered list. I don’t take a lot of care to keep track of what I’ve read, so the highlights I remember at any moment vary. That said, here is a run-down of the most notable, all of which I recommend if you’re interested in the subject matter:

1) Sex at the Margins: sociology. Currently reading. Narrative from a sometime aid worker and activist on how the notions of migrant work, sex work, and trafficking interact. Faces up to the complexities of the subject nicely. Motivated to read it due to proposed changes in Canada’s sex work laws.

2) Voyages of Hope: local history. Story of the Victorian-era “bride ships” that were sponsored by the “London Middle Class Female Emigration Society” and others. Mid-nineteenth-century England had a deficit of marriagable men to the tun of half a million or so. That happens when you colonize and rule a goodly chunk of the world. Women without men at the time were in dire straits. Meanwhile, in colonies like Vancouver’s Island and British Columbia, newly discovered gold fields brought in tens of thousands of womenless men, and they tended to behave in ways that offended the sensibilities of the ruling class. A few hundred women were shipped over in fairly deplorable conditions with poor organization, and while many married successfully and did well for themselves, they weren’t the panacea hoped for. Fascinating stuff.

3) The Indians of Canada: dated but comprehensive ethnography of the Indians of Canada, published in 1932 or so. Diamond Jenness was a New Zealander who worked with native peoples in Canada for most of his life. The degree of porosity across the Rockies surprised me. The West Coast tribes were largely isolated, but the Interior tribes could and did travel across the mountains regularly. Lots of calm prognostications that most tribes would be extinct in a few decades, which largely didn’t happen but does explain the massive neglect of native policy mid-century, as it was a population that was simply assumed to be going away.

4) The Overlanders: local history. The Overlanders were a few hundred people who made their way from Eastern Canada and the US to the Caribou gold fields in the early 1860’s. Tough men and a few women on horrible journeys.

5) The World of Christopher Marlowe: English history. David Riggs’ attempt at a life of Marlowe, with the usual filling in of missing information using general knowledge of the time. Striking how different Marlowe’s world was from Shakespeare’s. They were men of different classes, thanks to Marlowe’s university degree, and their experiences were therefore different.

6) Runaway: short stories. Alice Munro won the Nobel for literature in 2013, and this collection highlights her talents.

7) T. Rex and the Crater of Doom: science. Walter Alvarez’s story of the discovery of the crater that was left by the impact that killed the dinosaurs. Decent popular scientific history. Fascinating that there are still people standing against the giant impact theory. Gotta love scientific diversity.

8) Erotic Exchanges: French history. Nina Kushner’s history of elite prostitution in 18th century France. Women’s lives are far richer and more complex than the one-dimensional “women were oppressed property of males” myth suggests.

9) The Weaker Vessel: English history. Antonia Fraser’s history of women in the 1600’s, with particular focus on the period of the Civil War, which allowed women to more easily take on roles previously difficult for them to attain.

10) Various Patricia Finney. Finney writes mostly about late Elizabethan intrigues. “The Firedrake’s Eye” is very good. The Robert Carey books likewise–they nicely complement GMF’s “The Steelbonnets” in making the history of the Borders come alive.

11) Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay. Not a big Kay fan, but this is an excellent book. A fictional cover of one of the more intense and exciting periods of Chinese history, with characters that are both accessible and exotic.

12) Stableford’s Asgard trilogy. I read “Journey to the Centre” back in the ’70’s and wasn’t aware until recently there was more to the story. Enjoyable.

13) The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. This was the only re-read on the list. David Mitchell generally bears re-reading.

14) The Rise of Secret America: American history. Look at the past few decades of growth in top secret programs in the US and the difficulty of getting them under control in the post-9/11 world.

15) Various James S.A. Corey: mostly a couple of the Expanse novels, which were OK.

16) The Way of the Knife: American History. Mostly about the CIA. Depressing.

17) Skin Game (Dresden Files). Jim Butcher is just pure fun. Amazing story-telling.

18) Some books on writing. Notably Stephen King’s “On Writing”, which is as good as everyone says, and “Act Three”, which deals with the role of the third act in screenplay structure. Some Hero’s Journey thing too.

19) Personal (Jack Reacher). Lee Child is pretty much always readable. The physics is all wrong, though.

20) The Secret Ministry of Ag. and Fish: WWII memoir. Inside Churchill’s secret army, by one who was there.

21) Fault Lines: contemporary finance. Look at the current mess by head of India’s central bank. Enlightening.

22) The Edge of Impropriety: erotic romance. Sex sells, but telling interesting stories that are too relentlessly focused on “boy meets girl” is hard. This one by Pam Rosenthal manages it.

23) Blenheim: English history. Vivid account of Marlbourgh’s expedition by Charles Spencer.

24) Evil: psychology. Roy Baumeister looks at evil quantitatively. Cannot recommend enough.

25) Various others. Some short stories from “North American Lake Monsters” and “Conservation of Shadows”. A bit of Jefferson Davis’ hideous collection of prevarications and lies. Some William Tenn short stories. Some HH Monroe (Saki) short stories. Some Chaucer (Trolius and Cresida, mostly.)

As I said, I’ve likely forgotten a bunch. My new place has a complex geometry, and I tend to leave books scattered in various nooks, to be read when I am near that nook and have a bit of time.

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‘Tis the Season…

…to look back at the year just past. Things I’ve done so far this year, an incomplete list in no particular order:

  • Sold my boat :-)/:-(
  • Taken a short-story writing course from an award-winning author and learned a bunch about story structure and mechanics.
  • Moved into a bigger, better place where I want to be at very reasonable cost.
  • Published my novel and done a small amount of marketing for it.
  • Written multiple short screenplays that have been produced, and acted in a couple of them.
  • Written and directed a short film that has been produced.
  • Seen my elder son graduate from Queen’s geological engineering.
  • Spent some time with both offspring over the summer.
  • Built a canoe-ak, bought another one, and joined Kits Yacht Club. Got some time on the water that way.
  • Taken a screenwriting course and written a screenplay.
  • Written some good poetry (Hilary finished a couple of paintings a few weeks ago that were nicely inspiring.)
  • Wrote a bunch of short stories and a few poems that I’ve submitted for publication, all without success, although I got some pretty nice rejection letters.
  • Traveled the Sunshine Coast and a bit of the Interior with Carrie.
  • Did some skiing at Whistler.
  • Went paragliding with Carrie.
  • Saw an opera on stage for the first time, with Carrie, and enjoyed it. Saw another that was less good, but still worthwhile.
  • Saw some good theatre, including the Holy Grail with Alex and Tim, and had a good Fringe.
  • Read some good books, including an excellent ethnography of Canada’s Indians and a good biographies of both Marlborough and Marlowe (the century that separates them is an enormous gap, comparable to 1800 vs 1900… far bigger than 1900 vs 2000). I’ll write a separate post about books, I think.
  • Designed and built some bookshelves that I’m very happy with.
  • Bought a 3D printer and started experimenting with it.
  • Kept things afloat at my day job.

I’ve done a lot of thinking about stories, and have something close to a working definition. It’s been a year of learning about stories.

There are other things I won’t talk about here, which have also been good.

I’ve still not figured out what I’m going to do with my life. I’m getting closer, though. There are a few wheels left to turn.

In my experience direction is more important than rate, but after a few decades of almost zero progress in some directions, rate becomes kind of important. I have a finite number of years left, and I’d like them to go into some “work of noble note” that uses my unique abilities, insofar as I have any. It’s hard to tell sometimes.

I’m engaged in a rather complex learning experience right now that I don’t have a lot of guidance on. It’s a learning-by-doing thing that I’m finding deeply challenging, and I’m not sure I’m doing all that well at it. But it’s something I’m set on doing, and “As I see, I will, and as I will, I do.”

Come to think of it, there are a couple of things that could meet the description, all of which I’m doing fairly badly at. That’s why I write these things, as an excuse to meditate on what I’m doing with my life and why.

The next year is going to be a branching point, I think. If things come together, I go in one direction, otherwise, I go in a different one. Or maybe I just press insistently on. That’s kind of what I do.

One difficulty I have is I never have any idea where I am until I get there. I can’t envision the future very well, I can only create it. This makes forward planning and a whole lot of other things remarkably difficult. I make it up as I go along, but in parallel with formal plans that I know are the right ones, theoretically, but which have no tangible meaning to me even as I execute them. I don’t know how to describe my inner experience more clearly than that, but it’s a weird, detached, disengaged way to live. And yet it works pretty well. I’ve done OK in my life on a lot of axes, and plan to do more. I just have no idea how.

One thing I’m doing in the new year is taking a drawing course at Emily Carr. What’s the point in living just down the street from a world-class art school if I don’t learn me some art? I have an idea that it’s important that I’m doing that, but again: I have no idea why.

One last thing about this year: there are still a few weeks to run, but unless something unexpected happens, which it admittedly it could, the same number of people I care about are above ground at the end of it as at the beginning. This by my reckoning makes it a good year. It’s a good year by other standards as well, but an awful lot could go wrong and so long as that one fact is true it’ll still won’t be too bad a year.

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Socio-moral vs Techno-economic Problems and Solutions

When all you’ve got is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. This is especially true when you really like bashing things with hammers.

Recently, there has been an upsurge in talk about the role of nuclear power in the dealing with climate change, with some serious advocates arguing for the use of nuclear fission.

How you feel about this depends in part on what kind of problem you think climate change is: is it a social/moral problem with a social/moral solution? Or is a technological/economic problem with a technological/economic solution?

And in particular, is it one of those things in absolute exclusion to the other?

The environmental movement has historically been a social movement that is aimed at dealing with climate change and other environmental issues as social problems, which is a known-failed approach when applied to the exclusion of all else. By continuing to insist that climate change is a social problem that can be dealt with only by direct legal regulation and interference with individual behaviour, and fighting hard against alternative economic and technological solutions, the social environmental movement ensures that things that are known to work won’t get done.

We can see similar arguments between social/moral and techno-economic approaches across a range of non-environmental issues. Drug warriors treat drug use as a social problem that they try to prevent by legal prohibition on supply and the use of punishment to modify individual behaviours, which has proven to work very badly. Legalization and medicalization treat drug use as benign and addiction as a medical problem, not a moral failing, and work pretty well.

Anti-contraception advocates insist that the only solution to teenage pregnancy is abstinence, despite that being a clear and well-documented failure. Their argument appears to be that premarital sex is bad, so anything that makes it safer is also bad. If you think that premarital sex is bad only because it has bad consequences, technology to reduce the risk of those consequences is good.

Anti-prostitution advocates focus on criminalization and legal intervention aimed at individual behaviour to prevent people from exchanging money for sex, while others suggest that legalization, regulation and ordinary worker-rights protections will be more effective in dealing with the problems exchanging money for sex can create while avoiding the problems that prohibition creates.

In each of these cases the techno-economic approach is to forgo any attempt at controlling individual behaviour or directly imposing a moral vision, but to instead change the distribution of incentives, consequences and capabilities and let individuals make their own choices within that framework, even if they happen to be choices we might not approve of ourselves.

Social environmentalists routinely attempt to enact legal prohibitions on and control of specific actions–from fossil fuel extraction to fuel efficiency standards to pipelines–and attempt to modify individual behaviour by various legalistic means. They also are apt to say we have to “change everything” because tweaks to global capitalism are inherently incapable of yielding the kind of moral and social order they find attractive.

And as technological solutions like wind farms and solar farms have become a bigger deal social environmental groups (including the Sierra Club) have turned from supporting to opposing them. They aren’t opposed to all wind and solar, mind you, just specific projects: ones that are too close to human habitation, and ones that are in pristine wilderness. So long as a project is built on uninhabited land far from any humans and not on uninhabited land far from any humans, it will have everyone’s full support.

In the meantime, here is an incomplete list what social environmentalists oppose:

Think of any power source whatsoever. Search “environmentalists against <<that power source>>” and you will get hits. Lots and lots of hits.

Being against building new energy projects of any kind is what social environmentalists do.

Techno-economic environmentalists are on a very different course. Economically, carbon taxes are proven-effective at reducing fossil fuel use, and they also allow income taxes and corporate taxes to be lowered, which only a wealth-hating socialist could object to. Technologically, nuclear power is a proven-effective replacement for base-load coal. People who care about the environment–as opposed to people who merely want to impose their personal social and moral agenda on others–should be in favour of these things.

To be clear, I’m not opposed to shifting social and moral norms in the direction of more environmentally friendly behaviours. If people like Naomi Klein would embrace high-density urban living and abandon their environmentally calamitous village life the world would be a better place. There is no doubt about that. But there is a great deal of doubt that people like Klein will ever forgo their environmentally destructive lifestyles for the kind of environmentally friendly, sustainable lifestyle I enjoy in a densely populated urban area. While my carbon footprint is a tiny fraction of that found in a suburban, rural or coastal community, I can’t expect the average person to adopt this lifestyle, and it is not reasonable for me to expect everyone else to “change everything” simply because I know my lifestyle is vastly more sustainable than some hypocritical author’s.

Fortunately, we don’t have to. Technological and economic solutions to climate change exist. Carbon taxes work to reduce CO2 emissions. And nuclear power can replace base-load coal. If only social environmentalists would start putting the environment ahead of their moral agenda.

Posted in economics, ethics, politics, technology | Leave a comment

Ockham’s Razor is a Special Case of Bayes’ Rule

William of Ockham was an English cleric who eponymous principle of logic looms large in far too much of what passes for “debate” on the Internet.

People who deploy Ockham’s razor never seem to stop and and wonder why they have never once convinced anyone by using it, but there are quite fundamental reasons why the use of Ockham’s razor should be be abandoned and the underlying Bayesian argument used instead. The problem is that Ockham’s razor as frequently stated is easier to misuse than not, so arguments using it are red flags for most people because we have seen it misused so often. On the other hand, if in the cases where Ockham’s razor or something like it is valid, it is nothing but a particularly simple special case of Bayes’ rule.

Ockham himself put his principle not in terms of “simplicity”, as moderns generally do, but in terms of “entities”. He said, more-or-less, that it is “futile to do with more things what can be done with fewer.”

He himself seems to have believed only one Thing was required: God. Everything else was just God imagining stuff into apparent existence, for reasons inscrutable and perhaps ineffable.

Since we know that Bayes’s Rule is the only consistent way to update our beliefs in the face of new evidence, we should care if there is any Bayesian reason to accept this form of the principle, and in fact there is. Any explanation of a phenomenon that involves more things is going to be a priori less likely than an explanation that involves fewer things… except in those cases where the additional factor is really important.

Consider some evidence E, and two possible hypotheses, H1 and H2, where:

H2 = H1 & K

where K is something really implausible, like “intelligent aliens are visiting the Earth”.

Bayes’ rule tells us:

p(H1|E) = p(H1)*P(E|H1)/P(E)

and:

p(H2|E) = p(H2)*P(E|H2)/P(E)

But p(H2 = p(H1)*p(K), and by hypothesis p(K) is very small, so p(H2) is much less than p(H1). But P(E) is the same in both cases, and P(E|p(H2) can’t be that much more than P(E|H1) simply because we wouldn’t even be considering H1. So given that, p(H2|E) must always be less than p(H1|E).

So “adding entities” is an anti-Bayesian move unless they are pretty plausible to begin with–at least as plausible as “the evidence is somehow in error”, which is a good deal more plausible than most people think.

Likewise, “When you hear hoofbeats think horses, not zebras” is pure Bayes: the probability of the evidence (hoofbeats) is the same regardless of whether it’s a horse or a zebra, but the prior plausibility of horses is much higher than that of zebras. The nominally Ockhamian claim is therefore nothing but Bayes’ rule in action: if the evidence is just as likely from two causes, the one with the higher prior is more plausible.

There are many variations of “Ockham’s razor” that involve “simplicity”, but simplicity is quite frequently in the eye of the beholder. As noted above, the explanation with the fewest entities will generally have higher plausibility than one with additional ones that are a priori much less plausible.

When we move beyond simply counting entities the measure of simplicity becomes complex. There are two well-studied measures of complexity: Shannon entropy and Kolmogorov complexity. Either of these might do as a measure of simplicity, but it isn’t clear in most contexts how to apply them.

But perhaps we don’t have too: simple explanations like “The Nineteen Nitwits were responsible for the events of 9/11 with some help from al Qaeda” involves considerably fewer entities than “The Nineteen Nitwits were helped along by the Jews, the US government, the Illuminati… etc” and is subject to the argument above.

“Explanations” that deny the existence of the Nineteen Nitwits necessarily involve many other entities as well.

So it may be that this argument is general. I dunno. This is first-draft thinking, and I’ll have to think more about it.

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