Jul 192005

Brian: I’m not the messiah.
Acolyte: Only the true messiah would deny that he was the messiah!
Brian: OK. I’m the messiah.
Mob: He’s the messiah! He’s the messiah!
Life of Brian

Guy’s out walking in Manhattan when he sees a street vendor selling unmarked aerosol cans. He’s curious and asks what’s in them, and the vendor says, “Tiger repellent.” The guy points out that there are no tigers in New York City, and the vendor replies, “See how well it works?”

Certain ideas enter the world, like Athena, fully armed. Most of these are disreputable. Conspiracy theorists frequently insist that the absence of evidence for their theory constitutes proof of the power of the conspiracy; otherwise how could they cover it all up? Child “therapists” invoke the absence of any memory of sexual abuse as proof of the same; the horrific experience has been repressed. As Renee Fredrickson puts it, with all seriousness, in Repressed Memories: A Journey to Recovery from Sexual Abuse, “The existence of profound disbelief is an indication that the memories are real.” The major religions, of course, are the greatest tiger repellent of all. Good is proof of God’s wisdom and mercy; evil of his subtlety and inscrutability. Throw in a sacred text that it is blasphemy even to translate, and a standing order to slaughter the infidels, and you’ve really built something to last.

Tiger repellent also insinuates itself into more respectable precincts. In 1903 a well-known French physicist named Rene Blondlot announced the discovery of N-rays. Over the next three years more than 300 papers, published by 120 different scientists, enumerated some of the remarkable properties of these rays. They passed through platinum but not rock, dry cigarette paper but not wet. Rabbits and frogs emitted them. They could be conducted along wires. They strengthened faint luminosity, with the aid of a steel file.

N-rays, however, turned out to be highly temperamental. You could produce only so much of them, no matter how many rabbits or frogs you lined up. Noise would spoil their effect. Your instruments had to be tuned just so. Blondlot gave complex instructions for observing them, and still numerous physicists failed, for the excellent reason that N-rays do not exist. The American prankster physicist Robert Wood finally settled the matter by visiting Blondlot’s lab in 1906 and playing several cruel tricks on him. Wood surreptitiously removed the dispersing prism that was supposed to be indispensable to the observation of the rays. Blondlot claimed to see them anyway, and when he died thirty years later he was still firmly convinced of their existence.

It is easy to laugh at Blondlot from a century’s distance. But he was not dishonest, and many of the scientists who replicated his results were highly competent. N-rays were, on the face of it, no more improbable than X-rays, discovered a few years earlier. But a phenomenon so faint, so susceptible to external conditions, so difficult to reproduce, is tiger repellent.

All of this struck Karl Popper with such force that he attempted to erect an entire philosophy of science upon it. One sympathizes. Popper began to formulate his philosophy in the 1920s, when psychology, the largest tiger repellent manufacturer of the 20th century, was coming of age. Popper also, unlike most of his colleagues, does not give the impression of squinting at his subject through binoculars from a distant hill. He knows something of math and science and incorporates examples from them liberally. It is no surprise that of all philosophers of science only Popper, Kuhn possibly excepted, has a significant following among actual scientists.

For Popper a scientific theory must be falsifiable, by which he means that one could imagine an experimental result that would refute it. Scientific theories, it follows, are not verifiable either. No matter how many times a theory has been confirmed, no matter what its explanatory or predictive value, it is on probation, permanently. The very next experiment may blow it all to pieces.

Popper’s imaginary experimental result need not exist in our universe — some theories are true — but merely in some other possible universe far, far away. This possible universe may, indeed must, differ from ours in its particulars but may not violate the laws of logic. That 2 + 2 = 4 is necessary, true in all possible universes; that water boils at 100°C at sea level is contingent, true in ours. Science deals only in the contingent.

This distinction is essential to falsifiability. Some imaginary experimental results are valid, some are not, and this is how you tell the difference. In philosophy it has been formally known, since Kant, as the analytic/synthetic dichotomy. Analytic truths are tautologies; they are necessary; all of the information is contained in the premises. The locus classicus of the analytic is mathematics. Following Wittgenstein, Popper views math as “unpacking tautologies,” and therefore excludes it from science. It is, for him, a form of tiger repellent — useful to be sure, but tiger repellent just the same.

Trouble is, there’s no such distinction, at least not as Popper conceives it. Quine’s refutation in “Two Dogmas of Empiricism” is decisive. His arguments are well-known, if technical, and I will not recount them here. They amount to the contention that the analytic always bleeds into the synthetic and vice versa. Even mathematics turns out not to be strictly analytic, to Wittgenstein’s chagrin. If, as Gödel demonstrated, there are true statements in any formal system that cannot be reached from its axioms, how do we classify them? Are they analytic, or synthetic, or what? When Popper first published The Logic of Scientific Discovery, in 1934, Gödel was already internationally famous. Its index is replete with the names of contemporary scientists and mathematicians. Gödel’s does not appear.

The analytic/synthetic dichotomy has shown considerable staying power, its flaws notwithstanding, because it resembles the way people really think. Gerald Edelman’s theory of consciousness, for one, with its modes of “logic” and “selectionism,” maps quite well to analytic and synthetic. But the philosopher, in his hubris, elevates ways of thinking to categories of knowledge. Matt McIntosh, a convinced Popperian who rejects the analytic/synthetic dichotomy, has promised to salvage falsifiability notwithstanding. He assures me that this post will be coming, as we say in software, real soon now. (Note to Matt: I haven’t grown a beard while waiting, but I could have. Easily.)

The laws of thermodynamics, science by anyone’s standard, are probabilistic. It is not impossible for a stone to roll uphill, merely so unlikely that the contingency can be safely disregarded. Modern physics is statistical, and was in Popper’s day too. Popper acknowledges that respectable science employs probability statements all the time, which leaves him with two choices. He can admit what inituition would say, and what the Law of Large Numbers does say, that probability statements are falsifiable, to any desired degree of certainty, given sufficient trials. But then he would have to abandon his theory. By this same logic probability statements are also verifiable, and verifiability, in science, is what Popper is concerned to deny.

Hence he takes the opposite view: he denies that probability statements are falsifiable. More precisely, he denies it, and then admits it, and then denies it, and then admits it again. The lengthy section on probability in The Logic of Scientific Discovery twists and turns hideously, finally concluding that probability statements, though not falsifiable themselves, can be used as if they were falsifiable. No, really:

Following [the physicist] I shall disallow the unlimited application of probability hypotheses: I propose that we take the methodological decision never to explain physical effects, i.e. reproducible regularities, as accumulation of accidents. [Sec. 67, italics his.]

In other words, let’s pretend that the obvious — probability statements are falsifiable — is, in fact, true. Well, as long as we’re playing Let’s Pretend, I have a better idea: let’s pretend that Popper’s philosophy is true. We can, and should, admit that “what would prove it wrong?” remains an excellent question for any theory, and credit Popper for insisting so strenuously on it. We can, and should, deny that falsifiability demarcates science from non-science absolutely. Falsifiability is a superb heuristic, which is not be confused with a philosophy.

(Update: Matt came through with his post after all, which is well worth reading, along with the rest of his “Knowledge and Information” series. Billy Beck comments. He seems to think I play on Popper’s team.)

Jul 142005

You will recall from Part 1 that I owned a typescript of two unpublished poems by Yvor Winters and referred to my readers the question of what to do with them. Arguments were offered for selling, publishing, and burning. The arsonists had much the worst of it. Their best point was mine: that publishing them would muddy Winters’ reputation, and the reputations of poets are easily muddied. Still, even Helen Vendler can probably distinguish these juvenilia from such performances as “Sir Gawaine and the Green Knight,” “On a View of Pasadena from the Hills,” “Before Disaster,” “To the Holy Spirit,” and “Danse Macabre.” Eddie Thomas suggested that burning them will spare my heirs (my girlfriend) from thinking about what they stand to gain from my death — this typescript, and a stolen eight-ball from the local poolroom. I thank Eddie for making me feel, for a moment, like the billionaire who informs his grasping nephews that everything will go to the dog shelter. Perhaps he will be mollified to know that Lisa was only kidding. You were kidding, right sweetheart?

The historians pointed out a few matters that did not occur to me. We preserve literature for reasons other than strict aesthetic merit. Colby Cosh cites the poetry of Queen Elizabeth, which isn’t much good but which we are happy to have. Colby also reminds me that as an accidental executor my responsibilities may differ from, say, Max Brod’s. Bad poetry, Michael Krantz points out, may shed light on the good, though in my own experience it tends only to obscure it. I agree, however, with George Wallace that I have hedged about them sufficiently that no one will likely take these poems for more than what they are. In short, the historians win.

The mercenaries, led by the terse Paul Frankenstein, may take comfort in the fact that publishing and selling are not mutually exclusive. But I like owning the typescript and I don’t need the money. Certainly I will sell it before I dine on dog food.

Since I’m not going to get rid of them, I see no reason to withhold them. So here they are.

The Hermit

The shaggy old man of the canyons
Was fearful for mortal to see;
But he scattered his crumbs to the song-birds,
And raised the sage flower for the bee.

All folk turned aside when they saw him,
They feared his strange eyes and long hair;
But he played with the fawns in the shadows,
And dug up sweet roots with the bear.

And so when he died no men mourned him,
For he was a stranger to men;
But the fawns stare big-eyed from the shadows,
And the old bear moaned in the glen.

And the birds gave over their singing,
And the canyons were lonely and still;
And the birds dropped leaves over his body,
And the bees hummed his dirge on the hill.

To A Coyote

Gentle pussyfooter of the gulleys,
You of the sleepy slouch,
Of the furtive tail,
And the leering eye,
With your long tongue sliding enviously
Out of one corner of your mouth,
Your coat is moth-eaten,
And your ribs show through it,

But wait,
Where have I seen you before?

–Yvor Winters

Jul 032005

Dear Resentful Intellectual,

Some time ago a few of you complained about the filthy lucre that “Chet” was raking in. “Chet” is supposed to be the prototypical Wall Street guy — tall, handsome, personable, eerily well-adjusted, everything but clever. Of course what you really want to know is not why Chet makes so much money, but why he makes so much more money than you do.

Chet does exist. I’ve worked in finance (the software end), and I’ve met Chet. But I’ve also met any number of brilliant people, as intellectual as you please, and Chet usually works for them instead of the other way around. Of the dozen most intelligent people I have ever known, half of them have spent some time on Wall Street. Is George Soros a Chet? Is Taleb? Is Derman? Brad DeLong, after supplying several more examples of non-Chets on Wall Street, explains matters politely:

Part of the answer is that [Chets] are sitting at a nexus: a huge amount of money blows past Wall Street, and if you can sit in the right place with a large net, unbelievable quantities of money will be trapped by it.

A bigger part of this answer is that there are four relevant human capabilities here: the ability to master details, the ability to quickly grasp what the salient issues are and follow them through to their conclusion, the ability to work like a dog, and the ability to size up people — figure out quickly who will actually produce something useful and who will not, who will hang tough and who will easily bid more, who will soften if wooed and who will stay hard-nosed. Next to nobody has all four or even three of these capabilities in world-class measure. Fewer people than you think have even two. And for someone who has one of the other three — mastery of detail or skill at analysis or the ability to work like a dog for ungodly periods of time — mastery of Chet-hood is a very valuable and lucrative skill.

I will put it less politely: Chet makes a lot more money than you because Chet is worth a lot more money than you. Chet the i-banker regularly spends his weekends drafting prospectuses; Chet the bond salesman often arrives at his office at 3 or 4 AM to trade the foreign markets. What time do you start work? Chet can probably do bond math and explain Black-Scholes. Can you? You have opinions on Wittgenstein, which Chet lacks; are you quite sure the opinions are worth having? Chet is not brilliant, to be sure; neither are you. Brilliant people produce brilliant work. Where’s yours?

The kernel of truth in your complaints is that the regulatory-cash complex protects the incomes of Wall Street, and Chet profits from this. But Chet decided early on that he wanted to trap money with a large net. He majored in economics and went to business school while you were dicking around with philosophy and Russian literature. While you sneered at all of your classmates who wanted to be doctors, lawyers, or investment bankers, Chet signed up for his interview with Morgan Stanley. He may be a welfare queen, and it is irritating that he will rarely recognize the fact; on the other hand, you likely work in academia, which is no stranger to tax dollars. You also, unlike Chet, frequently agitate for still larger subsidies, which annoys Chet as much as he annoys you, although he, unlike you, is probably too tactful to say so.

Yes, the world is full of rank injustices. No, your modest salary is not among them.