Natural Magic: On Weird Beliefs As Overfitting

by Jochen Szangolies

Figure 1: Data with different levels of noise: if the ground truth is at the center of the target, real-world data will typically not exactly match it.

The world is a noisy place. No, I don’t mean the racket the neighbor’s kids are making in the back yard. Rather, I mean that, whatever you encounter in the world, probably isn’t exactly what’s actually there.

Let me explain. Suppose you’re fixing yourself a nice cocktail to enjoy on the porch in the sun (if those kids ever quiet down, that is). The recipe calls for 50 ml of vodka. You’re probably not going to measure out the exact amount drop by drop with a volumetric pipette; rather, maybe you use a measuring cup, or if you’ve got some experience (or this isn’t your first), you might just eyeball it.

But this will introduce unavoidable variations: you might pour a dash too much, or too little. Each such variation means that this particular Moscow Mule differs from the one before, and the one after—each is a slight variation on the ‘Moscow Mule’-theme. Recognizably the same, yet slightly different.

This difference is what is meant by ‘noise’: statistical variations in the measured value of a quantity due to inescapable limits to precision. For most everyday cases, noise matters comparatively little; but if you overshoot too much, your Mule might pack more kick than intended, and either just taste worse, or even make you yell at those pesky kids for harshing your mellow.

Thus, noise can have real-world consequences. Moreover, virtually everything is noisy: not just simple estimations of measurable quantities, like volumes, sizes, or time spans, but also less easily quantifiable items, like decisions or judgments. The latter is the topic of Noise: A Flaw in Human Judgment, the new book by economy Nobel laureate Daniel Kahnemann, together with legal scholar Cass Sunstein and strategy expert Olivier Sibony. The book contains many striking examples of how noisy judgment leads to wide variance in fields like criminal sentencing, college admissions, or job recruitment. Thus, whether you get the job or go to jail might come down to little more than random variation, in extreme cases.

But noise has another effect that, I want to argue, can shed some light on why so many people seem to hold weird beliefs: it can make the correct explanation seem ill-suited to the evidence, and thus, favor an incorrect one that appears to fit better. Let’s look at a simple example. Read more »

The Limits of Conspiracy Debunking—Revisited

by David Kordahl

The sides of a Roman die (image from Wikipedia).

Note: This piece is an accidental addendum to my column of March 2021, “The Limits of Conspiracy Debunking,” though it can be read separately.

Sometimes, we’re surprised. Though everyday surprises can be comedic, the surprises that we register collectively are more often tragic. My parents both remember the assassination of John F. Kennedy as one of the most shocking events of their childhoods. I suppose the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, constitute the most shocking of mine. Both the JFK assassination and the 9/11 attacks have attracted conspiracy speculation ever since they occurred. And there are good reasons for this, I contend, even if no conspiracies were involved.

Collective feelings of surprise, of widespread shock, reflect a vague feeling that such events were unlikely, though their very unlikeliness makes their odds hard to calculate. In such cases, alternative explanations—“conspiracy theories,” if you’re feeling ungenerous—seem attractive because they change our estimated likelihoods for surprising events. After these events, it’s natural enough to ask, Why didn’t I see that coming? We might consider, with some shame, whether our expectations should have included wider possibilities, so we might have been less surprised.

After such shocks, the prophets who forewarned disaster gain legitimacy. People retrospectively consider alternatives that accommodate their prior surprise. This rethinking serves to change their subjective odds for the likelihood of the original event. But that’s a problem, if we’re interested in any sort of self-consistency, since this retrospective modulation of odds is only reasonable if we actually should not have been surprised.

This may all sound circular, but there’s a solution at hand. If unique events can be reclassified as non-unique, we can move away from seeing events as being unprecedented, and statistics will once again apply. Returning to shocking events, JFK might be rolled into the category of “political assassinations,” and 9/11 into the category of “political terrorism,” and we might then think through the odds by examining trends in those categories. Read more »

YouTube: Designed to Seduce?

by Fabio Tollon

In 2019 Buckey Wolf, a 26-year-old man from Seattle, stabbed his brother in the head with a four-foot long sword. He then called the police on himself, admitting his guilt. Another tragic case of mindless violence? Not quite, as there is far more going on in the case of Buckey Wolf: he committed murder because he believed his brother was turning into a lizard. Specifically, a kind of shape-shifting reptile that lives among us and controls world events. If this sounds fabricated, it’s unfortunately not. Over 12 million Americans believe (“know”) that such lizard people exist, and that they are to be found at the highest levels of government, controlling the world economy for their own cold-blooded interests. This reptilian conspiracy theory was first made popular by well-known charlatan David Icke.

What emerged from further investigation into the Wolf murder case was an interesting trend in his YouTube “likes” over the years. Here it was noted that his interests shifted from music to martial arts, fitness, media criticism, firearms and other weapons, and video games. From here it seems Wolf was thrown into the world of alt-right political content.

In a recent paper Alfano et al. study whether YouTube’s recommender system may be responsible for such epistemically retrograde ideation. Perhaps the first case of murder by algorithm? Well, not quite.

In their paper, the authors aim to discern whether technological scaffolding was at least partially involved in Wolf’s atypical cognition. They make use of a theoretical framework known as technological seduction, whereby technological systems try to read user’s minds and predict what they want. In these scenarios, such as when Google uses predictive text, we as users are “seduced” into believing that Google knows our thoughts, especially when we end up following the recommendations of such systems. Read more »

On the Trail of Leonardo– Confusion, Collusion, and Connoisseurship

by Leanne Ogasawara

Salvator Mundi (Leonardo da Vinci)

It was mid-summer 2011 when the news broke that a long-lost Leonardo da Vinci painting had been found. Apparently, a New York City art dealer noticed the picture at an estate sale in Louisiana and purchased it for around $10,000. This occurred back in 2005, and the following six years were spent in painstaking work to research and restore the painting. Now in 2011, it was making its public debut in a high profile blockbuster exhibition at the National Gallery in London.

My first thought was: “This is the greatest art historical discovery of my lifetime!”

After all, it has been over a hundred years since the last Leonardo was officially “discovered.” This happened when the Benois Madonna was triumphantly trotted onto the world stage in Saint Petersburg, in 1909. Considered to be one of two very early Madonna paintings that the master himself mentioned working on in his notebooks in 1478, the painting was bought by the Hermitage Museum in 1918 and has remained in that collection ever since. This purchase being much to the chagrin of the American industrialist and art patron Henry Clay Frick, who had plunked down a hefty deposit for the picture– only to lose out in the end, when the Russian czar swooped down to exercise his right to purchase.

Benois Madonna

Not a prolific artist, it is hard to say which was worse: Leonardo’s chronic procrastination and inability to finish projects or the highly experimental methods in technique and materials that he favored. The result being that not many paintings remain in what is broadly agreed upon by experts to have been done in his hand. Prior to the new 2005 discovery, there were fewer than twenty pictures. So the new discovery was immediately –and not surprisingly– met with a deluge of doubts. First of all, how does one lose something this valuable in the first place? Shouldn’t there by a seamless trail of the work from its conception and initial purchase by a king or duke down through history, as it changes hands for greater and greater sums of money? Leonardo was, after all, legendary even during his own lifetime, with kings and queens clamoring to obtain paintings from the great master. And unlike with my favorite artist, Piero della Francesca, his work never fell out of favor. Read more »

Creationism as conspiracy theory – the case of the peppered moth

Addendum: On the day this item was posted, a school board member in Nebraska used slides of Well’s Icons of Evolution to argue that the school should teach “the evidence for and against neo-Darwinian evolution;” details here and here.

by Paul Braterman


Comparison of carbonaria and typica mounted against post-industrial treetrunk, 2006. Licenced under GFDL by the author, Martinowski at nl.wikipedia. [Click image to enlarge.]

The peppered moth provides a textbook example of industrial melanism and its reversal. Once a classroom classic, then much criticised, and finally rehabilitated through further observation, the story also shows how real science works. The response of the creationist and “Intelligent Design” community provides a textbook example of a conspiracy theory in action, with cherry-picked quotations, allegations of collusion and fraud, and refusal to acknowledge new evidence.

This moth comes in two main varieties, mottled pale (typica), and dark-coloured (carbonaria). The dark form was first noticed, as a rarety, in 1848. Then came widescale industrialisation and grime. By 1895, 98% of the peppered moths in Manchester were dark, and in 1896 it was first suggested that this was a camouflage effect; typica is well concealed against a pre-industrial treetrunk, with its mottling of lichen, but against a sooty background it is an obvious meal for any passing bird. J.B.S. Haldane, in 1924, applied his new methods of quantitative genetics to the speed of such changes, and inferred that carbonaria must have possessed something like 50% per generation advantage over its pallid competitor. An extreme case of Darwinian evolution.

(Let me define that term, since for their own reasons creationists habitually equate all modern biology with Darwin. Darwinian evolution requires just three components; inheritable variation within a population, competition between its members to survive and reproduce, and a difference in fitness between variants. Fitness, here, is simply the ability to survive and have offspring that are themselves fit. This then leads to the evolution of a population in which the variations that confer fitness have become more common. We now know, as Darwin did not, that the inheritable variation corresponds to differences in genes, and that mutations, arising from gene copying errors, give rise to an ongoing supply of new variations. That’s it.)

In the 1950s, Bernard Kettlewell, medical student turned naturalist, carried out a set of direct experiments to test the suggestion that industrial melanism was the result of selective predation. He released large numbers of moths, a mixture of typica and carbonaria, in both polluted and unpolluted woodlands. As expected if the predation-selection mechanism is operating, the survival rate was greater for typica in clean environments, while the opposite applied in environments that were polluted. Kettlewell then persuaded Niko Tinbergen to film the actual process in both kinds of environment. Tinbergen later shared the 1973 Nobel Prize for his work on supernormal stimuli (exaggerated forms preferred to the real ones), along with Konrad Lorentz (filial imprinting) and Karl von Frisch (bee signalling).

Subsequent decades saw the passage of clean air acts, the washing clean of trees by unpolluted rainwater and the return of lichens, and a recovery of the numbers of typica at the expense of carbonaria.

So here we had the clearest possible example of Darwinian evolution in action. Variation dependent on a single gene; a selection pressure, namely predation by birds; an evolved response, namely camouflage; and a change in the direction of evolution with circumstances as camouflage favoured first one variant, then the other. Or so it seemed.

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9-11… Random Thoughts

by Omar Ali


This is not a post about the great tragedy of 9-11 or the great tragedies that followed 9-11. These are just some random thoughts about some arguments that show up around this topic and that I, as a regular blogger and commentator on the intertubes, have taken part in over the years. Since most of my friends and interlocutors are westernized liberals or leftists, this is necessarily focused on arguments common in the westernized liberal world. By saying this, I hope to deflect the inevitable argument that I am “missing” or ignoring the awful, bone-chilling, sickening racism and islamophobia that is rampant on the Western right wing; or that I am ignoring the awful, bone-chilling, sickening anti-semitism and islamofascism that is rampant in the Islamist world or, for that matter, the awful, scary, racist nationalism that bubbles through sections of the Chinese intertubes. I am going to give those a miss, even though I am vaguely aware of their existence. This post is not going to be fair and balanced; It is about our pathologies (or my pathologies, as the case may be). And many of the sentences in this article are copied from previous comments and past posts.

Truthers: In some ways, the existence of the 9-11 truth movement should be completely unsurprising. Every world historical event generates conspiracy theories (and some of them are even true) and it is no surprise that the largest terrorist atrocity in US history, followed by two wars (at least one on completely false pretenses) and massive domestic spying and other illegalities, would generate many conspiracy theories. But the way otherwise intelligent and sensible people argue in support of outlandish and completely irrational theories about controlled demolitions and remote-controlled aircraft has still been a surprise and a learning experience. This is not about the claims themselves (which have been debunked in great detail on hundreds of occasions) but rather about what I have learned from arguing about them.

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