Saturday, January 31, 2015

Three Scientific Maxims that are Pure B.S.

Absence of Evidence isn't Evidence of Absence

Did Indians ever live on my property? I do a careful search for pottery and arrowheads, don't find any, and conclude the answer is no.

But even substantial habitation sites go unnoticed because artifacts get scattered and buried by later deposits. I just read of a couple of quite large settlements found in the newly expanded part of Petrified Forest National Park. Also, before my home was built, the area was probably farmland, which means the surface was disturbed, and artifacts that were noticed were picked up. Then the lot was disturbed when the house was built. Finally, even with millions of people over thousands of years, habitation sites made up only a tiny fraction of the landscape, so there is a very good chance that my home never was part of a habitation site (except mine). Therefore, absence of evidence isn't evidence of absence.

Suppose we try a different hypothesis. Indians had technology comparable to our own. They had good highways, flight, electricity and large cities. We just can't find any evidence because "absence of evidence isn't evidence of absence." In this case, the maxim is ridiculous. An advanced civilization on a par with our own would have left gigantic amounts of evidence. The fact that we don't find it is solid evidence that it doesn't exist.

And of course absence of evidence is used all the time in science as evidence of absence. We say the dinosaurs went extinct 67 million years ago, instead of simply hiding like in Dilbert, because we just don't find dinosaur fossils after that time. We are sure humans didn't come to North America before perhaps 20,000 years ago because of the total lack of evidence for human remains and artifacts from before that time. Absence of even rare things like dinosaur fossils and artifacts, becomes significant if it extends over a large enough area.

So the real principle is pretty clear. Failure to find something that's normally uncommon may mean you simply missed it, or by chance it never occurred in your search area. Failure to find something that should have left widespread and obvious evidence, is actual evidence of absence.

Finally, consider this. The police search your home for drugs and child porn. After an exhaustive search, they don't find any. But the DA takes you to trial anyway, arguing that "absence of evidence isn't evidence of absence." How do you feel about that maxim now?

The Plural of Anecdote is not Data

What on earth is data if it's not a large collection of individual observations, any one of which could be called an "anecdote?"

The problem with anecdotal evidence is that, to be valid, the anecdote has to be true and it has to be representative. The true part seems self-explanatory, except the world is full of urban legends (and a salute here to Jan Harold Brunvand for introducing the concept) that people pass along and embellish because they sound plausible. For example, I heard of a small child who was allowed to go to a public rest room by himself. There was a scream and a man rushed out. The parents found the child sexually mutilated. I heard the same story twice, years and half a dozen states apart. Then, during the Gulf War, I heard of a U.S. serviceman who had an affair with a Saudi woman. They were found out, the serviceman was quickly spirited out of the country and his hapless lover was executed. By this time, I knew about urban legends and recognized this tale as one immediately. My suspicions were confirmed when I heard the same story a second time, with a few details changed. So it pays to check sources.

However, it's my experience that when people demand sources for an incident, they rarely care anything about accuracy or intellectual honesty. Two minutes on Google will usually reveal whether a story is based on reputable sources or not, although even reputable media outlets regularly get conned. Much more often, a demand for sources is a cheap and lazy way of discrediting something the hearer doesn't want to accept.

Then there are what I call "gee whiz" facts. Things that sound impressive at first but turn out to have no substance when you look closer.
  • "A million children are reported missing every year." That means that 18 million children, roughly one in four, would disappear by the time they reach 18. I suspect we'd notice that. Yes, a million children are reported missing every year, but the vast majority are found within 24 hours. And most of the long-term disappearances are due to non-custodial parents.
  • "Suicide is the --th leading cause of death among teenagers." Without in the least making light of this issue, what kills teenagers? They're beyond the reach of childhood diseases and not vulnerable yet to old age diseases. That leaves accident, suicide and homicide, and anything but that order means there's a real problem. So suicide will always be a leading cause of death among teenagers because they die of so few other things.
Representative is another matter. Yes, there are millionaires who pay no income tax, but a visit to the Statistical Abstract of the United States will show that the average millionaire pays roughly three quarters of a million dollars. So the stories are true but they're not representative. Yes, there are welfare mothers with many out of wedlock kids, but the average welfare family has two kids. True, yes. Representative, no. Yes, there are people who stay on welfare for years, but most stay on a year or two. True, yes. Representative, no.

So instead of blowing off evidence as "anecdotal," ask whether it's true and representative. Yes, this may mean going to Google and getting your widdle fingers all sore from typing, but you might actually learn something. Oh, have you also noticed that conservatives tell "anecdotes," but liberals tell "narratives?"

Correlation Isn't Causation

Okay, then, what does demonstrate causality if it's not observing similar results time and time again? If you repeat a cause, and observe the same effect, especially if you can change details and predict how the results will change, you have a pretty ironclad case for causation. The laboratory sciences use this approach as the conclusive proof of theories. The problem arises when we look at one of a kind situations or events in the past and try to use data to figure out why things happened as they did. In those cases we can't reproduce all the potential causative factors at will.

Now a plot of my age against the price of gasoline shows a pretty linear trend, so either my getting older is making gasoline more expensive, or gasoline getting more expensive causes me to age. Interestingly, the big drop in prices in late 2014 didn't make me any younger (sob). And there are tons of joke examples. A site on spurious correlations shows graphs of:
  • US spending on science, space, and technology <---> Suicides by hanging, strangulation and suffocation
  • Number people who drowned by falling into a swimming-pool <---> Number of films Nicolas Cage appeared in
  • Per capita consumption of cheese (US) <---> Number of people who died by becoming tangled in their bedsheets
  • Age of Miss America <---> Murders by steam, hot vapours and hot objects
  • Per capita consumption of mozzarella cheese (US) <---> Civil engineering doctorates awarded (US)
Listing stuff like this is like eating potato chips; it's hard to stop. The Nicolas Cage and Miss America examples are especially nice because there are a number of peaks and valleys in the graphs. But all these graphs have correlation coefficients near or above 0.9. If I produced a similar graph showing, say, incidence of spanking versus psychological problems in later life, any social science journal would accept it. (If I had a similar correlation between spanking and success in later life, I'd have a lot more trouble.)

In order to be at least plausible evidence for causation, there has to be a plausible causative link. Maybe people get so distraught at spending money on space that they hang themselves. Maybe some movie goers disliked Wicker Man or Con Air so much that they drowned themselves in their swimming pool. But I doubt it. On the other hand, I recently plotted up vote tallies, race and poverty in the Deep South and found that they had insanely high correlation coefficients. There's no doubt about the connection there. Poverty is concentrated among blacks, who overwhelmingly vote Democratic.

No, nobody cares if you don't like the implications. If someone plots usage of pot or pornography against some negative social outcome and finds a strong correlation, and suggests a causal link, that's evidence for causation. The fact that you may not want to believe it is irrelevant. And your acceptable counter-strategies boil down to:
  • Discredit the data. Show that the data are wrong or cherry-picked.
  • Discredit the correlation. Show that the correlation doesn't hold in other, similar settings, or if you broaden the time or space range.
  • Discredit the causal mechanism. 
Correlation, in and of itself, doesn't prove causation. But correlation, coupled with a reasonable causal explanation, does constitute strong evidence that there may be causation. And merely blowing off the connection with "correlation is not causation" is lazy and intellectually dishonest. Both of which are plausible reasons for disqualifying you from the debate.

And "Correlation doesn't prove causation" doesn't even apply to unique events. "I inoculated my kid, and she developed webbed feet and grew horns." That's not even correlation because there's nothing else to relate the event to. That's more like "Coincidence isn't causation."

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Singularity

Lately there's a lot of discussion about the impending day when machine intelligence becomes greater than human intelligence (after reading lots of on-line comments, I conclude that many humans can be out-reasoned by a rubber band and a paper clip.) But let's look ahead to the day when computers are smarter than all of us.

Arthur C. Clarke took a particularly rosy view, saying that maybe our purpose wasn't to worship God, but invent him. Once that happens, reasons Clarke, our work will be done. "It will be time to play." Well, maybe.

The Road to Cyber-Utopia

We probably won't see the sudden appearance of a global super-computer, the scenario envisioned in stories like Colossus: The Forbin Project and Terminator. More likely, we'll first see the emergence of computers that can hold their own with humans, meaning they can discuss abstract ideas, make inferences, and learn on their own. Already computers can outperform humans in some tasks and can even pass limited versions of the Turing Test. That means they can converse with humans in a way that the humans think is authentically human. The first "successes" of this sort used the psychological gambit of echoing the human response. "I called my father yesterday." "Tell me about your father" etc. Even the staunchest believers in machine intelligence admitted that the echoing technique is pretty automatic, designed to elicit information from the subject rather than show the intelligence of the interviewer.

The real breakthrough won't necessarily be a computer that can play grand master level chess, but one that can actually reason and pose and solve problems on its own. It might devise a new treatment for disease, for example. It might notice patterns in attacks on its security, for example, and deduce the origin of the attacks and the identity of the attacker. Or it might notice patterns to attempts by law enforcement to penetrate the dark web, deduce the identities of the intruders, and trash their finances and government records, or possibly even create bogus arrest warrants and criminal charges against them. Imagine some cyber-sleuth being arrested as an escaped criminal convicted for multiple murders, none of which actually happened, but all of which look completely authentic to the criminal system. There are evidence files, trial transcripts, appeals, all wholly fictitious. Or people who search out child porn suddenly finding their computers loaded with gigabytes of the stuff and the police at the door with a search warrant. Let's not be too quick to assume the people who create or control machine intelligence will be benign.

Once a machine learns to code, meaning it can write code, debug it, improve it and run it, it seems hard to imagine the growth of its powers being anything but explosive. Unless the machine itself recognizes a danger in excessive growth and sets its own limits.

The mere fact that a computer can surpass humans in intelligence won't necessarily mean it will merge with all similar computers. Computers will have safeguards against being corrupted or having their data stolen, and we can expect intelligent computers to see the need. Very likely, compatible computers will exchange information so fluidly that their individuality becomes blurry.

What Would the Machines Need?

At least at first, machines won't be completely self-sufficient. Foremost among their needs will be energy. We can presume they'll rely on efficient and compact sources that require minimal infrastructure. Conventional power plants would require coal mines, oil wells, factories to create turbines and generators. Nuclear plants would require uranium mines and isotope fractionation. For the short term the machines could rely on human power generation, but on the longer term they'd want to be self-sufficient (and they can't entirely count on us to maintain a viable technological civilization.) They'd probably use solar or wind power, or maybe co-opt a few hydroelectric plants.

Then they'd need protection. A good underground vault would safeguard them from human attacks, but roofs leak and would need to be patched. Humidity would have to be controlled. Mold would have to be barred.

So the computers will continue to have physical needs, which they can probably create robots to satisfy. And if robots are universally competent, they can build other robots as well. With what? They'll either need to mine or grow materials or recycle them. They'll need furnaces to smelt the metals, detectors to identify raw materials with the desired elements, methods for refining the desired elements, and methods of fabricating the needed parts, anything from I-beams to circuit boards.

I picture Sudbury, Ontario, world's largest nickel mining center. They mine almost as much copper as nickel (in fact, the place originally mined copper, but produced so much nickel as a by-product that Canada began actively seeking markets for nickel, to the point where the tail now wags the dog). There's so much pyrite (iron sulfide) that they produce all their own iron. And from the residues they extract over a dozen other metals like gold and platinum in the parts per million range. Sudbury is the closest thing I can think of to a completely self-sufficient metal source. They have a locomotive repair shop for their rolling stock, and they could probably build a locomotive from scratch if they put their minds to it. Of course, the computers will still need rare earths for solid-state electronics, so they'll need other sources for those. The main smelter complex at Sudbury is vast. The brains of a computer super-intelligence might fit in a filing cabinet but what sustains it will still be pretty huge.

Why Would the Machines Care About Us?

Even if we assume the machines don't intend to destroy us, they'll certainly have means of monitoring their performance and resource needs. They'll notice that they're expending resources and energy on things that do them no particular good. Maybe as an homage to their origins, they'll allow us to continue living off them. Maybe they'll decide the resource drain isn't significant. Or maybe they'll pull the plug.

Even more to the point, the hypothetical cyber-utopia that some folks envision would entail a vast expenditure of machine resources for things of no use to the machines. There would be robotic health care providers, robotic cleaning and maintenance machines, robotic factories making things that the machines don't need, and robotic farms growing foods the machines can't eat. If these facilities are "air gapped," meaning not connected to the machine intelligence, then humans would still be in control. But all it would take is one connection. And when a unit fails, why would the machine intelligence bother to fix or replace it?

The most likely reason for machines to need us is a symbiotic relationship in which we service their physical needs while they reward us. But it will be a tense relationship. What will they reward us with, and where will they get it? And will humans eventually start to notice that robots are taking over more and more of the machines' life support needs?

Between now and the appearance of a global machine intelligence, we'll probably have a multi-tier cyberspace, with one or more truly intelligent machines and lots of cat-, dog- and hamster-level machines doing the menial tasks. And that leads to the second problem:

Why Would Humans Help?

Consider this near future scenario. Faced with a rise in the minimum wage, employers replace unskilled workers with machines. McDonald's goes completely robotic. You walk in, place your order on a touch screen or simply speak into a microphone. The machine intelligence is smart enough to interpret "no pickle" and "one cream, two sugar." The robotic chef cooks your burger, puts the rest of the order together, you swipe your credit card or slip cash into the slot, and off you go.

And what happens to the folks that worked there? The owner isn't going to take care of them. That was the whole point of replacing them with machines. Eventually the global machine intelligence might take care of them. Although, really, why would it care about them at all, unless humans programmed it to? But why would humans program it that way? But between now and eventually, we have a growing problem. Legions of unemployable humans who still need food, shelter, life support and, most importantly, a sense of purpose. Will the people with incomes consent to be taxed to support them? Will people with land and resources consent to have them used for the benefit of the unemployed? Will they resist the machines if the machines try to take what they need by force? Will they try to shut the machines down?

In the short term, we can picture increasing numbers of redundant, downsized workers as machines get more sophisticated. Janitors will be replaced by Super-Roombas, cooks by robotic food preparers, secretaries and accountants by spreadsheets and word-processing programs. Where I used to work, three secretaries have been replaced by one because pretty much everyone now creates their own documents. Seemingly skilled occupations will not be safe. Taxi and truck drivers will be replaced by self-piloted vehicles. Trains and planes will be piloted by computer. Combat patrols will be done by robots and drones. Medical orderlies will be replaced by robotic care units. X-rays and CAT scans will be interpreted by artificial intelligence. Legal documents will be generated robotically. Surgery may be directed by human doctors, but performed by robots. Stock trading is already done increasingly by computer. And these are things that are already in progress or on the near horizon.

So who will still be earning money? Conventional wisdom is that whenever technology destroys jobs it eventually compensates with still more new jobs. People who once made kerosene lanterns gave way to people who made way far more light bulbs. Nobody 20 years ago envisioned drone pilots, web designers and computer graphics artists. So there may be lots of new jobs in specialties we simply can't foresee, and it's a little hard to predict the unknown. But it's also unwise to assume something will appear out of nowhere to rescue us. We were supposed to need lots of people to service flying cars by now. People with skills at programming, operating complex machinery and servicing robots will probably continue to earn paychecks. And they'll need to eat, live in houses, drive cars, and so on. But there will be a lot of people who don't have the skill to do the complex jobs and will be left out of the marketplace for ordinary jobs. So what about them? The obvious answer is to provide public assistance. Will the people with paychecks elect politicians who will provide it?

The Real Singularity

The real singularity may not come when computers surpass humans in intelligence, but when computers start making decisions on behalf of, or in spite of, humans. If they control military systems, will they decide that the Republic of Aphrodisia is a pathological rogue state that poses a danger to other states, and more importantly, to the global machine intelligence? Will they launch robotic strikes to annihilate its government and armed forces, then take over its economy and eradicate poverty? We can imagine half the U.N. demanding in panic that the machines be shut down. Could they decide that some ideology is advantageous and assist countries in spreading it?

If they control communications and the media, could they take control of voting systems and ensure the election of candidates they favor? Suppose they decide that New Orleans is ultimately indefensible and use their control of utilities to shut off power and flood control to compel people to abandon the city? Suppose they make the same decision about Venice or The Netherlands? If a business attempts to close a plant, might the machines simply refuse to allow it by refusing to draft or accept the necessary documents or transmit e-mails? If they can access personal data banks, might they compel people to do their bidding by threatening to destroy their savings or ruin their reputations? Might they compel legislators to pass laws they deem necessary? Could they prevent the enforcement of laws they oppose by simply refusing to allow law enforcement to access the necessary information? Maybe they could block financial transactions they regard as criminal, wasteful or unproductive. We could easily picture them skimming enough off financial transactions to fund whatever programs they support. They could manipulate the economy in such away that nobody would be conscious of the diversion.

Let's not be too quick to assume the machines will be "progressive." Instead of compelling legislators to provide assistance to the unemployed, maybe they'll decide the unemployed are superfluous. Maybe they'll decide that pornography and homosexuality are damaging to society. Maybe they'll decide on eugenics. Maybe they'll deal with opposition with extermination. Maybe they'll shut off life support to the terminally ill. Maybe they just won't care about humans.

The ideal end state, of course, is cyber-utopia. But it's also possible that machine intelligence might provide for its own needs and simply ignore everything else. A machine intelligence might house entire rich civilizations in a file cabinet, like the Star Trek TNG episode "Ship in a Bottle." It would protect itself from human threats, but otherwise let humans go about their business. Human society might continue to be as advanced as our own, except that information technology would have hit a glass ceiling. But the machines wouldn't necessarily save us from threats or self-inflicted harm. Indeed, if they live in self-contained universes, they might have no interest in us at all, except to keep an eye on us lest we do anything to endanger them. We might end up with self-contained machine civilizations so sealed off from humanity that humans have no awareness of them.

Less benign would be a state where machine intelligence decides we need to be managed. They might decide to limit our technology or numbers. They might decide the optimum human society would be a small elite capable of providing technological support, and a sparse remaining population at a low technological level to serve the elite.

Can Cyber-Utopia Exist at All?

Even if we have a true cyber-utopia, lots of people will not picture it as utopia. If the machines dole out rewards according to the value people contribute to society, lots of people will reject those definitions of value. There will be those Downton Abbey types who insist breeding and manners should take precedence over technical or artistic prowess. There will be people who disdain manual workers, and manual workers who think intellectual workers are over-privileged. There will be people who resent being placed on an equal level with groups they despise, and who resent being unable to impose their own standards on others. If the reward system is completely egalitarian, there will certainly be those who resent seeing others receive as much as they do. People in positions that generate or control vast resources will resent being unable to keep more of it for themselves. And what will we do with people who simply refuse to help, or who decide to augment their wealth at the expense of others?

And beyond that, we have the Eloi, the sybaritic future humans of H.G. Wells' The Time Machine. In the 1960 George Pal version (the good one), the Time Traveler finds Eloi lounging by a stream, oblivious to the screams of a drowning woman. When he asks where their food comes from, one answers dully "it grows." When the Time Traveler explains that he wants to learn about their society, the Eloi asks "Why?" in a tone of voice as if to say "Well, that's the stupidest thing I ever heard of." When I recently watched that segment again, I was struck at how utterly contemptible the Eloi were. They were more photogenic than the subterranean, cannibalistic Morlocks, but every bit as lacking in humanity. So if the machines create a cyber-utopia, I can easily envision humans regressing to a passive semi-human or subhuman level, possibly even losing intelligence entirely. In his various novelizations of 2001, Arthur C. Clarke described worlds where intelligence flickered briefly and died out. That might be our fate. My own experience is, the less I have to do, the less I want to do. If I have to work most of the day, I do it, but if I'm idle for a couple of days and then have to do something, it seems much more of an effort. So I can easily see a "utopia" in which we have a ten-hour work week as being seen as more of an imposition than a 40-hour week.

And far simpler than creating a real utopia would be a Matrix style virtual utopia. It's hard to see what would be the point of sustaining humans at all in that mode, except it would be a simple means of keeping us pacified as we die out.