Obviously they should have seen it coming

In this essay series, I will write down my own thoughts about Eliezer Yudkowsky’s essays on the Rationality: Ai to Zombies –series from the point of view of a historian. My reason for writing these is primarily to organize my own thoughts regarding the use of rationality as a mental tool in my own profession, and as such, I do not presume to even attempt to appeal to a very wide audience. However, if you are reading this disclaimer and find my essays insightful or entertaining, more the power to you and I implore you to go and read the original essays, if you have not already.

The reason why historical actors tend to appear to us as either Masterminds or Imbeciles can be attributed to both hindsight bias, and the fact that people – historians especially – are very keen on constructing coherent narratives of the past. While it is considered key to consider only what the people themselves knew by the time of any particular source, the historian usually already has the already existing narrative in mind, from start to finish. We know what’s coming next, and thus sometimes we need to remind ourselves that the people at the time did not. It is notoriously difficult to predict the future, or even the consequences of your own actions. There are simply too many factors to consider. Even if in hindsight, some particular feature may stand out above all else, because it is the straw that broke the camel’s back.

In his essay concerning Hindsight Bias, Yudkowsky uses the Challenger disaster as an example, reminding that preventing the disaster ‘would have required, not attending to the problem with the O-rings, but attending to every warning sign which seemed as severe as the O-ring problem, without benefit of hindsight.  It could have been done, but it would have required a general policy much more expensive than just fixing the O-Rings.’

Resulting from hindsight bias, we tend to think that successful people were successful in their endeavours because they could plan their course meticulously Meanwhile, those who failed ought to have been able to predict that one thing and in failing to do so, appear to be have been idiots. Humans are not well equipped to rigorously separate forward and backward messages, so even mindful historians can fall prey to allowing forward messages to be contaminated by backward ones.

Examples of this kind of thinking is especially rife among political history.

Another thing that causes bafflement in students of history of every level is the assumption that most other people likely share your interpretation of a message’s contents. This gets confounded when you take into account the historian’s perspective of usually actually knowing what the message was supposed to say, due to the consequences of its misinterpretations.

In ”Illusion of Transparency: Why No One Understands You”¹, Yudkowsky recites a Second World War example used in a heuristics study by Keysar and Barr to illustrate an over-confident interpretation:

“-two days before Germany’s attack on Poland, Chamberlain sent a letter intended to make it clear that Britain would fight if any invasion occurred. The letter, phrased in polite diplomatese, was heard by Hitler as conciliatory—and the tanks rolled.”

It is an instinctive reaction to tear at one’s figurative beard at the stupidity of both parties involved – how could Chamberlain have left any room for interpretation, and what possessed Hitler to think that in absence of a direct threat, Britain would stall military action? However, Chamberlain’s style was to be very cautious and mild-mannered in his communication, and it had never resulted in a war before. Similarly, Hitler may have decided to act regardless of the word choices in Chamberlain’s message. We may never know, but this exchange makes both appear as Imbeciles, knowing both how the war ended, and what it cost.

Hindsight Bias is one of those mechanisms of the mind that historians are well aware of and actively work to undermine, yet end up submitting to too often. Be it hubris, attachment to one’s own narrative, or just laziness of meta-cognition, we all make this mistake sometimes. Still, it should be considered a required professional skill to be able to go backwards with one’s thinking and separate one’s own knowledge from what information motivated a particular source.


¹ Yudkowsky, Eliezer. ”Rationality: from AI to Zombies” Berkeley, MIRI (2015). 34–36.
The study he refers to in the essay: Boaz Keysar and Dale J. Barr, “Self Anchoring in Conversation: Why Language Users Do Not Do What They ‘Should,”’ in Heuristics and Biases: The Psychology of Intuitive Judgment: The Psychology of Intuitive Judgment, ed. Griffin Gilovich and Daniel Kahneman (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 150–166, doi:10.2277/0521796792.

Why it always takes longer than expected

In this essay series, I will write down my own thoughts about Eliezer Yudkowsky’s essays on the Rationality: Ai to Zombies –series from the point of view of a historian. My reason for writing these is primarily to organize my own thoughts regarding the use of rationality as a mental tool in my own profession, and as such, I do not presume to even attempt to appeal to a very wide audience. However, if you are reading this disclaimer and find my essays insightful or entertaining, more the power to you and I implore you to go and read the original essays, if you have not already.

The Planning Fallacy is one that is guaranteed to hit most starting academics under the belt. To illustrate it, Yudkowsky gives a few sample results of studies exploring this heuristic.

These are direct quotes from his essay Planning Fallacy¹, where he summarizes the findings. I am including them because the point deserved to be driven home by the anvil.

Buehler et al. asked their students for estimates of when they (the students) thought they would complete their personal academic projects. Specifically, the researchers asked for estimated times by which the students thought it was 50%, 75%, and 99% probable their personal projects would be done. Would you care to guess how many students finished on or before their estimated 50%, 75%, and 99% probability levels?

13% of subjects finished their project by the time they had assigned a 50% probability level;

19% finished by the time assigned a 75% probability level;

and only 45% (less than half!) finished by the time of their 99% probability level.


Newby-Clark et al. found that

  • Asking subjects for their predictions based on realistic “best guess”

scenarios; and

  • Asking subjects for their hoped-for “best case” scenarios . . .

. . . produced indistinguishable results.


Likewise, Buehler et al., reporting on a cross-cultural study, found that Japanese students expected to finish their essays ten days before deadline. They actually finished one day before deadline. Asked when they had previously completed similar tasks, they responded, “one day before deadline.” This is the power of the outside view over the inside view.

The planning fallacy has the most impact on the practical side of academia, and its lessons ought to be heeded by especially PhD researches and others who are taking on an expansive research and writing project perhaps for the first time in their lives. Without prior experience on such projects, we tend to over-analyze the project and counter-intuitively this leads to overtly optimistic estimations of the duration it will take us to complete the project. Yudkowksy calls this thinking in the terms of the unique features of the project the ‘inside view’, and recommends switching to the ‘outside view’ instead when organizing projects for oneself.

The outside view is, in all of its simplicity, deliberately avoiding to think about unique features of your current project and just ask how long it took others to finish broadly similar projects in the past.

This should be good news especially to all PhD candidates working on their dissertation, as they have a multitude of peer examples to draw from. And not only that, they also have their advisors, who have completed a dissertation in the past themselves, but have also likely supervised a few of them into completion before you came along. Their estimations should not be brushed off, and one ought not to underestimate other PhD Candidates either – likely, they had their reasons for the project extending beyond what was initially planned. The “inside view,” does not take into account unexpected delays and unforeseen catastrophes.

… And still, I expect my own dissertation project to be finished in the year 2023, maternal leaves in between and all. In my defense, I was faster (around 25% faster) than the average student is during my BA and MA, and I am in a particularly favourable position because I have steady funding until the end of 2022.

Let this blog entry stand as a lesson in humility and the perils of hubris, should 2024 come without me being a PhD.


¹ Yudkowsky, Eliezer. ”Rationality: from AI to Zombies” Berkeley, MIRI (2015). 30–33.

The studies in the quotes are, in the order of appearance:

  1. Roger Buehler, Dale Griffin, and Michael Ross, “Exploring the ‘Planning Fallacy’: Why People Underestimate Their Task Completion Times,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 67, no. 3 (1994): 366–381, doi:10.1037/0022-3514.67.3.366; Roger Buehler, Dale Griffin, and Michael Ross, “It’s About Time: Optimistic Predictions in Work and Love,” European Review of Social Psychology 6, no. 1 (1995): 1–32, doi:10.1080/14792779343000112.
  2. Ian R. Newby-Clark et al., “People Focus on Optimistic Scenarios and Disregard Pessimistic Scenarios While Predicting Task Completion Times,” Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied 6, no. 3 (2000): 171–182, doi:10.1037/1076-898X.6.3.171.
  3. Roger Buehler, Dale Griffin, and Michael Ross, “Inside the Planning Fallacy: The Causes and Consequences of Optimistic Time Predictions,” in Gilovich, Griffin, and Kahneman, Heuristics and Biases, 250–270.]

Just because it is Plausible does not make it Probable

In this essay series, I will write down my own thoughts about Eliezer Yudkowsky’s essays on the Rationality: Ai to Zombies –series from the point of view of a historian. My reason for writing these is primarily to organize my own thoughts regarding the use of rationality as a mental tool in my own profession, and as such, I do not presume to even attempt to appeal to a very wide audience. However, if you are reading this disclaimer and find my essays insightful or entertaining, more the power to you and I implore you to go and read the original essays, if you have not already.

 

I said, “It is more probable that universes replicate for any reason, than that they replicate via black holes because advanced civilizations manufacture black holes because universes evolve to make them do it.”

And he said, “Oh.”

The following is based on Yudkowsky’s essay Burdensome Details¹.

The conjunction fallacy is when humans rate the probability P(A;B) higher than the probability P(B), even though it is a theorem that P(A;B) ≤ P(B).

In a classic experiment by Tversky and Kahneman (1982)², they asked test subjects to rate the probability of statements regarding an imaginary person, Linda. Before giving the statements, they introduced her with this description:

Linda is 31 years old, single, outspoken, and very bright.  She majored in philosophy.  As a student, she was deeply concerned with issues of discrimination and social justice, and also participated in anti-nuclear demonstrations.”

Among the statements were the following three:

    • X) Linda is active in the feminist movement.
    • Y) Linda is a bank teller.
    • Z) Linda is a bank teller and is active in the feminist movement.

The test subjects subsequently rated the probability of statement (Z) being higher than (Y), and (X) having the highest probability. This research result has been replicated many times, and you can read Yudkowsky’s essay Conjunction Controversy (Or, How They Nail It Down) for more examples of studies into this heuristic bias.

The interpretation is that subjects substitute judgment of representativeness for judgment of probability. Because the statement (Z) feels more right than the statement (Y), they assign it a higher probability even though with a little bit of thinking it would be clear to them that P(A;B) ≤ P(B). The description activates our heuristics and because Linda more closely resembles a feminist than a bank teller, the test subjects presumed it more likely that she was a feminist bank teller rather than just a bank teller. The implausibility of one claim is ‘averaged out’ by the plausibility of the other.

By adding extra details, you can make an outcome seem more characteristic of the process that generates it. We are susceptible to weaving contrived narratives within our heads that sound more plausible the more threads we weave into it. We have to look back and remind ourselves of the difference between sources and our own additions. We have to hold up every detail of our intricately weaved accounts independently, and ask, “How do I know this detail?”

Yudkowsky refers to futurologists and their tendency to weave intricate details into their future projections, but the same applies to historians. The more ‘neat’ and detailed an account of history sounds like, the less probable it likely is. A picture of a garden with a garden gnome might be more interesting to look at than one without it, but if the map does not correspond with the territory, can we claim to be scientific even to the little extent historians usually can?

To avoid this bias that seems at the same time stupidly obvious yet keeps tripping our minds up whenever we are not mindful of it, Yudkowsky recommends noticing the word “and,” and being wary of it. It is easy to get carried away with heuristics that sound plausible and neat, and pat ourselves in the back in the process for spotting the connection. But if there is no evidence of a connection in the first place, our heuristics are just a burden on our quest for the truth.

To win in the game of heuristics, we need to begin with the shortest/least detailed answer and assign it the highest probability of potential answers. Only then can we turn on our plausibility radar and start guessing what other factors may have been present, as long as we remain mindful of the difference of plausibility and probability.


¹ Yudkowsky, Eliezer. ”Rationality: from AI to Zombies” Berkeley, MIRI (2015). 26–29.

² Tversky, A. and Kahneman, D. 1982. Judgments of and by representativeness. Pp 84-98 in Kahneman, D., Slovic, P., and Tversky, A., eds. Judgment under uncertainty: Heuristics and biases. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Puolivuosikatsaus 2.1.2019 – 30.6.2019.

Tässä on puolivuosikatsaus ensimmäisestä kuudesta kuukaudestani neljän vuoden työsuhteessa yliopistolla tohtorikoulutettavana. Töitä olen tehnyt keskimäärin 7h30min päivätyötahdilla viitenä päivänä viikossa, ja kesäkuun loppuun mennessä olen viikonloppujen lisäksi käyttänyt neljä vapaapäivää koko vuoden saldosta.


Väitöskirjan eteneminen: Väitöskirja on edennyt hyvin, ja kokoavasta raakatekstitiedostosta löytyy yli 200 sivua. Väitöskirjassa on nyt koko työn kattava valmis dispositio, johon olen näillä näkymin tyytyväinen. Toukokuun 2019 alusta lähtien olen jokaisena käyttämänäni työpäivänä tehnyt lisäyksiä tai muokkauksia väitöskirjan tekstiin. Kesäkuussa olen nostanut vihdoin yhden luvun irti muista, jotta voisin loppukesän aikana muokata siitä ensimmäisen raakaversion, joka minun olisi tarkoitus esitellä syksyllä 2019 väitöskirja-seminaarissa. Viitteiden hallinnassa käytän EndNote-ohjelmaa, jota olen pikkuhiljaa opetellut kevään aikana käyttämään.

Artikkelin kirjoittaminen: Olen kirjoittanut graduni pohjalta artikkelin, josta on nyt versio tarkasteltavana kakkosohjaajallani Ville Kivimäellä. Tarkoituksenani on viimeistellä artikkeli ennen kesän 2019 loppua, ja lähettää se julkaisulle arvioitavaksi.

Lähteet: Koluttu läpi ja otettu ylös muistiinpanot 36 julkaistua lähdeteoksesta, sekä 10 henkilön arkistolaatikosta Imperial War Museumissa, jossa kävin ne kuvaamassa helmikuussa. Vuoden alkupuolella selasin myös pintapuolisesti graduani varten käyttämäni julkaistut muistelmat keskiluokkaisilta vapaaehtoissotilailta hyödyllisiä viitteitä varten, sekä muutaman British Army Listin saadakseni tuntuman tutkimaani joukkoon.

Tutkimuskirjallisuus: Luettu ja otettu muistiinpanot ylös 23:sta tutkimuskirjasta ja 45:stä artikkelista, jotka liittyivät väitöskirjan aiheisiin suoraan tai sivuavasti.

Konferenssit ja seminaarit:

    • Osallistuin ilman esitelmää Baltic Connections 2019 –konferenssiin.
    • Pidin esitelmän ’“Mud & blood and beastliness. That’s all it is.” – Ison-Britannian upseerien kokemukset ensimmäisessä maailmansodassa’ Historiallisen yhdistyksen järjestämässä seminaarissa 11.4.2019 Tieteiden talolla.
    • Minut hyväksyttiin esitelmöimään heinäkuussa 2019 otsikolla ”Gentlemen go to War – British middle-class experience in the Great War” Veronassa pidettävään konferenssiin Violence : An Inclusive Interdisciplinary Project.
    • Minut hyväksyttiin esitelmöimään syyskuussa 2019 otsikolla “Identity Politics during the Information Age – The modern lures of tribalism and how to overcome them” Brightonissa konferenssiin After the End of History : Philosophy, history, culture and politics.

Opintopisteet:

Suoritetut kurssit:

    • HKP-927 Metodi- ja teoriaopinnot: tieteenalakohtaiset teoriaopinnot (5 op)
    • HYMY-906 Academic Writing (2 op)
    • 920201 Tutkimusetiikka (1 op)
    • HYMY-901 Conference Presentation (2 op)

Yhteensä 10/40 op suoritettu Historian ja kulttuuriperinnön tohtoriohjelman tutkintorakenteesta ensimmäisen kuuden kuukauden aikana.

Blogi perustettu osoitteeseen: https://blogs.helsinki.fi/tekemallatehtyahistoriaa/

Julkaistuihin postauksiin linkit: 16.4.2019, 29.4.2019, 13.5.2019, 27.5.2019, 16.6.2019.


Kaiken kaikkiaan olen tyytyväinen etenemiseeni, ja olen ollut erittäin tyytyväinen työtilanteeseeni. Töihin on kiva tulla, ja töitä on mukava tehdä. Katsotaan, miten tilanne kehittyy vuoden 2019 loppuun mennessä, jolloin julkaisen seuraavan puolivuosikatsaukseni.

The pitfalls of available sources

In this essay series, I will write down my own thoughts about Eliezer Yudkowsky’s essays on the Rationality: Ai to Zombies –series from the point of view of a historian. My reason for writing these is primarily to organize my own thoughts regarding the use of rationality as a mental tool in my own profession, and as such, I do not presume to even attempt to appeal to a very wide audience. However, if you are reading this disclaimer and find my essays insightful or entertaining, more the power to you and I implore you to go and read the original essays, if you have not already.

 

In his essay Availability¹, Yudkowsky defines the availability heuristic as the “judging [of] the frequency or probability of an event by the ease with which examples of the event come to mind.”

This means that we are both likelier to think deaths by accident occur more frequently in relation to deaths by diseases than they actually do, and compare out own lot to the rich and famous because they are the ones everyone is talking about.

“The objective frequency of Bill Gates is 0.00000000015, but you hear about him much more often. Conversely, 19% of the planet lives on less than $1/day, and I doubt that one fifth of the blog posts you read are written by them.”

This heuristic bias does not only make us more likely to be anxious and jealous in the present, but it also affects the work of everyone who studies people, past or present. The modern man receives information through several selective filters (how likely were people to share the news, does an algorithm consider the news potentially interesting to him, etc.), and most people are not very mindful of this fact. Those that are, however, can try to work their way around forming too heavily biased heuristics by diving into the cornucopia of information available to us at all times, and formulating a more balanced view of any given issue.

Once again, this is a luxury that historians have at best in a very limited capacity. Some periods in history are a regular desert of information, and whatever new research is published tends to be about looking at the few sources available from a novel angle. Not a problem in itself, but it becomes precarious when one tries to draw too far-reaching conclusions from them in their thirst for answers about the society from whence the sources originated. For a hypothetical example, imagine trying to answer questions about how a regular farmstead wife experienced their daily lives based on a single source written by a monk in a monastery a few villages past. Mind you, I do not think that we should not touch things that we cannot make very informed analyses about, but it is good to keep that mindfulness about oneself of not being very well informed.

This is an issue that anyone who studies illiterates has to face, and it is likely the biggest contributor to why historians did not concern themselves too much with peasants before the 20th century. The written word is a potent filter in and of itself, and the more time passes, added filters of what is considered in any given time to preserve to the future gets added. No large wonder that most historical sources concern the highborn and educated, as well as do histories. Why study the silent poor, when you could say so much more with confidence about Bill Gates?

When it is not a question of having only a handful of sources available, the issue begins to resemble the predicament of our modern lives much more. Namely that we are more likely to recall dramatic or interesting events and thus presume that they were more frequent than they were. It also relates to the temptation that I have mentioned before, of finding garden gnomes where there are none. In my opinion, this is a much bigger issue than making broad generalizations based on the writings of just a couple of monks. At least when the problem is the dearth of sources, the scientific community tends to be pretty good at taking it into account when assessing new research.

When one studies a time period where sources are too many for any single person to comb through and take into account, the intrinsic tendency of humans to give more weight to the shocking and dramatic poses a bigger threat to how any given period of time is perceived of as. Consider any common sense ideas about how violent and intolerant people used to be in any given time period, and it becomes easy to see why those ideas may have become stuck in the cultural consciousness.

Most likely the reality is more boring than our ideas of it, and as professionals it would be prudent of historians to not become one of the filters between reality and the broader audience, ending up propagating ideas of our ancestors as more ludicrous and wild than they were just because we like to remember the juicy bits.

 


¹ Yudkowsky, Eliezer. ”Rationality: from AI to Zombies” Berkeley, MIRI (2015). 23–25.

Pasta and Bias

In this essay series, I will write down my own thoughts about Eliezer Yudkowsky’s essays on the Rationality: Ai to Zombies –series from the point of view of a historian. My reason for writing these is primarily to organize my own thoughts regarding the use of rationality as a mental tool in my own profession, and as such, I do not presume to even attempt to appeal to a very wide audience. However, if you are reading this disclaimer and find my essays insightful or entertaining, more the power to you and I implore you to go and read the original essays, if you have not already.

 

“What is true of one apple may not be true of another apple; thus more can be said about a single apple than about all the apples in the world.”

This quote is can be found in Yudkowsky’s essay …What’s a Bias, Again?¹, in which he vaguely described the category of cognitive biases and why they can – to simplify – be viewed as an obstacle in the quest to find truth. It is also an excellent quote for historians – myself especially – to remember. I tend towards easy generalizations and intuitively prefer to paint with broad strokes, and I know I am not the only one to be tempted by the faulty generalization bias.

If you go to Wikipedia and look up the list of cognitive biases, the wide variety of packages they come in becomes apparent. As such, it is not useful to try to distill one unifying feature out of all of them. In reality all of them need to be acknowledged separately and deliberately, if one wishes to overcome their effects when they check the results of their reasoning. The best way to describe cognitive bias, as Yudkowsky does, is by referring to them as errors in our reasoning arising from the shape of our own mental machinery. It is not that the machine is broken or does not have enough energy; it is just that it was built to make spaghetti when all we would like now is tagliatelle.

Improving one’s reasoning capabilities helps to avoid biases by giving us a kind of a checklist to go over when we are re-checking our reasoning and conclusions to see if they actually make sense. Do we have tagliatelle, or did we just made spaghetti again because that’s what always tends to happen when you crank the lever. The first draft of our thinking cannot rid itself of bias, but when we look at the pile of spaghetti mindfully, we can remind ourselves about the differences between various types of pasta. Only then can we grab a roller and begin to reshape the outcomes of our reasoning into something that serves our original purpose. As with spaghetti and tagliatelle, usually the results of our thinking are not so far off from what we were trying to achieve as to be unsalvageable. They just need a bit of work.

There is value in trying to obtain the most truthful answer to our questions regarding history, but historians should never forget that we are most likely going to be wrong in one way or another. What always strikes me when I read news reports of events where a reporter was actually present and several witness accounts were heard is just how often they still manage to botch the representation of the events. Historians are on this task as well, only we were never really there and did not even directly talk to the people who were. How likely must it be that our attempts to report on past events would have made the actual people involved aghast at their misrepresentation?

The amount of untruths is infinite, and truth itself is a difficult target to hit even when you have the chance to go back and empirically test if your reasoning was sound. We as historians have to do without this luxury. All we have is the garden views through our selected and blotched windows, and often not even that, just pictures drawn of the views by someone else. Nothing short of a new window or a removal of a stain in an already existing one can give us a chance to check someone’s reasoning in filling in the blanks in their drawing. So our chance of being mistaken and is already far greater, without even accounting for the fact that testing for bias is trickier for us than for most other scientists.

But that’s alright, after all what’s the worst that could happen? Luckily for us, nobody’s life (at least directly) hangs on representations of history, and there’s at least a dozen of us who can give a second opinion if someone makes a particularly unfounded and egregious claim. So we should be bold to try.

Scientific truth-seeking is a recent endeavor compared to how useful cognitive biases have been to humans in our everyday lives for hundreds of thousands of years. Therefore, we will have to make do with the spaghetti-making-machine that is our brain and see to it that we do not just leave it at that if what we actually seek is some tagliatelle.

 


¹ Yudkowsky, Eliezer. ”Rationality: from AI to Zombies.” Berkeley, MIRI (2015). 19–22.

What motivates historians

In this essay series, I will write down my own thoughts about Eliezer Yudkowsky’s essays on the Rationality: Ai to Zombies –series from the point of view of a historian. My reason for writing these is primarily to organize my own thoughts regarding the use of rationality as a mental tool in my own profession, and as such, I do not presume to even attempt to appeal to a very wide audience. However, if you are reading this disclaimer and find my essays insightful or entertaining, more the power to you and I implore you to go and read the original essays, if you have not already.

 

Truth: 1. The quality or state of being true.

1.1 That which is true or in accordance with fact or reality.

1.2 A fact or belief that is accepted as true.

 

Accurate knowledge of scientific truths of the (1.1) kind let us manipulate the world, but no space shuttle is going to crash based on whatever we think is historically true, as historical truths all fall neatly into the (1.2) category of truths. What then drives historians to seek the truth, if it is only ever going to be our best guess with no significance in the grand scale of things?

Again I return to the analogue of gardens and windows and artists, as I will probably do in the future as well on this blog. To reiterate: Gardens are temporal realities in history, windows are pieces of sources through which we peer through at the historical events and contexts, and historians are the artists who draw what they see through the window, filling in the blanks where the view is smudged or obscured. These pictures are both for colleagues and for wider audiences.

In his essay ’Why Truth? And…’¹, Yudkowsky proposes three separate modes of motivation for truth-seeking: Curiosity, pragmatism, and morality. All of these motivations come into play when historians decide on which window to peer through and start sketching to share the view with others. However, I would argue that curiosity plays the most significant role in this process for historians.

The pragmatic motivation for historians to conduct research drives them to focus on topics that are not curious just to ourselves but others as well (especially if they are willing to pay us), so that we may keep food on our table. On a wider scope, we cannot boast much pragmatic utility. Nothing we may discover has the kind of practical use that discoveries in natural sciences yield. Even if historians discovered irrefutable evidence that Hitler was secretly a Finnish man and in cahoots with Mannerheim and the rest to build Greater Finland, it would not necessarily motivate society to change anything about where we are proceeding. Instead, often the pragmatic concerns of agenda-driven agents would often best be served if history were shrouded in mystery, as this gives more leeway for lay interpretations that can be utilized for political gain.

In countering these agents lies the morality driven motivation of historians. We should be the ones to discover and bring to light the truth of historical events and ideas, so that they could not be twisted to serve whatever narrative is trending at any given moment. The problem with morality driven research is that it seems that often the historians with a very clear sense of moral duty also have specific expectations of what they will discover. As such, they need more integrity to not become-the-monster and twist their findings to suit their own agenda, if what they find is not what they thought it would be. You should never set out to do research to prove someone wrong, and serious self-reflection should always be practiced when a historian analyzes what draws them to a specific topic.

Curiosity is the motivation that cannot be removed from the study of history, as the gardens are innumerable and the choice we make about which one to focus on almost always rests on our curiosity.  Sometimes convenience overrides curiosity, but more often than not, historians decide to tackle vistas that are trickier to interpret just because we are curious about what we will discover. The pitfall of curiosity is finding there was nothing of significance there after all. As the picture is unfolding, a historian may realize that the picture contains nothing of interest even to themselves, and certainly will not catch the attention of anyone else. Finishing the picture can become tedious in this case, and the temptation to add in garden gnomes may become overpowering.

In this case, the curious historian does well to borrow a page from the morality-driven historian’s playbook and remind themselves that history still attempts to be science rather than literature. We are here to discover the truth, even if it is only the soft (1.1) kind.

 


¹ Yudkowsky, Eliezer. ”Rationality: from AI to Zombies.” Berkeley, MIRI (2015). 15–18.

 

 

Historians and Emotions

In this essay series, I will write down my own thoughts about Eliezer Yudkowsky’s essays on the Rationality: Ai to Zombies –series from the point of view of a historian. My reason for writing these is primarily to organize my own thoughts regarding the use of rationality as a mental tool in my own profession, and as such, I do not presume to even attempt to appeal to a very wide audience. However, if you are reading this disclaimer and find my essays insightful or entertaining, more the power to you and I implore you to go and read the original essays, if you have not already.

 

“That which can be destroyed by truth should be.”

– P.C. Hodgell

 

In his essay Feeling Rational, Yudkowsky touches on the perceived dichotomy of rationality versus emotions, and concludes that they are not opposites of one another nor should they be perceived of as separate but similar entities. Emotions can rise from both factual reality as well as from our biased perceptions of it, and their role is to guide our actions. Based on how true our map (model of reality) is to the actual territory (reality), the more warranted our emotions become.

…Anyway, I was inspired to take a completely different perspective on emotions and as such, I return to the analogy of drawing pictures of gardens based on views through smudged windows.

I propose that it is important for historians especially to be mindful of our emotions, as far as scientists and scholars are concerned. This is not because emotions have no place in science, but because we cannot escape our emotions at any stage of the research process. Unlike in sciences where you can go out and roam the garden to empirically test how accurate your map is, we will only ever have the view through the distorted window. An engineer will likely be promptly slapped in the face by reality if disastrously inaccurate interpretations make their way into his or her map. Meanwhile, if a historian makes an outrageous mistake, the worst scenario is that everyone will have the wrong idea and plan actions that are not based on reality – but then again humans are quite good at ignoring even the most accurate estimates when planning for future actions.

What drives historians to draw pictures of gardens (write history) is both our curiosity at what lies behind the windows and how we feel about the limited view presented to us. The amount of these garden views (historical contexts) to choose from is abundant, and the views through the windows (sources) are so imperfect that there are two separate points where historians should be particularly mindful of their emotions and bias.

First, when deciding on the view, we are usually completely at the mercy of our own biased interests. Even though it is not a crime to study what interests you, it is good to keep in mind that everyone either chooses the window that most interests them, happens to have most novelty value, or is easiest for them to reach from their current position. This leaves many views untouched, and consequently our knowledge of gardens at large (history) is skewed.

Secondly, when we are drawing the view and filling in the blanks, what we fill in is hopefully based on our best guesses of what would fit in the picture. We base our guess either on our prior knowledge of similar garden views we have gazed at ourselves, or on pictures that we have seen by colleagues. However, we are only human, and we may want to fill in the blanks with something that would make people notice us more, or by something that would make us feel smart. We can imagine a garden gnome where there is no proof of one and the probability is not high enough for it to be our best guess. Likewise, after looking at many similar views we may start seeing patterns. Patterns are especially exciting if you discover them yourself, and after becoming attached to a particular pattern you may start want to draw it in all of your pictures to make you feel even smarter and make others notice you.

Being mindful of our own emotions when writing history is behind the paradigm shift away from trying to write history from an ‘objective’ realist point of view, and towards a more post-modernist atmosphere, where the biases of individual historians are overtly emphasized. My own issue with this concerns the possibility of historians beginning to prioritize the maps over the territory. Since there are no tangible consequences of drawing in a gnome in your picture even though you cannot be entirely sure if it is there based on the view, the only actual deterrent to embellishing our pictures is the underlying reverence towards wanting to stay true to the actual garden. In this atmosphere of reverence, we do our best as a medium in transferring that knowledge to paper, giving our best guesses when they are required to fill in the blanks. Even if a gnome would look good in a picture compared to our best guess – that the red blotch behind the smudged window is probably just another poppy – we are deterred by the possibility that we might lose face if a colleague were to look through the same window and conclude that our interpretation is likely rubbish.

It is right that we would stay reverent to the territory rather than the maps, because all that can be destroyed by the truth should be, and in the end the territory is the only thing we have to anchor our maps. Interpretations can take any which turn based on the emotions of the historian, but we cannot actually go into the garden and twist it into our own picture.

As such, we should acknowledge that it is unavoidable that there will always be bias in our interpretations of history, rather than throwing our hands in the air and concluding that because we cannot get rid of the bias, we might as well put it on a pedestal.

Map and Territory – Historians and ’Truth’

In this essay series, I will write down my own thoughts about rationality from the point of view of a historian based on Eliezer Yudkowsky’s essays on the Rationality: Ai to Zombies –series. Some of my essays will be based on particular essays of his, while others are more of my general thoughts or focus on a singular point made somewhere along the line. My reason for writing these is primarily to organize my own thoughts regarding the use of rationality as a mental tool in my own profession, and as such, I do not presume to even attempt to appeal to a very wide audience. However, if you are reading this disclaimer and find my essays insightful or entertaining, more the power to you and I implore you to go and read the original essays, if you have not already.

 

Truth: 1. The quality or state of being true.

1.1 That which is true or in accordance with fact or reality.

1.2 A fact or belief that is accepted as true.

 

In his first essay in the series of essays which would become the book From AI to Zombies, Eliezer Yudkowsky defines his own use of rationality as two distinct branches:

Epistemic Rationality: systematically improving the accuracy of your beliefs.

Instrumental rationality: systematically achieving your values.

 

In the following, I am navigating the realm of epistemic rationality.

 

In the field of Arts, of which History is a part of, there is a frustrating tendency to devolve into semantic arguments whenever someone brings up the concept of ‘truth’. What makes it frustrating to me is the focus on the definition (1.2) of truth found above, and especially the emphasis put on the word ‘belief’.

The basic idea behind map and territory is that the map is your beliefs about the world, and the territory is the world itself.

This concept is simple enough to understand, and it helps to remember that when a map is erroneous and does not correspond with the territory, we do not (usually) go out and change the territory to better suit the map. It is much more honest to start by working on your map, but it is also the simpler solution – even if it may seem cumbersome and you have become quite fond of the vision as shown in the map.

What about when you cannot see the territory clearly?

Garden allegory incoming.

Historians work with limited sources, which is akin to peering at a garden through a partly opaque and/or distorted window. Still, our job is to make sense of what we see and fill in the blanks so that we can present a coherent recreation of the garden to interested audiences. It might seem easy enough – after all, we all have a general idea of what a garden is like based on the various gardens our colleagues have been peering at through their own blotched windows. Not to mention that we are living in a garden at this very moment which, while having the benefit of not being behind a blotched window¹, it is so vast that no one could wish to chart it completely by themselves. Regardless, we have a general idea of a garden and many samples of what they are and have been like in different contexts. Even if we cannot draw an exact match of whichever garden is behind any particular blotched window, we have good expertise to fill in the blanks and draw a coherent map for the wider public. Somebody needs to do it after all, or any old snake-oil map maker will be quick to come in and present their own map without even taking the time to properly examine the view.

People want to know what’s in that garden and somebody’s going to have to give them answers. People will write history even if historians stop doing it.

The problem arises when we forget that the map is partly fantasy, and the presumed parts of it cannot be used as evidence of what other gardens are like. This confuses many humanists when they get too attached to their theories of human experience. The urge to obtain a map that would help us understand the territory is so great that we keep producing them despite of the fact that the view of the territory is limited at best. I am not saying that we are idiots, we know that our maps are not perfect representations of the territory, but what happens all too often is that the parts of the map which have strong supporting evidence get muddled up with the invented parts. Our pet theories and assumptions get tangled with what is stated in the sources, and in the process we become compelled to define and redefine ‘truth’ in academic conversations again and again just to be sure whoever we are talking to is not so presumptuous as to regard the whole map as being truthful to the territory. We know better than that, and usually even the most presumptuous of map-makers never forgets which parts of it were their own brainchilds.

If we could just keep in mind that within out map there are two kinds of truths –  truths (1.2) and truths (1.1) – many of these discussions could be averted. The mindful acknowledgement of the possibility of being wrong would not need to devolve into semantics, and we could veer away from the lure of post-modernism. When we go there, the discussion of  how valid the filled-in parts of the map are in relation to the parts which best correspond with the territory gets pushed aside in favour of just discussing about the map and what it says about the person who drew it.

We end up throwing the baby out with the bathwater, and I take issue with that.

 


¹ Just unreliable eyes, but that’s a whole another topic.