Fiction and Nonfiction

History is not like most scientific disciplines in that it really does read like prose a lot of the time while seeming to only borrow some notes from the academic writing playbook. This is also – at least from my experience – the encouraged direction to take with one’s writing. I’ve mentioned before the old cliché discourse of whether history is more a genre of literature than a scientific discipline, and my position regarding it remains unchanged. I consider history a blend of both fiction and nonfiction, with the nonfiction parts enjoying varying and often low degrees of falsifiability. One can quite confidently state that it was a fact that the Chernobyl nuclear plant did in fact happen, and tangible evidence for it will remain there for curious minds to collect for years to come. However, when we step into the realm of private acts or go even further and consider the lived experiences of historical actors, I do not consider it such an insult for someone to suggest that we peddle in fiction. We understand little enough of our own experiences in the present moment, and there is no way one could ever without any reasonable doubt falsify an interpretation of what Alexander the Great actually felt towards Hephaestion. All we can do is own up to our own interpretations; make it clear when we are painting the garden as we see it from behind our window and when we are assuming gnomes in a blotch that has vague hues of blue and red to it.

On top of all that, owing to the vastness of history, a historian cannot escape selective narration in their writing and all that implies. If we follow Yudkowsky’s proposed definition that nonfiction conveys knowledge while fiction conveys experience, then history is always blending these two.¹ We want to transmit knowledge of the past to our audience, but this knowledge in itself often feels hollow unless you can at least imagine what it implied to the people to whom the knowledge had some tangible significance. Additionally, even the process of choosing what knowledge to include has the author making conscious narration choices, since there is never a clearly contained set of data that warrants full disclosure, while other data could be nonchalantly ignored. Everything is linked and nothing is obviously irrelevant.

This mixture of nonfiction and fiction is especially central to my own current research (and my overall research interests) as trying to understand past experiences is precisely at the center of my studies. I know I can get no falsifiable factual knowledge pertaining to my research question extracted from my sources, but by trying to understand my subjects on their own terms and by reflecting upon my own knowledge of psychology I try to translate what I think their experiences were into a narrative for modern readers. In other words, I am trying to convey experiences and thus dipping my toes into the realm of fiction, even if my interpretations are based on historical sources and real people instead of being completely made up. I also do not feel any lesser as a scholar because of this.

Considering this fine line between fiction and nonfiction in our writing, historians should be especially wary of further obscuring where the line is drawn. It should be apparent to the reader where the change from listing factual data to making non-falsifiable interpretations happens. The problem with this is that we often want to write enticing text that has a proper impact on our audience, much like novelists do. Unlike novelists, however, people often take our word as fact, because of our position of authority as experts. Especially lay readers do not stop for a minute to think of the words beyond the initial impression and do the legwork of separating the falsifiable from the non-falsifiable. We should be responsible and make the distinction obvious enough for any reader to understand.

“Muddled language is muddled thinking.”²

In academic circles we are surrounded by polite people with impostor syndromes, so it is rare occurrence one gets called out for mystifying language outside of workshops dedicated to improving one’s writing skills. More often academics will try to see if there might possibly be anything meaningful to a misleading phrase, giving you the benefit of a doubt and interpreting their lack of understanding as their own flaw rather than yours. You cannot be this lenient with your own writing. If you cannot be sure of what you mean or can imagine multiple interpretations for a sentence within your work, the sentence needs to go.

A good way to start to approach this is by writing your first, second, and thirds drafts (at least) with as simple language as possible. Clarity is king, and you should never lose sight of where the line between fiction and nonfiction runs in your own work.

“If you simplify your English, you are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy. You cannot speak any of the necessary dialects, and when you make a stupid remark its stupidity will be obvious, even to yourself.”³

Additionally, to make your stupid remarks even more obvious, use a silly font like Comic Sans if you can bear it while working on your text. Times New Roman is like wearing a suit while Comic Sans is a clown face – these first impressions of how your text looks will matter by the time you submit it to a journal but while working on your text you should let the content of the message rule sovereign.


¹ Yudkowsky, Eliezer. ”Rationality and the English Language” in Rationality: from AI to Zombies” Berkeley, MIRI (2015).

² Yudkowsky, Eliezer. ”Human Evil and Muddled Thinking” in Rationality: from AI to Zombies” Berkeley, MIRI (2015).

³ George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language,” Horizon (April 1946).

Understanding is not Contamination

Most people can be understood as having lived morally grey lives; virtuous in some respects and desperately lacking in any decency in some others. These qualities tend to be especially polarized in people in powerful positions. The further one’s own society and personal opinions progress towards values that differ from whatever values were held and recognized at any given context in history, the darker the tones of grey seem to become at first glance for the modern historian.

We cannot escape the fact that the people they study were multi-layered individuals who made choices with moral implications for various reasons ranging from sociological to psychological. People have many reasons for doing the things we do, and the consequences of our actions have an even broader set of possible permutations that we may not have even considered as we act. Selfishness and altruism can and do exist within the same individuals, and people often miscalculate how their actions will reverberate in their surroundings after being set into motion.

What is important to remember is that nobody thinks of themselves as the villain.

Most people construct their life stories with themselves as the hero. Our narrative memories are built around our need to rationalize away everything that might cause cognitive dissonance. Clairvoyants do not exist, and people are notoriously bad at anticipating future consequences to present actions. Based on our own set of values, we navigate towards what we ourselves consider to be right and good. When people write down their stories, you can be sure that if they describe in detail an incident that seems to paint them in an unfavourable light, they did not think of it that way at the time. Raw honesty and confessional documents exist, but even when the intention of the document is self-flagellation, these accounts still have been forced through the author’s self-preserving cognition, which is always working to rationalize and make excuses for themselves. We cannot assess ourselves objectively, even in relation to our own abstract moral code.

One of the most important things to me personally as an academic is arguing in good faith. Whenever possible, I try to imagine the best possible intentions for a colleague, the people I study, and to whomever I disagree with. Admittedly, within today’s political climate it is not so rare that the intentions of people entering into arguments is mainly to ‘destroy’ the other side and consequently score points for their own side.

“Politics is an extension of war by other means. Arguments are soldiers. Once you know which side you’re on, you must support all arguments of that side, and attack all arguments that appear to favor the enemy side; otherwise it’s like stabbing your soldiers in the back—providing aid and comfort to the enemy.”¹

However, as long as this is not the only viable interpretation of a situation, I refrain from it. Most often construing motivations that make your opponent look malevolent results in you being woefully wrong of what is actually going on inside their head. Moreover, this strategy will definitely win you nothing in terms of personal growth. This is true both when you are dealing with people living today, but in a sense even more important for a historian. We are not only often studying people who have been dead for a long while and cannot defend themselves, but our interpretations and voices have a disproportionate power over someone’s reputation once it reaches print. People are not going to go and come up with their own interpretations by themselves, they will trust the authority – in this case the historian.

When you accurately estimate the psychology of another person and come up with a reasonable moral code they may have followed, the decisions made by even the worst types of people you can imagine start to make more sense. It is possible that you will also come out of the experience feeling slightly unclean. It is not like you suddenly share the values of these people and would not have chosen a similar path to theirs, but when your estimate of their internal life is realistic, you can at least understand them. And that in itself can cause some initial discomfort. However, your map will now more closely resemble the territory, and you are better off for it. Being closer to the truth is reward enough to having to step into nauseating mindscapes. I think every self-respecting historian should strive to do this; to understand the people they are studying regardless of who they were or what it is they believed in or did.

Way too often I encounter one of two strategies employed by historians when they write about people whose beliefs or actions did not always align with the researcher’s own morality.

    1. The unsavoury bits of their existence is ignored and the focus is keenly kept on the ‘other important stuff’ the person was involved with, as if you could cut a part of the person out like a dark spot on a fruit and still call it a holistic interpretation.
    2. The unsavoury bits are placed under laser-focus and what is considered a dark spot on the person contaminates their whole being. There is nothing to be salvaged, as the person is made ‘unclean’ by the rotten parts of their legacy.

Neither of these approaches feels intellectually honest, and I feel even more remorse for the readers to whom the facts of the person in question are otherwise unknown. We should trust our readership more and refrain from frantic virtue signaling just so that nobody can say we ever agreed with Hitler.


¹ Yudkowsky, Eliezer. ”Politics is the Mind Killer” in Rationality: from AI to Zombies” Berkeley, MIRI (2015). 255.

Not Agreeing to Disagree

I have always had an instinctive problem with the concept of people agreeing to disagree. As such, I was delighted to discover Aumann’s Agreement Theorem, which proposes that no two perfectly rational agents can agree to disagree. From this theorem follows that if two people disagree with each other, at least one of them must be doing something wrong, or have limited data on the subject.

Coincidentally, this theorem started from Robert Aumann’s 1976 (1976!) discovery that a sufficiently respected game theorist can get anything into a peer-reviewed journal. Considering the origins of the theorem and how long it has been around, you would think that we would have fixed this issue. Yet many of you probably remember the Grievance Studies affair of 2017-18, where three authors (James A. Lindsay, Peter Boghossian, and Helen Pluckrose) created bogus academic papers and submitted them to academic journals in the areas of cultural, queer, race, gender, fat, and sexuality studies. Their motive was to expose poor science in these categories of study. From Wikipedia: ‘By the time of the reveal, four of their 20 papers had been published, three had been accepted but not yet published, six had been rejected, and seven were still under review. One of the published papers had won special recognition.’

It seems that for the editors that accepted the articles, as long as the articles seemed to be taking a social constructionist point of view, it did not matter what was written because all interpretations coming from this angle can be valid. The disciplines targeted in the Grievance Studies affair are particularly vulnerable to this, as they are very theory-heavy subjects and are structured around social constructivism. However, historians and history as a field of study are not immune to this either.

From my own observations, I would say that historians walk too much on eggshells when it comes to other people’s interpretations, especially if they personally know them. Nobody wants to tell another person that their work was for naught and their ideas silly – unless of course their conclusions imply this about one’s own research. The social constructivist and post-modern views of deconstructing ideas and interpreting anew from a fresh perspective have created an environment where any explanation goes if the person can explain themselves sufficiently enough given the restraints of their theoretical framework. The problem with this is that the theoretical frameworks themselves are usually based on nothing at all but constructivist ideas. This situation of course presupposes that the methodology and handling of the sources is sound by the historian in question, since otherwise historians as a community luckily do not seem to have trouble in sinking their teeth into any of the gaps in a given study. But when source work has been diligent enough and there exists a theoretical framework that is aligned with the interpretations, we become muted and start nodding our heads at theories we don’t quite agree with, and interpretations which we do not quite understand.

This topic ties into why I begun this blog by writing about what I think truth should mean to historians, and how we should at least be able to acknowledge that there are truths (That which is true or in accordance with fact or reality) and not just truths (A fact or belief that is accepted as true). Even though historians can only ever aspire to the latter kind of truth, I believe that our discipline is still about truth-seeking, the making of maps that are our best estimates of the territory, and as such it becomes frustrating when differences in interpretation of the same sources are so readily accepted without attempts through discussion to find a synthesis. The trend is social constructivism, and if you can paint a picture according to the rules of this ‘style’, then the actual contents of the picture seem to become somewhat proofed from criticism.

I do not think all interpretations are equal, and when I come across a disagreement before historians, I automatically think one of them is either wrong or ignorant of some relevant source material. At least what comes to myself, I would take someone challenging all my presumptions and interpretations about a given topic rather than nodding vacantly despite not quite understanding where I am coming from. I would hope that other historians could find this bit of fight in themselves as well, and leave tolerance to some other playing field.

Internet Algorithms and Cults

The following is a derivation of a speech I gave at a conference recently, regarding the relationship between cognitive biases, internet algorithms, and the increased polarization of the political spectrum that can be witnessed today.

 

Francis Fukuyama argued in his 1989 article “The End of History?” that following the rise of Western liberal democracy after the collapse of the Soviet Union, humanity was reaching

the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government”¹

Without arguing in detail against Fukuyama’s complete thesis – despite of me agreeing with one of the conference attendees in describing him as a ‘tragic fool’ – I will instead focus on one key assumption where I think he went wrong, and from whence I believe all the other mistakes hence derived. In my opinion, Fukuyama’s original mistake was in thinking that ideas could be defeated even semi-permanently.

Recently, there has been a clear rise in identity politics – the tendency of people of shared ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation or any other on the surface non-ideological feature to group together to advocate causes from their in-group’s perspective. At the same time, old favourites like Marxism and fascism refuse to go away, with thriving groups still advocating them. The reason for this, I believe, is also one of the reasons why Fukuyama’s predictions about the future of ideologies went so wrong as far as I know, ideas can only be defeated by other ideas – not by the collapse of regimes – and never permanently as long as the idea can have some utility towards individuals. For as long as an ideology cannot answer to everyone’s every material and spiritual need, other ideas will be there to compensate this lack. No matter what you think of western liberal democracy, you must surely agree that it cannot fulfill everyone’s every need, material and spiritual.

When thinking of the resilience of ideas, just think of how thriving astrology is, despite it having no factual basis. It fulfills people in some valuable way, so it persists. As long as western liberalism cannot appease everyone on every single facet of their material and spiritual lives, other ideologies will go on living, even if their flames may be muted for a time. Western liberal democracy has not proven to be able to answer to everyone’s every need. At least not so quickly to have made other ideologies obsolete.

The role of the internet in this is that it has enabled people to group together and polarize around ideas catering to their own needs faster and more easily than was previously the case. Nowadays, most of information transferred within the western society goes through the internet and its many algorithms. From social relationships to politics, our information about other people and their ideas gets filtered through the internet.

As such, it matters how internet algorithms pander to our biases.

Big browser and social media companies make revenue based on how long they can keep us browsing on any given page, and as such they have employed algorithms that are designed to give you more of what you had before, or what people with similar browsing habits to you have looked at before. This is a succesful tactic in both making a more pleasant browsing experience for the consumer, and creating revenue for these corporations by keeping you browsing.

Ideologically, it is also a recipe for:

  • Regression in tolerance and increased in-group/out-group dichotomy – i.e. tribalism
  • Ideas becoming insulated from criticism.
  • The distillation of ideologies into their more extreme forms.

The human mind is a machine that did not evolve to deal with the current intellectual and technological environment. It has not had the time to adapt to the current information age, and definitely has no mechanisms to counter internet algorithms. Cognitive biases are a group of reasoning flaws that our minds tend to make based on the shape of our brain, and when combined with ideologies and group identities, they attract cultishness. Like cognitive biases, cultishness is a human phenomenon which happens when we group together, because it served us well for a period of our evolutionary history.

”Every cause wants to be a cult.”²

What I mean by cultishness in this context is high conformity to one’s in-group, hostility towards out-groups, and the polarization and distillation of the group’s beliefs as time goes on. Conformity, in-group bias, and reluctance to change one’s opinion are also all highly ubiquitous among humans regardless of other factors. Our mind is a machine that enjoys being in a cult. It is not a matter of whether an ideology or the people who support it are innately cultish, as they all have that potential.

This tendency of ideological groups to decay into cultishness has been around for a long time, but the internet and its algorithms have begun to work as a catalyst, accelerating this process. The algorithmic nature of social media and search engines have enabled the formation countless in-groups that are effectively insulated from opposing ideas, unless their members go out of their way to try to seek countering voices – which we are unlikely to do based on our innate biases and insecurities.

Think of this: A person has an issue to which she has not found a satisfying answer. She goes to the internet to find answers, and finds a group with a cause that seems to answer this. She is relieved, and begins interacting with the people of this cause, reading more of what they have to say and forming meaningful relationships within the cause. Internet algorithms make sure she gets served with more links to associated ideas and causes, and she goes deeper into the rabbit hole in her euphoric death spiral of having her eyes opened to so many things she had not thought of before just like that.

Eventually she will encounter a ’normie’ who never even heard of the answer to the her original issue, let alone the other associated ideas she has now adopted. To the convert, this normie and everyone else will seem like sheep with their eyes closed, for she has seen the light. At this point, unless she goes out of her way to try to challenge herself, nobody will manage to make her rethink her stance because everyone else will think she is the lunatic and discussions between people who underestimate each other’s mental capabilities are not going to convince either side.

Additionally, within these groups the first ones to leave or get ostracized are the moderate people on the margins. When the most sceptical members are inclined to leave or be excommunicated by the group, the average opinion naturally shifts towards the more extreme.

Rinse and repeat, and causes can become quite ’extreme’ in no time.

An ideology does not need a deep hidden flaw for its adherents to form a cultish in-group. It is sufficient that the adherents be human. Everything else follows naturally. Decay into cultishness is the default state. Internet algorithms are unwittingly complicit in increasing cultishness by pandering to our biases. However, the internet is just a catalyst to a fundamentally human phenomenon. Even so, because the internet facilitates and accelerates this process, we need more vigilant meta-cognition and advocates for a better way to think about ideological issues.

Ideas cannot be defeated, at least not permanently, because of the shape of our brain. People will keep returning to ideas that appeal to them as long as alternative ideas do not answer to all their material and spiritual needs. When they form groups around these ideas, all the mechanisms I have talked about kick in, enhanced by the algorithmic nature of the internet, which filters almost all of the information we receive today.

This is why I think we are at where we are at right now, and western liberal democracy isn’t the sole surviving player on the field.

 


¹ Fukuyama, Francis. ”The End of History?” The National Interest, no. 16 (1989): 3–18.

² Yudkowsky, Eliezer. ”Every cause wants to be a cult” in Rationality: from AI to Zombies” Berkeley, MIRI (2015). 458–460.

This blog post and the speech it is based on was overall heavily influenced by Yudkowsky, Eliezer. Rationality: from AI to Zombies” Berkeley, MIRI (2015).

Mundane Intellectual Honesty

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.

Historians have the liberty to interpret their sources with scarcely any limitations. Having an established theoretical framework helps, since the reader can then draw on previous knowledge of the type of reasoning used as they proceed with a book or an article. Nevertheless, as long as we can explain our thought process to whomever who might take issue with our assessments, our interpretations are considered valid, even if people may disagree with us. Consequently, it is quite beneficial to keep track of your thoughts as you do research, preferably by writing down the path your thoughts took to get to a conclusion – including the possible leaps of faith along the way. You might be surprised to find how many of your assumptions are actually based on cached thoughts rather than actual evidence. When pointed out, these reasoning mishaps can cause embarrassment or worse, resistance in yourself to give up your unfounded ideas (because you already became attached to them, and admitting to being wrong is hard). Wherever you may find a mushy step in your reasoning that either equates to ‘…it’s complex’ or ‘Step X emerges from Step Y’ without Y giving any concrete hint of why X would emerge from it, get brutal with yourself and replace the step with “I don’t actually know what happens here”. You can then return it to try to find out what happens there later, or be honest and admit to not knowing everything about the phenomenon you are studying. On the bright side of this self-scrutinizing, you may get novel ideas and perspectives on several points of interest upon reviewing your thought process.

Thinking is such a natural process that society does not put enough emphasis or give credit to those who do it exceptionally well. To think well, you need to meta-think, and through meta-thinking you will be able to find the blind spots of your reasoning and even predict some mental processes before your brain subjects you to them. As Yudkowsky says in his essay “The Lens That Sees Its Own Flaws”:

“The whole idea of Science is, simply, reflective reasoning about a more reliable process for making the contents of your mind mirror the contents of the world.”¹

We want our assessments to be our best possible estimates of the state of reality – everything else is a lie. It is easy to get carried away with ideas that we like – either because it feels like we are offering a novel perspective that will get us attention or because our assessment falls in line with our previous expectations about how the world is. When this happens, we are tempted to not think too hard of the process that our minds went through to reach our conclusions. It is natural to want to be proven right, but a historian, like any other scientist, should be most pleased when they are looking at the world with as few filters as possible.

On a related note, the quest for accuracy can unfortunately take a banal turn at times. Sometimes (quite often), discussions within the field about the true nature of things transform into debates about semantics and what we actually mean when we use certain words. To be sure, it is useful to get on the same page about the use of terms like ‘nationalism’ or ‘commerce’ etc. because of the risk of anachronisms. We also want to avoid discussion participants having a separate idea of what kind of a phenomenon is being discussed, as conversations like these lead nowhere. However, when we delve into discourse about ‘truths’ in history, I am often reminded of this debate example by Yudkowsky:

“Suppose that, after the tree falls, the two walk into the forest together. Will one expect to see the tree fallen to the right, and the other expect to see the tree fallen to the left? Suppose that before the tree falls, the two leave a sound recorder next to the tree. Would one, playing back the recorder, expect to hear something different from the other? Suppose they attach an electroencephalograph to any brain in the world; would one expect to see a different trace than the other? Though the two argue, one saying “No,” and the other saying “Yes,” they do not anticipate any different experiences. The two think they have different models of the world, but they have no difference with respect to what they expect will happen to them.”²

More often than not, semantic discourse between history ends up in this territory of preferred terms, even if the starting point began with a genuine attempt to understand what is actually being talked about. If the expected end result of a discussion is at best the victory of one term over another without either of the debating parties having actually changed their minds about the contents of the phenomenon being discussed, I struggle to find a point in these interactions.

Our beliefs should be our best possible estimates of the nature of reality, and we should avoid using muddled language whenever we can. Be that as it may, getting too wrapped up in semantics over substance only make discourse within the field harder, as well as making us look petty to any outside listener who might be interested in what we have to say about the phenomena themselves.

 


¹ Yudkowsky, Eliezer. ”Rationality: from AI to Zombies” Berkeley, MIRI (2015). 40–42.

² Yudkowsky, Eliezer. ”Rationality: from AI to Zombies” Berkeley, MIRI (2015). 45–48.

On talking about history to a lay audience

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.

Compared with most scholars and scientists, historians are in quite an easy position when we are faced with having to explain our research to a lay audience. Apart from some specialized brands of history – usually interdisciplinary explorations – even articles published in influential historical journals tend to limit professional jargon. In fact, many publications make sure to include it within their author guidelines to instruct prospective submitters to avoid jargon as much as they can in favour of clarity. As a proponent and defender of the popularization of history I find this to be a good thing. I want people to be able to understand what we are talking about, and despite the benefits of having a professional language to allow the professionals to discuss topics with useful shortcuts, we should take a few steps back and translate our thoughts to more commonly language when we address a wider audience.

When presenting jargon to a lay audience, you are not only being unkind and unprofessional in your duty as an educator (which I think is a duty of all scientists and scholars to some extent) but I am also inclined to think that you are trying to intentionally smuggle your agenda through by masking it in confusing words. Alternatively, you are trying to save face and hide the fact that in all actuality you have nothing substantial to talk about. We rely on the audience to give us the benefit of a doubt and find an agreeable way to interpret what we say, despite of what we actually say. Usually this works too, especially within the narrow confines of academia, because people want to listen in good faith. They may even think they’re too stupid to understand, and let you off the hook. This way, no matter what is said, the façade of professionalism remains.

Yudkowsky considers this issue in his essay “Rationality and the English Language”¹ and includes within a highly relevant quote by George Orwell:

”When one watches some tired hack on the platform mechanically repeating the familiar phrases—bestial, atrocities, iron heel, bloodstained tyranny, free peoples of the world, stand shoulder to shoulder—one often has a curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy . . . A speaker who uses that kind of phraseology has gone some distance toward turning himself into a machine. The appropriate noises are coming out of his larynx, but his brain is not involved, as it would be if he were choosing his words for himself . . . What is above all needed is to let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way around. In prose, the worst thing one can do with words is surrender to them. When you think of a concrete object, you think wordlessly, and then, if you want to describe the thing you have been visualising you probably hunt about until you find the exact words that seem to fit it. When you think of something abstract you are more inclined to use words from the start, and unless you make a conscious effort to prevent it, the existing dialect will come rushing in and do the job for you, at the expense of blurring or even changing your meaning. Probably it is better to put off using words as long as possible and get one’s meaning as clear as one can through pictures and sensations.”²

Using jargon, stock phrases, and vague statements begging the question can create multiple interpretations, when we should strive for our words to be undersood as we intended. It is better to be literal and simplistic than to sound authorative or deep, even if we wish to retain our professionalism or want to avoid conciseness in fear of being patronizing to the audience. Rather than making up convoluted sentences that take time to unpack, or hiding the things you don’t know by saying it was ‘complex’ or an ‘emergent phenomenon’, we should strive for clarity and be ready to admit to that we do not know all the details. Self-aggrandizing and trying to hoodwink an audience is unflattering.

 


¹ Yudkowsky, Eliezer. ”Rationality: from AI to Zombies” Berkeley, MIRI (2015). 282–285.

² George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language,” Horizon (April 1946)

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.