Monthly Archives: June 2012

I thought the truth was apt to be simple

but Cosma says I’ve got another think coming!  He’s blogging the Ockham’s razor conference I mentioned in the previous post, and starts out today’s entry with the following bombshell:

The theme of the morning was that Ockham’s razor is not a useful principle because the truth is inherently simple, or because the truth is apt to be simple, or because simplicity is more plausible, or even because simple models predict better. Rather, the Razor helps us get to the truth faster than if we multiplied complexities without necessity, even when the truth is actually rather complex.

I have always thought of the utility of parsimony as derving from a tendency of true things to be simple.  But am I fooling myself?  I tend to think that mathematical truths are apt to be simple — for instance, that when I have truly understood a difficult mathematical argument I see that the main idea is simple and elegant, while the visible complications are somehow inessential.  But you could argue that this is just prejudice on my part, and I denigrate the complicated part as inessential just because it is complicated.

And certainly I don’t think the truth about big biological or social systems is apt to be simple.  In fact, because I know people are prejudiced to believe in simple explanations, I find myself leaning against them;  the fact that a simple explanation is widely believed by people I trust is less compelling as evidence than it would be, if the explanation in question were prickly or technical or otherwise unpleasant to believe.



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Ockham’s Razor Conference

What does it mean to say “All things being equal, believe the simplest theory?”  It sure sounds like good advice, but in practice it can be vexingly hard to understand which theories Ockham’s razor is lopping off and which are to be left behind.  So I’m happy to see this announcement of a conference at CMU this weekend on the topic, where philosophers, statisticians, and machine learning types will get together and hash it out. Speakers include my collaborator Elliott Sober and blog favorite Cosma Shalizi.

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Roasted potato salad (Greekish)

Sometimes if I’ve got feta lying around I make Moldavian potato salad, which I got out of David Carlton’s copy of Please To The Table sometime in grad school.  (Looks like this recipe has been plagiarized here.)  Anyway, I had a bunch of little CSA yellow potatoes tonight and felt like making this, but wasn’t in the mood for boiled potatoes.  So instead I did it hash-style.  Diced potatoes, scallion, garlic, olive oil, dill (didn’t have fresh, used dried), salt pepper, in one layer on a baking sheet, feta crumbled on top.  (Proportions can be found in the linked recipe but I didn’t follow these, just put in what looked good to me.)  Roasted at 350 for, I dunno, a half hour, until feta nice and brown.  I was going to dress it with a little more olive oil when it came out — it would also have been natural, I see now, to drizzle some lemon juice on it — but it was great just as it was.


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Simon: The Genius in my Basement

I review Alexander Masters’ biography of the finite group theorist Simon Norton in this Sunday’s New York Times Book Review.

When Simon Norton was 3 1/2, his I.Q. was measured at 178. For three years running in high school, he was among the top scorers in the world at the International Mathematical Olympiad. At the age of 27, he and a colleague, John Conway, formulated an audacious conjecture in group theory called “monstrous moonshine,” which inspired a frenzy of mathematical work around the globe that culminated in a Fields Medal-winning proof by Richard Borcherds almost two decades later.

Today, Norton holds no paid employment, publishes in his field only occasionally, subsists largely on canned mackerel and rice packets, and spends much of his time riding buses around Britain in a campaign to preserve public transport against deregulation. He lives in the basement of a house he owns in Cambridge, renting out the upper rooms. By chance, one of his tenants is the writer Alexander Masters, whose heartfelt and eccentric book “Simon: The Genius in My Basement” chronicles Norton’s strange journey from prodigy to . . . well, to whatever he is now.

It’s a recall, not an omen

Already time to take back, or at least complicate, the nice things I said about the Times’s Wisconsin coverage.  Today above the fold:

Broadly, the results will be held up as an omen for the presidential race in the fall, specifically for President Obama’s chances of capturing this Midwestern battleground — one that he easily won in 2008 but that Republicans nearly swept in the midterm elections of 2010…

A Marquette Law School telephone poll of 600 likely voters, conducted last week, found Mr. Walker leading 52 percent to 45 percent; the poll’s margin of sampling error was plus or minus 4 percentage points for each candidate.

I suppose I can’t deny that the results “will be held up as” an omen for November’s election by some people.  But those people will be wrong, and the Times should say so.  At the very least they should avoid giving the impression that the recall vote is likely to be predictive of the presidential vote, an assertion for which they give no evidence, not even a quote in support.

I’m just going to repeat what I said in the last post.  Wisconsin is split half and half between Republicans and Democrats.  In nationally favorable Democratic environments (2008) the state votes Democratic.  In nationally favorable Republican environments (2010) the state votes Republican.  At this moment, there’s no national partisan wave, and you can expect Wisconsin elections to be close.  But incumbency is an advantage.  So Walker is winning, and so is Obama. As the Times reports, the Marquette poll has him up 7.  What the Times doesn’t report is that the very same poll has Obama beating Romney by 8.

I guess the recall might be an omen after all — if Walker actually wins by 7, it means there’s no massive shift to the GOP going on in this state, and you’re a broadly popular incumbent President whose hometown is within a half-day’s drive of most of Wisconsin’s population, your prospects here are pretty good.

Arguing against myself:  2006 was also a great year for Democrats nationally, and incumbent Democratic governor Jim Doyle beat Mark Green by only 7.

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