Tag Archives: cosma shalizi

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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Cosma Shalizi 1, game theory 0

From Cosma’s review of a new book on social network analysis:

What game theorists somewhat disturbingly call rationality is assumed throughout—in other words, game players are assumed to be hedonistic yet infinitely calculating sociopaths endowed with supernatural computing abilities.


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December linkdump

  • I finished White Teeth, and enjoyed it a lot, but didn’t think it had the finished snap of On Beauty. Here’s James Wood’s 2001 review of White Teeth, which I would describe as “impressed but not admiring.” This is the review where he coins the term “hysterical realism” — which is a good term, but not one I think is particuarly appropriate to Zadie Smith. He criticizes White Teeth, fairly, as the type of book in which the author’s hand (in the barely concealing glove of coincidence) gathers all the disparate characters together into a big, brassy finale, where the themes of the novel are reprised in grand chorus. But he should have mentioned John Irving, who I think of as the modern not-quite-literary progenitor of this move.
  • Submissions are now open for an academic volume on the Red Sox and Philosophy.
  • I wish Cosma Shalizi blogged more. I also wish he were at Wisconsin instead of Carnegie-Mellon so I could have sat in on his course on data mining; at least the notes are online.
  • This week, Nature runs an interesting commentary: “Towards responsible use of cognitive-enhancing drugs by the healthy.” I think the questions it asks are hard, and I don’t know what I think the answers are. I do think the state of calm focus in which we do our best mathematics is a physical state; and a pill that could get you to and keep you in that state would be tempting to many of us. On the other hand, I used to find yoga a good way to get my mind in that state, and I don’t do yoga any more. So maybe enhancement isn’t as much of a draw as we think. Also: shouldn’t it be “cognition-enhancing,” not “cognitive-enhancing?” (via MetaFilter)
  • The cover story of the September 6, 1948 issue of Life was “The Good Life in Madison, Wisconsin.” Thanks to Google you can now see all of Alfred Eisenstaedt’s photos from that story, as well as the ones that didn’t make the issue. (via Letters from Here.) Where was this photo shot? The shape of the lakeshore looks like the view from Union Terrace, but the Terrace was already covered in flagstone by the 1930s.
  • And finally: my favorite Superman panel ever, and the source of my favorite expression of dismay: whatthsuperman
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