Sunday, 18 September 2011

The thin line between science fact and science friction: Antisocial meateaters, Psi and other forms of empiarrhea

There is a beautiful paragraph in the history of science Michael Seevinck introduced me to. I immediately incorporated it into talks and papers. It is a letter by Albert Einstein he wrote to his friend Maurice Solovine on the 7th of April 1954 in which he explains his philosophy of science. Einstein distinguishes between two types of theories: Theories of construction and theories of principles. Theories of construction are found in a science that is immature. Those theories basically just describe a phenomenon in the empirical record (the data collected in experiments) using fancy language. My favorite example is the scientific notion about reading aloud written text. This is involves converting graphemes into phonemes according to scientific theory. What are graphemes? Well, they represent letters. What are phonemes? They represent sounds. So reading aloud is actually converting letters into sounds... Duh! Of course it is! Why do you need graphemes and phonemes to explain it?

Figure adapted from van Dongen (2010)

A theory of principles is completely different. It embarks from a set of postulates and axioms (A). It derives laws from those claims (S) and seeks to test how accurate those laws are. Einstein understood that a theory of principles “pays for its higher logical unity by having elementary concepts […], which are no longer directly connected with complexes of sense experiences.”. To create a theory of principles means sacrificing explanatory power of a theory. We cannot explain the way the universe works in terms of sensory experience. This was not just a coincidental oddity for Einstein, he firmly believed the fundamental notions of physics cannot be induced from experience and they cannot be justified a priori on the basis of our faculty of knowledge. (This strongly opposes Kant’s notion of incomensurability between Biology and Physics ).

How do scientist get to those systems of axioms and postulates then? Einstein is very clear about this and claims there is no logical route to arrive at A directly from E (direct experience). A formalism is created due to an intuitive leap, a creative act in which a conjecture is raised to a postulate. The arrow that doesn’t quite touch E and jumps upwards to A represents this creative act. The only route that is deducible by logic and reason flows from the formalism in A to the derived laws S and from those laws back to E. Theories of construction on the other hand infer “laws” from complexes of immediate sensations (sensory phenomena) in E. These laws are crudely glued together to construct ad-hoc theories that, in a way, save those phenomena for the constructed theory so far.

Well, what can I say... Sometimes it just doesn't feel entirely right to say "I told you so".

I am not saying that I expected anything like the fraud committed by social psychologist prof. Diederik Stapel, but the entourage, the context, the circumstances that allowed such fraud to go unnoticed and the responses of the universities and his colleagues... well let's just say that I am not entirely surprised it happened.

The reason for me not being surprised is due to the fact that I have been trying to figure out what kind of philosophy of science social psychologists actually adhere to, by studying the argumentation in the papers they write and the way theories are evaluated by the social psychology community. I have for instance been analyzing the paper by Darryl Bem who claims to have found evidence for the existence of Psi. More importantly perhaps, with the help of some bright students I have been trying to replicate some of the famous social psychology experiments. We failed to do so, but we also think we know why they did find something and we didn't, you know, what science is all about. No reason to be suspicious. I also didn't expect fraud because I know social psychologists are masters at inventing ingenious experiments. Really, they generate beautiful datasets by tweaking and fine tuning their stimuli and experimental procedures and they will continue to do so until they find the right conditions to support their hypotheses.


Yes, indeed, that's not exactly the way science should work. I thought that was the problem. They have no real theories, but just produce an ever increasing empirical record of interesting and sometimes very cute phenomena that have no say whatsoever on the level of the major psychological theories about cognition, behavior or development. I call this enormous structureless record of so called scientific facts: empiarrhea (see Caught in the undertow).

Now when I say "them" or "they", to refer to social psychologists, of course I am generalizing: No I do not believe all social psychologists are pretesting designs until they work. What I do believe however, is that psychologists in general, but social psychologists in particular, should change the way they theorize about reality. "It is the theory that decides what we may observe" said Albert Einstein to Werner Heisenberg and he was right.

Monday, 29 August 2011

The connectome: Into the brain and beyond

As you may know, I am not a fan of contemporary neuroscience that attributes to the brain the central processor function that you may encounter in a computer.

Of course, it must be there for a reason and it is probably not just there to cool blood as Aristotle believed

As you may also know, I am currently studying the brain (again) using a complex network approach. The video below is a very impressive talk I came across on TED. Although I would go much further and be more radical about what it is that is connected, or rather nested this talk very elegantly gives an insight in the overwhelming complexity that is involved. Yes, much more complex than a machine that obeys the algorithmic laws of computation.

Just ignore the technology fallacy at the end (i.e. if we wait for bigger, better, fancier technology, we'll know everything...). Where are the robots?

Saturday, 13 August 2011

Music Clash: Lady Britannia vs. Lady Libertas

[caption id="attachment_430" align="alignnone" width="245" caption="Lady Britannia"][/caption]

[caption id="attachment_431" align="alignright" width="190" caption="Lady Liberty"][/caption]


(I'm just pretending there isn't a huge gap in between my last post and this one.)

...I came up with an interesting question while I was on the other side of the pond:

"Name a band (not an individual artist) from the USA that equals in terms of

(i) popularity,
(ii) impact on music history,
(iii) creative longevity (i.e. some core of the original group keeps performing for decades by reinventing itself, keeping up with/dictating trends in contemporary pop music),
(iv) legend status

with bands like Queen, Led Zeppelin, The Beatles, Pink Floyd, The Rolling Stones, Duran Duran, U2, Genesis."

It's a tough one. In fact, you can probably name a whole range of individual artists from the US that do meet those requirements, but no other country has produced legendary groups like the UK did... and still does! I guess Radiohead will soon be in that list, maybe Depeche Mode and some of the triphoppers that are still around, some of the younger britpop bands. What about Autechre, Orbital, Underworld.

Of course record sales do not tell you everything... but when I arrange this list so that only bands are in there you get something like this. It's a list of everything better than the Village People... (or UB40):



(and some non-USA)

300 million or more

1The Beatles
3Led Zeppelin

200 million to 299 million

5Pink Floyd
7The Rolling Stones
8Bee Gees

150 million to 199 million


120 million to 149 million

12Backstreet Boys
13Bon Jovi
16Dire Straits

100 million to 119 million

17The Carpenters
18Depeche Mode
19Fleetwood MacFleetwood Mac
20Guns ‘n Roses
21The Jackson 5
25The Who

75 million 99 million

26Boney M.
28The Doors
31Iron Maiden

50 million to 74 million

34Ace of Base
36The Black Eyed Peas
37Black Sabbath
38Boyz II Men
40Def Leppard
41Destiny's Child
42Dreams Come True
43Duran Duran
44Electric Light Orchestra
45Green Day
46Jethro Tull
47Linkin Park
48Mötley Crüe
50New Kids on the Block
53Pearl Jam
54Pet Shop Boys
55The Police
56Red Hot Chili Peppers
60Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
62Village People

So the US comes in at number 10 with Aerosmith...
Music sociologists eat your heart out!

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