Friday, 22 May 2009

From our Foreign Correspondent... a working theory about Warsaw

This one coming at you live, courtesy of the cellular network, from the steps of Pałac Kultury i Nauki in downtown Warsaw, an unwanted gift from Stalin to Poland, a solitary long-lost cousin to Stalin’s “Seven Sisters” in Moscow.

This is my fist visit to Poland, and some forty minutes of daylight into it, the excitement of being in a genuinely former Eastern bloc country hasn’t worn off. I walked through the catacombs of underground newsagents and jewellers around Warsaw’s central railway station and then around the Pałac this morning and have wound up on the steps in the shadow of a suitably heroic working class statue looking to kill some time before my meeting and, I suppose, looking for some evidence to fit my working theory about the place: I always do this in a new locale: try to figure it out, in very basic terms. What makes the people tick; why do they do what they do; how will they react to me. It’s a form of preservation. This morning, my theory’s predictably unimaginative: the Poles are a defiant and long-suffering people still overhung with the shroud of Mother Russia, nonetheless looking west, the rude shoots of sprouting capitalism pushing gaudily through cracks in the concrete of the former era, today’s inhabitants caught uneasily in the crosstalk between two incommensurate regimes.

And, of course, I find plenty of evidence of that sort – you don’t have to look for long: the grand Soviet building, a sort of stunted, baroque Empire State Building, formerly grand but latterly muted; hemmed in – besieged – by parked western European cars; its heroic spire now barnacled with cellular receivers and satellite dishes; its heroic working class figures and athletes strangely emasculated (Discobolus modestly wears underpants, a variation on the Greek ideal I’d not seen before), and just across the street, a block of new and shoddy skyscrapers, like ugly priapic weeds, thin vertical high-rises boasting, to the memory of Marx and Engels, sacrilegious names: Hotel Intercontinental; Sharp; Bank Austria. As a piece of municipal scenery, the Pałac bears the comparison well: it is no Chrysler Building, but it has a permanence and grandeur singularly lacking from the more modern constructions in its environment. In a century, it will still stand; I wouldn’t lay that bet about any of the new buildings. Still, all the time its Communist roots are being re-explained. Stalin, who commissioned the structure, has been obliterated from the book – literally, a volume carried by one of the bas-reliefs has his name plastered out (Marx, Engels and Lenin lived on to tell their tale), as part of a process apparently known as “de-Stalinisation”.

Back to my working theory. Unimaginative it may be, but it’s a coherent and simple theory, if outrageously condescending – I’ve barely been in the place half an hour – and it is one I presume locals wouldn’t recognise. They’d see it as either utterly false, or at least so ignorant of nuance, undercurrent and competing cross-current as to be meaningless and worthless to a local who must to navigate the cultural and social dynamics of this place every day. Communism died twenty years ago, it was only around for seventy years in the first place, and in that time other transformative revolutions would have affected life more profoundly than any centrally planned economy could, no matter how oppressive (the Second World War, for one). And Poland wasn’t invented in 1918, after all.

Painting with a broad brush and the limited palette of a narrow (or ignorant) historical perspective is a tourist’s luxury (and prerogative); a tourist’s picture isn’t designed to be heavy duty or to carry much content (enough to make for an interesting trip and competently flag down taxis and order coffee). A six month stay in Warsaw would be a different proposition and might yield a very different and more detailed painting; I’d be obliged to flesh out my telling of the Warsaw story a very different way. But there would be vestiges of my caricatured first impression.

That is how, invariably, we arrive at conclusions. My strong suspicion is that, in most walks of life, when confronted with a novel situation, as a point of entry we exercise our tourist’s prerogative: form preliminary views based on whatever small and imperfect knowledge we happen to have, and if none, draw analogies to things we do know, test them, meld them, fine tune them. What we don’t – can’t – do is come at a new situation with a completely open mind. There is no point at which we have no view at all – there is no “perfectly rational and unbiased” stance.

But observe that as we progress from our rough-hewn preliminary working model, assuming we don’t immediately reject it outright, as we progress in our understanding, our hypothesis will grow increasingly more elaborate and sophisticated (in the sense of being detailed and complex, as opposed to “representative of reality” as such). Assuming it survives, the more detailed and complex it is, the better will be able to fit “facts”, though there may be isolated portions that don’t reconcile awfully well (if they really are isolated from each other we will tend not to notice the discontinuity and in any case it won’t matter much). At length we will have invested a lot of time and energy and we may find our initial hypothesis has spawned new hypotheses, applications we hadn’t originally contemplated and, as a result, we have new analytical techniques available to us.

All this hard work is cumulative and is put to good use, and none of it is predicated on the original rough-cast view being accurate, as such. But something else happens as our hypothesis progresses in complexity: the opportunity cost of abandoning it increases. In the first half hour of my visit I ran two or three working hypotheses and quickly rejected two; six months afterwards I have invested a great deal of energy, and achieved some workable success, with the one that remained: the price of throwing it away now and starting from scratch becomes increasingly unpalatable unless there is something jarringly wrong with it. 

Tuesday, 19 May 2009

The land of colloidal suspensions and monosaccharides

Is the cosmologist’s yearn for unification a religious impulse?
In this period of transition from its religious basis, science often shares with the celestial maps of astrology, or a hundred other irrationalisms, the same nostalgia for the Final Answer, the One Truth, the Single Cause.
In the cultural troposphere we frequently encounter great, conclusive quests: for the Grail, the End of History, Nirvana, Sunlit Uplands, a Grand Unifying Theory, the Final Reckoning, a Universal Acid, the Promised Land, a paradise of virgins, the Land of Milk and Honey, the Great Day of Judgement – the Singularity – as these if are things we should expect imminently, or at least one day hope to see.
Our collected values – these tales we retell ourselves compulsively – reinforce and hammer home the idea of an eventual conclusion to our labour: in literature the mythical archetype identified by Joseph Campbell is consciously and accidentally replicated in many of the stories we tell ourselves. 
The unvarying narrative is linear progression goes, roughly, like so: imbalance, challenge, fortitude, reckoning and, at the very last, final victory and dominion. Even Campbell’s “mono-myth” itself takes this form of unification: it is an uncomfortable shoe-horning of geographically and linguistically dispersed creation myths, that dont quite fit, into a single archetypal story.
Mythical stories, of course, tend not to ask “and then what?” The archetype refuses to consider these very consequences (naturally: it assumes there are no more consequences). This bleeds into our metaphysics. We are acculturated to yearn for “closure”. It suits us to suppose we’re headed somewhere, that whether or not we personally live to feast our eyes upon the promised land, at least our descendants will. (Are we fated, like Moses, to be denied at the last, our greatest pleasure to watch from a distance? And was this really a disappointment for him? Did Moses not go to heaven?)
We predicate our existence on that hope: While we, personally, may fall by the wayside our struggle will not have been in vain.
This Will to Closure is a religious idea. We know – well, we ought to, by now – that there is no cure for war; that solutions create problems, reward takes risk, supply creates demand, fulfilment creates expectation. The land of milk and honey is a terrifying idea (what would we do all day? Just eat? Would we apprehend a need for literature? Art? Discourse? Change? Why?), it is also an absurd one, because what we call milk and honey is precisely what be believe to be just somewhat out of our reach. Gold’s intrinsic worth is its very scarcity.
So whatever Heaven might be, we know it can’t be filled with only compliant virgins and winged granddads plucking on harps. That would be ghastly, and heaven isn’t ghastly, Q.E.D. There will be strife, discord, bitterness and fury because on these things, despite ourselves, we thrive. Life is the very process of solving these problems, answering these questions.
The land of milk and honey is a terrifying idea. What would we do all day? Just eat?
The Will to Closure is an indulgence though; we truck with it only because, deep down, we know it to be misconceived. We can’t have it, and we wouldn’t want it if we could. Who wants a final solution?
So much for the religious Will to Closure. But there is a scientific analogue: the aspiration to grand theoretical unification: call it the Will to Reduction. This is the proposition that Science is a singular, proper noun, that it will accordingly eventually yield a single, coherent, closed system of rules; a complete operating manual for the universe.
This is no less religious an idea. 
To be sure, the Will to Reduction is a noble quest, but its practical importance is in its aspiration and not its outcome. It generates useful practical tools as a by-product. The prospect that Science might actually reach a conclusion would be as catastrophic as the great day of judgement, were it not as equally absurd:
For what would we then do? Our lot would be as dismal as an entrant’s to heaven. All knowledge, all fiction, all superfluity, all contingency would cancel out to a common factor, and a single, integrated über machine would be left; a super brain. What would remain would be no different from God, and in a final hot blast of logic we should redundantly shrivel and evaporate in His sight, the question WHY AM I HERE? having been answered, without irony or compassion, AS OF NOW, YOU’RE NOT.
Absurd, of course, because such an extrapolation isn’t possible. Like our moral knowledge, or technological knowledge is path-dependent, contingent on the questions we want to ask. The contingency of knowledge is fundamental to its acquisition, and to its use. 
It's a Dappled World, as Nancy Cartwright put it, and thank the Lord (if you'll excuse the expression) for that. 

Saturday, 16 May 2009

Where purple fishes run laughing through your fingers?

Quick post this one, apropos of nothing in particular, but on the topic of the poetry of reality.

The quest for truth forces - compels? allures? entices? - the reductionist to atomise: to go back to basics, in a Cartesian fashion, and build your knowledge from there. So, quarks beget atoms beget molecules, and molecules beget cells and so on (I love the ironic Biblical vibe), and in the same way physics begets physical sciences; physics is the rock on which the scientific house is built (there I go again!).

The quick brush off to this is the conceptual limits of empirical way of researching: It proceeds on the basis of imperfect, imcomplete data to sketch rules to understand the rest (and in this way its power is its limitation: if we had perfect, complete data we wouldn't need to model it to predict how it would behave!).

So as we all know the scientific method filters the universe and provides a meaningful structure out of all the sensory data on an intrinscally arbitrary basis.

Which means we can't know for sure that we're looking in the right direction and not overlooking something.

But the process of atomisation systemically misses the significance of any properties which may emerge from aggregations of data: metaphorical structures. To the extent meaning can be constructed from the emergent properties of data, the scientific realist has to deny it is there.

Sunday, 8 February 2009

Foghorns, mist and grammar

But if each of us can see only our own segment of blackly shining asphalt, how can we extrapolate that to a common picture of the world to share with our fellow travellers? We need signposts, foghorns, landmarks, lighthouses – a map, in short – by which we can navigate the terrain.
Some like Steven Pinker see evidence for a lingua franca: a common grammar shared by all human languages which is pre-wired by evolution into the cognitive faculties all human beings. On this view language – and therefore the particular rendition of the universe it affords – is as much a product of our biology as our arms or eyes, and through the office of this grammar there is a universal means of perceiving the world. In other words, after all, there is a single common map by which we do orient ourselves and avoid colliding with each other, and by reference to which all uncertainties and misunderstandings can be resolved.
It is courtesy of just this innate universal grammar that we can “shape events in each other’s brains with exquisite precision”.
As we pass the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth, one might remark in the margin at the huge variety of social, political and philosophical literature which claims Darwin’s intellectual antecedence. Some might see this as evidence of the rude health in which Darwin’s Dangerous Idea finds itself a couple of centuries on – universal acid indeed, as Daniel Dennett termed it. Others might wonder whether such universal acidity is symptomatic of weakness in Darwin’s programme: a theory which can be all things to all people ends up being nothing to anyone; there’s a point where flexibility needed for multiple applications tips into ambiguity and incoherence.
For me, Pinker’s account or universal grammar, Darwin-certified or not, leaves something out. Even if it were sufficiently, exquisitely, precise as to permit only a single literal interpretation for a given statement (as far as I can tell, it isn’t), there would still be an infinite universe of possible figurative interpretations of the same statement, and grammar – the rules for constructing meanings from words – cannot help us with our vocabulary. When Lou Reed tells us, at the end of his exquisitely miserable single Perfect Day, “You’re going to reap just what you sow”, grammar is no help in determining whether or not he was talking about gardening, and whether it really was a “perfect day”, or perhaps there was just a little bit of irony interlaced. 
But – and here’s the thing – the ambiguity conferred by the possibility of metaphor is not an obstacle only for our poets and novelists. Exactly the same ambiguity, the susceptibility to figurative meaning, infests every statement, however strictly empirical or even mathematical. Indeed, that was the very problem with Bertrand Russell’s Principia Mathematica, so deftly exposed by Goedel. This is significant, because it suggests there is no difference between literature and science might not be as ontological as scientists tend to suppose.
So how are we meant to identify each time, from the infinite set of possible meanings, the right one? Like any natural language, English is no more and no less than a formal logical system, like Mathematics. In these technologically revolutionary times we are confronted, as never before, by the fact that English is a numeric system: Every character can in theory be and, for the purpose of electronic processing of data, is assigned its own digit – the ASCII code. A computer can only understand text by reducing it to numbers.
And in the same way that a mathematical system is, English is (non-viciously) circular (you can only validly define an English expression in terms of other English expressions: evidence: the Shorter Oxford Dictionary, a document which defines and explains the set of “every word in the English language” wholly in terms of words taken from that very same set).
Ultimately, the meanings we hang on the intricate latticework of words we create each day comes from beyond the formal set of symbols which comprise the English language. “Meaning in the world” when we apply our own respective vocabularies to the formal symbols in the language. Notwithstanding the Shorter Oxford Dictionary, the set of formal symbols in practical use in any single person’s language will almost certainly be unique, and the precise meanings which that person assigns to that set of symbols, being completely functional on that person’s individual life history, definitely will be.

Saturday, 24 January 2009

Einstein, Newton, Markopolos and Madoff - and what they teach us

Imagine Albert Einstein lived not at the beginning of the twentieth century, but in the early Eighteenth Century. Imagine he was an Austrian patent clerk without any scientific credentials or standing, but nonetheless had managed to devise and publish his theory of relativity, exactly as it was finally published, only in 1730, just 43 years after Newton originally published his Philosophae Naturalis Principia Mathematica. At this time classical mechanics (of the Force = Mass x Acceleration variety) was widely accepted and was a perfectly well functioning, pragmatic, simple account of celestial (and every day) mechanics).
Let’s say Einstein had correctly anticipated, in broad-brush terms, all the supporting scientific development which would be needed for Relativity to be a coherent scientific, well formed and operational thesis.

Now, in those circumstances as they were: an unknown Austrian clerk pitting himself against a man who was Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University and President of the Royal Society, and whose theory of mechanics appeared to work perfectly well, what is more – would Einstein’s theory would have gained any currency in the scientific community?
Allow that Einstein might have argued for this theory on the grounds that, at extremely high velocities, the supposed relations between acceleration, mass and force would not hold up: that, at the limit, classical mechanics was wrong.
I contend that Einstein’s theory would have been rejected for certain (for all we know such a theory was proposed, but hasn’t survived the ensuing centuries). Here are some of the reasons that would have been given for rejection:
  • You have no credentials. You’re a crackpot. You’re quesrtioning one of the greatest scientific minds in the history of the western intellectual tradition. Go away, get properly credentialised as a scientist (by studying the works of people like Isaac Newton), and then see if you still agree with your deluded theory.
  • Your theory is hopelessly complicated, counter-intuitive, and involves the absurd requirement that we reject the constancy of space and time, and instead agree on the constancy of the speed of light. It fails, utterly, the principle of Occam’s Razor.
  • There is simply no need for this theory. Mr. Newton’s existing theory is perfectly adequate for our needs.
Of course, this is speculation, and probably idle speculation. But were we to know the answer, we would have a real insight into how science – or any community of experts – works.
Recently there has been a fascinating example of just such a situation, not in the annals of science, but in the arcane and highly specialised world of fund management.

Bernard Madoff was little known outside the New York investment community before late 2008. Nonetheless, before that time he was one of the most respected and successful senior members of the New York financial community – itself the most sophisticated gathering of financial experts anywhere in the world. He chaired the Nasdaq stock exchange, at one stage was the largest market maker on it, and ran a hedge fund for 48 years, which he grew from a $5,000 investment in 1960 to a portfolio, of of 2008, with something like $50 billion under management.
His firm, Madoff Securities LLC, was the largest single hedge fund on the planet. Amongst his clients were some of the most storied names in international finance, including Fairfield Greenwich, Banco Santander and HSBC, each of whom invested more than a billion dollars. Madoff’s returns over serveral years were consistent, regular, and immensely impressive: They averaged 12-13 per cent, after fees, every year.

Yet, as we all now know, Bernard Madoff was running a giant, fraudulent Ponzi Scheme. The returns, the positions he purported to be invested in and the cashflows were all fictional. To the best of anyone’s knowledge now, it seems Madoff was using the continuing stream of new customer investments to pay returns to existing customers.

Now, with the benefit of hindsight, commentators say Madoff’s claims are laughable; his supposed returns preposterous: they defied known laws of mathematics as much as economics given the strategy he purported to pursue.

We can only stare bewildered into vacant space wondering how an industry apparently based on the very principle of excellent management of just this sort of risk, where self-interested individuals with literally hundreds of million dollars of their own (and their clients’) money at stake, can have possibly let this happen. We do know that it did, and that is that.
So let’s consider the 17th Century Einstein scenario. What would have happened if, say three years ago, the appropriate regulatory authorities were warned, in minute detail, that the only possible explanation for Bernard Madoff’s returns were that he was fraudulent? If the equivalent of our anonymous patent clerk from Austria set out in a single, clear, concise and compelling document, entitled “The World’s Largest Hedge Fund is a Fraud”. Imagine if that 15 page document alleged that it was highly likely that Madoff Securities is the world’s largest Ponzi Scheme”, and outlined nearly 30 “red flags” correctly predicting analysis existing publicly available evidence that was only consistent with insider trading or a Ponzi Scheme.

Now this is far more striking than the evidence Einstein could have hoped to level against Newton. What would have been the likelihood of the Securities and Exchange Commission acting on that information. Again, I would say – admittedly, with the benefit of hindsight – it would be low. I say wit the benefit of hindsight because that’s exactly what someone did do – an options trader by the name of Harry Markopolos, in November 2005. You can see his document for yourself online, and now he's published a book about it. The SEC took absolutely no action.

This isn’t offered in indictment of securities regulation in the United States (not by me, at any rate; Markopoulos feels differently)  – almost the contrary. What I think this speaks to is the limitations of rational argument – the same limitations apply not just in finance and politics, but also in science and academia. These collective self-delusions don’t only arise in the absence of free debate contrary, but more or less in spite of it, and in almost any intellectual field: science, sociology, politics, ethics, finance, sport – all are susceptible to mass delusion.
This ought to tell us something about how we collectively think about things. Our claim to rationality seems not to be as robust as we might like it to be. With irony, we wonder, is our belief in our own rationality itself a product of mass delusion?