Monday, September 26, 2016

When science fails

Progress in science is a matter of developing theories that are better than the existing ones. A new theory is better if it explains phenomena that the old theory fails to explain, although they are within its range and should have been explained by it. Or the new theory gives a more plausible and simpler explanation of the facts. Of course, with the help of some additional suppositions it may be possible to give the old theory a new or broader basis, but with each additional supposition the old theory becomes more complicated and by that more unlikely. The rule of thumb in science is the simpler the better and generally it works that way. So, many old theories have quitted the scene in exchange for new ones that played their parts better. Now we know that the sun doesn’t orbit around the sun but that the opposite is the case. We know that there is no ether that fills empty spaces but that a vacuum is really possible. And we know now that life cannot originate from dead matter. How progress works in science has been summarized by Karl Popper in a well-known scheme:
P1 > TT > EE > P2
In words: If we have a problem that we can’t explain with the old theory (P1), we revise it or develop a completely new theory (TT). Then we perform experiments (EE) in order to test our new ideas, and if the new ideas are confirmed, the old theory has been improved or replaced in favour of the new one. However, usually we see then new problems (P2) and the cycle starts again. Since here in my presentation we start with the idea of a theory that appears to have mistakes, we might describe the process of theory evolution also this way:
TT1 > P > TT2 (tentative) > EE > TT2
Since TT2 is better than TT1 Popper talked here of error elimination. This implies that actually the old theory has failed, because it contained mistakes. But this is how scientific progress works and there is no other approach. And often it is so that the old theory has been used for a longer or shorter time to everyone’s satisfaction, despite its mistakes.
TT1 can also fail for another other reason: Not because it has been replaced by a better theory but because it is bad science. That’s what we have seen in my last blog. If we look at the first scheme, then the trouble is not that P that can’t be explained by TT but we think that TT has explained P but the explanation is false. It is because the tests that seem to substantiate TT have not been well done. So there is a failure in the performance of EE. This can happen by accidental occurrences, but usually it is so that the methods of investigation have not been well applied by ignorance, negligence, lack of money or something like that, or in order to please the one who pays the investigation or even by fraud. In other words, the tests failed because of bad science. If it happens now and then it’s a blot on science. However, if it happens too often and on a large scale, sooner or later it will lead to a crisis. Then the schemes are no longer as shown above but they have become:
P1 > TT > EE > P2
TT1 > P > TT2 (tentative) > EE > TT2.
When the failures come to light we have a crisis in science and the schemes as just represented stand for regress in science. And that’s what we see now in social psychology. From a methodological point of view the rules are simple: Besides a strict and correct application of the methodical prescriptions any investigation has to be replicated, if possible by other investigators in another setting and with another set-up. But often there are many reasons not to replicate an “old” experiment. Practical reasons, financial reasons and human reasons, for little credit can be gained by affirming what has already been said by others (and if the original investigation has been well performed, this will be the result). But a crisis in social psychology does not hurt only social psychology itself (or any other science that is hit by such a crisis, as the case may be), but it has wider consequences. Results are applied. Convinced that the psychological investigations have been well done, therapists have put their outcomes into practice. In philosophy they have affected the view on man. Etc.
The key question is how it could come that far. If we don’t give it an answer it can happen again, in psychology and elsewhere. There is a name for the present problem: Replication crisis. It’s a name that points already to its solution. But who will be prepared to tackle the problem, as usually it is so that it doesn’t bring much to you if you do old wine in new bottles?

Monday, September 19, 2016

Keep smiling

When we intentionally make a smile on the face we tend to feel as if we really smile and it is more likely that we feel amused by a joke or a cartoon. When we make a sad facial expression we tend to feel sad. When we straighten the back we tend to feel pride and when we look to the ground we tend to feel humble. That’s what I wrote in a blog six years ago. Do you believe it? I did but I don’t anymore.
Take the case of intentionally smiling which should make you feel better. This so-called facial feedback hypothesis had been discovered in 1988 by the German psychologist Fritz Strack and his team. The investigators took 92 students who had to put a pencil either between their teeth (which made them smile) or between their lips (which made them pout) and then judge funny cartoons. In the former case they found the cartoons funnier than in the latter case. How this mechanism worked was not clear but it was applied by many behavioural therapists. However, in order to ensure that research results are correct – for instance that they are not caused by factors not studied in the investigation – any research should have to be repeated. Therefore, recently, at the instigation of Strack, seventeen laboratories in the USA, Canada and Europe performed replication tests. Maybe that it wasn’t known how the facial feedback hypothesis worked should have been a warning, for it came out that it had to be refuted. How pity, for I used the effect sometimes when I felt tired at the end of a long bike ride with still many kilometres to go: I simply straightened my back, lifted my head, looked around and smiled. This gave me again the mood to go on with a decent speed. It was not that I was less tired then, but it felt so.
The facial feedback hypothesis is not the only result in social psychology that recently has been rejected after replication. To take another case mentioned in my blogs: We tend to walk slower, when we see old people passing by, or also when we have read a text about old people with words like old, slow etc. Also this psychological classic appeared not to be true. Even more, when investigators tried to replicate about hundred of such “facts”, two third could not be validated. Combined with recent cases of research fraud we can say that social psychology is in dire straits.
What does all this mean? The refuted investigations helped build a certain philosophical image of man. Psychologically they painted man as a kind of physical dope that is the outcome of hidden mechanisms that work independent of the will: If we are funny, happy, helpful, sad, angry, nice etc. we are often so despite ourselves. Now I don’t want to deny that man is the result of hidden processes in some way. Too much points to the fact that most of what we do is “decided” on an unconscious level, but apparently how this takes place is not as simple as suggested by the now rejected psychological studies. Apparently we are not the kind of automatically behaving persons we had come to think we are on the basis of the rejected studies. Man appears to be structured in a different way and – let me formulate it carefully – there might be more elbow room for a free will than the studies suggested. This may especially be so, if we accept that there need not be a contradiction between the fact that what we do is prepared by unconscious processes within us and the idea that we have a free will, as I have explained before.
Nevertheless, when I make a bike tour and I become tired, I still can decide to make a smile, for whatever the investigators say, to my feeling it works. Already simply the idea of smiling cheers me up. Maybe it is a kind of placebo-effect and it works because I think that it works, and just that is what makes that I am going to ride better. But my adagio is: If it works, it works. So, I keep smiling. Why not you too?

Monday, September 12, 2016

Wittgenstein and the concept of rationality

Countertenor Philippe Jaroussky and his ensemble Atarserse in the TivoliVredenburg concert hall

In my last blog we have seen that we can act in a rational way although what we do is not necessarily rational according to the utility theory in economics. But what is rationality? On the Internet, you can find many definitions, some better, some worse, but let me say it this way: Actions are rational if they contribute to our present purposes. This is rather vague and I could add yet a phrase like “in the best way”, but I think that the essence of what I mean is clear. So, if I want to go from my house to the TivoliVredenburg concert hall in Utrecht, I can take the train, my car or my bike. Each of these means is rational in view of the purpose of going there. Moreover I can add some criteria, like “in the cheapest way”, “as quick as possible”, “conveniently” or what more, and then I can make my definite choice. So in order to make our choices, we often have to add secondary purposes. Seen that way, it is not obvious that our purposes are economic in the first place. It’s quite well possible that our choices are not rational in an economic sense, although they are rational of a kind. It’s a thing that economists – and politicians as well – often forget and it’s why Daniel Kahneman, by showing this, received the Nobel Prize. I can say it also in this manner: Rationality is not an intrinsic property of our actions. It depends on the context.
Although Wittgenstein didn’t develop an explicit theory of rationality, just that rationality is context-dependent, becomes clear from his work, especially if we look at his idea of language game. In his Philosophical Investigations (PI) he writes: “Consider for example the proceedings that we call ‘games’. I mean board-games, card-games, ball-games, Olympic games, and so on. What is common to them all? ... [I]f you look at them you will not see something that is common to all, but similarities, relationships, and a whole series of them at that. ... Look for example at board-games, with their multifarious relationships. Now pass to card-games; here you find many correspondences with the first group, but many common I features drop out, and others appear. When we pass next to ballgames, much that is common is retained, but much is lost.—Are they all ‘amusing’? Compare chess with noughts and crosses. Or is there always winning and losing, or competition between players? Think of patience. In ball games there is winning and losing; but when a child throws his ball at the wall and catches it again, this feature has disappeared. [Etc.] [T]he result of this examination is: we see a complicated network of similarities overlapping and criss-crossing: sometimes overall similarities, sometimes similarities of detail.” (PI 66). In my words: A game is a certain game because of a set of rules that apply only to this game. A specific rule is out of place if applied in another game, unless it happens that it explicitly belongs to that other game as well and fits in its set of rules. But usually this is mere chance. Usually a rule is only valid in the context of other rules with which it constitutes a certain game (like football, bridge, chess, bicycle race ...). Nonetheless we bring all these different games together under one heading: “games”. It is because we think that they have something in common and that they are similar in relevant respects. Here Wittgenstein says: “I can think of no better expression to characterize these similarities than ‘family resemblances’; for the various resemblances between members of a family: build, features, colour of eyes, gait, temperament, etc. etc. overlap and criss-cross in the same way.— And I shall say: ‘games’ form a family.” (PI 67)
What has this all to do with rationality? We have seen that we often talk of “game” but that we can fill in this concept in different ways. It is the context constituted by the specific rules that make up a specific game. It’s the same with “rationality”. Rationality is not a univocal concept that can be filled in in only one way: by money values. There are also other ways to express the idea: positive or negative feelings, for instance. Or speed or convenience. Nevertheless all these interpretations have enough in common to use one word for it: Rationality. But this doesn’t mean that what is rational in one context need also be so in another one, just as we don’t say that a cyclist has scored a goal when he finishes first.

Monday, September 05, 2016

The rationality of economic behaviour

... After two hours I saw a direction sign to a camping site. I took a hotel. Was it rational? ...

Let me repeat an example from my last blog: Someone offers you a gamble on the toss of a coin. If the coin shows tails, you lose € 100,-, and if it shows heads you win € 150,-. Would you accept it? The expected value of the gamble is positive, for you can gain more than you can lose. Therefore the best you can do is accept the offer, or so the economic utility theory says. Nevertheless, most of us don’t, although we would do if we could win € 200,-, and probably we would also accept the gamble if we could repeat it hundred times, which is just as the utility tell us to do since it is rational, while refusing isn’t. Therefore we have a problem: Is it irrational to refuse the gamble since the utility theory tells us that we have to accept it? This is what I assumed in the last few blogs, but it is correct? I think that the difference between what the utility theory tells us to do and what we actually do says more about the limited view on rationality of the utility theory than about the rationality of man’s behaviour.
Let me give another example. Recently I have travelled round and camped in my tent in Austria. When I left the country on the last day of my holiday, it was late and the homeward drive was too long to do it yet the same day. Therefore I had to overnight in Germany. After two hours I saw a direction sign to a camping site. I took a hotel. Was it rational?
Let’s see what the utility theory tells me. I have my tent and everything I need for camping with me plus enough to eat for the breakfast. A night on the camping site costs €25,-. The night in the hotel with breakfast costs € 100,-. So, I save 75,- euros by camping. The expected value of going to the camping site is positive, which makes it rational to camp. However, I am tired after a long day, and to pitch my tent will take me an hour. Then I have to go to the restaurant, which is next to the hotel. Sleeping in the hotel will be more pleasant and I have a personal bathroom there. I don’t need to break up my tent next morning. I just leave, and the only thing I want to do is going home as soon as possible. Taking a hotel is simply more comfortable. However, what is the expected value of comfort? Well, if you ask me to give its money value, I must say that I cannot. For me it’s a value in itself. And here we are at the heart of the problem. Comfort is a subjective feeling and we cannot give at a money value, although I must admit that I wouldn’t have taken a hotel for € 250,- a night (but then I would have felt myself a bit unhappy at the camping site for this night; and even more tired). To keep it short, economic reasoning based on the utility theory has a limited idea of rationality. It can express rationality only in terms of figures, preferably in money values. But often much what makes life valuable can’t be expressed in money and much of what we do is not done by us because of a positive expected money value (utility), but because we enjoy it, because we like the style of a certain action, because, it pleases our wife or husband, or someone else; and so on. But if a theory can explain our actions only if and insofar as we can ascribe money values to them, it must fail, sometimes or in most cases. Generally, economic theories can explain what we do only if they can compute what we do in terms of money. However, that they can’t compute money values for many human actions, doesn’t mean these actions are not rational. It means only that they apply an idea of rationality that is too limited for most what man does. Man’s behaviour is not irrational if it doesn’t fit the utility theory but often it’s simply rational in another way.
And how about the first example of this blog? Why don’t most of us accept the gamble? The surest thing you can do is to refuse. Most people prefer certainty and why should you take a risk to lose money if the possible benefit is minimal? In most situations playing safe is the best choice, and it will spare you a big fuss. Certainty is what many people prefer, and tell me, why wouldn’t it be rational?