Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Limited belief in experts: hard anecdotal facts vs experts' lore

SUSY and Ledecká's idiosynrasies

People are pretty much divided to two groups: those who divide people to two groups and those who don't. ;-) Also, they're divided to those who love to defend the status of "widely respected experts" and those who despise any "authorities".

Richard Feynman has said that "science is the belief in the ignorance of experts". On the other hand, his colleague Murray Gell-Mann, when I debated these things with him during the 2005 Sidneyfest, was mocking Feynman whose teeth were completely decaying etc. because he didn't trust experts (and e.g. the superstition that one should brush his teeth). The two men have clearly stood on the opposite sides of the axis I want to discuss. Both of them have been immensely successful which proves that "you don't have to be exactly in the middle".

Most people choose to be in the middle when it comes to lots of opinions. It's a convenient attitude. The golden mean often ends up being rather extreme. The contemporary postmodern, extreme, politically correct attitudes have become so widespread in the West because the extreme leftists were capable to convince the "convenient people in the middle" that joining the extreme left-wing cult is the right way to stay in the middle which is so important. That's why whole nations such as Germany are full of psychopaths defending lunacies (such as the open-door immigration policies) who scream that they're sane.

This tweet from The New York Times contains a video that showed all the female contestants in super-G which was won by snowboarder Ester Ledecká (CZE). Don't forget that the actual race was a slalom so the trajectories have been straightened up. She was going on the left side from the likes of Goggia (ITA) and Vonn (USA). That's not surprising because she has primarily been a snowboarder and that is a left-wing sport. ;-) Also, the great finish has been more important for her than the beginning of her run.

During her run, the Czech public TV was airing the ice-hockey match against Canada – it's not surprising given the popularity of ice-hockey in Czechia and the continuing success of our team: the Czech team got into the semifinals after it outscored both Canada and the U.S. (today) in the penalty shootouts. Nevertheless, with some delay, we could see how the reporters commented on the race.

In the studio, they had Mr Petr Vichnar – who is, along with Mr Robert Záruba, one of the sports reporting superstars who began their career as skillful young men during the late advanced socialism. And he had an expert in the studio, too: Ms Lucie Hrstková-Pešánová (she will be referred to as Ms Lucie) who competed in Alpine skiing a decade ago, when Czechia couldn't quite compare to the global elite yet.

Their narration has been widely discussed in the Czech media – and in the comment sections of the Czech Internet. Up to the very finish, you couldn't have figured out that Ledecká's run was great. Well, in fact, you would have believed it was absolutely terrible. In particular, Ms Lucie was bombarding Ledecká with remarks about constant mistakes. Three mistakes were painted as nearly fatal ones. Like most other commenters, I think that Ms Lucie was speaking in a tone that was mocking Ms Ledecká, too. I could hear "it's so cute that Ledecká even dares to compete against the real skiers, like what I used to be" in between the lines.

Now, I have no doubt that her comments about Ledecká's mistakes were partially based on some kind of an expertise that is inaccessible to us, the mortals. Folks like Ms Lucie have been fed lots of the wisdom about the right way to behave in every curve, about the need to stick to the optimal path and where the optimal path is. And she has internalized lots of this wisdom by attaching lots of her own experience. So if you wanted to hear an expert and be assured that someone is looking at Ledecká with all this expertise, you could have been satisfied.

But she and Mr Vichnar had to be missing something essential because after Ledecká was torn to pieces by them, she completed the run and won the race. The previous sentence was meant to be completely analogous to Feynman's "something has to be wrong because the airplanes don't land" in the cargo cult science talk.

Clearly, what they have been missing was her time. Her time was promising throughout the run and it showed up in green thrice – indicating that she was the leader. For some reason, they didn't notice. Because time decides about the winner, everything else should adapt to the desire to improve the time. You may have some knowledge about the optimal path and the right way to bend your body in one curve or another. But if this knowledge doesn't materially help to improve your time – or if ignoring the knowledge doesn't hurt someone's time – then the knowledge isn't terribly valuable. It is effectively false.

The wisdom about the optimal path and other things may be shared by the community of coaches, some of the achieved athletes in the past, and some pure theorists, too. But is it really true and essential? Isn't it just some group think, a bunch of collectively shared superstitions or half-truths? If a young woman manages to win while she ignores most of it, there is a pretty good reason to think that this lore – or group think – isn't so true or at least isn't so essential, isn't there?

When the final time showed that Ledecká won the event, Ms Lucie changed her tone dramatically. She started to yell and her high pitch voice made it impossible to convey any useful information (from Mr Petr Vichnar) at that moment. I think that this yelling could have been partly staged – she felt she needed to quickly compensate for her ludicrously negative reporting during the soon-to-be-legendary run itself.

So while I don't think that some catastrophe has occurred because Ledecká's run was commented very negatively when it was being built, I do agree with most of the commenters under the articles who think that Ms Lucie – and even Mr Vichnar – did a rather poor, perhaps embarrassing, job in this case. I would even say that the TV viewers were being misled about some key information during the run. Mr Petr Vichnar would have to err dozens of times to lose most of his credibility in my eyes – and he would have some credibility left even afterwards.

Supersymmetry: belief despite the LHC

OK, so in the example above – I could obviously pick hundreds of other, recent or less recent, examples but I wanted to have an example in mind – I was among the people who prefer to trust "hard facts" and not the status of some "respected experts" such as Ms Lucie. But it's not my "dogmatic attitude". From hundreds of opposing examples, let me pick the following one:
Like a majority of experts who would agree that their field is a fundamental high-energy physics, I keep on thinking that supersymmetry is exploited by Nature at some higher energy scale, despite the negative results of the LHC's search for new physics (including supersymmetry) so far.
You could say that in this case, and in many others, I am on the side of the "expertise against the hard facts". The LHC has said something negative about supersymmetry so far but I still think that it's very likely that supersymmetry is relevant in Nature.

In some cases, I am pro-hard-facts, in others, I am pro-subtle-expertise, if you wish. Is it a contradiction? Of course, it is not one. It is not a contradiction because the two situations aren't equivalent. In particular, there is a fundamental difference:
Ms Ester Ledecká's gold medal sharply and rigorously rules out the claim that she has made some fatal mistakes during her run.


The failure to find supersymmetry at the LHC so far doesn't directly imply that supersymmetry isn't there is Nature. It is at most some circumstantial evidence capable of quantitatively reducing our confidence in supersymmetry.
These have been two examples of mine. In some cases, the hard facts are more important than some possible respectability of experts such as Ms Lucie because the true disagreement (the truly big question we are assumed to care about) is about some particular quantity – like the competitiveness of her time – and some hard facts completely settle the question.

On the other hand, in some cases, like the case of SUSY, hard facts such as the invisibility of supersymmetry at the LHC don't directly settle the "big questions". So it makes sense to keep on treating the broader, less tangible, but more abstract arguments known to the experts as comparably important as before. String theory requires supersymmetry in the promising realistic vacua so there has to be supersymmetry in Nature, not to mention a few other arguments that are still standing.

In the real world, we encounter lots of situations. Are they more similar to the case of Ledecká's alleged mistakes where the gold medal seems to be the ultimate hard fact that settles the discussion? Or are they more similar to supersymmetry searched for at the LHC which simply doesn't have enough capacity to decide some truly big questions about supersymmetry in Nature?

My point is that real-world questions may fall on both sides of this dichotomy – and everywhere in between, too. Sometimes it's good to dismiss the comments by the experts because they have really been shown invalid (i.e. shown to be a collectively shared superstition or group think) by some hard facts; sometimes, it isn't the case because the hard facts – anecdotal evidence – just isn't enough to change our knowledge about some bigger, more general questions.

Yes, I often end up being on the pro-expert side in these discussions, as well as the anti-expert side.

What seems remarkable to me is that a big majority of the people who love to comment on things are either "fanatically pro-expert" or "fanatically anti-expert" activists. You may figure out which of these two camps is theirs – and their opinions about basically everything become completely predictable (as long as one possible answer to the question is much more defended by some "respected authorities"). People in the pro-expert camp will defend the experts and the "respected authorities" despite any facts, including the hardest ones; and people in the anti-expert camp will be satisfied with an arbitrarily weak, vaguely related, anecdotal evidence to strengthen their view that all experts are crooks and there's nothing valuable in any expertise in the world at all.

Needless to say, I think that both of these extreme camps are comparably naive and borderline dishonest. There can't be systematic progress without any experts or expertise at all; but there can't be systematic progress when experts or authorities are considered infallible, either. In many questions that are affected by this pro-expert/anti-expert tension, your thinking should be more nuanced and if you just bring your pro-expert or anti-expert prejudices, you're just an animal whose presence in the debates is counterproductive.

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