Monday, March 23, 2020

Who was Feynman's Mr Young and what was his rat paper?

The irrational, hysterical behavior of many people – perhaps most people on Earth – reminds me of the Middle Ages, witch hunts, and various instinctive rituals performed by mobs many centuries ago (see Monty Python's "She's a Witch"). Nothing much has changed and many post-modern mobs are dumber than the medieval ones. Mindless ritual sacrifices are just combined with some kind of "socialist thinking" which is probably meant to be the "modern" aspect of their behavior.

When I watched this irrational behavior, the mindless promotion of "what must be done to fix the epidemics", I couldn't forget about the wonderful 1974 Richard Feynman's Caltech commencement speech that is included as
Cargo Cult Science,
a chapter in his popular book Surely You're Joking, Mr Feynman. In that speech, Feynman mentioned some medieval superstitions and charlatans. How could people believe those gurus when it was rather clear that nothing really worked? However, Feynman continued, it's a silly question because people are still behaving equally stupidly in the modern era.

Lots of people still believe either extrasensorial perception (ESP) and similar superstitions; or fake experts on things like "how we should teach or treat criminals". Lots of people call themselves experts – and the media often collaborate to call them the experts today – but this whole expertise is rubbish. There is no real science, there is no validation of their assertions which are just some guesses or opinions, often dictated by some naive ideology. We may say that their ideas don't really participate in any meaningful contests or comparisons with other ideas at all.

How do they know that they have found the good answers how the teaching of mathematics etc. should be changed so that the results are better? At any rate, a sensible person may observe that the results are actually not getting better at all – even though the same clique of people is still employed to improve the teaching – so this expertise is actually a worthless pseudoscience and its prominent champions are charlatans – just like the sellers of rhinoceros horns to increase potency a few centuries ago.

But Feynman didn't end there, of course: every scientifically literate person (at least if she is inclined to start with physical sciences) realizes that almost all the people from the humanities (and especially grievance studies) departments (and a part of the social sciences) are charlatans who have nothing whatever to do with the scientific method. Folks who don't have any evidence and who don't really understand what evidence is and how it's needed; instead, they just know how to sleep (either literally or metaphorically) with the right people in order to get closer to a powerful loudspeaker.

Feynman discussed the antiscientific behavior within the science departments, too. He mentioned that scientists are obliged to equally publish the results of some research they were ordered to do whether or not the person who ordered them likes the results – otherwise they wouldn't be scientists but corrupt sluts. He discusses various aspects of the scientific integrity and why science requires a higher level of integrity than "ordinary life". "Wesson Oil doesn't soak through food" is literally true but it is manipulative because it incorrectly pushes the viewers to think that Wesson Oil is qualitatively different from other oils but it's not: all oils soak at some temperatures but not others.

And then he discussed lousy science – like efforts to eliminate the results that are "too different" from what other people have concluded with (an embarrassing bias that extended the time needed to accurately measure the elementary charge by replicas of Millikan's experiment); failure to reproduce experiments before a variation of it is tried, and more.

Feynman has praised Mr Young who has done a lab experiment with rats in mazes in "1937". It was the best and most meaningful experiment among all but it was ignored by the sloppy community of rat psychology experimenters because it "didn't discover anything new". In reality, Mr Young discovered everything you have to control if you want to discover something about rats' psychology. Mr Young found out that rats can determine the right path to the food using various types of perception, the sound of the floor, patterns on the door separating the rats from food, location of lightning and more. Only if you carefully erase all these traces that can help the rats to find the food, the rats may learn to go to the third door.

If you look at the Internet who was Mr Young and what was the paper, you find the result "I couldn't find the paper" at very many places (e.g. a Wikipedia discussion and Real Clear Science). I think that I know what the paper was. The author was Paul Thomas Young, as others have determined, an animal psychologist. He did lots of experiments testing the appetite and drive of the rats. But I think that he relevant paper was published in 1938, a year after the year in which Young performed the experiment according to Feynman. It seems to make sense. Feynman probably roughly remembered he was about 19 or 20. And maybe the experiment was done in 1937 and published in 1938.

The title of the paper that looks relevant is
Preferences and demands of the white rat for food
What I find most similar to Feynman's description is Part I as described in the abstract:
The first part concerns spatial factors in feeding behavior. Experiments summarized here demonstrate that there are marked individual differences in right-left dominance, that size and position of food may obscure natural food preferences, that certain techniques may alter apparent preferences in several ways, and that equality of spatial advantage is the most favorable condition for expression of food preference.
Sadly, I can't access the full paper now, at least not for free. Why it seems to be saying the same thing as Feynman? The rats want to find some good food (Paul Thomas Young argued elsewhere that wheat is actually more attractive than sugar; and better food increases their physical performance while running but not the speed of learning). But some other properties of the environment can beat the rats' appetite for the good food ("techniques may alter apparent preferences", "size and position may obscure food preferences").

And in particular, I think that the last half-sentence contains the whole Feynman's explanation in a compressed form:
and that equality of spatial advantage is the most favorable condition for expression of food preference.
The elimination of the geometric traces that the rats actually used to find the food, as explained by Feynman, was called "the equality of spatial advantage". And when you achieve this "equality" i.e. when you erase the other sources of information that the rats may be using (inequality of the paths to the doors), then the rats express their food preference and learn something. It is not clear at all that the food preference included the rats' learning to "go to the third door" but this refinement is arguably compatible with the abstract above.

There are many other Paul Thomas Young's papers on rats and many of them explicitly deal with rats' learning, hedonism, appetite, drive, and more. So I do believe that it must be the right Mr Young from Feynman's speech. If some of you can buy or access the 1938 paper by Young, I would be interested in the confirmation or refutation of my hypothesis that it's the paper referred to by Feynman (who was 20 when the paper was published). If you refute it, you may try to find the correct paper.

But back to the original point. It's so disappointing that so many people behave so irrationally, like a mindless herd that has some opinions about what has to be done and how the propagation of the virus works within a particular national community, and they're promoting these opinions regardless of any empirical data – and without any interest in the data. And there are so many would-be journalists that are promoting these would-be experts as actual experts which they are not. I am actually sent (or can find) lots of high-quality analyses of many technical aspects of the virus (the timing of the incubation and contagion periods, among of virus shedding as a function of time, and other topics) but those don't really make it to the media that "inform" the overwhelming majority of the people. Despite a month of a hysterical 24/7 coverage, most of the regular people still haven't understood even the most basic things about the virus (e.g. that a simple, unprofessional face mask is useful but it is a service that the carrier of the mask makes to others – they won't catch the virus from him – but it doesn't really protect the carrier of the mask; or that large enough droplets are almost certainly needed for infection).

It is a highly nontrivial task to find out what is the actual main reason why the virus kept on spreading in Italy even in recent weeks, under the shutdown (is the workplace or grocery store or family or neighbors propagation of the virus dominant?). One can formulate lots of opinions, hypotheses, but hypotheses just shouldn't be considered facts right away. They need to be tested. They need to fairly compete against other hypotheses and the empirical facts are ultimately important in the decision which hypothesis wins. And these conditions simply can't be or shouldn't be overwritten by someone's title or a job description or his influential friends in the media. You may have all these things but if you are ignoring the empirical data, you are still a šitty charlatan, not a scientist.

In the year 2020, one would expect the people to understand these basic ideas underlying the scientific method. But a big majority of the people simply don't have a clue. They may repeat what I said but they don't actually believe that it is needed or it is relevant in the real world discussions about real world topics (such as this epidemics). They believe that this is just some marketing and the truth is actually determined by mobs that shout louder and conquer an influential TV station that presents a clueless hysterical crackpot as the ultimate expert.

No, the basic rules of the scientific method aren't just marketing. If you ignore them, then you're on par with the medieval charlatans and your results will be equally worthless garbage. This conclusion applies to the coronavirus debates and any other topic that has a scientific core. It doesn't matter that you live in the year 2020. That doesn't make your method (building on shouting decadent TV channels; intimidation; repetition; blackmail; censorship etc.) modern let alone scientific. What matters is that your whole (CNN-like) approach to problems, thinking, arguments is basically identical to the approach of the people who lived some 800 years ago. You're a medieval moron, an aggressive crackpot who just accidentally landed in the year 2020 where you don't belong. Too bad, there are over 7 billion of you in my world of 2020 and I have currently no good idea how I can liberate the world from all of you, morons from the medieval mobs and aggressive charlatans from Twitter and CNN. Of course I am trying to keep on thinking hard.

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