“Just one more thing” on LARPing

Via statistician Andrew Gelman’s blog, this description of Columbo’s method seemed like a nice example about how something like the LARPing exercise can return a negative result.

Here’s what Columbo does. He hears the killer’s story and he takes it very seriously (it’s murder, and Columbo never jokes about murder), examines all its implications, and finds where it doesn’t fit the data. Then Columbo carefully examines the discrepancies, tries some model expansion, and eventually concludes that he’s proved there’s a problem.

OK, now you’re saying: Yeah, yeah, sure, but how does that differ from any other fictional detective? The difference, I think, is that the tradition is for the detective to find clues and use these to come up with hypotheses, or to trap the killer via internal contradictions in his or her statement. I see Columbo is different—and more in keeping with chapter 6 of Bayesian Data Analysis—in that he is taking the killer’s story seriously and exploring all its implications. That’s the essence of predictive model checking: you take advantage of the fact that you’re working with a generative model, and you generate anything and everything you can.

I came up with the LARPing excercise in the context of Bob Seidensticker’s participation in the atheist prayer experiment, so I was recommending it as a way to make it easier to notice when you’re wrong.  It lowers your emotional resistance to possibly having to admit error and gives you a way to think deeply and curiously about the implications of a rival theory.  Like Columbo, you may find your way from the inside to a contradiction, and then have more reason to think you’ve done your due diligence to be able to write it off.

I think the kind of model expansion that Gelman is talking about is also relevant to another problem Bob’s been talking about: how to convince someone to come over to your side.  You can present the arguments that convinced you, but if your interlocutor doesn’t share enough of your first principles, they may be unmoved.  (Bob and I have been talking off-site about whether morality is objective, which is the linchpin of my conversion and isn’t a premise that he grants).

If the truth is out there, then LARPing as your opponent might give you a chance to see which parts of their worldview are the source of their predictions that some metaphysical point in your argument is false.  Then you can tinker, expand, and see if that bit makes other more obviously false predictions that might cause your opponent to strike it from their model.  You can try to slot it into your own worldview to try to see which gears it jams and how you know that those gears are necessary.  Working from both ends, you start trying to build a chain of logic from your opponent’s position to yours.

If Bob wants to try any devotions to a saint while the prayer experiment is running, I think he might like Blessed Raymond Llull.  I happen to like him a lot because he discovered the Condorcet method of voting before Condorcet.  But Bob might be more interested in Llull’s Ars generalis ultima.  Llull was trying to write an exhaustive apologetic, such that, wherever you started metaphysically, he would be able to lead you to Christianity.  This is the task Bob set for converts, so maybe, in his two minutes of prayer a day, he can ask Llull to give us a hand!

About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011. She works as an Editorial Assistant at The American Conservative by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at www.patheos.com/blogs/unequallyyoked. She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012."

  • deiseach

    Something I just saw in passing news about “the Oct. 7-28 celebration of the 13th general assembly of the Synod of Bishops, which will focus on “The New Evangelization for the Transmission of the Christian Faith.”:

    “The archbishop told reporters Oct. 5 that Swiss microbiologist Werner Arber, winner of the 1978 Nobel Prize in medicine/physiology, will address synod members as a special guest Oct. 12, offering “reflections on the relationship between science and faith.”

    So obviously the Vatican will be preparing a special bonfire to roast this interloping scientist – oh, no, it looks like they offered him a job, instead!

    “Arber, a Protestant and head of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, “sees the relationship between faith and reason as Blessed John Paul II did: like two wings that bring people toward God,” the archbishop said, referring to the late pope’s 1998 encyclical, “Fides et Ratio” (“Faith and Reason”).”

    Well, drat: an opportunity for a perfectly good heretic burning (Protestant AND scientist – two for the price of one!) ruined.

    ;-)

    • Ashley

      Wait, so you’re saying that a group of bishops have invited a scientist who agrees with their views on the relationship between science and faith? Truly shocking. People so rarely want to listen to those who tell them what they want to hear.

      • deiseach

        But Ashley, a truly true scientist would be implacably opposed to religion! And a truly true bishop would be implacably opposed to science! If a Nobel Prize winner thinks religion is not a delusion to be rooted out for the good of all humanity, and even worse, practices a religion himself, then he cannot be a real scientist (see P Z Myers on Francis Collins).

        And if bishops are going to tamely sit there and listen to a scientist telling them reason and faith are not locked in deadly struggle, then what kind of namby-pamby, wishy-washy, pasta-eating surrender monkeys are they? Where is the spirit that dragged Giordano Bruno to the pyre (because forget about the ostensible charge of heresy, everyone knows that he was really burned for being a heliocentrist. All that alchemy and Neo-Platonism was only a front for experimental and evidence based science).

        It is simply not possible that a group of bishops might be interested in hearing a scientist speak on the relation between faith and reason, or that a scientist might be a scientist and a believer at the same time. What are you, crazy? :-)

        Or we could, I suppose, quote from “The Man Who Was Thursday”:
        “When first I became one of the New Anarchists I tried all kinds of respectable disguises. I dressed up as a bishop. I read up all about bishops in our anarchist pamphlets, in Superstition the Vampire and Priests of Prey. I certainly understood from them that bishops are strange and terrible old men keeping a cruel secret from mankind. I was misinformed. When on my first appearing in episcopal gaiters in a drawing-room I cried out in a voice of thunder, ‘Down! down! presumptuous human reason!’ they found out in some way that I was not a bishop at all. I was nabbed at once.”

        • jenesaispas

          You reminded me of Truly Scrumptious at the beginning there *nostalgic sigh*.

        • Owlmirror

            “because forget about the ostensible charge of heresy”

          Because someone asserting different theology is of course an excellent and completely OK reason to torture them, and set them on fire, and make them die in agony, right?

        • http://delphipsmith.livejournal.com Delphi Psmith

          When on my first appearing in episcopal gaiters in a drawing-room I cried out in a voice of thunder, ‘Down! down! presumptuous human reason!’ they found out in some way that I was not a bishop at all. I was nabbed at once.”

          *snort*

  • http://moralmindfield.wordpress.com Brian Green

    Raymond Llull is awesome for so many reasons. He was huge proponent of technological research. In the 1200s. Why? To evangelize. No use telling everyone about your great religion without great technology to make it look good. Kind of weird, really, but shockingly perceptive.

    • Ted Seeber

      And he was a latecomer- before Christ the priests of Zeus were using steam engines to open doors mysteriously.

      Clarke’s Law was truly around a long, long time before Clarke.

  • Ted Seeber

    I can point to a host of fictional detectives that did the same thing- it’s a subgenre of the genre. Chesterton’s Fr. Brown is a great example.

  • John

    That’s how classic philosophers operated too….take the other side (or any side’s) seriously and then run things to their logical conclusion. For example…. suppose we’re discussing Islam. A guy claims to have seen an angel who gave him a new revelation for global consumption. New ‘truth’ requires that he share ideas with any who will listen. So far, so good. Standard stuff. But then, due to a lack of a growing audience the self-declared prophet decides to raise an army and conquer the neighborhood by force. ‘You and whose army’ comes to mind…. we are supposed to take his word for it because….? Because otherwise his goons will kill us, maim us, or do other nasty things to us.

    At least Moses had 10 supernatural (or hard to explain) plagues to rain down on the Egyptians for doubting his story about the burning bush and being a prophet “on a mission from God”. In his case, it wasn’t “or else these goons here will kill you” but “or else other, worst phenomena which obviously don’t come from me or my followers’ hands but from some 3rd party whom I invoke will do something to you…”

    Much more plausible to conclude….hmmm, maybe we’d better let this Moses guy and the slaves go.

    Or take the LGBTQ movement at their word. The word is: “all our problems are caused by a hostile society, so to the degree society becomes tolerant and then positively supportive of our every whim, all our problems will decrease”. That’s a good hypothesis in 1973. But by 2012 the CDC and rest of us would have mountains of evidence that their suicidal ideations, self-desctructive behavior, domestic violence etc. are decreasing compared to the general population, but especially in those cities and states where their agenda is becoming implemented. Again, if their hypothesis was correct….there would be growing signs and evidence for it. Instead we’re told to “don’t you dare do a study that might conclude at odds with our hypothesis…you hater!”

    Or take the Socialist/Democratic world view that holds that the solution to crime, corruption, failing schools, teen pregnancy and delinquency, gangs, and poverty is always more federal wealth transfers administered by bureaucrats who coincidentally vote Democratic all the time.

    This is a truth claim that seemed plausible in 1964. But in 2012 in Detroit and a dozen other cities and states which have been run by Democrats and their policies for 40+ years…..yeah, not so much. One can posit that any given city will have ups and downs paralleling the general overall national economy. But what one would not expect – if their core truth claim was so – is a 40 year trend of increased problems they claim to be “solving” through all their interventions, programs, policies, regulations, special task forces, etc.

    If what someone claims to be true is in fact, true…. alot follows from this that would led not to special pleading but to mountains of evidence.

    Take the Catholic doctrine of the morality of monogamous marriage. The Church asserts that chaste monogamy is the only proper condition for sexual expression for the adult Christian and that any other use of sexuality outside of monogamous marriage is immoral and objectively harmful to the people in question and their wider relationships with the community….

    Now, if this was so, we’d see vast statistics, signs, evidence of the harm both to individuals and society for a breakdown of chaste monogamy and an equal pile of data of benefits for individuals and society for couples who stay together chastely. And to be sure we’re not cherry picking or special pleading we’d gather our data from the entire world, in every socio-economic-political system….. and then tally up the scores. Then we’d do a historical analysis not just of current evidence but over the course of the centuries.

    In this we need not find chaste monogamy to be without problems, struggles or suffering. We’d just need to weigh the relative benefits between it and the alternatives.

    • Owlmirror

        “A guy claims to have seen an angel who gave him a new revelation for global consumption. New ‘truth’ requires that he share ideas with any who will listen. So far, so good. Standard stuff. But then, due to a lack of a growing audience the self-declared prophet decides to raise an army and conquer the neighborhood by force. ‘You and whose army’ comes to mind…. we are supposed to take his word for it because….? Because otherwise his goons will kill us, maim us, or do other nasty things to us.”

      “In hoc signo vinces”.
      “Caedite eos. Novit enim Dominus qui sunt eius.”

        “At least Moses had 10 supernatural (or hard to explain) plagues”

      Or so the story goes. Funny how there’s no evidence for any such “plagues” striking Egypt during the period that said plagues were claimed to have occurred, or anything else in line with the story. Can you say “fiction”?

      • Ted Seeber

        I have problems even identifying the right time- but- given that history is written by the victors and losing a rather large slave labor force doesn’t exactly make Ramses II look good, why would you expect Egypt’s self-written propaganda to record the Hebrews at all? In fact, wouldn’t Pharaoh have given the order to erase all mention of the Hebrews from history, like they tried to do with Ahkanahten a few centuries later?

        I’m always amazed at how badly the “It’s all a myth, none of it ever happened” crowd with respect to just about any history over 1000 years old, scripture or not, always fails to take into account basic human nature and modern bias. That works for positive fraudulent history as well, like the Gospel of Jesus’ wife.

        Everybody claims to be so skeptical, but they never seem to be skeptical about their own skepticism.

        • Owlmirror

            “given that history is written by the victors and losing a rather large slave labor force doesn’t exactly make Ramses II look good, why would you expect Egypt’s self-written propaganda to record the Hebrews at all?”

          I keep seeing this “counter-objection”, and it’s utterly ridiculous and completely ignorant of the anthropological analysis that historians do, let alone of the anthropological analysis that has already been done on some of the most well-documented dynasties in ancient Egyptian history. It also implies that the king controlled all writing thoughout Egypt, which is even more ridiculous. How could the king prevent people recording that the Nile had become blood and caused the deaths of millions of fish? How could the king prevent the record of animals dying, and therefore people not being able to pay the taxes that were dependent on the animals’ labor, meat, milk, and wool? How could the king prevent the record of massive damage to buildings by a putative magic hailstorm, and therefore needing repairs? How could the king prevent prodigies like “lots of frogs” or “darkness” from being recorded, or the pleadings from various subordinates that projects were delayed because everyone had boils everywhere? How could the king prevent the record of a nationwide spike in deaths from famine after locusts ate everything, or a peculiar sickness that only killed the firstborn, and killed them all in a single night?

          Where is the evidence for the massive poverty experienced by Egypt after all this supposed death and destruction occurred, as well as the loss of at least a third of their population, which was supposedly crucial to the economy as labor for building?

          The story of the Exodus is a fairy-tale, written by someone who didn’t even know the name that the Pharaoh of the time period being putatively written about should have had, and possibly even ignorant of the fact that “Pharaoh” is a title, not a name.

        • Owlmirror

            “I’m always amazed at how badly the “It’s all a myth, none of it ever happened” crowd with respect to just about any history over 1000 years old, scripture or not, always fails to take into account basic human nature and modern bias.”

          Of course there’s bias — the bias of the religious against historical and anthropological findings that conflict with their mythology. Heck, Christians don’t even like it being pointed out that Luke and Matthew differ by ten years in the date of Jesus’ birth.

            ” That works for positive fraudulent history as well, like the Gospel of Jesus’ wife.”

          My fanfic is totes canon. Your fanfic is completely bogus.

    • Alan

      It is easy to use this LARP thing to knock down my ‘enemies’ why I use strawmen and caricatures – role play is definitely the way to go.

      If Catholicism were true than that cracker I had at church would have tasted more like chicken – it didn’t therefore clearly false…

  • Owlmirror

      “(Bob and I have been talking off-site about whether morality is objective, which is the linchpin of my conversion and isn’t a premise that he grants).”

    Hm. So would you say that being convinced that morality is not objective would result in you deconverting?

    I am honestly curious as to which of the following you think is wrong, and why:

    1) “Objective” refers to a fact about reality; something that follows from basic logic and/or empirical evidence.

    2) “Subjective” refers to an opinion or perception of facts. That opinion might well be an objective fact about a given agent (“Bob likes broccoli; Bob thinks that broccoli should be eaten.”), about things that are objective facts (“Bob’s taste buds, odor receptors, and brain translate the taste of broccoli into a pleasant experience for Bob, and cause Bob to wish to repeat the experience of eating broccoli”).

    3) “Intersubjective” refers to those subjective opinions or perceptions that are held in common by a broad segment of the population. An example of an intersubjective phenomenon is language — while there appear to be some grammar-recognizing/generating module(s) in the brain, the actual instantiation of language is (mostly) what a large enough group of speakers (or gesturers, for Sign) that have the module(s) tacitly agree upon from an otherwise (mostly) arbitrary set of phonemes (and/or body movements), and teach to their children and each other. [Language is probably far more complicated than that, but this is a very brief summary]

    4) “Morality” refers to a set of rules for behaviour which “ought” to be followed. While there appear to be modules in the brain that invovle empathy, imagination, compassion, and rule inference and reasoning about consequences, the actual instantiation of morality is (mostly) what a large enough group of people that have those modules tacitly agree upon from the set of actions that humans can perform, and teach to their children and each other. [Morality is certainly more complicated than that, but again, I'm being brief.]

    5) Given all of the above, morality is best described as being intersubjective, not objective.

  • http://www.lara-thinkingoutloud.blogspot.com Lara

    ‘So this man tries to use logic to convince people who are inclined to “believing” things?
    “God” in religion is equivalent to “Axioms” in geometry. “Axioms” by definition cannot be proved. So “Axioms” are neither true nor false.
    Tell this to your follower “God cannot be proved to exist or not!”
    “Axioms” are, btw, created by mathematicians.’ ~WeiTa Pu

    I found this comment here: http://www.npr.org/2012/09/15/160610371/embracing-diversity-in-a-multi-faith-world and I thought of you because you love both math and God.

  • Randy

    “While there appear to be modules in the brain that invovle empathy, imagination, compassion, and rule inference and reasoning about consequences…”

    – to deem morality intersubjective, you would first have to agree with 4). According to the definition that you post, the building blocks for morality are already apparent, not taught. Objective.

    • Owlmirror

        “– to deem morality intersubjective, you would first have to agree with 4). According to the definition that you post, the building blocks for morality are already apparent, not taught. Objective.”

      I don’t think you read carefully enough. The existence of the building blocks is objective; the results of their operation is not. The building blocks for language are also “already apparent, not taught”. Is language objective?

      • Randy

        The existence of the building blocks is objective.

        The existence of the building blocks alone works for me.

        • Owlmirror

            “The existence of the building blocks is objective.
            The existence of the building blocks alone works for me.”

          Are you sure you’ve thought about the implications of this? You don’t answer the question I asked.

          Is language objective?


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