Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Pinker and Taleb

Interesting back and forth between two heavy-weights: Steve Pinker and Nassim Taleb. If you ignore the drama (or perhaps get interested because of it), the debate has spurred a fair amount of interesting commentary, which makes for fascinating reading.

1. David Roodman offers some insights in two blog posts. Here is how he sets up the debate:
Two intellectual titans are arguing over whether humanity has become less violent. In his 2011 book, Steven Pinker contends that violence is way down since the stone age, or even since the Middle Ages. He looks at murder, war, capital punishment, even violence against animals. 
But in a working paper released yesterday, Pasquale Cirillo and Nassim Taleb, the latter the author of The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, contend that Pinker has it wrong. Well, more precisely (lest I incite a riot with demagoguery) they challenge the notion that the great powers have enjoyed a distinctly long peace since World War II.
He sums up the state of the attack on Pinker's argument as being pretty flimsy.
I think if you are going use statistics to show that someone else is wrong, you should 1) state precisely what view you question, 2) provide examples of your opponent espousing this view, and 3) run statistical tests specified to test this view. Cirillo and Taleb skip the first two and hardly do the third. The “long peace” hypothesis is never precisely defined; Pinker’s work appears only in some orphan footnotes; the clear meaning of the “long peace”—a break with the past in 1945—is never directly tested for.
2. Dart-Throwing-Chimp breaks the gist of the debate using a more common metaphor. His position expresses skepticism to the question "can we use data to answer a question like that?"
Of course, the fact that a decades-long decline in violent conflict like the one we’ve seen since World War II could happen by chance doesn’t necessarily mean that it is happening by chance. The situation is not dissimilar to one we see in sports when a batter or shooter seems to go cold for a while. Oftentimes that cold streak will turn out to be part of the normal variation in performance, and the athlete will eventually regress to the mean—but not every time. Sometimes, athletes really do get and stay worse, maybe because of aging or an injury or some other life change, and the cold streak we see is the leading edge of that sustained decline. The hard part is telling in real time which process is happening. To try to do that, we might look for evidence of those plausible causes, but humans are notoriously good at spotting patterns where there are none, and at telling ourselves stories about why those patterns are occurring that turn out to be bunk. 
The same logic applies to thinking about trends in violent conflict. Maybe the downward trend in observed death rates is just a chance occurrence in an unchanged system, but maybe it isn’t. [...] Just as rare events sometimes happen, so do systemic changes.
3. Michael Spagat puts in his two cents
[...] the only channel that Cirillo and Taleb implicitly empower to potentially knock their war-generating mechanism off its pedestal is the accumulation of historical data on war sizes and timings. Since they focus on extreme wars, however, it will take a very long time before it is even possible for enough evidence to accumulate to seriously challenge their assumption of an unchanging war-generating mechanism.

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