Honesty, magic, and science

A chocolatier friend posted this to Facebook (quoted with permission):

Just turned down an invite to sell chocolate at an event because they were going to advertise it using *free Tarot readings*

Three reasons:

-Do we as a society need more of this nonsense?

-Do I want to deal with customers that naive?

-Do I trust organizers that are either credulous or unethically pandering?

Nope, nope and nope.

I think that this is an excellent example of sticking up for principles in ways that it seems a lot of the people around me find nonobvious: refusing to sanction something you think is deceptive. This is a good practice and needs to be more widespread.

I've previously criticized the practice of crediting "matching donations" drives with gains from controlling others’ behavior, but not the corresponding loss of information they would otherwise have contributed (or the loss from accepting their symmetrical control over you). Similarly, there’s a temptation to count the gains from exploiting an event full of Tarot-credulous customers to sell your actually-high-quality chocolate, but not to count the loss of allowing such an event to exploit you. When you help someone else attract attention to something dishonest, you are imposing costs on others.

That said, I think things like Tarot (and "Magic" in general) are hard to talk about reasonably because people mean such different things when talking about them. Obviously which Tarot cards one draws are determined by a pseudorandom process, and not one meaningfully causally entangled with the future life outcomes of the person for whom the Tarot cards are being read.

However, like many other divination processes, Tarot can serve as a seed around which the reader can signal-boost their own insights about the person being read for. Often we have subtle intuitions about each other that don't make it into consciousness but are fairly insightful. I've done a Tarot reading (once), and while I don't need the cards to weave a story about someone with my intuitions, it's easy for me to imagine someone only having access to that kind of intuition if they're in a headspace where they imagine that the cards are "telling" them the story.

I also wonder whether it's possible to consistently apply this epistemic standard. The replication crisis really happened and we need to update on it - even "science" isn't immune to casual deceptiveness and sloppiness with the facts. Someone giving a TED-style talk on psychology research is also likely to be saying stuff that's intuitive but not based on solid knowledge, and making up a story whereby we "know" these things because an experiment was performed.

(I'm not saying that science isn't real. Science was clearly real at some point in the past, and some forms of science and engineering now seem to be making real progress even to this day. I'm just saying that not ALL contemporary "science" is clearly better than Tarot.)

IF we don't apply this epistemic standard consistently, then what we're actually doing is calling out the out-group for deception, while tolerating in-group hypocrisy. We have cultural cover in our in-group for calling out Tarot as lies, but people would probably look at us funny for refusing to associate with someone giving a talk on power poses for the same reason. This might actually be the right choice, I'm not sure - in practice it's close to what I do - but it seems important to notice when that's what we're doing.

7 thoughts on “Honesty, magic, and science

  1. anonymous

    I share your opinion of tarot. It _could_ be thought of as deceptive, but it need not be. Plenty of people are aware that tarot (or astrology, etc.) have no scientific backing and still find them a fun game, or a fun trigger to engage in the kind of introspection that many of us don't routinely do.

    Your friend's stance seem a bit too scrupulous to me. How would he feel if I refused to associate with him for similar reasons? Do we really need chocolate in a country with a 67% overweight rate? Where does this end?

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  2. Sooheon

    I disagree with the epistemic equivocation of some "science" and tarot reading. The distinction is not merely in-group and out-group. You refer to the reproducibility problem, pop psychology with far too much hype, and if I haven't misread you, you disparage all but "some forms of science and engineering" (which you do not name, because of course, to be specific is to open yourself up to specific refutation--ironically the basis of science) as progress-free. Reproducibility, hype over substance, lack of progress are all current problems with science, agreed. But each of these problems are current errors in the implementation of the scientific process, with answers to be found in the error-correction mechanisms of science itself.

    That we have an error prone process of knowledge creation should not be disparaged, as long as we take error correction seriously. Tarot card readings, whatever introspective benefits they may have, are only scientific in the sense that empirical knowledge of cold-reading, manipulation, or solicitation psychology may accumulate. There is no amount of empiricism or reason which could improve our knowledge of tarot divination.

    > We have cultural cover in our in-group for calling out Tarot as lies, but people would probably look at us funny for refusing to associate with someone giving a talk on power poses for the same reason.

    There isn't quite as much hypocrisy to be seen here as you seem to be implying. I, like many others, was intrigued by Amy Cuddy's talk, but did not take the trouble to attempt to replicate her findings, or read deeply into primary sources to verify her claims. I simply gave it the approximate amount of credulity due a pop psychology talk given in a notoriously dewy-eyed, hyperbole-prone format. I trusted if it really was shoddy science, it would behoove those more in the know to come out with a thoroughly embarrassing refutation, thereby earning themselves cookie points in the scientific community, and bestowing upon those who cared to listen more accurate knowledge. As a certain co-author has done in the link you linked. If and when it is well established that Cuddy has been as knowingly manipulative, deceptive, and parasitic as tarot card readers are daily to the elderly, uneducated, and gullible, I'm sure nobody would be looked at in a funny way for refusing to invite her to a second TED conference.

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    1. Benquo Post author

      If and when it is well established that Cuddy has been as knowingly manipulative, deceptive, and parasitic as tarot card readers are daily to the elderly, uneducated, and gullible, I'm sure nobody would be looked at in a funny way for refusing to invite her to a second TED conference.

      If I read you right, you're saying that if Cuddy personally develops a track record of outstanding deception, then people would accept someone's decision to decline to invite her to another TED conference. That's pretty weak tea, and very different from the thing my friend actually did, which was to refuse to attend an event that had an unknown tarot card reader. (I have friends who have read tarot, and they've generally been much more honest about it than Cuddy was about power poses in her talk.) The true analogy is between refusing to contribute to events that contain Tarot readings, and refusing to give TED talks because they uncritically present findings from pre-2016 academic psychology.

      (To my friend's credit, I followed up with him and he mentioned that he *does* try to speak out against fake psychology results too. So, he's not really a hypocrite here.)

      Instead, the Association for Psychological Science has taken a stand against replications, and continues to invite people like Cuddy (but not her collaborator who repudiated the finding) to speak at its symposia.

      Reproducibility, hype over substance, lack of progress are all current problems with science, agreed. But each of these problems are current errors in the implementation of the scientific process, with answers to be found in the error-correction mechanisms of science itself.

      At some point this sort of argument should just pattern match to "true Communism has never been tried!". It's plausible that something called Communism could work well in some context, but you'd want to see some specific plan about how they're going to avoid known, amply demonstrated failure modes.

      Whatever it was Darwin, Newton, Lavoisier, Watson and Crick, Franklin, Franklin, Huygens, Leibniz, Turing, Einstein, Faraday, Maxwell, Curie, Mendel, Copernicus, Kepler, Ptolemy, Harvey, and Aristotle were doing, it seems so have gotten us some real results. But, why on earth should we think that contemporary "sciences" like academic psychology deserve their halo? When academic journals refuse to print corrections volunteered by the article's own author, why should we not abandon our blanket respect for academic disciplines calling themselves sciences, and instead look for specific evidence that any one field or method or department or researcher is reliable?

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      1. Sooheon

        Ah I thought I'd subscribed to see replies to this.

        > if Cuddy personally develops a track record of outstanding deception, then people would accept someone's decision to decline to invite her to another TED conference. That's pretty weak tea, and very different from the thing my friend actually did, which was to refuse to attend an event that had an unknown tarot card reader.

        Your initial claim was that people would not do even that, so my point stands.

        > people would probably look at us funny for refusing to associate with someone giving a talk on power poses for the same reason.

        Besides, the level of scorn should scale with the level of wrong-ness. I'm reminded of the work of Dr. Hwang Woo Suk, once a high flyer in stem cell research (reportedly the first to clone human embryonic stem cells), whose research was marred by employee coercion and fabrications. He was called the pride of Korea (my home country), and is now disgraced and largely ignored.

        This does not only apply to people who are found out to be deceptive, but also to fields of study. Dr. Hwang's shenanigans did not discredit the entire field of stem cell research, because other researchers are making progress. If the entire field were completely devoid of accurate, useful knowledge creation, we would dismiss it as we do things like tarot card reading, astrology, and alchemy. These were once pursued with enthusiasm, or at least from a position of curious agnosticism.

        > At some point this sort of argument should just pattern match to "true Communism has never been tried!". It's plausible that something called Communism could work well in some context, but you'd want to see some specific plan about how they're going to avoid known, amply demonstrated failure modes.

        It may match some patterns, but you would be wrong to dismiss it for that reason. It may not be possible to completely avoid known failure modes of scientific inquiry (even a genius like Newton can waste time on the philosopher's stone or Atlantis), but a method of error correction does exist, and is working. That is the "specific plan" that we have--that it is possible to reason about other people's truth claims, to attempt to verify them, and debunk, confirm, or improve upon them. How else do we distinguish the greatest hits from the flops? Why do we agree with Newton's laws of motion, and not with his biblical prophesies? Communism, on the other hand, is not a set of methods for error correction, but a prescriptive set of ideals. It is not too surprising that a static set of ideals can in the hands of humans, be reified as dogma. On the other hand, if science is to mean anything, it is the set of tools at our disposal to fight dogma, to question accepted knowledge against observable reality.

        What my objection boils down to is that I detect a dismissiveness toward "soft" sciences, but it's not spelled out in a way that I can engage with. Yes as in all human endeavors, there are flaws. The publishing scandals you linked to are good examples. But in your very objection to them, and in all the academic and internet uproar, we see the workings of error correction. I have been convinced that Cuddy is likely full of it. Those publications which refuse to correct their mistakes are even worse. But these errors (p-hacking, willingness to presuppose correctness of own hypotheses, resistance to admitting error) are not unique to "soft" sciences, so I take issue with the oblique attack against them by way of comparison to tarot reading.

        > it's unclear to me that the ideology of "science" really captures what the good institutions were - to the extent that these were institutions at all and not just events.

        I suspect that science as an institution is less important than, as I've said, science as a collection of tools for knowledge creation and error correction. It doesn't really matter whether the work is being done in the Royal Academy of Sciences, or in an Austrian monastary, or in Chinese palaces. So I wouldn't be so quick to segregate them from "medieval scholastics" or "ancient Greeks"--they were all doing prototypical science, in so far as they contributed to human knowledge. Seeing them as "just events" is factually accurate, but missing what distinguishes them from other events.

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        1. Benquo Post author

          OK, seems like we agree on a fair bit - thanks for helping me understand your position better. It sounds like we agree that there's some sort of practice that often coincides with what calls itself "science" that involves error-correction and hypothesis-testing in a way that tracks truth better than many other methods. We also agree that this is an extremely imperfect fit for "things that call themselves sciences," in both directions. (Gelman published on his personal blog, not in a scholarly journal, and yet was clearly pursuing what we agree to be the important project of advancing human knowledge while correcting errors.)

          Reply
          1. Sooheon

            Agreed. Thanks the taking the time to read and try to understand, and for the rest of the thought provoking posts on this blog!

    2. Benquo Post author

      That said, I think we have some important areas of agreement. Modern academic disciplines put at least some optimizing power towards reproducibility. That's not quite the thing that gave modern science its greatest hits, but it's at least a plausibly good thing to try. They have managed to accumulate knowledge about the world in a way that seems substantially more successful than the medieval scholastics or ancient Greeks. (Unsure how it compares to various Eastern intellectual traditions, but my guess is it's doing better than they are.)

      Chemistry, physics, biology, psychology, epidemiology, astronomy, mathematics, those have proud traditions of discovering important truths. The republic of letters is a thing, universities are probably relevant just for getting the scholars together, scholarship is a thing, but it's unclear to me that the ideology of "science" really captures what the good institutions were - to the extent that these were institutions at all and not just events.

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