Life can be hard, and at times we forget some things are precious to us out there in this world. I also forget sometimes, and so I try to conserve ideas, books, anecdotes, stories, artwork and other things that I like (or at least find fascinating). This list is neither meant to be comprehensive, coherent, or even correct. That said, I still hope you like it.
Superficially–and certainly not in intent or quality–this site is a Zettelkasten, that famous mnemonic device that Luhmann used to write hundreds and hundreds of papers. Unfortunately, my hundreds of papers are still waiting to be written, but that’s probably for the best.
- The image above shows a detail of the tombstone of Jacob Bernoulli, the famous Swiss mathematician (along with a whole suite of other Swiss Bernoullis). The text expresses his love for one of his research fields, the logarithmic spiral. That spiral is special indeed, being a self-similar “eternal line” (Dürer) that constantly increases in size but keeps its shape. There is arguably something eschatological about this, and so Bernoulli had the words EADEM MUTATA RESURGANS (“while changed, I rise again the same”) engraved on his tombstone, along with that spira mirabilis. The engraver messed up though: the depicted spiral is an Archimedean one. Logarithmic spirals are found everywhere in nature, but most famously in the shape of the nautilus. Personally, I know these “living fossils” only as actual fossils. In the Bavarian countryside where I grew up, one can dig up ammonites everywhere, and I also happen to be the proud owner of a few.
- There’s this fascinating anecdote in Lehman in which he describes how Fisher and Neyman, while working in Karl Pearson’s old department for a brief time in 1935, took this almost exceptional synchronicity of time and talent as a chance to make each other miserable. He quotes: “One evening, late that spring, Neyman and Pearson returned to their department after dinner to do some work. Entering, they were startled to find strewn on the floor the wooden models which Neyman had used to illustrate his talk on the relative advantages of randomized blocks and Latin squares. They were regularly kept in a cupboard in the laboratory. Both Neyman and Pearson always believed that the models were removed by Fisher in a fit of anger."
- I recently read a short treatise by C. Grant Luckhardt in this collection about Wittgenstein and the soul. He argues that the famous lion (see comic) does not speak English (or German; where we do not understand him due to his form of life); but lionish. We do not understand the lion because there is nothing in his mannerisms that we can relate to.
- Ramsey Redux: In her biography, Cheryl Misak (p. 276) beautifully remarks on a connection between Ramsey’s subjective Bayesianism and the core tenets of cognitive behavioral therapy: “He saw with clarity that his account of decision-making under uncertainty is true only ‘in relation’ to this artificial system of psychology, which like Newtonian mechanics can … still be profitably used even though it is known to be false'. […] That does not mean we should not offer reasons to people based on what is rational to believe. When someone misestimates the probabilities of dying in an airplane crash as opposed to driving to the airport, we will want to put the actual probabilities to him in an effort to overcome his fears. We may not be successful, because all sorts of facts about his psychology, background, or ability to access the evidence might get in the way. Ramsey would have been interested, and no doubt pleased, that much of contemporary cognitive behavior therapy is based on the idea that a proper understanding of the facts can be crucial for altering crippling patterns of behaviour. For he argued that for a belief to be useful, it must be properly connected to the facts.”
Papers I Like
- The Axioms of Subjective Probability, by Fishburn (1985). This traces the radical origins of subjective probability (read: “classic” Bayesianism) in the likes of Ramsey and de Finetti. Ramsey of course might be even more famous (besides dying way too young) for convincing Wittgenstein to leave his Austrian classroom and write the Philosophical Investigations. I always feel like there’s something in the late Wittgenstein that profoundly relates to our issues in statistical inference and its association with psychological science; but I cannot really pin it down (“For in psychology there are experimental methods and conceptual confusion”).
- Statistical Language, Statistical Truth And Statistical Reason: The Self-Authentification of a Style of Scientific Reasoning, by Hacking (1992). Summarizes many of Hacking’s points on the history of probability and statistics, and traces back the emergence of a statistical Denkstil à la Ludwik Fleck.
- Operationism in psychology: What the debate is about, what the debate should be about, by Feest (2005). Deals with many of the misunderstandings and false accusations attributed to operationism (“the content of your investigation is what you measure”). For me, it re-emphases the root cause of problems in psychological science: the conceptualization of psychological phenomena, all of which come to us verbally, are culturally mediated, and emergent. “Invisible hands wielding fine calipers”, dark specters floating in infinite space.
- The Garden of Forking Paths, by Gelman and Loken (2013). It is a great paper on p-hacking and all those other excesses that come with our researcher degrees of freedom; but I like it for the title alone. It alludes to a short story in one of my favorite books, Ficciones by the inevitable Borges. Speaking of Borges, there’s this one little case of staircase wit in the graphic novel rendition of City of Glass: when Quinn goes to visit Paul Auster, he finds that Auster’s neighbor is a certain Menard, presumably the Pierre Menard of Borges' Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote. Comforting to know I am not the first to notice this (p. 852).
Books I Like
- The Seventh Man, by John Berger. The book is prefaced with a beautiful poem, “The Seventh” by Attila Jószef.
- The Emergence of Probability, a “historical archeology” of probability and statistics by Ian Hacking. One thing I never forgot about this book is the provenance of the word “probability”, from probable, which used to mean that something was endorsed or supported by some authoritative figure (today, we would presumably say experts). I cannot help but think about the (in)famous “evidence pyramid” here that we health researchers carry around in our heads. Isn’t that pyramid also a multilayered piece of sediment, ranging from probable to probability?
- On the Plurality of Worlds, by David K. Lewis. The book defends modal realism, a position deeply embedded in the counterfactual thinking from which we (dare to) deduce causality. The latter is, quite literally, not of this world. It is an emergent relationship created by (“supervening on”) the patterns and regularities present within many, many possible worlds \(w\). The Rubin-Neyman causal model requires us to navigate possible worlds to infer causality, and Lewis takes this thought to the extreme. His possible worlds \(w'\) are not merely helpful abstractions, or some mathematical representation; there are infinitely many, causally isolated universes that are just as real as the one we happen to inhabit in this moment. Causal thinking is what connects us with them, or rather: their existence precludes causal thinking. Such an inflated ontology, governed by a multiverse madness-type Laplace demon is, arguably, dizzying. I’ll leave it at that and instead refer to a poem that seems to understand it all: Could Have, by Wisława Szymborska.