Less Wrong is a community blog devoted to refining the art of human rationality. Please visit our About page for more information.

Feed the spinoff heuristic!

49 Post author: CarlShulman 09 February 2012 07:41AM

Follow-up to:

Parapsychology: the control group for science

Some Heuristics for Evaluating the Soundness of the Academic Mainstream in Unfamiliar Fields

Recent renewed discussions of the parapsychology literature and Daryl Bem's recent precognition article brought to mind the "market test" of claims of precognition. Bem tells us that random undergraduate students were able to predict with 53% accuracy where an erotic image would appear in the future. If this effect was actually real, I would rerun the experiment before corporate earnings announcements, central bank interest rate changes, etc, and change the images based on the reaction of stocks and bonds to the announcements. In other words, I could easily convert "porn precognition" into "hedge fund trillionaire precognition."

If I was initially lacking in the capital to do trades, I could publish my predictions online using public key cryptography and amass an impressive track record before recruiting investors. If anti-psi prejudice was a problem, no one need know how I was making my predictions. Similar setups could exploit other effects claimed in the parapsychology literature (e.g. the remote viewing of the Scientologist-founded Stargate Project of the U.S. federal government). Those who assign a lot of credence to psi may want to actually try this, but for me this is an invitation to use parapsychology as control group for science, and to ponder a general heuristic for crudely estimating the soundness of academic fields for outsiders.

One reason we trust that physicists and chemists have some understanding of their subjects is that they produce valuable technological spinoffs with concrete and measurable economic benefit. In practice, I often make use of the spinoff heuristic: If an unfamiliar field has the sort of knowledge it claims, what commercial spinoffs and concrete results ought it to be producing? Do such spinoffs exist? What are the explanations for their absence?

For psychology, I might cite systematic desensitization of specific phobias such as fear of spiders, cognitive-behavioral therapy, and military use of IQ tests (with large measurable changes in accident rates, training costs, etc). In financial economics, I would raise the hundreds of billions of dollars invested in index funds, founded in response to academic research, and their outperformance relative to managed funds. Auction theory powers tens of billions of dollars of wireless spectrum auctions, not to mention evil dollar-auction sites

This seems like a great task for crowdsourcing: the cloud of LessWrongers has broad knowledge, and sorting real science from cargo cult science is core to being Less Wrong. So I ask you, Less Wrongers, for your examples of practical spinoffs (or suspicious absences thereof) of sometimes-denigrated fields in the comments. Macroeconomics, personality psychology, physical anthropology, education research, gene-association studies, nutrition research, wherever you have knowledge to share.

ETA: This academic claims to be trying to use the Bem methods to predict roulette wheels, and to have passed statistical significance tests on his first runs. Such claims have been made for casinos in the past, but always trailed away in failures to replicate, repeat, or make actual money. I expect the same to happen here. 

Comments (86)

Comment author: Grognor 09 February 2012 11:14:22AM 11 points [-]

If personality psychology holds water, I would expect dating sites to use it and produce better results than Traditional Romance. Does it? From the outside looking in, it looks like it does.

It would also be useful in selecting dorm room compatibility, which I can tell you from the inside looking out does not work at all or isn't being used. I wouldn't expect it to be used in this context, though. No money in it.

Comment author: khafra 11 February 2012 01:15:23AM 4 points [-]

Contrary evidence:

“To date, there is no compelling evidence that any online dating matching algorithm actually works,” Finkel observes. “If dating sites want to claim that their matching algorithm is scientifically valid, they need to adhere to the standards of science, which is something they have uniformly failed to do. In fact, our report concludes that it is unlikely that their algorithms can work, even in principle, given the limitations of the sorts of matching procedures that these sites use.”

Comment author: Desrtopa 12 February 2012 05:57:40AM *  3 points [-]

I don't know if any of the dating sites they reviewed use a similar system to OkCupid (users answer questions and also pick how they want matches to answer those questions and how important they are to them,) but I don't think OkCupid was included in that study. The author wrote that the matching algorithms of the companies they reviewed are proprietary, and were not shared with the researchers, but OkCupid's matching algorithm is publicly available.

Comment author: thomblake 13 February 2012 04:36:38PM 0 points [-]

In fact, our report concludes that it is unlikely that their algorithms can work, even in principle

That's a rather strong claim. Matching people up completely at random can work in principle.

Comment author: khafra 13 February 2012 06:05:26PM 1 point [-]

Perhaps by "work" they meant "do better than letting people choose solely based on reading a short essay and seeing a picture," although that sounds difficult to make precise. Maybe just "do better than random." We might have to wait until they publish.

Comment author: thomblake 13 February 2012 06:26:05PM 1 point [-]

Again, it's the "even in principle" I was objecting to. Picking people at random can in principle do better than letting people choose solely based on reading a short essay and seeing a picture. And uniformly random algorithm A can in principle do better than uniformly random algorithm B.

Saying something isn't possible "even in principle" specifically means that it cannot happen in any logically possible world - that's the entire difference between saying "even in principle" and leaving it out. It can't even accidentally win.

Comment author: Nornagest 11 February 2012 02:01:07AM *  3 points [-]

I don't think OKCupid contains a good way of tracking long-term romantic success once a relationship escapes from the site, but it certainly has the data to correlate any one of several personality metrics with length of correspondence, which strikes me as a half-decent proxy: there's a huge library of personality tests on the site, including some well-known ones like the MBTI and the Big 5. OKTrends has almost certainly touched on this before, although you'd probably have to apply a lot of logical glue yourself to get a theory to stick together properly.

OKC's primary metric, however, relies on self-selected answers to a large pool of crowdsourced questions. If there's been any academic research done in that exact space I'm not aware of it, but it wouldn't be too much of a stretch to view correlations between match metrics and actual romantic success as answering the question "how well do people know their own romantic preferences?" -- or conversely to see academic answers to that question as informing OKC's methodology.

Comment author: Jayson_Virissimo 14 February 2012 05:48:46AM *  2 points [-]

This week's issue of The Economist has a summary of the scientific evidence behind the popular Internet dating websites.

Comment author: TimS 09 February 2012 02:10:40PM 29 points [-]

Shorter version of OP's argument.

Comment author: Dr_Manhattan 09 February 2012 03:48:42PM 9 points [-]

I would add to this that having a method would often (but not always) produce a clear "leader in the field" (first-mover advantage going to the discoverer). So seeing Google's share of the market is a strong indicator (even without first-hand knowledge) that "they have a serious advantage in search" vs existence of many competing diet companies does not tell me "they figured out nutrition".

Comment author: CarlShulman 09 February 2012 07:33:40PM 9 points [-]

Good point, but to nitpick Google wasn't a first-mover in search, it defeated AltaVista and other search competitors based on superior performance. They were a first-mover with PageRank, though.

Comment author: Dr_Manhattan 09 February 2012 08:25:25PM 2 points [-]

Yes, thanks for clarification, that's what I meant by the first mover: relative to "the thing that gives them a lot of power".

Comment author: lukeprog 09 February 2012 04:49:03PM 38 points [-]

If psychology worked, I would expect marketing firms to use it to make millions of people buy tons of shit that they don't need and that won't make them happy.

Comment author: waveman 09 February 2012 10:18:06PM 8 points [-]

Indeed. Case study of Freud's nephew who basically invented modern PR.


Comment author: AnnaSalamon 10 February 2012 01:42:47AM 15 points [-]

Is there any evidence, one way or the other, as to whether marketers draw useful info from academic psychology?

Comment author: lukeprog 10 February 2012 06:58:01PM *  8 points [-]

More cheap evidence: marketing textbooks are stuffed full of mainstream psychological results and applications to the business of marketing.

Comment author: JoachimSchipper 10 February 2012 12:42:52PM 3 points [-]

Cheap evidence: Hacker News is full of people trying to get rich by selling something (usually access to web applications), and e.g. "Predictably irrational" has been mentioned. The marketing guru Seth Godin says he's been influenced quite a bit by Poundstone's "Priceless", which "dives into the latest psychological findings".

Of course, this is only informal evidence, only shows "some marketers" and only shows "believed to be useful".

Waveman's comment also seems relevant.

Comment author: Dmytry 13 February 2012 09:42:29PM 2 points [-]

Well I think to large extent marketing firms rely on their own know-how, which I imagine is rather scientific. I have first hand experience with this (I am selling a computer game through Steam). Various statistics is used to see what does better. Their marketing people are really great at e.g. picking the most-clickable banner design, versus the one that I thought would be the most clickable (I did my own stats and confirmed their choice).

Comment author: play_therapist 09 February 2012 06:59:39PM 3 points [-]

I believe marketers do use psychology and many, if not most, Americans do buy "tons of shit that they don't need and that won't make them happy!"

Comment author: MBlume 09 February 2012 09:15:09PM 13 points [-]

I believe Luke intended this to be understood =)

Comment author: MichaelVassar 11 February 2012 11:15:51PM 1 point [-]

Don't they?

Comment author: lukeprog 12 February 2012 03:41:02AM 5 points [-]

Yes they do. That was my intended meaning. :)

Comment author: Eugine_Nier 11 February 2012 04:55:52AM 5 points [-]

Two issues with this heuristic:

1) It doesn't work well for credence goods.

2) Sometimes it takes a long time for sciences to find an application, two modern examples are astrophysics, and particle physics.

Comment author: Robert_Unwin 11 February 2012 11:10:28AM 0 points [-]

(2) is a useful point, but doesn't generalize fully. To take your own examples, if some theories in astrophysics and particle physics were extremely well supported by the standards of physics, then the lack of spinoffs would not undermine them very much. If the theories are well supported, then they've made lots of novel predictions that have been verified. That a particular spinoff works is just evidence that a particular novel prediction is verified.

Comment author: BrianNachbar 16 February 2012 11:25:57PM 0 points [-]

Today, the many spinoffs of physics in general can lend support to branches that haven't produced spinoffs yet. But what about the first developments in physics? How soon after Newton's laws were published did anyone use them for anything practical? Or how long did it take for early results in electromagnetics (say, the Coulomb attraction law) to produce anything beyond parlor tricks? I don't know the answers here, and if there were highly successful mathematical engineers right on Newton's heels, I'd be fascinated to hear about it, but there very well may not have been.

Of course, theory always has to precede spinoffs; it would make no sense to reject a paper from a journal due to lack of spinoffs. To use the heuristic, we need some idea of how long is a reasonable time to produce spinoffs. If there is such a "spinoff time," it probably varies with era, so fifty years might have been a reasonable delay between theory and spinoff in the seventeenth century but not in the twenty-first.

Comment author: Robert_Unwin 09 February 2012 01:58:16PM 4 points [-]

Re: your examples successful spin-offs for psychology, to what extent did these therapies come out of well-established theory? Maybe someone can weigh in here. It seems possible that these are good therapies but ones that don't have a strong basis in theory (in contrast to technologies from physics or chemistry).

Comment author: katydee 09 February 2012 04:59:50PM *  0 points [-]

While cognitive-behavioral therapy could in some ways be characterized as an offshoot of the philosophy known as Stoicism (which oddly seems to have "lucked into" quite a set of effective beliefs, especially when compared to most other philosophies) rather than an offshoot of psychology, the psychological research process and psychological theory as a whole have definitely acted to inform and refine CBT.

Comment author: Robert_Unwin 10 February 2012 11:52:26AM 2 points [-]

I was looking for someone to specify a well supported psychological theory that predicts that CBT should be effective. What's the theory, and what's the evidence that people believed it before CBT came along?

I also think Shulman's example of IQ is different from the physics/chemistry case. It was discovered that scores on a short IQ test predicted long-term job performance on a range of tasks. Organizations that used IQ in hiring were then able to obtain better long-term job performance. But IQ was not something that was predicted from a model of how the brain or mind works. Even now, a century after the development of IQ tests, I'm not sure we have a good bottom up account of why a few little reasoning questions can be as informative about human cognitive performance as IQ seems to be. (Not saying that IQ gives you all the information you want, but a few short questions provide a surprising amount of information).

Comment author: katydee 10 February 2012 04:14:09PM *  0 points [-]

The issue here is that the theory that predicts that CBT should be effective is called "Stoicism" and has been around for a long while prior to the concept of a psychological research process.

If you are looking for a therapy or action that arose from psychological theory directly, I would recommend looking into the treatment of PTSD (not even recognized as a treatable condition until the 1970s) or something-- CBT has been informed and refined by the research process, but its underpinnings existed prior to the research process itself.

Comment author: Dmytry 13 February 2012 02:51:06PM *  7 points [-]

There's interesting thing: Some people managed to acquire a lot of wealth via trading. That would lead you to believe their claims with regards to the methods they use being effective.

However, if you simulate the stock market with identically skilled agents, you obtain basically same wealth distribution as observed in the real world, with some few agents ending up extremely 'rich'. One can imagine that such agents, if they were people, would rationalize their undeserved wealth to feel better about themselves.

Comment author: argonz 15 February 2012 09:07:29PM 0 points [-]

The problem of the silent cemetery(sample bias?). If we start with a large enough cohort of "equally skilled" traders, who just make their investment by random, we will still end up with a handful of "old foxes" who just standing because of their proportional luck. In the meantime the failed ones laying in the cemetery silently as nobody asks them.

Of course the lucky one's skills will be rationalized(narrative fallacy in Taleb's term) and not just by themselves but the majority around them, the media etc..

Comment author: Robert_Unwin 10 February 2012 12:01:35PM 6 points [-]

Tetlock's political judgment study was a test for macroeconomics, political science and history. Yet people with PhDs in these areas did no better on predicting macro political and economic events than those without any PhD. Maybe macro helps in producing good econometric models, but it doesn't help in making informal predictions. (Whereas one suspects that physics and chemistry would help in a test of quick predictions about a novel physical or chemical system, vs. people without a PhD in these fields).

Comment author: Eugine_Nier 11 February 2012 04:45:58AM 2 points [-]

Another analogy is that having a PhD in the relevant sciences doesn't help you play sports.

Comment author: Robert_Unwin 11 February 2012 11:16:22AM 2 points [-]

In some sports, applied science seems important to improving expert performance. The PhD knowledge is used to guide the sportsperson (who has exceptional physical abilities). Likewise, our skill at making reliably sturdy buildings has dramatically improved due to knowledge of physics and materials science. But the PhDs don't actually put the buildings up, they just tell the builders what to do.

Comment author: dbaupp 11 February 2012 01:03:58PM 1 point [-]

In some sports, applied science seems important to improving expert performance. The PhD knowledge is used to guide the sportsperson (who has exceptional physical abilities).

I can't find the references now, but I have seen several stories about sports (specifically, some football teams in Australia) using psychology and other scientific knowledge (and improving because of it).

Comment author: Dmytry 13 February 2012 09:34:07PM *  1 point [-]

Well, some disciplines are a bit too hard for humans to actually reason about (such as predicting complex interactions of many people), the demand for something that looks like science results in a supply of pseudoscience. That was the case for medicine through history until relatively recently - very strong demand for some solutions, lack of any genuine solutions, resulting in a situation where frauds and self deception are the best effort.

With the economics, perhaps an extremely intelligent individual may be able to make interesting predictions, but the individual as intelligent as most of the traders can't predict anything interesting. The 'political science' is altogether non-scientific discipline that calls itself science and thus is even worse than garden variety pre-science which is at least scientific enough to see how unscientific it is.

The history would only help predictively if the agents (politicians, etc) were really unaware of history and if little changed since closest precedent, which isn't at all the case.

Comment author: dvasya 09 February 2012 06:50:34PM 3 points [-]

Physicist Ilya Prigogine developed his famous theory of dissipative systems which was expected to explain a lot of things from thermodynamics of living systems to the nature of the arrow of time. It is a very well-developed and deep theory. Yet, in my scientific life, I have never seen an actual numerical calculation of a measurable quantity utilizing any of Prigogine's concepts such as "rate of entropy production". Looks definitely like a missing spinoff!

Comment author: asr 12 February 2012 08:44:42AM 1 point [-]

People do use thermodynamics. Are you in a position to say whether Priogine's work is ever relevant to professional chemical engineers?

Comment author: dvasya 22 February 2012 03:05:38AM 2 points [-]

That's the point: what people use is normal equilibrium or close-to-equilibrium thermodynamics. Even in situations that seem far out of the scope of equilibrium thermodynamics and where one would normally expect Prigogine physics to be the perfect candidate - one example being CVD or VLS growth of various nanotubes/nanowires/etc. - I have never seen the latter applied. Everybody just goes with good old (near-)equilibrium chemical thermodynamics. Now this might be just a manifestation of Maslow's hammer, and Prigogine physics is hard, but for what it's worth, here's one example of a big hole that should be covered by the theory but is, in fact, not.

Comment author: Douglas_Knight 09 February 2012 10:51:56PM 2 points [-]

It seems to me that there are two different heuristics here and it is worth separating them.

But first I should explain why I think my initial reading of this post suggests heuristics that I think are problematic. The mere existence of CBT does not seem like strong evidence for psychology. It is no more evidence for modern mainstream psychology than freudian psychoanalysis is evidence for freudian psychology. As I understand it, CBT is gaining market share against other forms of talk therapy, but largely because of academic authority, roughly the same way that the other therapies got established. I am a fan of CBT because its proponents claim to do experiments distinguishing its efficacy from that of other talk therapies and failing to distinguish other talk therapies from talking to untrained people (which is still useful). But why do I need CBT for that? I can check that mainstream psychologists are more enthusiastic about experiments than freudian ones without resorting to the particular case of CBT. Similarly, competing nutritional theories are successful in the marketplace, sold both by large organizations with advertising budgets (Weight Watchers vs Atkins) and personal trainers working by word of mouth. But I agree that they example of CBT sheds light on psychology.

One heuristic is that experiments with every-day comprehensible goals are more useful for evaluating a field than experiments of technical claims. Most obviously, it is easier to evaluate the value of the knowledge demonstrated by such experiments than technical knowledge. Knowing that statins lower cholesterol is only useful if I trust the medical consensus on cholesterol, but knowing that they lower all-cause mortality is inherently valuable (though if the population of the experiment was chosen using cholesterol, this is also evidence that the doctors are correct about cholesterol). Similarly, the efficacy of CBT shows that psychologists know useful things, and not just trivia about what people do in weird situations. Moreover, I suspect that such experiments are more reliable than technical experiments. In particular, I suspect that they are less vulnerable to publication bias and data-mining. Certainly, I have to learn about technical measures to determine how vulnerable technical experiments are to experimenter bias.

The other heuristic is that selling a theory to someone else is a good sign. Unfortunately, this seems to me of limited value because people buy a lot of nonsense, not just competing psychological and nutritional theories, but also horoscopes. How does the military differ from academic psychologists? I'm sure it hires a lot of them. They do much larger and longer experiments than academics. They do more comprehensive experiments, with better measures of success, analogous to the advantage of all-cause mortality over number of heart attacks (let alone cholesterol). They could eliminate publication bias because they know all the studies they're doing, but only if the people in charge understand this issue; and there is still is some kind of bias in the kind of studies they let me read. These are all useful advantages, but in the end it does not look very different to me than the academic psychology we're trying to evaluate. Similarly, industry consumes a lot of biological and chemical research, which is evidence that the research is, as a whole, real, but it fails to publish attempts to replicate, so the information is indirect. On the other hand, these industries, like the military, use the knowledge internally, which is better evidence than commercial CBT and nutrition, which try to sell the knowledge directly, and mainly demonstrate the value of academic credentials to selling knowledge.

Comment author: CarlShulman 10 February 2012 12:56:34AM 1 point [-]

Right, my examples were selected for a) presence of spinoffs, and b) evidence that the spinoffs were substantive. E.g. I excluded psychic hotlines and Freudian analysis.

Comment author: waveman 09 February 2012 10:20:34PM 2 points [-]

I have been unable to find any practical spinoffs of gender studies.

Comment author: Luke_A_Somers 16 February 2012 01:47:18AM 1 point [-]

That seems to me to be something which, if they can produce correct results, would be used to prevent things from going wrong in a public fashion, or by private consultants... somewhat like how you don't expect much in the way of spinoffs from studies of criminal justice studies, except for specialists (i.e. lawyers).

Comment author: JoachimSchipper 13 February 2012 03:21:28PM 2 points [-]

If stock market economics worked, Noble prize winners would make money.

(This is slightly unfair, since the Black-Merton-Scholes theory does make other people money, to an extent. Additionally, while Merton and Scholes were on the board, LTCM was not strictly based on their theories. Still, surprised to see that this hasn't been mentioned.)

Comment author: Daniel_Burfoot 01 March 2012 05:19:25AM 1 point [-]

Computer vision is suspiciously lacking in practical spinoffs, even though people have been studying it for 40 years.

Comment author: khafra 01 March 2012 01:23:16PM 2 points [-]

Really? Flashy stuff like Word Lens is rare, but stuff like more prosaic OCR, increasingly automated consumer photography, and face-recognizing CCTV seems to be economically effective.

I certainly agree that there are unsolved difficulties in computer vision with probably profitable solutions which may be Hard Problems, though.

Comment author: sark 20 February 2012 05:51:05PM 1 point [-]

I really like this. It emphasizes the fundamentally instrumental nature of rationality.

Comment author: EllaDeker 05 January 2018 12:46:26PM *  0 points [-]

I think it's interesting topics for research papers, I've read something like that here: https://essays-service.com/blog/540-argumentative-essay-topics. It's great that students conduct similar studies. There are currently no qualitative content that is interesting to learn.

Comment author: chaosmosis 28 April 2012 04:15:20AM 0 points [-]

There's this great XKCD that totally makes this exact same point, except with more lolz.

Comment author: JoachimSchipper 09 February 2012 03:52:27PM *  0 points [-]

If I was initially lacking in the capital to do trades, I could publish my predictions online using public key cryptography and amass an impressive track record before recruiting investors.

This is a nitpick, but this protocol is at least underspecified. Aside from the need to prove that you made the predictions before the events, you also need to be able to prove that you made no other predictions before the event.

(I've always wondered why no pump-and-dump scammers use this: after ten "buy/short <volatile stock>" mails, 1/1024 of your mailing list will have received 10/10 correct predictions from you (and another 10/1024 will have received 9/10 correct predictions.) Which should be enough to convince quite a few to buy up some penny stock (with the scammer taking the other, profitable side of the trade.) In the spirit of this post, it's probably not profitable enough. Or spammers are stupid.)

Comment author: gwern 09 February 2012 09:29:19PM 11 points [-]

I've always wondered why no pump-and-dump scammers use this: after ten "buy/short <volatile stock>" mails

They used to, in the days of snail-mail, and that scam became one of the common examples of selection bias and other issues because it's so nifty; why don't they with email? Probably difficulty of getting through, as pointed to.

Comment author: jimrandomh 09 February 2012 04:36:52PM *  7 points [-]

(I've always wondered why no pump-and-dump scammers use this: after ten "buy/short <volatile stock>" mails, 1/1024 of your mailing list will have received 10/10 correct predictions from you (and another 10/1024 will have received 9/10 correct predictions.)

Getting someone to receive 11 mails in a row is hard, because of immune responses to spam. Getting someone to actually read those mails is hard, for a similar reason. Needing a large number of recipients and using stock-related terminology both make it harder. And then, even if you got through defenses and actually convinced people that you could correctly predict stock prices, most of them still wouldn't do anything about it.

Comment author: MBlume 09 February 2012 06:39:34PM 1 point [-]

Thanks for the stamper link, I was hoping something like that existed.

The latter could be helped by some stamping service that would allow you to include your name in the stamping request, with some publicly available provision for finding out how many requests someone made in a time period. If Carl actually attached "Carl Shulman" to the request, and to no others, and we had independent reason to believe that was his True Name, we could assume he wasn't running the 10^1024 scam.

Comment author: thomblake 09 February 2012 05:27:18PM 1 point [-]

You're looking for people smart enough to understand the scam and dumb enough to fall for it. That seems much less profitable than existing scams.

Comment author: CarlShulman 09 February 2012 06:40:55PM 0 points [-]

Right, the thought would be to do this in public fashion, so that recipients can search for other results to see you hadn't posted others.

Comment author: lukeprog 03 March 2012 08:56:12PM -1 points [-]

Related: the generative heuristic.