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Feed the spinoff heuristic!

49 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. 

Parapsychology: the control group for science

62 AllanCrossman 05 December 2009 10:50PM

Parapsychologists are constantly protesting that they are playing by all the standard scientific rules, and yet their results are being ignored - that they are unfairly being held to higher standards than everyone else. I'm willing to believe that. It just means that the standard statistical methods of science are so weak and flawed as to permit a field of study to sustain itself in the complete absence of any subject matter.

— Eliezer Yudkowsky, Frequentist Statistics are Frequently Subjective

Imagine if, way back at the start of the scientific enterprise, someone had said, "What we really need is a control group for science - people who will behave exactly like scientists, doing experiments, publishing journals, and so on, but whose field of study is completely empty: one in which the null hypothesis is always true.

"That way, we'll be able to gauge the effect of publication bias, experimental error, misuse of statistics, data fraud, and so on, which will help us understand how serious such problems are in the real scientific literature."

Isn't that a great idea?

By an accident of historical chance, we actually have exactly such a control group, namely parapsychologists: people who study extra-sensory perception, telepathy, precognition, and so on.

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