Archive for Paul Feyerabend

against method

Posted in Books, Statistics, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , on March 29, 2020 by xi'an

A vitriolic tribune in Le Monde this weekend by the microbologist Didier Raoult, head of the Institut Hospitalo-Universitaire Méditerranée Marseille, campaining for the immediate use of the hydroxychloroquine sulfate drug for coronavirus patients. Arguing that the major emergency of the coronavirus pandemic calls for this use without waiting for confirmation from clinical trials, without controlled comparison with other drugs or a placebo. Solely a study of patients being administered the drug, outside the usual practice of clinical trials.

“Enfin, l’envahissement des méthodologistes amène à avoir des reflexions purement mathématiques.” [At last, the invasion of methodologists leads to purely mathematical reasonings.]

“Ce modèle, qui a nourri une quantité de méthodologistes, est devenu une dictature morale.” [This model, which has fed quantity of methodologists, has become a moral dictatorship.]

“…il faut nous débarasser des mathématiciens, des metéorologistes [sic] dans ce domaine.” [we must get rid of mathematicians and meteorologists in this domain]

“…conseil scientifique dans lequel on trouvait deux modélisateurs de l’avenir (qui pour moi représentent l’équivalent de l’astrologie), des maniaques de la méthodologie. Les médecins confrontés au problème du soin représentaient une minorité qui n’avait pas nécessairement l’habitude de s’exprimer et qui se trouvait noyée par cet habillage pseudo-scientifique.” […scientific committee including two modelisators of the future (equivalent in my opinion to astrologers), manics of methodology. Physicians facing treatment problems were a minority not necessarily used to intervene, overwhelmed by this pseudo-scientific babbling.]

Obviously I have no expertise in drug development or even in epidemiology, but the name-calling tone of this tribune, as illustrated by the above quotes, is appalling and populist, more in the spirit of Trump than of a rational search for scientific evidence. On the opposite, the arguments therein are a-scientific and reject the use of mathematical and statistical methodology for being… mathematical. And resort to name-calling, while not considering the more than philosophical aspect that opting for this drug rather than another one may be reducing survival chances for some groups of patients. (While the title chosen for this post reflects the title of Raoult’s tribune, with its philosophical pretenses, let me stress that Feyerabend’s book is not mentioned therein and that the article contains no indication that the author relates to Feyerabend’s views.)

psycho-history [Hari Seldon to the rescue!]

Posted in Books, Kids, pictures, Statistics, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , , on December 13, 2019 by xi'an

A “long read” article in the Guardian a few weeks ago sounds like Isaac Asimov’s Foundation‘s core concept, namely psychohistory, turning into a real academic discipline! In the books of this fantastic series, the father of this new science of predictive mathematical (or statistical) sociology, Hari Seldon, makes predictions that extend so far in the future that, at every major crisis of Asimov’s galactic empire, he delivers a per-registered message that indicates how to cope with the crisis to save the empire. Or so it seems! (As a teenager, I enjoyed the Foundation books very much, reading the three first volumes several times, to the point I wonder now if they were influential to my choice of a statistics major…! Presumably not, but it makes a nice story!!! Actually, Paul Krugman blames Asimov for his choice of economics as being the closest to psychohistory.)

“I assumed that the time would come when there would be a science in which things could be predicted on a probabilistic or statistical basis (…) can’t help but think it would be good, except that in my stories, I always have opposing views. In other words, people argue all possible… all possible… ways of looking at psychohistory and deciding whether it is good or bad. So you can’t really tell. I happen to feel sort of on the optimistic side. I think if we can somehow get across some of the problems that face us now, humanity has a glorious future, and that if we could use the tenets of psychohistory to guide ourselves we might avoid a great many troubles. But on the other hand, it might create troubles. It’s impossible to tell in advance.” I. Asimov

The Guardian entry is about Peter Turchin, a biologist who had “by the late 1990s answered all the ecological questions that interested him” and then turned his attention to history, creating a new field called cliodynamics. Which bears eerie similarities with Seldon’s psychohistory! Using massive databases of historical events (what is a non-historical event, by the way?!) to predict the future. And relying on a premise of quasi-periodic cycles to fit such predictions with a whiff of Soviet-era theories… I did not read in depth the entire paper (it’s a “long read”, remember?!) and even less the background theory, but I did not spot there a massive support from a large academic community for Turchin’s approach (mentioned in the psychohistory entry in Wikipedia). And, while this is not a major argument from Feyerabend’s perspective (of fundamental scientific advances resulting from breaks from consensus), it seems hard to think of a predictive approach that is not negatively impacted by singularity events, from the emergence of The Mule in Foundation, to the new scale of challenges posed by the acceleration of the climate collapse or the societal globalisation cum communitarian fragmentation caused by social media. And as a last warning, a previous entry in the same column wanted to warn readers “how statistics lost their power and big data controlled by private companies is taking over”, hence going the opposite direction.