William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

Love Of Theory Is The Root Of All Evil

Bill Whittle

 

Love of truth, on the other hand, is the root of all that is good.

Bill Whittle at PJTV very kindly produced a video entitled “Best. Sentence. Ever.” (it does not embed) by which he meant the title sentence of this post, and the motto I have plastered on the leftmost portion of the screen. Please watch—he even quotes Patton.

When and if a theory describes reality without error it is no longer a theory but truth. If a theory does not describe reality perfectly, then it is not true. To love a theory over truth is the mark of madness. Or of Enlightenment. Or, nowadays often, of tenure.

Everybody knows the hoary old joke about the academic who says, “That works fine in reality, but does it work in theory?” Only it isn’t a joke. Many cannot think of truth except in the framework of theory. Just bring to mind the standard issue (media) climatologist and you’ll have the idea. And then recall literary “theorists”, the field of art “theory”, and so on ad infinitum.

David Stove (as usual) said it best. He was speaking of the probability and logic and the attempts to turn them into “theory”, but sharp readers will be able to fill in the probability terms and personalities with nomenclature and names from their own favorite fields (ellipsis original):

It is true, as I know from expériences nombreuses et funestes, that you cannot make the simplest and most specific assessment of logical probability, without some people supposing that you are hereby committed to so-and-so’s system of logical probability, with all the attendant difficulties, however peculiar to it. You need only say that ‘Abe is black’ has probability 0.9 in relation to ‘Abe is a raven and just 90 percent of ravens are black,’ and some philosophers will at once start talking to you about…Carnap! About Carnap and ‘the zero-probability of laws'; Carnap and ‘grue'; Carnap and ‘c-star’ versus ‘c-dagger'; and so on, and on. But this is no less ridiculous than it is vexatious. You might as well suppose that a man cannot say that ‘All ravens are black and Abe is a raven’ entails ‘Abe is black’, without his being thereby obliged to defend Aristotelian logic, or the system of Principia Mathematica, or Quine.

It is truth which gives weight to a theory, it is not so that theory gives weight to truth. What is true just is true, regardless whether it can be shoehorned into some theory. Truth cannot be rejected because it does not fit a theory. Just to poke fun and for an example: frequentist theory rejects the truth “‘Abe is black’ has probability 0.9 in relation to ‘Abe is a raven and just 90 percent of ravens are black,'” because this truth doesn’t fit into the formal theoretical framework, which is too beautiful to abandon.

A climatological version of Stove’s quotation: “Sure, Alaska had one of the coldest and snowiest winters on record, but theory warns us that ________” Fill in the blank yourself: or change the particular weather event with any other.

If I had more time, I could give dozens of examples from as many fields. But I’m running behind my time. We’ll surely revisit this material later.

Update I’ve been informed we made HotAir, sort of.

23 Comments

  1. In theory, there is no difference between theory and pracitce. In practice, there is.

  2. Nice video. Truth whittled to its essence. Theoretically speaking.

  3. See? Your fame and fortune is caused by my commenting on this site, since before I began commenting, your blog hadn’t appeared in a PJTV video.

    My amygdala is busy computing the p-value.

  4. Saw this earlier…and was going to point it out.

    “Best Sentence. Ever.”

    How many can claim that?
    .

  5. Noblesse Oblige

    27 April 2012 at 2:24 pm

    I will be bold and suggest that the word “theory” should be replaced by “story.” It is the love of story that is the root of most evil. The psychologists know this (see Kahneman, “Thinking Fast and Slow”). It is the story that is built from scratch without evidence, based only on wish and association with other stories. It is the story that is impervious to fact. There is nothing wrong with “theory” in the scientific sense, as long as it is only the preamble to test, falsification, and revision. Global Warming was once a theory. It has become story.

  6. Is the existence of an omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, omnibenevolent, divine and eternal deity a theory or a truth?

  7. I love ‘money’ more. ^_^

  8. This is one of the most important videos that has ever been placed on youtube. It is very important that people grasp the concept that the love of theory can cloud the perception or interpretation of reality.

  9. I have to agree with “Noblesse.” Global warming orthodoxy is more of an urban legend now than science. I’ve had the story of the 100 mph carburator and the tough guy in the elevator who says “hit the floor” related to me on more than one occasion and often supposedly involving people I know.
    Recently some well educated and intelligent people with whom I work told me that island nations are planning to move their population because of the drastic rise in ocean levels. When I pointed out that ocean levels are not rising quickly enough to endanger anyone I got blank stares. Well, of course what I said can’t be true, sinking islands is received wisdom.
    The conversation shifted to Arctic ice melting. When I pointed out that Arctic ice extent just reached the 30 year mean and seems to be going up. . .well, more blank stares. Finally it was pointed out to me that the ice is much thinner up there now. “How do you know that?” I asked. Well, because of global warming, of course.

    So here’s my fill in the blank. “theory warns us that. . . really bad things will happen because my maiden aunt said so.”

  10. Robert of Ottawa

    27 April 2012 at 9:34 pm

    If there ever were an Albino Raven, it would surely exist in the Great White North … and I haven’t seen one. A white Raven would certainly disprove the postulate “All Ravens are black” but should that theoretical possibility of a White Raven oblige us to dismiss the truth that Ravens are Black?

    1) Perhaps Blackness is a defining quality of Ravenhood.
    2) Perhaps there are only Black Ravens because White Ravens die at birth
    3) Perhaps White Ravens do not exist, they are a theoretical creation for the sake of argument.

    Until we can answer these questions, we might as well accept that all Ravens are Black. And, if it ain’t Black, it ain’t a Raven.

    Stemming from point (1) it is possible to have a lot of fun with bets on a non-Black raven. If someone DOES show you a “non-Black Raven”, you can win the bet by saying: “That bird is not a Raven because it is not Black”.

  11. Robert of Ottawa

    27 April 2012 at 9:46 pm

    Theory and doctrine are oft confused and the best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
    Gang aft agley

    Courtesay Robbie Burns, father of Scotland … literally :-)

  12. So… Whittle has attached himself to the theory that love of theory is the root of all evil In order to show that it’s true (in his words, to prove it) he gives what? An anecdote.

    Hmm…

  13. Congratulations, estimable Doctor. It’s not merely your 15 minutes of fame that pleases, it’s that you moved the mass consciousness. A verity made popular is a verity indeed. Mega kudos. Have one on me.

  14. Mr. Briggs, thanks for your good work.

    FYI, that video is now available on YouTube, so you can embed it in this blog post, if you like.

  15. Practice without theory is magic. Theory without practice is mysticism.

    Theory and practice joined without being tied to reality is religion.

    I forgo magic, mysticism, and religion for reason, reality and logic.

  16. Friends often send me links to Bill Whittle, and I often send them links to WM Briggs. Now the circle is complete.

    Maybe asking for too much, but if we could mix in some Peter Schiff then I think my head would explode. :)

    Am delighted to see you reaching a wider audience Mr. Briggs. Congrats.

  17. I have worked as a geologist in northern Canada from BC and Yukon to Newfoundland for decades and have probably seen a million ravens by now, all of them jet black. I’m pretty sure the frequentist folks essentially have spent their time in their towers, far from 99.99% of ravens. Clearly , in order to appear original, they have exploited the old logical saw concerning white and black swans and thought perhaps no one would notice.

  18. Noblesse Oblige says:
    27 April 2012 at 2:24 pm

    There is nothing wrong with “theory” in the scientific sense, as long as it is only the preamble to test, falsification, and revision. Global Warming was once a theory. …

    Never. It has never offered tests, or proposed falsification criteria, or admitted of revision. It hasn’t even qualified as a proper hypothesis. It jumped straight from “speculation” to “story”.

  19. I just stopped by after being referred by Mr. Whittle. As Bill said, this is a great site. Thanks for the effort to make this site what it is. You are now bookmarked, and forwarded to my friends.
    Exodus 18

  20. I’m an artist who works on one of the coasts. (My name here is encoded, I have to work Samizdat, such is the state of my environment.) I went out to the art openings the other night and met a young professor who teaches theory at an estimable art school nearby. I found her to be intelligent, affable and open to conversation; the first quality is common but the other is not, theory lovers in my art world tend to close ranks and refuse to talk to those who do not possess what they call “rigor”. She is a young one, and perhaps that explains that.

    Later on in the evening, I asked her what and if she is writing in addition to teaching theory. She said with animation that she was interested in writing about Jim Jones, that she wanted to recuperate what was good in his intentions and practice as a socialist. Naturally, I asked if mass murder wasn’t a disqualifier. She ran circles around that obstacle, citing the concrete help to the downtrodden, how politicians rallied around him, how his followers willingly drank the Kool-Aid after all. My shock and counter argument didn’t phase her. I tried to respond with an appeal to humility in regards to irony, that even though we feel as if we are the masters of irony, we are not and never would be invulnerable to it, that it too can twist in our hands… and as a result, our good intentions could result in horrific results.

    All to no effect.

    Theory in the art world peaked in the late 80’s, with Critical Theory. After the Berlin Wall fell, what was acceptable as art form widened but the dominance of theory remained in the academies and within the institutions. No one can question theory still to this day, even though most ignore it. But even if artists ignore it, they allow it to prevail like a ghost in a haunted house. One cannot be intelligent without being a true and uncritical believer in theory. Ridicule would banish this ghost, but such a tactic is as professionally difficult as it would have been in Pol Pot’s Cambodia.

  21. AndrewKennett

    30 April 2012 at 3:02 am

    Sure you can overlove a theory (is that battered theorist syndrome?) but observation without theory is just stamp collecting (I make no claim that this is original just that I can’t remember who said it). Anyone can draw a graph (of say temperature over the last 150 years) but it takes theory to make sense of it and allow prediction.

    As to the ravens, it is all well and good but rather boring that there is a greater than 90% probability that they are black, the real question is will the British Crown fall if they leave the Tower?

  22. Theories can be so wonderfully useful but if they become idols that are worshipped above the truth, they are no different than any other road to hell — except they can be so deceptive. You may end up thinking that because they might adequately point to truth, they are synonymous with truth. Don’t go there.

  23. There are different kinds of theories. Some theories are accepted as fact. There may be competing theories but the prevailing theory is the best supported by scientific observation and measurement. Examples are evolution and also plate tectonics. Such theories are demonstrably factual, but remain theories because they are not sufficiently well known to be able to predict outcomes based on a given set of conditions. Nevertheless, they pass the test of being falsifiable. Contrast theories with scientific laws, such as the laws of motion, thermodynamics, gas laws, etc. which can be used to calculate outcomes, with various degrees of precision, based on initial conditions; although, some laws apply within certain limits.
    In this context climate change is also a fact. There is clear evidence that the earth has gone through many cycles of warming and cooling. What is not a fact is the theory of anthropogenic global warming (AGW) due to anthropogenic carbon dioxide. The scientific support is moot and the resulting predictions are based on computer simulations which are not falsifiable. The behaviour of climate depends on so many different phenomena which are poorly understood and tend to be chaotic that trying to single out one factor is futile. Basing public policy on such dodgy science as behind the AGW theory is sheer madness. My version of the precautionary principle is that we should not expend our wealth on fruitless attempts to control climate change and thereby lack the wealth to deal with the effects of climate change which is going to happen regardless.

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