Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Reality Versus Modeling


We use models to understand how our world works.  When our models are accurate, they produce data which allows us to make informed judgments.  When the models are inaccurate, disaster ensues.

I was reading about H.L. Mencken, the famous journalist for the Baltimore Sun.  It seems that his personal diaries have been published after many years, and it turns out that like many people of his time (or indeed ours) he was a closet racist and anti-Semite.  This sort of puts a damper on enthusiam for his works.  Indeed, a Jewish friend of mine was very fond of quoting Mencken - a decade ago.  Today, I am not sure he is such a fan.

Mencken was a fan of Ayn Rand, whose name is made-up.  I always have been skeptical of people with made-up names, whether they are "Faith Popcorn" or "Suze Orman" or "Ayn Rand" - there is something suspicious about someone who changes their name - what exactly are they hiding or ashamed of?

Rand promoted the theory of "individualism" which Mencken apparently subscribed to.  Rand posited that there were "great men" who deserved success because of their superb abilities.   The rest of us were mere plebes who should be grateful for the crumbs we are handed.   While there is a nugget of truth in this (as indeed, there is in anything) it is an over-simplification of the world.   Indeed, many of the "greats" of our world are not superb people, but often right-place-right-time people, or just people who are willing to do anything whatsoever to succeed.   The villains in Rand's novels are usually not "great men" but succeed in an imperfect world.

The theory of individualism is often used by people who are unsuccessful or are only somewhat successful, as a crutch to argue that, in a perfect world, they would be entitled to great riches, "but for" the plebes and the rabble "taking away" their opportunities and wealth.  And probably Rand and Mencken fall into this category.  Yes, they were both successful, up to a point.  But if they were so damn smart, why weren't they running the world?    Maybe they should have tried Scientology instead.

But I digress.

One interesting comment in the Wikipedia entry linked above, struck me:
Mencken was scathing in his criticism of the German philosopher Hans Vaihinger, whom he described as "an extremely dull author" and whose famous book Philosophy of 'As If' he dismissed as an unimportant "foot-note to all existing systems."
This struck me as interesting, as Vaihinger promoted the idea that we, as human beings, use models of reality to interpret reality.  The more accurate your model is, the better off your interpretation is.  Act rationally in an irrational world, as I tend to say.   Let others get carried away by the television and e-z payment plans.  Do the math and figure out that owning money is better than owning things (particularly when you are borrowing money to own things).

But it also struck me that Mencken really didn't understand the Scientific Method - which is to develop a model of a system to understand how it works, test the system to see if it conforms to the model, and if it does not, modify or throw out the model and start over.

This is an entirely different way of using models and perception than, say, some philosophy professors do.   If you take a freshman course in philosophy or psychology in college, some blowhard professor may try to convince you that reality is subjective - that we each perceive reality in a different way, and thus my reality may be different than your reality.

Mencken was having none of that.  Reality was reality, despite how you choose to perceive it.  And in that regard, I agree with him.  But this does not negate that the fact that each of us perceives reality in a slightly different manner than others.  And in addition to luck and circumstance, the people who are successful in this world are those who perceive reality closer to what it actually is.    Those of us who live in a fantasy world, whether it is fueled by sub-prime financing, alcohol, drugs, or just plain mental imbalance, tend to do less well.

Reality is what it is.  But this does not mean than modeling reality is futile.  Indeed, it is the only way we can perceive reality, is to build a model of our world in our heads and then try to figure out how it works - and predict successfully the correct course of action to take.

Take, for example, President Trump.  The Times and the Post like to paint him as mentally unhinged - a man whose model of the world is so skewed from reality that he is hallucinating half the time.  Yet, whether we like it or not (and I for one, don't like it) he correctly perceived that there was a groundswell of support for a candidate such as himself - a reality-show candidate who said outrageous things and kept the plebes entertained with one drama after the next.   And that, in short, is how he won Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Ohio.

Now, granted, the people who voted for him - the rabid "base" who turn out at rallies and believe in things like "pizzagate" and "Qanon" are living in a fantasy world.  Their model of the world is so skewed from reality that they continually fail at life.  But like Ayn Rand, they believe themselves to be superior men entitled to success - but who are thwarted at every turn by "welfare queens" or "the Federal Reserve" or "China" or "Immigrants".   The idea of getting better job skills or moving to a place where better paying jobs are available are alien to them.   Again, their model of the world is skewed, and thus they fail at life.  Sadly.  But Trump accurately perceived their weaknesses and exploited them - and continues to do so.

What is ironic to me about Mencken, is that he breathlessly and sarcastically reported on the Scopes "Monkey Trial" (a term he apparently coined).  The trial pitted religious fundamentalists against scientists who advanced the theory of evolution as described by Charles Darwin.  Like all scientific theories, it can never be irrevocably proven (but perhaps disproven) and is always subject to alteration and change.  It is a model of how our world works, and it has been tested and refined and developed over the years.  But no one can ever say, with 100% certainty, that it accurately reflects reality, as it is only a model of reality.  So here is Mencken, defending the scientific method, while decrying a philosopher who advances the same idea - of perceiving our world through the use of models.

So what is the point of all of this?   Well only that we all have our own models in our mind of how the world works.  And to a large extent, how successful you are in life will depend by and large on how accurate your model is.  If you spend a lot of time and effort (mental, physical, emotional, and financial) chasing oddball dreams, you will likely end up poor and destitute.   People who proclaim themselves to be "sovereign citizens" are not poor because the "gub-ment" is out to get them, they are poor because their model of reality is so badly skewed.  It is a lot easier (and more profitable) to work with the system than to fight it.  And the money you "save" by not registering your car, pales in comparison to the hassles you create as a result.

In a more prosaic scenario, the same situation applies.  When you live in foreclosure mews estates and go to cocktail parties and talk to people who profess to being "serial refinancers" who are hopelessly in debt, you may start to think that is a "normal" thing to do.  And before you know it, you are also hopelessly in debt and are totally dependent on your "job" to pay the interest on your debts.   And when they "take away" your "job" maybe you start to go further down the rabbit-hole, in one direction or another - either claiming "China" or "Immigrants" took away your entitlement, or that maybe Elizabeth Warren should be President, so everyone would be entitled to a job.   Either way, the skewing of your world-view from reality is not going to end well for you.

You see, no matter how many immigrants we throw out of the country or how many tariffs we place on foreign goods, you are not going to become wealthy by working at a "job" and going hopelessly into debt.  And waiting for a leftist government to hand you some sort of make-work low-paying job isn't an answer either.   We've seen how that worked out in the Soviet Union (or today in Venezuela).

The idea, as Warren proposes, that we should be like European countries, and let the inmates run the asylum, has been proven wrong as well.   GM sold its European subsidiary when it was hemorrhaging cash.  They could not close the money-losing factories without permission of the unions and local governments.  Even the customers of the company were supposed to be consulted in the operation of the factory!  Well, all that is very nice and all, but somewhere along the line, the company has to earn a profit, and no, profits are not inherently evil.    Well, they are, when you don't have them. Then the factory has to close its doors and people can then whine about how someone "took away their jobs!" (and how a "job is a right!).

Again, a skewed perception of reality, but a popular one as of late.

If you look through history, you see trouble arising when reality and modeling diverge too greatly.   Nazi Germany used a model of racial supremacy and a destiny to rule the world.   Reality seemed to think otherwise, and in retrospect, it is hard to conceive how leaders in Germany and Japan thought they could get away with as much as they did.

Our problem in Vietnam wasn't that, in reality, we could have won the war.  The problem was our model of limited warfare and our propping up of crooked governments in the South.  The model that the Vietnamese would fight to the death to support corrupt leaders installed by our CIA was flawed.  And as it turned out, the "domino theory" - itself another model - was inaccurate.

And so on down the line.  We postulated that we could liberate Iraq and the Iraqi people would welcome us with bouquets of flowers and instantly embrace democratic institutions.   Missing from this model was the influence of Iran - and the fact that a majority Shiite country had been brutally run by a minority Sunni government for decades.  We are now seeing that our model was seriously flawed.

Human nature being what it is, we never will come up with a model that describes reality in a way that is 100% accurate.  In fact, in quantum physics, there is a theory to this effect - when you try to measure something, you affect what it is you are measuring, and thus can never measure it accurately.  And since humans are so notoriously inefficient (I suspect we operate at a 2-5% efficiency, in general), our models of reality and the universe will always be seriously flawed.

The sad thing, to me, is that from a political standpoint, it seems the Democrats are going off the deep end with this socialist model.  When Donald Trump has a better grip on reality than this new breed of "Socialist Democrats" we all should be very, very worried.   Or at least I am.  When he sounds like the most rational guy in the room, I get scared.

Very scared!