Lost Purposes

Monday, October 24th, 2011

Eliezer Yudkowsky discusses lost purposes:

It was in either kindergarten or first grade that I was first asked to pray, given a transliteration of a Hebrew prayer. I asked what the words meant. I was told that so long as I prayed in Hebrew, I didn’t need to know what the words meant, it would work anyway.

That was the beginning of my break with Judaism.

As you read this, some young man or woman is sitting at a desk in a university, earnestly studying material they have no intention of ever using, and no interest in knowing for its own sake. They want a high-paying job, and the high-paying job requires a piece of paper, and the piece of paper requires a previous master’s degree, and the master’s degree requires a bachelor’s degree, and the university that grants the bachelor’s degree requires you to take a class in 12th-century knitting patterns to graduate. So they diligently study, intending to forget it all the moment the final exam is administered, but still seriously working away, because they want that piece of paper.

Maybe you realized it was all madness, but I bet you did it anyway. You didn’t have a choice, right?

A recent study here in the Bay Area showed that 80% of teachers in K-5 reported spending less than one hour per week on science, and 16% said they spend no time on science. Why? I’m given to understand the proximate cause is the No Child Left Behind Act and similar legislation. Virtually all classroom time is now spent on preparing for tests mandated at the state or federal level. I seem to recall (though I can’t find the source) that just taking mandatory tests was 40% of classroom time in one school.

The old Soviet bureaucracy was famous for being more interested in appearances than reality. One shoe factory overfulfilled its quota by producing lots of tiny shoes. Another shoe factory reported cut but unassembled leather as a “shoe”. The superior bureaucrats weren’t interested in looking too hard, because they also wanted to report quota overfulfillments. All this was a great help to the comrades freezing their feet off.

It is now being suggested in several sources that an actual majority of published findings in medicine, though “statistically significant with p<0.05″, are untrue. But so long as p<0.05 remains the threshold for publication, why should anyone hold themselves to higher standards, when that requires bigger research grants for larger experimental groups, and decreases the likelihood of getting a publication? Everyone knows that the whole point of science is to publish lots of papers, just as the whole point of a university is to print certain pieces of parchment, and the whole point of a school is to pass the mandatory tests that guarantee the annual budget. You don’t get to set the rules of the game, and if you try to play by different rules, you’ll just lose.

(Hat tip to Gwern, who recently mentioned it in a comment.)


  1. Ben says:

    There’s a history of argument going back well over 80 years on statistics, including in particular, the use/misuse of Fisherian p-values, Neyman-Pearson hypothesis testing, likelihood-based methods, Bayesian methods and interbreedings thereof.

    Great authors/academicians to look up for references are Stephen Goodman, MD, PhD and Stephen Senn (e.g. “Dicing with Death”).

    Lately, John Ioannidis (sp?) is the guy who has taken up the sword against bad statistics, particularly in medicine.

    Read about it, and weep.

  2. Ben says:

    Tangentially related, retractions abound.

  3. Borepatch says:

    But it will be different if we can just vote in the Right People!

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