Inference With The Vampire

Tuesday, May 24th, 2016

Imagine a cravat-wearing vampire Count who is one thousand years old:

The vampire is incredibly knowledgeable about humans. He gets his knowledge about humans from centuries of experience interacting with them and observing them. Modern humans get their knowledge of humans from their limited experience, from the social sciences of psychology and sociology. The vampire’s knowledge of humans is far superior to our social science. He knows us better than we know ourselves.

Who do you think will make more accurate predictions about humans: a 25-year-old sociology/psychology graduate student who has read a ton of studies, or a thousand-year-old vampire? If you agree with me that the vampire would eat the graduate student alive, then we can conclude that sufficient experience with people can overpower social science.

When the Count turns 1000, a study comes out that contradicts his understanding of human nature. This study has a sample of a couple hundred college students, a p-value of 0.05, it was conducted by a professor who proudly claims a political cause, and the results just happen to line up with that cause. Would the vampire throw out his 999 years of experience and believe this study?

No, he would stick with his prior beliefs and laugh at the puny humans. College students are only good for dessert, not for generating knowledge.

Typical social science studies, which nowadays pass for serious evidence, are immensely weak in comparison to knowledge accumulated over human history. There are probably very few studies that are strong enough to contradict a vampire’s beliefs. If modern people disagree with the vampire about human nature, it’s most likely that the vampire knows what he is talking about and the humans are just wrong.

Raymond Brannen suggests how you can think more like a wise, thousand-year-old vampire and less like a puny, Philistine human:

Imagine digging up a historical figure you admire, getting them up to speed on everything that’s happened since they died, and then seeing what they think about the questions you are mulling over.

When someone is slinging study in your direction, consider where it would persuade a thousand-year-old vampire to shift his beliefs. If not, then perhaps it shouldn’t persuade you, either.

Read old books, and talk to your parents and older people. They are your lifeline to the past.

Take what the wisest humans believed at an earlier point in time, and make those beliefs your priors. Next, mentally replay everything that has been learned since then, updating as you go. See if you get the same answers as the modern consensus, or if you get different answers.

Leave a Reply