Posts Tagged ‘zero knowledge proofs’

Legitimate and cargo cult ideas

by Hang

There are two types of ideas which appear very similar yet behave very differently and the ability to distingush can be very useful. Legitimate ideas are not neccesarily ideas that are right but their distinguishing factor is that they have an adequate response to all developed criticism. That means one of the hallmark properties of a legitimate idea is that if you’ve heard a criticism against it, that criticism is probably flawed. What’s more, the mere attempt at trying to demolish it looks foolish and woefully ignorant. If a legitimate idea is demolished, it’ll be demolished from the top, by the people who are most intimately familiar with it. Evolution, I believe is a legitimate idea. All attempts to debunk evolution merely reveal the debunker’s lack of understanding of evolution.

Cargo cult ideas are those which have all the outward trappings of a legitimate idea but without the social process that causes those trappings. It survives not because it can survive criticism, but because it carefully prevents legitimate criticism from affecting it. Cargo cult ideas can survive for a surprisingly long time despite the presence of arguments against it because their very survival involves aping legitimate ideas so closely that it can use the same refrain: “if you’ve heard a criticism against it, that criticism is probably flawed”. Cargo cult ideas are undermined from the bottom up rather that from the top down as it involves a loss of faith in the system.

The structure of argument is so different between legitimate and cargo cult ideas that it becomes impossible to argue unless both people are on the same side. You can see this tension play out with the atheist vs Christian arguments where atheists take the side that Religion is a cargo cult idea masquarading as a legitimate one. Christians on the other hand feel safe dismissing atheist arguments because well, even though they personally don’t know the rebuttal to the argument, they’re sure some learned Christian scholar surely does. Why, this athiest simply doesn’t understand the full subtlety and intricacy of the Christian position and all they are doing is revealing their ignorance of it.

How do you distinguish between the two? There are some useful zero knowledge proofs but they’re tricky because ultimately, the goal of a cargo cult idea is to become indistinguishable. I think in order to do so, you need to learn enough about a subject to reach the cliff. The cliff is the point where a simple question, well stated will be rebuffed rather than answered. No good answer will be forthcoming. The problem with this is twofold: It’s impossible to assert that no answer can be found unless you’ve read all of the literature on the problem and it’s impossible to ever assert the cliff does not exist unless you reach the end of the field. Neither of these are practical goals so only probabilistic measures are possible.


Nov 10th (day 28): The crisis in economics

by Hang

Economics, however much economists seem wilfully blind to it, will soon undergo a radical paradigm shift (in the strict Kuhnian sense). The old model of the economically rational actor is coming increasingly untenable as we gather more evidence from behavioral psychology and a new paradigm of behavioral economics will be arriving within the next 10 – 30 years. What is interesting though is how obvious such a shift is from those outside of economics while insiders seem utterly unaware that the foundations they are standing on are crumbling.

Why is it that economists seem so blind to what’s going to happen in economics? There are the standard Kuhnian factors which Kuhn lays out in an exemplary fashion in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions but I think economics also had one other unique factor as well. Economics is a highly non-intuitive science and there is an almost perverse pride in illuminating just how poorly our naive view models the world: Raising the minimum wage decreases well being, trading with people who are universally more efficient than us increases our well being, allowing businesses to fail causes more businesses to suceed. These are all well established parts of the mainstream economics canon and they are all, by and large, true.

But the result of this curious structure of economics is that economists are extremely used to hearing well meaning and sincere economic arguments made by non-economists which are grossly flawed. They’re used to hearing the same shop-worn fallacies assembled to yet again make a seemingly devastating attack on the tenets of economics which, in reality, miss the mark so wide you could fit yo mamma through (sorry, I couldn’t resist). What’s more, these errors are conceptual in nature and to correct them would require indoctrinating the opposing party in the entire philosophy of economics.

As a result, economists have developed a simple zero knowledge proof: At the first obvious sign that the other person is not a complete insider of economics, stop listening and nod politely. And by and large, this is effective. For the vast majority of cases, people jibber jabbering about the evils of globalisation or the benifits of socialism simply have no idea what they are talking about. But the unfortunate side effect of this is that economics as a field has become highly insular and unreceptive to outside influences. In order to mount an effective attack on economics, one needs to be well versed in both the standard economic paradigm and the research methods and corpus of behavioural psychology. There simply aren’t enough people who have the time, intelligence, determination and opportunity to get to that point and, as a result, economics simply isn’t advancing.

Kuhn writes a lot about a crisis point and how paradigms tick over and I think an interesting thing is how the current bailout crisis just might be the crisis point needed for economics to finally start making the transition. The bailout crisis has begun to lay bare some of the fundamentally untenable assumptions of conventional economics and has brought to the forefront radical (to economists) new ways of analyzing human behaviour. Things like non-linear analysis, game theory of groups and incentive structuring theory. Terms like “Black swans” and “tipping points” are being used.

It may seem like such things were in economics already, game theory has been used in economics for decades. But the economics version of game theory was game theory formulated in an economic language. What this shift really represents is economists now being forced to grapple with very different standards of proof and modes of argument. Whether this will herald the beginning of a systematically behavioural view of economics remains yet to be seen.

Nov 9th (day 27): Zero knowledge proofs

by Hang

In cryptography, a zero knowledge proof is a way to prove that something is true without knowledge of what that thing is. For example, I could prove you know the password to a profile by having you insert the text “Hang, I own this profile qX45s” in the about me section but this would not give me knowledge about what the password is.

I use the term zero knowledge proof as ways of proving whether an assertion is correct without knowing anything about the domain itself. This is as opposed to “first order proofs” in which the proof relies on direct application of domain knowledge to determine truth. For example, if you were presented with a claim that the WTC towers were brought down with timed explosives, a zero knowledge proof would involve looking at who was making the claims, how coherently they are able to make their point, who are the major parties who disagree etc. A first order proof would computing the structural integrity of the buildings, verifying the melting points of steel and how it deforms under high temperature and assessing similar building collapses.

Zero knowledge proofs are powerful because they allow us to leverage the insight that we gain one domain to practically all aspects of life. Given powerful enough zero knowledge proofs, we can attempt to answer questions as diverse as “Is postmodernism bullshit”, “Is global warming real”, “Which president has better economic policies” and “Is the God described by any major religions real”. Unfortunately, most people’s toolbox of zero knowledge proofs suck.

Common zero knowledge proofs include things like whether the person sounds like they know what they’re talking about, whether they have an advanced degree from a prestigious institution, or simply whether they agree with you. Most of these zero knowledge proofs develop as instinctive heuristics and we never really give them much consideration.

Here are some basic zero knowledge proofs which I’ve found to be useful:

  • How willing are they to admit the weaknesses and flaws in their own position?
  • How well can someone argue against their own position? How aware are they of the best arguments from the other side?
  • How willing are they to show you their raw data, their raw speculations and the tools neccesary for you to reach the position they are at?
  • Do they have the support and endorsement of others who you know and trust according to similar zero knowledge proof or first order proof criteria?
  • Have similar claims been made in the past and been systematically proven wrong?

A powerful toolbox of zero knowledge proofs is the most efficient way of applying analytical insight to a variety of fields. At the same time, even the best zero knowledge proofs cannot match a proper first order proof in determining power and the evidence gleaned from zero knowledge proofs must be placed in it’s context.

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