Re: Data & Predictions (was: "The Fourth Turning" - A Must Read)

Lee Daniel Crocker (
Thu, 6 Mar 1997 18:44:12 -0800 (PST)

> Now I'm confused. Are you saying that you can go about your life,
> such as walking through new buildings or driving on new streets
> without making any predictions based on all those subconscious
> measurements you make? All it gives you are "conjectures to test"?
> You don't predict "Hmm.. I think going up those stairs would probably
> get me to the second floor"? Or are you saying you do predict but
> that it is "dangerous"? (relative to what?)

Actually, I do mean something like that. Much of our day-to-day
activity can be accomplished purely by subconscious pattern-matching.
Even something as complex as driving, once learned, becomes a self-
reinforcing pattern stored and brought up when needed, but not
actively reasoned. "Driving on automatic" is something we've all
experienced: you may remember getting in the car, and getting out
at work, but all that stuff in between quickly fades from short-
term conscious memory because it didn't need your attention once
you've done it a few times.

Even reactive behaviors can be put on automatic this way: ask any
good video game player. He doesn't conscously think about every
little goblin; he has trained his mental facilities to instantly
recognize situations, and instantly respond with actions. Even new
situations get matched to something similar. The number of patterns
of a Rubik's cube is so many that the odds of a sufficiently random
arrangement being one I've encountered before are basically zero.
But if you put that random cube in my hand, I would solve it in a
minute or two, because I trained myself to do it. I might even have
a hard time explaining how nowadays, because I've forgotten all the
mathematical basis, but my hands remember all the moves, and my
subconscious mind remembers the patterns.

What more controlled, quantitative analyses are needed for is the
formulation of rules that are likely to hold for completely new
situations, and that can be communicated meaningfully to people
who have not shared your specific experiences. Social predictions
fall into this category, as do scientific hypotheses. The machinery
that lets me solve a Rubik's cube also makes the minds of social
commentators fall upon interesting parallels and patterns that they
can often find some way to express; by then making analogies to the
previous instances of those patterns, they extrapolate how to deal
with these new things. This is probably a useful function of the
brain for dealing with life, but it is a primitive, incomplete, and
purely heuristic way of doing it. More trustable decisions demand
more rigorous methods. Especially when the minds of other free
individuals enter the picture. Seat-of-the-pants heuristics aren't
enough to find the common laws of nature shared by two minds with
different processes. You need measurements.

> And when I said that Strauss & Howe don't give quantitiative data, I
> meant that they refer to relevant historical facts as evidence, but
> that they don't map them onto numbers nor organize them in a way that
> would make a statistical analysis convenient. This sounds like data
> just as much as your visual perceptions of a building.

I will concede that historical facts--if they are accurate--are "data"
of the one-bit kind. But one must refrain from using them as "evidence"
of something other than their mere existence, unless you are rigorous
about your methods of selecting sample sets and measuring statistical
significance of outcomes. Otherwise, one can just pick the pattern and
then find historical facts to fit it. Proper science doesn't work that
way: your mind suggests patterns, but then you must do the measurements
cleanly if you want to prove that the pattern means something.

I am guilty of using such extrapolations sometimes. I have said, for
example, "In every century of human history since the creation of
governments, governments have killed more people than the criminals
they were created to protect us from." I say this to imply that
governments, as a rule, aren't a good idea. But if I'm challenged to
say what it really means, I'd have to admit that it's just data, and
it doesn't by itself predict anything, even though it's accurate. It
is very suggestive--and it leads me to investigate /why/ this might be
the case, and to discover the nature of power and conflict, but if I
want to actually predict what a certain kind of government might do,
I'd better have more than this simple pattern to back me up.

Lee Daniel Crocker <>