Missing dog reasoning [Transcript]

(Talk given on Sun­day 21st June, over a zoom call with 40 at­ten­dees. eu­kary­ote is re­spon­si­ble for the talk, ja­cob­ja­cob is re­spon­si­ble for the tran­scrip­tion.)

Ben Pace: eu­kary­ote is the next speaker. eu­kary­ote is a fa­mous writer of posts such as Naked mole-rats: A case study in biolog­i­cal weird­ness. What are you go­ing to talk about, eu­kary­ote?


eu­kary­ote: I’ll talk about a men­tal con­struct I’m call­ing ‘Miss­ing Dogs’ that you might find use­ful. Like all good ra­tio­nal­ity tech­niques, this one is go­ing to start off with a Sher­lock Holmes anec­dote.

eu­kary­ote: So, Holmes and Wat­son are hired by some rich guy, be­cause he has this barn where he keeps all his an­i­mals, his horse and his dogs and his sheep, and he knows that some­one’s been sneak­ing in there at night and mess­ing with his prized race horse. So there’s two en­trances where the guy can get in. And Holmes and Wat­son think they’ve got­ten the en­trance the in­truder is us­ing, so they stay up all night. They don’t hear any­thing, but when they check the next morn­ing, some­one has got­ten in and messed with the horse.

eu­kary­ote: So they know two things. One: the in­truder must be us­ing the other en­trance. Two: Holmes says to Wat­son, “I think there’s some­thing else we should be con­sid­er­ing here, which is the cu­ri­ous in­ci­dent of the dog in the night­time.” And Wat­son says, “Holmes, what are you talk­ing about? The dog did noth­ing in the night­time.” And Holmes says, “Yes, that was the cu­ri­ous in­ci­dent.” Be­cause he’s put to­gether that the dogs in the sta­ble would have barked if the stranger had come in and just messed with them. So the in­truder must have been some­one the dogs knew. And that is the de­duc­tion he can make from that.

eu­kary­ote: So, this is what I’m call­ing the ‘Miss­ing Dog’ — when you can learn some­thing in­ter­est­ing from the fact that some­thing isn’t there. You might call it ‘a con­spicu­ous ab­sence’.

Miss­ing dog, drawn by eukaryote

eu­kary­ote: That’s the image I spent sev­eral min­utes draw­ing last night, so I’m go­ing to make you look at it.

eu­kary­ote: Here are a cou­ple of other ex­am­ples. The Fermi para­dox is a re­ally big one. Tak­ing a few ba­sic ax­ioms: we think life forms on its own, we know there are billions of stars out there… where is ev­ery­one? We don’t know but that’s a re­ally in­ter­est­ing ques­tion, the kind of ques­tion that defines a species, in my opinion.

eu­kary­ote: And then there’s some other in­stances where… for ex­am­ple, peo­ple who are blind at birth. We’ve never found a per­son who was blind at birth who also has schizophre­nia, which is statis­ti­cally very im­prob­a­ble that this would have never hap­pened. So we learn some in­ter­est­ing things about how we think schizophre­nia might de­velop in the brain.

eu­kary­ote: Or how whales, de­spite hav­ing mil­lions of times the num­ber of in­di­vi­d­ual cells that mice have, don’t seem to get can­cer much more of­ten than mice. Which is weird. That tells us some­thing in­ter­est­ing about cells and how can­cer works.

eu­kary­ote: This has shown up in a cou­ple of re­search pro­jects which I’ll talk more about, if some­one wants. But I think the point is that this is a pretty use­ful tool to keep in mind. So, okay, if you’re try­ing to use this, some­thing to note, I think this usu­ally gen­er­ates ques­tions, not an­swers. So it’s a way of ex­plor­ing mod­els more than di­rectly get­ting to some­thing.

eu­kary­ote: And then, if you were try­ing to think about where these show up in re­la­tion to a topic, well the prob­lem is that they’re kind of hard to no­tice. You might try as­sum­ing that there is some­thing you’re miss­ing like that, and just ask­ing your­self from ba­sic prin­ci­ples what that might be. I’m not re­ally cer­tain… I have run into cases where peo­ple have as­serted that we just don’t know or, the fact that these ex­am­ples are miss­ing tells us some­thing in­ter­est­ing, doesn’t it? And then I looked and there ac­tu­ally were ex­am­ples of it, the peo­ple just didn’t know what they were talk­ing about.

eu­kary­ote: So, if you think you find a miss­ing dog, first check that the dog is ac­tu­ally not there – it may just be very quiet. Once you’ve done that, I can’t re­ally give you that much of a road map, but I think the next thing to do is to try to pin down why you think it’s un­ex­pected. Often when I’ve done this, I’ve found that my guess about what was go­ing on, or the model of the situ­a­tion was ac­tu­ally ex­tremely sim­ple. But don’t stop there be­cause I’ve also found that this is sort of an un­usual mode of think­ing and even if your re­ally sim­ple model shows up with a big prob­lem, or shows up with this strange ques­tion in it, of­ten that is just still not ac­counted for, even if it seems like I may not know any­thing about this if I don’t un­der­stand what’s go­ing on here. You might not and then you will know some­thing in­ter­est­ing about the situ­a­tion from find­ing that out. Or you might just be onto a new unan­swered ques­tion. That can hap­pen too.


Ben Pace: Thank you very much. You were suc­cess­fully un­der the five minute limit.

Ben Pace: Ja­cob, you had a ques­tion?

Ja­cob Lager­ros: Yeah, I’m pretty cu­ri­ous about the slide with all the ex­am­ples you didn’t cover. Some­thing about in­sects and why aren’t we dead.

eu­kary­ote: Oh, got you. Th­ese are blog posts I’ve writ­ten which I will just run over in the two sen­tence ver­sion and how they re­late to this.

eu­kary­ote: Yeah, so in­sect ex­tinc­tions, there’s a fact that is go­ing around that re­cent stud­ies have found, in re­ally wild lo­ca­tions, that in­sect bio­mass has dropped by 98 per­cent over the last, let’s say 50 years. There have been a few differ­ent stud­ies, all of which show pretty similar re­sults. Peo­ple are like, oh no we’re de­stroy­ing the en­vi­ron­ment, we’re go­ing to die. And like, maybe. I was think­ing, I feel like if you told me that as a teenager that in 10 years there will be 90 per­cent of the in­sects will be gone, then I would be like, oh my god, we are dead, this is the end of civ­i­liza­tion, I should just start drink­ing and not go to col­lege right now be­cause clearly we’re not get­ting any­where. And yet, so­ciety seems to be go­ing along pretty fine. Just based on what I knew about in­sects, that seemed com­pletely im­pos­si­ble to me.

eu­kary­ote: So I still don’t know why that is, but I found out some in­ter­est­ing stuff about it, and I don’t think any­one else has a good an­swer to that ques­tion also.

eu­kary­ote: The Germy para­dox is… so I spent the two years do­ing a mas­ters in biodefense and learn­ing about bioweapons and oh no, it’s so easy, any­one can go to a lab and just cre­ate smal­l­pox or it’s real easy to get an­thrax or what­ever. And I think, okay, there have been a small num­ber of at­tempted in­stances of bio-ter­ror­ism. There have been these huge weapons pro­grams, and yet no one has ac­tu­ally used a bio weapon as a tool of war against an­other coun­try since the 1940s ap­prox­i­mately,. What­ever — the point is, it’s su­per rare. So if these re­ally are so cheap and deadly, and easy to make, where are they? That’s the Germy para­dox. And I wrote a many-page se­quence about it that you can read if you want.

eu­kary­ote: Now I feel like I un­der­stand why we have not seen those things. So that’s the sum­mary there.

Ben Pace: In­ter­est­ing. Thank you very much. Anna, do you want to ask a ques­tion?

Anna T: Yeah! Hi, I was cu­ri­ous, eu­kary­ote, you men­tioned that some­times you might think that you’re see­ing a miss­ing dog situ­a­tion but it is, as you said, a very quiet dog. Do you have any ex­am­ples of that kind of thing?

eu­kary­ote: So, I re­ally en­joy think­ing about cheery and up­lift­ing top­ics in my free time, an­other thing I’ve heard passed about, biolog­i­cal-es­que risk, is that a dis­ease can’t kill off a species. We just don’t have ex­am­ples of that. Species don’t die from that. So, we don’t need to worry about this as a species, and these dis­eases will never evolve nat­u­rally, blah blah blah, we’re fine. And I’m like, wait, hang on… and I checked and there are ac­tu­ally dozens of ex­am­ples of dis­eases kil­ling off a species. Not on the scale that we should nec­es­sar­ily worry about it. It’s a whole thing. What­ever. But in that case, those peo­ple just hadn’t done the re­search. That was their quiet dog.

Ben Pace: Cool, cool. or­thonor­mal, do you want to ask a ques­tion?

or­thonor­mal: So, have you thought about ad­ver­sar­ial rea­son­ing as a way to bring these out? I’ve heard, and you’re the biol­o­gist here, that the one use­ful bi-product of cre­ation­ism has been com­ing up with a few miss­ing dogs for biol­o­gists to look at.

eu­kary­ote: Oh, I love it! Yeah that seems su­per fruit­ful and I’ve not thought in depth about how to do it. I gave some ex­am­ples about ways of do­ing this with your­self, but if you can find a will­ing part­ner or just some­one who dis­agrees with what you say and you can fight them about it, that seems pretty good. I haven’t thought too much about it. But, yeah, seems fruit­ful.

Ben Pace: All right, thanks a lot, eu­kary­ote.