Connection Theory Has Less Than No Evidence

I’m a mem­ber of the Bay Area Effec­tive Altru­ist move­ment. I wanted to make my first post here to share some con­cerns I have about Lev­er­age Re­search.

At par­ties, I of­ten hear Lev­er­age folks claiming they’ve pretty much solved psy­chol­ogy. They as­sign credit to their cen­tral re­search pro­ject: Con­nec­tion The­ory.

Amaz­ingly, Con­nec­tion The­ory is never some­thing I find en­dorsed by even a sin­gle con­ven­tion­ally ed­u­cated per­son with knowl­edge of psy­chol­ogy. Yet some of my most in­tel­li­gent friends end up de­cid­ing that Con­nec­tion The­ory seems promis­ing enough to be given the benefit of the doubt. They usu­ally give black-box rea­sons for sup­port­ing it, like, “I don’t feel con­fi­dent as­sign­ing less than a 1% chance that it’s cor­rect — and if it works, it would be su­per valuable. There­fore it’s very high EV!”. They do this sort of hedg­ing as though psy­chol­ogy were a field that couldn’t be probed by sci­ence or un­der­stood in any level of de­tail. I would ar­gue that this ap­proach is too for­giv­ing and char­i­ta­ble in situ­a­tions when you can in­stead just an­a­lyze the the­ory us­ing stan­dard sci­en­tific rea­son­ing. You could also as­sess its cred­i­bil­ity based on stan­dard qual­ity mark­ers or even the per­ceived qual­ity of the work go­ing into de­vel­op­ing the the­ory.

To start, here’s some warn­ing signs for Con­nec­tion The­ory:

  1. In­vented by am­a­teurs with­out knowl­edge of psychology

  2. Never pub­lished for scrutiny in any peer-re­viewed venue, con­fer­ence, open ac­cess jour­nal, or even a non peer-re­viewed venue of any type

  3. Un­known out­side of the re­search com­mu­nity that cre­ated it

  4. Vaguely specified

  5. Cites no references

  6. Created in a vac­uum from first principles

  7. Con­tains dis­proven carte­sian as­sump­tions about men­tal processes

  8. Unaware of the fron­tier of cur­rent psy­chol­ogy research

  9. Con­sists en­tirely of poorly con­ducted, un­pub­lished case studies

  10. Unusu­ally lax method­ol­ogy… even for psy­chol­ogy experiments

  11. Data from early stud­ies shows a “100% suc­cess rate”—the way only a grade-schooler would forge their results

  12. In a 2013 talk at Lev­er­age Re­search, the cre­ator of Con­nec­tion The­ory re­fused to ac­knowl­edge the pos­si­bil­ity that his tech­niques could ever fail to pro­duce cor­rect an­swers.

  13. In that same talk, when some­one pointed out a hy­po­thet­i­cal way that an in­cor­rect an­swer could be pro­duced by Con­nec­tion The­ory, the cre­ator coun­tered that if that case oc­curred, Con­nec­tion The­ory would still be right by rely­ing on a re­defi­ni­tion of the word “true”.

  14. The cre­ator of Con­nec­tion The­ory brags about how he in­ten­tion­ally tar­gets high net worth in­di­vi­d­u­als for “mind chart­ing” ses­sions so he can gather in­for­ma­tion about their mo­ti­va­tion that he later uses to so­licit large amounts of money from them.

I don’t know about you, but most peo­ple get off this crazy train some­where around stop #1. And given the rest, can you re­ally blame them? The av­er­age per­son who sets them­selves up to con­sider (and pos­si­bly be­lieve) ideas this in­sane, doesn’t have long be­fore they end up pump­ing all their money into get rich quick schemes or drink­ing bleach to try and im­prove their health

But maybe you think you’re differ­ent? Maybe you’re suffi­ciently epistem­i­cally ad­vanced that you don’t have to dis­re­gard the­o­ries with this many red flags. In that case, there’s now an even more fun­da­men­tal rea­son to re­ject Con­nec­tion The­ory: As Alyssa Vance points out, the sup­posed “ad­vance pre­dic­tions” at­tributed to Con­nec­tion The­ory (the pre­dic­tions be­ing claimed as ev­i­dence in its fa­vor in the only pub­li­cly available manuscript about it), are just ad hoc pre­dic­tions made up by the re­searchers them­selves on a case by case ba­sis—with lit­tle to no in­put from Con­nec­tion The­ory it­self. This kind of er­ror is why there has been a dis­tinct field called “Philos­o­phy of Science” for the past 50 years. And it’s why peo­ple at­tempt­ing to do sci­ence need to learn a lit­tle about it be­fore propos­ing the­o­ries with so lit­tle con­tent that they can’t even be wrong.

I men­tion all this be­cause I find that peo­ple from out­side the Bay Area or those with very lit­tle con­tact with Lev­er­age of­ten think that Con­nec­tion The­ory is part of a bold and no­ble re­search pro­gram that’s at­tack­ing a valuable prob­lem with re­ports of steady progress and even some plau­si­ble hope of suc­cess. In­stead, I would coun­sel new­com­ers to the effec­tive al­tru­ist move­ment to be care­ful how much you trust Lev­er­age and not to put too much faith in Con­nec­tion The­ory.