Instrumental Probabilities

Reflecting on my recent contribution to the economics ejournal special issue on uncertainty (comments invited), I realised that from a purely mathematical point of view, the current mainstream mathematical view, as expressed by Dawid, could be seen as a very much more accessible version of Keynes’. But there is a difference in expression that can be crucial.

In Keynes’ view ‘probability’ is a very general term, so that it always legitimate to ask about the probability of something. The challenge is to determine the probability, and in particular whether it is just a number. In some usages, as in Kolmogorov, the term probability is reserved for those cases where certain axioms hold. In such cases the answer to a request for a probability might be to say that there isn’t one. This seems safe even if it conflicts with the questioner’s presuppositions about the universality of probabilities. In the instrumentalist view of Dawid, however, suggests that probabilistic methods are tools that can always be used. Thus the probability may exist even if it does not have the significance that one might think and, in particular, it is not appropriate to use it for ‘rational decision making’.

I have often come across seemingly sensible people who use ‘sophisticated mathematics’ in strange ways. I think perhaps they take an instrumentalist view of mathematics as a whole, and not just probability theory. This instrumentalist mathematics reminds me of Keynes’ ‘pseudo-mathematics’. But the key difference is that mathematicians, such as Dawid, know that the usage is only instrumentalist and that there are other questions to be asked. The problem is not the instrumentalist view as such, but the dogma (of at last some) that it is heretical to question widely used instruments.

The financial crises of 2007/8 were partly attributed by Lord Turner to the use of ‘sophisticated mathematics’. From Keynes’ perspective it was the use of pseudo-mathematics. My view is that if it is all you have then even pseudo-mathematics can be quite informative, and hence worthwhile. One just has to remember that it is not ‘proper’ mathematics. In Dawid’s terminology  the problem seems to be that the instrumental use of mathematics without any obvious concern for its empirical validity. Indeed, since his notion of validity concerns limiting frequencies, one might say that the problem was the use of an instrument that was stunningly inappropriate to the question at issue.

It has long seemed  to me that a similar issue arises with many miscarriages of justice, intelligence blunders and significant policy mis-steps. In Keynes’ terms people are relying on a theory that simply does not apply. In Dawid’s terms one can put it blunter: Decision-takers were relying on the fact that something had a very high probability when they ought to have been paying more attention to the evidence in the actual situation, which showed that the probability was – in Dawid’s terms – empirically invalid. It could even be that the thing with a high instrumental probability was very unlikely, all things considered.

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Decision-making under uncertainty: ‘after Keynes’

I have a new discussion paper. I am happy to take comments here, on LinkedIn, at the more formal Economics e-journal site or by email (if you have it!), but wish to record substantive comments on the journal site while continuing to build up a site of whatever any school of thought may think is relevant, with my comments, here.

Please do comment somewhere.

Clarifications

I refer to Keynes’ ‘weights of argument’ mostly as something to be taken into account in addition to probability. For example, if one has two urns each with a mix of 100 otherwise identical black and white balls, where the first urn is known to have equal number of each colour, but the mix for the other urn is unknown, then conventionally one has equal probability of drawing a black ball form each urn, but the weight of argument is greater for the first than the second.

Keynes does fully develop his notion of weights and it seems not to be well understood, and I wanted my overview of Keynes’ views to be non-contentious. But from some off-line comments I should clarify.

Ch. VI para 8 is worth reading, followed by Ch. III para 8. Whatever the weight may be, it is ‘strengthened by’:

  • Being more numerous.
  • Having been obtained with a greater variety of conditions.
  • Concerning a greater generalisation.

Keynes argues that this weight cannot be reduced to a single number, and so weights can be incomparable. He uses the term ‘strength’ to indicate that something is increased while recognizing that it may not be measurable. This can be confusing, as in Ch. III para 7, where he refers to ‘the strength of argument’. In simple cases this would just be the probability, not to be confused with the weight.

It seems to me that Keynes’ concerns relate to Mayo’s:

Severity Principle: Data x provides a good evidence for hypothesis H if and only if x results from a test procedure T which, taken as a whole, constitutes H having passed a severe test – that is, a procedure which would have, with very high probability, uncovered the discrepancies from H, and yet no such error is detected.

In cases where one has performed a test, severity seems to roughly correspond to have a strong weight, at least in simpler cases. Keynes’ notion applies more broadly. Currently, it seems to me, care needs taking in applying either to particular cases. But that is no reason to ignore them.

 

 

Dave Marsay

Mathiness

(Pseudo-)Mathiness

Paul Romer has recently attracted attention by his criticism of what he terms ‘mathiness’ in economic growth theory. As a mathematician, I would have thought that economics could benefit from more mathiness, not less. But what he seems to be denigrating is not mathematics as I understand it, but what Keynes called ‘pseudomathematics’. In his main example the problem is not inappropriate mathematics as such, but a succession of symbols masquerading as mathematics, which Paul unmasks using – mathematics. Thus, it seems to me the paper that he is criticising would have benefited from more (genuine) mathiness and less pseudomathiness.

I do agree with Paul, in effect, that bad (pseudo) mathematics has been crowding out the good, and that this should be resisted and reversed. But, as a mathematician, I guess I would think that.

I also agree with Paul that:

We will make faster scientific progress if we can continue to rely on the clarity and precision that math brings to our shared vocabulary, and if, in our analysis of data and observations, we keep using and refining the powerful abstractions that mathematical theory highlights … .

But more broadly some of Paul’s remarks suggest to me that we should be much clearer about the general theoretical stance and the role of mathematics within it. Even if an economics paper makes proper use of some proper mathematics, this only ever goes so far in supporting economic conclusions, and I have the impression that Paul is expecting too much, such that any attempt to fill his requirement with mathematics would necessarily be pseudo-mathematics. It seems to me that economics can never be a science like the hard sciences, and as such it needs to develop an appropriate logical framework. This would be genuinely mathsy but not entirely mathematical. I have similar views about other disciplines, but the need is perhaps greatest for economics.

Media

Bloomberg (and others) agree that (pseudo)-mathiness is rife in macro-economics and that (perhaps in consequence) there has been a shift away from theory to (naïve) empiricism.

Tim Harford, in the ft, discusses the related misuse of statistics.

… the antidote to mathiness isn’t to stop using mathematics. It is to use better maths. … Statistical claims should be robust, match everyday language as much as possible, and be transparent about methods.

… Mathematics offers precision that English cannot. But it also offers a cloak for the muddle-headed and the unscrupulous. There is a profound difference between good maths and bad maths, between careful statistics and junk statistics. Alas, on the surface, the good and the bad can look very much the same.

Thus, contrary to what is happening, we might look for a reform and reinvigoration of theory, particularly macroeconomic.

Addendum

Romer adds an analogy between his mathiness, which has actual formulae and a description on the one hand, and computer code, which typically has both the actual code and some comments. Romer’s mathiness is like when the code is obscure and the comments are wrong, as when the code does a bubble sort but the comment says it does a prime number sieve. He gives the impression that in economics this may often be deliberate. But a similar phenomenon is when the coder made the comment in good faith, so that the code appears to do what it says in the comment, but that there is some subtle, technical, flaw. A form of pseudo-mathiness is when one is heedless to such a possibility. The cure is more genuine mathiness. Even in computer code, it is possible to write code that is more or less obscure, and the less obscure code is typically more reliable. Similarly in economics, it would be better for economists to use mathematics that is within their competence, and to strive to make it clear. Maybe the word Romer is looking for is obscurantism?

Dave Marsay