Posted by: dacalu | 10 March 2012

Predictive Value

Too little time this evening for much, but I wanted to say a word or two about predictive value and, well, values.  The concept of predictive value in science can sometimes be overestimated.  It does not generally refer just to the ability to say that a particular event in the future.  If that were the case, astronomy would have very little predictive value and phylogenetics – the reconstruction of historical relationships between organisms, my field – would have none.  No.  Predictive value has to do with predicting observations.  In the case of astronomy, we don’t see anything as it happens.  Rather, we observe things happening in the past and at great distance.  Likewise, paleontologists reconstruct past events.

In all theses sciences, prediction is about finding models that match the data, particularly models that tell you where to look for interesting things and what you might find.  That can be a very important part of finding truth.  I find that the world of agents and preferences does this for me.  It allows me to predict what sorts of actions will be chosen by what sorts of people – in a general way.  It tells me that fearful people will avoid conflict they don’t think they can win and often seek out easy conquest.  Fear is a conditioned aversion to particular kinds of forces.  It also tells me that loving people will be open to making connections with others – for good and ill.  Openness means vulnerability.

Just as in biology, I might classify a specimen and have expectations about it (I expect ravens to be black).  Those expectations will mostly be met, but not all (Turns out to be an albino raven).  So I can classify people as fearful and expect their decisions to be more constrained by fear.  That doesn’t mean they can’t surprise me.  The theory should also tell me how to encourage one type of choice over another, both within myself and within others.  All of this means predictive value, because I can predict what I see when I look and predict the outcome when I act.

The challenge lies in the fuzzy area between general predictions and specific events.  Some natural sciences make fun of the social sciences, particularly economics, because they make general statements, but rarely come through on particulars.  I do not claim that my theory of agents is a science, but I do think it has predictive value.  I have observed that fearful and loving relationships each propagate themselves.  One unhealthy interaction usually leads to others.  One dependable friendship usually leads to others.  Agency is still there, but a trend appears.  I challenge you, over the next week, to see if there are any regular (even if not universal) rules that regulate behavior.  What outcomes do you (can you, and should you) expect given certain acts on your part?

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