Who knew that my foray into the world of App development would lead me into the philosophical maze of Bayesian hierarchical modeling?
Totally floored by the statement of Professor José M. Bernardo and Professor Adrian F. Smith, “The actuality of the learning process consists in the evolution of individual and subjective beliefs about the reality.”
As I struggled to conjure up the perfect UI for my app, taking into account all uncertain variables, I resorted to the Bayesian approach which is good at quantifying uncertainty.
Probability = desired event
Bayesians are uncertain about what is true and use data as evidence that certain facts are more likely than others. Prior distributions (original choices) reflect our beliefs before seeing any data, and posterior distributions (actual actions) reflect our beliefs after we have considered all the evidence. These subjective probabilities (action to do or not) are more directly involved in the mind rather than the physical probabilities.
As I delved into the statistics of increasing the probability of certain outcomes by introducing new facts, I was stunned at the similarity in the marketing practices I often applied. In marketing, we often speak of how you ‘present’ the information to clients that really makes the sale.
Bayes’ theorem: The assumed occurrence of a real-world event will typically modify preferences between certain options. This is done by modifying the degrees of belief attached, by an individual, to the events defining the options.
Case in point, the £125,000 campaign expenditure for the ‘welcome to Scotland slogan’. The effect of ‘fake news’ that led to the election of an impossible candidate. As a fan of neuroscience I was greatly shocked by the work of Moran Cerf the neuroscientist and former hacker. Although a proponent of free will, his work highlights how it can be hacked. He takes his skills to the next level by teaching about neuromarketing, influencing consumer decisions by studying consumer behavior.
I find all of this quite fascinating, that we can manipulate a person’s decision merely by drip feeding facts. Of course, I oversimply, not everyone is prone to autosuggestions or readily accepting of facts. It’s the possibility that I find enthralling, the chance that one can change a predestined outcome merely by education or better still using awareness.
History is witness to this phenomenon, apartheid, slavery, class system; all these were an accepted way of life until someone dared to question their existence. As a child, it baffled me to think that what I could clearly see as evil used to be considered the norm. It took a Rosa Parks in 1955 to make America see the evil of racial segregation. It took a Gandhi to galvanize the peace movement with nonviolence.
Humanity however it seems isn’t without what Yuval Hariri calls, paradox of historical knowledge. Knowledge that does not change behavior is useless. But knowledge that changes behavior quickly loses its relevance. However, what is behavior, a set of learned paradigms and norms? Who instills these behaviors? Parents, peer groups, society, philosophers?
The greatest curse of humanity is the fact that we are not born with an innate knowledge of the reality we live in. While our bodies are genetic storehouses of biological functionality our minds are blank canvases. We are born defenseless and vulnerable, dependent on those before us to sustain our existence.
We learn by observation, repetition and direct instructions; combined with a strong instinct to survive we take most of this on without question. A few of us are born, either rejected by society, forged by hardships or just merely defective learners, we question and challenge all that is taught. These make the majority of the thinkers, the paradigm destroyers, thought leaders, the Rosa Parks, the Gandhis, the Buddhas…
If a war devasted the entire world, human civilization would be reset, all our acquired advances in the sciences would be lost. Given that our course in history is a result of random events and chance occurrences, we might end up in a different reality. What would remain consistent is the innate human desire to know, to seek and to understand. Moral nihilists might argue that our desire for a more pleasurable reality would invariably lead us down the same road of destruction and chaos.
I choose to believe that while a myriad of possibilities exists what we can debate about is what we have in existence. The evolution of the individual, as Professor José M. Bernardo and Professor Adrian F. Smith, so aptly put it lies in the subjective beliefs about reality. We can influence our reality by our belief system. A fact clearly supported in quantum mechanics where mere observation can actually change the measured result. The observer effect is the theory that the mere observation of a phenomenon inevitably changes that phenomenon.
The placebo effect is one such example of this phenomenon. When people believe that a sugar pill is a drug that can heal them, it does. Studies have revealed that when people read the ingredients in a vitamin pill, their absorption rates increase of that vitamin in their body is boosted. As far back as 1959, the medical literature was reporting on small studies that showed that procedures like internal mammary artery ligation, a surgical procedure used to treat angina, were no better than a fake incision. Over the years many such sham placebo surgeries like knee replacements have been shown to prove the power of human belief.
As a society, we need to take stock of our belief systems. If the belief of one man, a Martin Luther King Jr who stated that “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. I have a dream today!” can change the course of a nation then we need to ask ourselves. What do we believe in as a global human society?