A Bayesian folly of J Richard Gott

Don’t get me wrong. J Richard Gott is one of the coolest people alive. Gott does astrophysics at Princeton and makes a good argument that time travel is indeed possible via cosmic strings. He’s likely way smarter than I, and he’s from down home. But I find big holes in his Copernicus Method, for which he first achieved fame.

Gott conceived his Copernuicus Method for estimating the lifetime of any phenomenon when he visited the Berlin wall in 1969. Wondering how long it would stand, Gott figured that, assuming there was nothing special about his visit, a best guess was that he happened upon the wall 50% of the way through its lifetime. Gott saw this as an application of the Copernican principle: nothing is special about our particular place (or time) in the universe. As Gott saw it, the wall would likely come down eight years later (1977), since it had been standing for eight years in 1969. That’s not exactly how Gott did the math, but it’s the gist of it.

I have my doubts about the Copernican principle – in applications from cosmology to social theory – but that’s not my beef with Gott’s judgment of the wall. Had Gott thrown a blindfolded dart at a world map to select his travel destination I’d buy it. But anyone who woke up at the Berlin Wall in 1969 did not arrive there by a random process. The wall was certainly in the top 1000 interesting spots on earth in 1969. Chance alone didn’t lead him there. The wall was still news. Gott should have concluded that he saw the wall near in the first half of its life, not at its midpoint.

Finding yourself at the grand opening of Brooklyn pizza shop, it’s downright cruel to predict that it will last one more day. That’s a misapplication of the Copernican principle, unless you ended up there by rolling dice to pick the time you’d parachute in from the space station. More likely you saw Vini’s post on Facebook last night.

Gott’s calculation boils down to Bayes Theorem applied to a power-law distribution with an uninformative prior expectation. I.e., you have zero relevant knowledge. But from a Bayesian perspective, few situations warrant an uninformative prior. Surely he knew something of the wall and its peer group. Walls erected by totalitarian world powers tend to endure (Great Wall of China, Hadrian’s Wall, the Aurelian Wall), but mean wall age isn’t the key piece of information. The distribution of wall ages is. And though I don’t think he stated it explicitly, Gott clearly judged wall longevity to be scale-invariant. So the math is good, provided he had no knowledge of this particular wall in Berlin.

But he did. He knew its provenance; it was Soviet. Believing the wall would last eight more years was the same as believing the Soviet Union would last eight more years. So without any prior expectation about the Soviet Union, Gott should have judged the wall would come down when the USSR came down. Running that question through the Copernican Method would have yielded the wall falling in the year 2016, not 1977 (i.e., 1969 + 47, the age of the USSR in 1969). But unless Gott was less informed than most, his prior expectation about the Soviet Union wasn’t uninformative either. The regime showed no signs of weakening in 1969 and no one, including George Kennan, Richard Pipes, and Gorbachev’s pals, saw it coming. Given the power-law distribution, some time well after 2016 would have been a proper Bayesian credence.

With any prior knowledge at all, the Copernican principle does not apply. Gott’s prediction was off by only 14 years. He got lucky.

  1. Leave a comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: