Achieving transparency, or, Momus among the rotifers

1561 v. Heemskerck Momus tadelt die Werke der Goetter

At the recent Evolutionary Demography meeting in Miami there were two talks on the life history of rotifers. One of the speakers praised rotifers as a model organism for their generously choosing to be transparent, facilitating study of their growth and physiological changes. I had never really thought much about transparency as a positive feature of organisms (from the perspective of those wanting to study them) — though I guess the same has also favoured the development of the C. elegans system.

I was reminded of the famous quip (reported by his son Leonard Huxley) of T H Huxley, when he asked a student at the end of a lecture whether he had understood everything:

“All but one part,” replied the student, “during which you stood between me and the blackboard.”

To which Huxley rejoined, “I did my best to make myself clear, but could not render myself transparent.”

Momus would have been pleased.

Bayesian Fables: The Trojan Horse

I was talking recently to a friend who said he saw the story of the Trojan horse as an object lesson in the failure of governance. “Wasn’t there anyone who could say, wait a minute, maybe it’s just not a good idea to bring that horse in here, even if the Greeks seem to have all left?”

I said it was a fable about the inaccessibility of Bayesian reasoning. Laocoön warned them that the prior probability for a net benefit from a Greek gift was low (timeō Danaōs et dōna ferentēs). But the Trojans placed more credence in new information, particularly private information that they hold exclusively, particularly when they seem to have won the information at great effort, by their own ingenuity, by torturing the captured Sinon. (This lesson was learned by the British spies in WWII who conceived Operation Mincemeat.) Laocoön was punished for insisting on his strong prior, being crushed to death by the clever serpents sent by the Goddess of Worldly Wisdom. And the Trojans celebrated their ingenious victory, until they were overrun by reality, in the form of well-muscled Achaean warriors who were not impressed by their highly significant rejection of the likelihood of a subterfuge.