What Comes After Epistemic Spot Checks?

When I read a non-fiction book, I want to know if it’s correct before I commit anything it says to memory. But if I already knew the truth status of all of its claims, I wouldn’t need to read it. Epistemic Spot Checks are an attempt to square that circle by sampling a book’s claims and determining their truth value, with the assumption that the sample is representative of the whole.

Some claims are easier to check than others. On one end are simple facts, e.g., “Emperor Valerian spent his final years as a Persian prisoner”. This was easy and quick to verify: googling “emperor valerian” was quite sufficient. “Roman ship sizes weren’t exceeded until the 15th century” looks similar, but it wasn’t. If you google the claim itself, it will look confirmed (evidence: me and 3 other people in the forecasting tournament did this). At the last second while researching this, I decided to check the size of Chinese ships, which surpassed Roman ships sooner than Europe did, by about a century.

On first blush this looks like a success story, but it’s not. I was only able to catch the mistake because I had a bunch of background knowledge about the state of the world. If I didn’t already know mid-millenium China was better than Europe at almost everything (and I remember a time when I didn’t), I could easily have drawn the wrong conclusion about that claim. And following a procedure that would catch issues like this every time would take much more time than ESCs currently get.

Then there’s terminally vague questions, like “Did early modern Europe have more emphasis on rationality and less superstition than other parts of the world?” (As claimed by The Unbound Prometheus). It would be optimistic to say that question requires several books to answer, but even if that were true, each of them would need at least an ESC themselves to see if they’re trustworthy, which might involve checking other claims requiring several books to verify… pretty soon it’s a master’s thesis.

But I can’t get a master’s degree in everything interesting or relevant to my life. And that brings up another point: credentialism. A lot of ESC revolves around “Have people who have officially been Deemed Credible sanctioned this fact?” rather than “Have I seen evidence that I, personally, judge to be compelling?” 

The Fate of Rome (Kyle Harper) and The Fall of Rome (Bryan Ward-Perkins) are both about the collapse of the western Roman empire. They both did almost flawlessly on their respective epistemic spot checks. And yet, they attribute the fall of Rome to very different causes, and devote almost no time to the others’ explanation. If you drew a venn diagram of the data they discuss, the circles would be almost but not quite entirely distinct. The word “plague” appears 651 times in Fate and 6 times in Fall, who introduces the topic mostly to dismiss the idea that it was causally related to the fall- which is how Fate treats all those border adjustments happening from 300 AD on. Fate is very into discussing climate, but Fall uses that space to talk about pottery.

This is why I called the process epistemic spot checking, not truth-checking. Determining if a book is true requires not only determining if each individual claim is true, but what other explanations exist and what has been left out. Depending on the specifics, ESC as I do them now are perhaps half the work of reading the subsection of the book I verify. Really thoroughly checking a single paragraph in a published paper took me 10-20 hours. And even if I succeed at the ESC, all I have is a thumbs up/thumbs down on the book.

Around the same time I was doing ESCs on The Fall of Rome and The Fate of Rome (the ESCs were published far apart to get maximum publicity for the Amplification experiment, but I read and performed the ESCs very close together), I was commissioned to do a shallow review on the question of “How to get consistency in predictions or evaluations of questions?” I got excellent feedback from the person who commissioned it, but I felt like it said a lot more about the state of a field of literature than the state of the world, because I had to take authors’ words for their findings. It had all the problems ESCs were designed to prevent.

I’m in the early stages of trying to form something better: something that incorporates the depth of epistemic spot checks with the breadth of field reviews. It’s designed to bootstrap from knowing nothing in a field to being grounded and informed and having a firm base on which to evaluate new information. This is hard and I expect it to take a while.