Modelling map aggregation

In theories as maps, theories as engines I touched upon the complex relationship between map and territory where “MAP(S) ARE THE TERRITORY BEING MAPPED”.

A trivial version of this mapping is done all the time. It is theory of mind, the ability to attribute mental states — beliefs, intents, desires, pretending, knowledge, etc. — to oneself and others and to understand that others have beliefs, desires, and intentions that are different from one’s own. Like, if you see that someone has hid a marble in the box, and someone else comes in the room, you don’t expect them to know that there is a marble in the box. (Except if you are under 4 or autistic. In which case it is totally not trivial.)

A less trivial version for non-autistic, non-young people is to model (a) map aggregates and what reigns their (b) development and (c) change. In this essay I make a superficial introductory foray into the topic of mapping domains that are constituted by the aggregation of maps. I consider this foray to fall under what I’ve been calling “Descriptive Epistemology”.


Descriptive Epistemology

I talked about social reality in On creating a map amidst strategic deception attempts. Modelling maps is going to be crucial in the context of social reality, that is, in the context where the phenomenon being modelled is the way it is as a result of the aggregation of many people mapping it in a certain way.  (Epistemically objective ontologically subjective facts.)

You can imagine that there is a degenerate case in which the mapping does not alter the territory (like physics.) In that case tehre is no interest in understanding the relationship between mapping and the territory since there is none, they are as-if independent.

The non-degenerate cases are interesting and what I’ll discuss in what follows.

Descriptive epistemology is, surprisingly, not a term in the literature (Maybe by another name? Social epistemology might be a proper subset.) I define “descriptive epistemology” as the study of how human agents and  human agent aggregations attempt to gain knowledge, what they take to be knowledge, and how the two previous factors interact with the objects of knowledge. (Whilst social reality is my focus of interest at the moment, inner cognitive reality [phenomenology] is another possible one, and natural reality a third one.)

Social Descriptive epistemology focuses on the relationships between mapping and the territory being mapped when the territory being mapped is affected by the many mappings occurring more. (Like a keynesian beauty contest.)


Social Descriptive Epistemology

In what follows I’ll analyse some properties of social descriptive epistemological systems. This list is not comprehensive or organized in any particular way. It merely points at how there are weird effects that are the product of interactions that do not occur when doing individual descriptive epistemology.



Social perception spirals

The idea here is that humans base their perception of the value of one object based on how others value that object. If everyone is doing this then you get a positive feedback loop.

I think this described partly what Rene Girard talked about when he talked about the mimetic theory – that humans imitate each other.

Now, there is an economic equilibrium for the value of things given by the balance of supply and demand. (Equilibrium being another property of social descriptive epistemological systems.) But in fact, when setting prices you need to track the valuation that others are giving to the item. This valuation might be off from what the economic equilibrium would be.

This very simple model explains a lot. The tulip mania, and boom and bust cycles in general. (It is not animal spirits, although that might play a role, its that the valuations at some point stretch all the joint credibility of the mapper of maps and we reach a tipping point that leads to an information cascade/ domino effect/ snowball effect.

It explains bank runs, political crisis to some extent. It also works to explain how concerned you should be about something.


Self-fulfilling prophecies 

The self-fulfilling prophecy is “an (initially) false definition of the situation evoking a new behavior which makes the original false conception come true. This specious validity of the self-fulfilling prophecy perpetuates a reign of error. For the prophet will cite the actual course of events as proof that he was right from the very beginning.”

I’m quoting from memory but the original study was something like a class of children that transitioned years and were separated into two classes of roughly equal ability. The teachers were told that one particular class had tested as being very much above average (they had not). By the end of the year, they did. The other class tested average.

The expectations of the teachers drove behavior. This is why first impressions really matter. Whatever is conveyed is going to be taken as who you are and from henceforth shape your behavior when interacting with those people.

You can imagine that someone is believed to be an extremely valuable romantic partner, or really good at fundraising. The fact that this is believed will open doors that would not be open otherwise. This in turn will allow them to become very valuable or really good at fundraising, making the original prophecy true, independent of its truth-aptness in the beginning.



Clothes are both “functional” and “social”. Functionally, clothes keep us warm and cool and dry, protect us from injury, maintain privacy, and help us carry things. But since they are usually visible to others, clothes also allow us to identify with various groups, to demonstrate our independence and creativity, and to signal our wealth, profession, and social status. The milder the environment, the more we expect the social role of clothes to dominate their functional role. (Of course social roles are also “functions” in a sense; by “functional” I mean serving individual/personal functions.)

Beliefs are also both functional and social. Functionally, beliefs inform us when we choose our actions, given our preferences. But many of our beliefs are also social, in that others see and react to our beliefs. So beliefs can also allow us to identify with groups, to demonstrate our independence and creativity, and to signal our wealth, profession, and social status.”

Scott Alexander has written a beautiful analysis of politicization: “Over the past few days, my friends on Facebook have been making impassioned posts about how it’s obvious there should/shouldn’t be a quarantine, but deluded people on the other side are muddying the issue. The issue has risen to an alarmingly high level of 0.05 #Gamergates, which is my current unit of how much people on social media are concerned about a topic. What’s more, everyone supporting the quarantine has been on the right, and everyone opposing on the left. Weird that so many people suddenly develop strong feelings about a complicated epidemiological issue, which can be exactly predicted by their feelings about everything else.”

Of course, Robin Hanson is probably the go-to source about this.


Other, randomly assorted, weird factors 

“In an Abilene paradox a group of people collectively decide on a course of action that is counter to the preferences of many (or all) of the individuals in the group.” People poorly model the preferences of others (that is, their map of others maps are lacking) and thus the group suffers as a whole.

Groupthink is a psychological phenomenon that occurs within a group of people, in which the desire for harmony or conformity in the group results in an irrational or dysfunctional decision-making outcome.”

Social influence occurs when one’s emotions, opinions, or behaviors are affected by others. Internalization is when people accept a belief or behavior and agree both publicly and privately. (Not necessarily via methods that reliably lead to acceptance of true beliefs)

Conformity is the act of matching attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors to group norms. (Relevant because group norms are going to have – explicit or entailed – epistemological and ontological stances, and beliefs)


Why care?

According to a particular view the way to control something is to understand it. If this obtains, then it is very likely that the particular things you care about fall within the domain of social reality, as it includes “marriage, property, hiring, firing, war, revolutions, cocktail parties, governments, meetings, unions, parliaments, corporations, laws, restaurants, vacations, lawyers, professors, doctors, medieval knights, and taxes, for example”. Further, even things that don’t fall within that domain and about which you care about are probably dependent on stable economical and political systems (or at least dynamically stable).

Both of those domains fall within the scope of “Maps of map aggregation” and errors here are terribly costly.









Theories as cameras, theories as engines

At some point all of science was together in something called “natural philosophy”. Francis Bacon was the first to attempt to partition the sciences. Nowadays disciplines are partitioned more or less neatly. (Cognitive Sciences being new is pretty haphazard.) And there is one big demarcation I wish to touch upon: between soft and hard sciences, or social and natural sciences.

I have frequently observed the confusing fact that whether one is more connected to the social or the natural sciences is quite predictive of one’s epistemological beliefs: It seems that people that participate or research in hard science fields (physics, chemistry, biology) seem to be drawn into objectivity whilst those in soft science fields (economics, sociology) more drawn to non-objectivity.

In what follows I attempt to describe the epistemology of the fields and to do a first pass at along what axis the underlying epistemological assumptions differ.


Descriptive epistemology of the 2 scientific cultures

In designerly ways of knowing (1), Nigel Cross talks about 3 scientific cultures (sciences, humanities, design) and characterises them across the axes of phenomenon of study, appropriate methods, and values. I’m going to reproduce his characterizations, skipping design:

“The phenomenon of study in each culture is

  • in the sciences: the natural world
  • in the humanities: human experience

The appropriate methods in each culture are

  • in the sciences: controlled experiment, classification, analysis
  • in the humanities: analogy, metaphor, evaluation

The values of each culture are

  • in the sciences: objectivity, rationality, neutrality, and a concern for ‘truth’
  • in the humanities: subjectivity, imagination, commitment, and a concern for ‘justice’

Now, researchers are trained and develop methodologies which entail epistemologies and ontologies.  I think I finally understood what this difference about.

The basic metaphor of knowledge is vision. When you see you don’t change the object. This metaphor obtains for physics and chemistry and biology for the most part, and thus you can model this domains as being observer independent, as systems that are separate from the one that is modeling them.

In the soft sciences (that is, sciences that study human-made systems, or systems made up by humans) the correct metaphor is touch: to understand you must manipulate the object. You cannot be independent of the systems that you are observing – there is theoretical performativity. Meaning, the observer and what the observer is doing (theorising) affect the phenomenon.

Your observations (and their being published and spread out) change the system you set out to observe. Your theories in this domain are not a camera, but an engine.

This suggestion is not wholly original. Cybernetics was the study of systems, and second-order cybernetics the study of systems including the ones constructing systems and studying systems. In what follows I tease out the generativity of this particular viewpoint to understand the curious fact pointed at in the introduction.



Naive objectivism. The received worldview, the natural stance (my map is the territory.).


Observer sits outside of the system he is observing. God’s eye view


What is being described is independent and not affected by the description or the descriptor.


Representationalism/Realism: One level up, my map is not the territory and the territory informs my map but there is no bidirectional causality.


“The KNOWING IS SEEING conceptual metaphor allows us to understand the abstract domain of knowledge by means of the concrete domain of sight. This is a metaphor with a clear experiential basis2 grounded in the fact that in early childhood human beings normally receive cognitive input by seeing. Nevertheless, whereas in the first years of one’s life perception and cognition are conceived as together (or conflated in terms of JOHNSON 1997), due to the fact that there is a deep basic correlation between the intellectual input and vision, afterwards these two domains separate from each other («deconflation» in JOHNSON’s words 1997). This is the reason why we are able to use the metaphor KNOWING IS SEEING meaning just «awareness» and not being linked to vision at all, which may be seen in everyday language expressions like the following ones:

(a) I see what you’re getting at.

(b) His claims aren’t clear.

(c) The passage is opaque.” (2)


A great intro.



Objectivity is impossible. Everything that is said is said from someone to someone, from a specific viewpoint, culture, assumptions and so on that cannot be transcended.


Participant observation, ethnography. If you want to study the object you must interact.


Claim can be made and triangulated from authors in various different positions.


I write about this particular relationship at some length in modelling map aggregation.


The mapping alters the territory.


“what we conventionally think of a ‘subject’ and ‘object’ are co-arising. Because the mind is embodied and arises out of “an active handling and coping with the world”, then “whatever you call an object … is entirely dependent on this constant sensory motor handling”. As a result an object is not independently ‘out there’, but “arises because of your activity, so, in fact, you and the object are co-emerging, co-arising” (Varela, 1999: 71-72).”


Core metaphor is “knowing is touching”. To know the object you must interact with it, and your interactions change it.


Habermas: “By linking meaning with the acceptability of speech acts, Habermas moves the analysis beyond a narrow focus on the truth-conditional semantics of representation to the social intelligibility of interaction. The complexity of social interaction then allows him to find three basic validity claims potentially at stake in any speech act used for cooperative purposes (i.e., in strong communicative action). His argument relies on three “world relations” that are potentially involved in strongly communicative acts in which a speaker intends to say something to someone about something (TCA1: 275ff). For example, a constative (fact-stating) speech act (a) expresses an inner world (an intention to communicate a belief); (b) establishes a communicative relation with a hearer (and thus relates to a social world, specifically one in which both persons share a piece of information, and know they do); and (c) attempts to represent the external world. This triadic structure suggests that many speech acts, including non-constatives, involve a set of tacit validity claims: the claim that the speech act is sincere (non-deceptive), is socially appropriate or right, and is factually true (or more broadly: representationally adequate). Conversely, speech acts can be criticized for failing on one or more of these scores. Thus fully successful speech acts, insofar as they involve these three world relations, must satisfy the demands connected with these three basic validity claims (sincerity, rightness, and truth) in order to be acceptable.”

  1. – “Cross, Nigel. “Designerly Ways of Knowing.” Design Studies 3.4 (1982): 221-27.”
  2. – Ruiz, J. H. (2005). The authority is vision and the knowledge is a bounded region metaphors in fairy tales. Interlingüística, (16), 569-578.