October 26, 2004

Thought Experiments Are Hard to Communicate

If you look at the current front page of Slate, you will see a little headline, "How Game Theory Can Win Bush the Election." It takes you to this article by my old college friend Jordan Ellenberg. Go read the article and tell me if you can see what's wrong with this picture.


When Jordan writes, for instance,

Let's say that Bush has a 30 percent chance of winning Ohio and a 70 percent chance at Florida. Furthermore, we'll assume that Bush can increase his chances by 10 percent in either state by making a last-minute visit there, and that Kerry can do the same

he is making numbers up. The point is not to say anything about the actual state of the election--the point is to use a hypothetical situation to explain Nash equilibria.

This is a perfectly honorable project. And I can understand if the editors thought that "How Ellenberg Can Use the Election to Explain Game Theory" wasn't a sexy headline. But "How Bush Can Use Game Theory to Win the Election"--that just stinks like week-old fish. Jordan's article doesn't suggest in the least way that Bush, rather than Kerry, can gain some advantage from game theory.

There's a little bit of a philosophical pedagogical point here. Philosophy uses a lot of thought experiments, so much that they're second nature to philosophy PhDs. But they're not second nature to many other people, including our students. If the headline writer for Slate can't tell the difference between a thought experiment and a strategy session for Bush, it's likely that our students can't either. We need to keep that in mind when we're teaching something that involves a thought experiment--don't just assume that people know what the point is.

Posted by Matt Weiner at October 26, 2004 07:59 AM