B. Russell’s ‘Benevolent Farmer’

On a farm, there was a flock of chickens. One chicken started talking with another, remarking „How good our farmer has been to us. I think he is an awfully nice man, because he comes every morning to feed us.” The other chicken nodded in agreement, adding „and he has been feeding each and everyone of us here every day like clockwork, every day without fail since we were all just little baby chicks.” Indeed, when queried, most of the other chickens clucked in agreement about how benevolent their farmer was.

But there was one chicken, intelligent but eccentric, who countered saying „How do you know he is all that good? I remember, not too long ago, that there were some older chickens who were taken away, and I haven’t seen them since. What ever happened to them?”

Some of the chickens may have slept a little uneasy that night, but in the morning the farmer came as usual, this time scattering even more corn around. The chickens ate this with gusto, and this dispelled any remaining doubts about the benevolence of the farmer. „You see, there is nothing to worry about. Our farmer had a little extra food, so he gave it to us because he likes us! He is a good man,” remarked one chicken to the others, and they all nodded in agreement, all of them, that is, except one.

The intelligent but eccentric chicken became even more agitated. „He is just fattening us up! We are going to be slaughtered in a weeks time!” he squawked in alarm. But nobody listened. All the other chickens just thought he was a troublemaker.

A week later, all the chickens were placed into cages, loaded onto a truck, and driven to the slaughterhouse.

The End

Moral of the story: You cannot always induce the truth from past experience!


I first read about „Russell’s Chicken” in David Deutsch’s book entitled „The Fabric of Reality, the Science of Parallel Universes And its Implications.” He writes in Chapter 3:

„Furthermore, even mere predictions can never be justified by observational evidence, as Bertrand Russell illustrated in his story of the chicken. (To avoid any possible misunderstanding, let me stress that this was a metaphorical, anthropomorphic chicken, representing a human being trying to understand the regularities of the universe.) The chicken noticed that the farmer came every day to feed it. It predicted that the farmer would continue to bring food every day. Inductivists think that the chicken had ‘extrapolated’ observations into a theory, and that each feeding time added justification to that theory. Then one day the farmer came and wrung the chicken’s neck. The disappointment experienced by Russell’s chicken has also been experienced by trillions of other chickens. This inductively justifies the conclusion that induction cannot justify any conclusions!

However, this line of criticism lets inductivism off far too lightly. It does illustrate the fact that repeated observations cannot justify theories, but in doing so it entirely misses (or rather, accepts) a more basic misconception: namely, that the inductive extrapolation of observations to form new theories is even possible. In fact, it is impossible to extrapolate observations unless one has already placed them within an explanatory framework. For example, in order to ‘induce’ its false prediction, Russell’s chicken must first have had in mind a false explanation of the farmer’s behaviour. Perhaps it guessed that the farmer harboured benevolent feelings towards chickens. Had it guessed a different explanation that the farmer was trying to fatten the chickens up for slaughter, for instance – it would have ‘extrapolated’ the behaviour differently. Suppose that one day the farmer starts bringing the chickens more food than usual. How one extrapolates this new set of observations to predict the farmer’s future behaviour depends entirely on how one explains it. According to the benevolent-farmer theory, it is evidence that the farmer’s benevolence towards chickens has increased, and that therefore the chickens have even less to worry about than before. But according to the fattening-up theory, the behaviour is ominous – it is evidence that slaughter is imminent.”

Bertrand Russell’s chicken originates from the following passage found in his book, „The Problems of Philosophy,” (Chapter IV, On Induction):

„And this kind of association is not confined to men; in animals also it is very strong. A horse which has been often driven along a certain road resists the attempt to drive him in a different direction. Domestic animals expect food when they see the person who feeds them. We know that all these rather crude expectations of uniformity are liable to be misleading. The man who has fed the chicken every day throughout its life at last wrings its neck instead, showing that more refined views as to the uniformity of nature would have been useful to the chicken. „

In other words, just because something is observed to happen over and over again, only means that it probably will happen again the next time, but this is not proof that it will for certain.

The following story from financial advisor Robert T. Kiyosaki’s book, „Prophecy,” also reminds me of Russell’s Chicken:

„On a more sarcastic note, rich dad later said, „Asking Wall Street to provide financial education is the same as asking a fox to raise your chickens. If the fox is smart, the fox will be patient and raise very fat chickens. The fox works hard to gain the chickens’ trust…so he cares for them by providing slick brochures, branch offices and good-looking salespeople who have been trained to sound like investors. The salespeople are all trained to use the same intelligent-sounding financial jargon disguised as advice such as, „Invest for the long term, have a plan, choose a family of funds, sector funds, small cap growth funds, tax free municipal bonds, 20 percent cash, REITs, Roth IRAs, rollovers, tech stocks, blue chips, the new economy and of course, diversify, diversify, diversify.'”

As rich dad pointed out to me, „Pension reform will change the vocabulary we use but most people will not have a clue what the new words mean.” Meanwhile, the fox smiles and knows the chickens are happy. They feel safe in their new sanctuary. They have a safe secure job and they have their money safely entrusted to financially astute people. Then they see the stock market go up and up in the 1990’s and they feel even more intelligent and well advised. They know their financial planner is looking after them, will make them rich and protect them from the harsh cruel world outside the chicken coop.

But in March of 2000 the world began to change. The tech bubble burst and the stock market began to deflate. TV commentators began to say, „The recovery will come in the next quarter.” But the next quarter came and went … and the TV commentators again said, „The recovery will come in the next quarter.” Financial planners began to say, „Be patient … invest for the long term … diversify.” The chickens began to feel a little more secure. They knew they were doing the financially intelligent thing. They were in it for the long term, they were diversified, and they knew the recovery was right around the corner.

September 11 dropped the market but the market bounced right back. Again the chickens felt more confident as the market began to climb. Then Enron hit and suddenly many very fat chickens from all over America began to cluck loudly from the sanctuary of their securely wired chicken coops. Although they clucked and cackled loudly, the foxes again said, „Be patient. Invest for the long term. Diversify.” One of the reasons the biggest stock market crash in history of the world did not take place right after the Enron collapse is because the foxes aren’t ready for their chicken dinner yet. They know that these chickens have a few more years to get a little fatter and they know that by law … the chickens will have to keep coming to the stock market, buying more mutual funds and diversifying. The problem is, some of the chickens are getting nervous and are beginning to ask questions…questions such as the one the seventy-year old retiree in Miami asked… and ??? standard financial-planner-disguised-as-investor, preprogrammed sales to answer … „Don’t worry, be happy, buy more, and diversify.”

While having coffee today at the Honolulu Coffee Shop, I related the benevolent farmer story to a patron, who then told me this related story:

The Glass in the Field, by James Thurber

A short time ago some builders, working on a studio in Connecticut, left a large square of plate glass standing upright in a field one day. A goldfinch flying swiftly across the field struck the glass and was knocked cold. When he came to, he hastened to his club, where an attendant bandaged his head and gave him a stiff drink. „What the hell happened?” asked a sea gull. „I was flying across a meadow when all of a sudden the air crystallized on me,” said the goldfinch. The sea gull and a hawk and an eagle all laughed heartily. A swallow listened gravely. „For fifteen years, fledgling and bird, I’ve flown this country,” said the eagle, „and I assure you there is no such thing as air crystallizing. Water, yes; air, no.” „You were probably struck by a hailstone,” the hawk said to the goldfinch. „Or he may have had a stroke,” said the sea gull. „What do you think, swallow?” „Why, I– I think maybe the air crystallized on him,” said the swallow. The large birds laughed so loudly that the goldfinch became annoyed and bet each of them a dozen worms that they couldn’t follow the course he had flown across the field without encountering the hardened atmosphere. They all took his bet; the swallow went along to watch. The sea gull, the eagle, and the hawk decided to fly together over the route the goldfinch had indicated. „You come, too,” they said to the swallow. „I– I– well, no,” said the swallow. „I don’t think I will.” So the three large birds took off together and they hit the glass together, and they were all knocked cold.

Moral: He who hesitates is sometimes sav Gladwell‘s New Yorker Magazine essay BLOWING UP How Nassim Taleb turned the inevitability of disaster into an investment strategy. (Also available here) Nassim Taleb is the Wall Street trader whose made billions after 9-11 betting on the eventual occurrence of a „Black Swan Event,” a statistically improbable event (also known as an outlier) beyond the realm of normal expectations. Nassim Taleb is like my eccentric chicken, and wrote the book „The Black Swan” where he warned of the global financial crisis that is now upon us. And Thanksgiving 2009 will be upon us in a few days, and so this is when Russell’s Turkey meets the Black Swan.

Copyright © 2004-9 by Duen Hsi Yen, All rights reserved.

E-mail: yen@noogenesis.com

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