Bryan Caplan  

Sithwards Induction, or: The Dark Side for Grad Students

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[Warning: Sith spoilers!]

Whenever I meet a promising new graduate student, it isn't long before I mention the practical importance of backwards induction. (For a short definition, see here; for a longer treatment, check this out).

"What's your career goal?" I ask. Unless I've overestimated the student, the answer is of course "To be a professor, just like you." And then the conversation goes something like this:

Me: "When do you want to start your job?"

Promising New Grad Student (PNGS): "Uh, Fall 2010."

Me: "Then you'll be interviewing in January 2010, and will need to have an accepted article to make the cut. That means you need to start working on your revise & resubmit by January 2009. To do that, you need to submit your article by January 2008. That means you need to start writing by January 2007. That means you need to start becoming an expert on your topic by January 2006. Which means you need to figure out your topic by, say, TODAY! Hurry, there's still time to catch up!!!"

Sad to say, even promising students usually fail to take my sermon on backwards induction to heart. They think it's some kind of joke. But as Homer Simpson says, "It's funny because it's true."

Since I obviously lack the charisma to convince, I'm thinking of redirecting PGNGs to Chancellor Palpatine, aka Darth Sidious, Sith Lord. Whatever the aesthetic flaws of the Stars Wars prequels, they do provide what is arguably the most impressive example of backwards induction in fiction. When Palpatine first appears in Episode I, he is a mere Senator from Naboo. When Episode III ends, he is the totalitarian ruler of the galaxy. So how did he do it? At the risk of offending fans with the digest version, here are the steps in reverse order.

[Episode III]

1. To become and remain Emperor, Palpatine needs a powerful but obedient apprentice, a rubber-stamp Senate, no external enemies, and no Jedi.

2. Since the external enemies are his main rationalization for amassing power, he kills them last using his powerful but obedient apprentice.

3. To push the Senate to vote him absolute power, he needs to survive an attempted Jedi coup.

4. To survive the coup, he has to trick the Jedi into attacking him when they are weak, then retaliate with a massive sneak attack. This also solves his Jedi problem.

5. To recruit his new apprentice, Anakin Skywalker, he has to trick him into preventing the Jedi coup.

6. To trick Anakin into preventing the Jedi coup, he has to do many things: offer to help him save his pregnant wife, build up friendship and trust with flattery over the years, manipulate the Jedi into bruising his ego by denying him the rank of Master, pretend to be a helpless victim of the Jedi, etc.

7. To make room for his new apprentice, and help push him towards the Dark Side, Palpatine arranges for him to kill his old apprentice, Count Dooku.

[Episode II]

7. To weaken the Jedi and continue amassing power, Palpatine needs a massive civil war. The best way to do that is to command both sides. His apprentice runs the Separatist movement, while Palpatine leads the Republic's crusade against the Separatists.

8. To lead the Republic's crusades, he needs an army of docile but effective soldiers. Clones are the obvious choice.

9. So the Jedi do not question his motives, Palpatine arranges for Obi-Wan to discover the clones' existence.

10. Palpatine also arranges for Anakin to serve as Padme's bodyguard, foreseeing that they will fall in love. Attachment is a path to the Dark Side, after all.

11. It takes ten years to grow an army of clones, so Palpatine covertly places an order with the cloners of Kamino ten years before he'll need them.

[Episode I]

12. Palpatine befriends his future apprentice, Anakin, when he is a boy.

13. Palpatine gets himself voted Chancellor by promising to protect Naboo against the Trade Federation.

14. To make this happen, Palpatine covertly orders the Trade Federation to blockade and invade Naboo.

15. Years before Episode I begins, Palpatine arguably uses his powers to cause the birth of his future apprentice, Anakin Skywalker, by immaculate conception. That way he'll have Darth Vader when he needs him decades later!

Admittedly, this outline fails to do justice to Palpatine's machinations. But every graduate student - indeed, every person - can learn from his methodical movement from his initial position to his ultimate goal.

Of course, this leaves unanswered the question of why Palpatine's power of foresight is so feeble in the original trilogy. Get your bitter apprentice and his idealistic son alone with you in a room, and think you'll come out on top? Come on!

P.S. Frederick Ochsenhirt sketched a similar analysis in a comment on my earlier post on the Sith. It's excellent.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (10 to date)
James writes:

7 appears twice...

Steve Miller writes:

It's good advice, but easier said than done.

John Brothers writes:

In the original trilogy, I think that Palpatine suffers because:
a) He's old
b) He's gotten massively overconfident over the last 17 years
c) He doesn't realize that Vader is bitter

I'm using backwards induction right now, in a more mundane way:

* Goal: Have a novel published by my 20th high school reunion (2008) (I assume mid 2008)
* That means that I need to have it approved for publishing no later than mid 2007,
** which means I need to get it into a publisher probably no later than early 2006
** which means I need to be done with a good, solid ready-for-professional-editing version by early 2006.

Luckily, I'm done with the first draft now, and the second draft should only take a couple of weeks. Then, a few months for friend review and updates, and I should be ready to hand it over to a publisher in late 05, early 06, right on time.

Brad Hutchings writes:

The following conversation actually took place.

"Why do you want to get a Ph.D.?" asked the chair of the department.

"So when I'm speeding up the 5 to the Bay Area and a cop pulls me over and says Mr. Hutchings, do you know why I pulled you over?, I can say Yes, I was speeding, and it's Dr. Hutchings to you!."

I left after I had my Master's.

Jimbo Bob writes:

"What's your career goal?" I ask. Unless I've overestimated the student, the answer is of course "To be a professor, just like you."

We have quite the healthy ego, don't we?

jaimito writes:

jimbo, isnt our logic a bit weak lately?

Regarding the diabolical foreseeing, planning and implementing powers of Palpatine, does he use Critical Path or MS Planner? Why is that I have never seen anyone able to follow any plan for long, ever?

Boonton writes:

This assumes that Palpatine always had the same plan in mind. Consider the birth of Anakin, for example. If this was planned then why would Palpatine allow him to fall into the hands of the Jedi? If you recall the first episode, it was only luck that allowed the Jedi to escape Naboo at all. If the Trade Federation types had followed orders Obi-wan & his master would have been dead and Naboo would have been occupied.

Perhaps Palpatine started with a different plan but revised it several times along the way. This would explain why he went thru several apprentices rather than just grabbing Anakin as a kid and training him from birth.

eric writes:

I think the problem is that key insights arise in a flash, and people thereby infer that mundane work is not helpful in that regard. But generating flashes is more probable in the pursuit of mundane efforts: database building, methodical literature review. There is a better chance a eureka moment arises out of mundane work than more idyll speculation--though one must not be too busy to think for long periods of time about speculative ideas that may go nowhere.

Jason writes:

(eyes narrowed) This reads suspiciously like it was written forwards and then reversed.

Insightful, nonetheless. I'm sure Palpatine ordered the Vader helmet and cape the second he laid eyes on Anakin. I can imagine the dialogue:

What color cape, sire?

Make it black.

John F. Opie writes:

Hi -

Backwards induction?

Isn't this really a rather overblown word to describe simple planning?

Backwards induction, to me, is a term from formal logic that has to do with (re)constructing necessary prerequisite arguments in order to support a final argument. But that's not what you are describing: for me, it's simple planning, working backwards from a due date.

Or is backwards induction what you do when you want to have a Christmas baby?


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