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A Swede in Germany

Examples of simplistic reasoning (and Sjöström rocks)

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Over the last week, a complete fiasco for my fellow Swedes at the ice-hockey world-championships was ameliorated by the continued swimming success of Sarah Sjöström—arguably, the greatest swimmer Sweden has ever produced.

One article even speculates that she could be the first woman to break 55 seconds in the 100m butterfly, first accomplished among the men by Mark Spitz in 1972. “If that summer back in 1972 you’d have suggested a woman could match him, Spitz might have been forgiven for laughing. After all, the ladies had just celebrated their first moment inside 1min 04.”

So far, so good. However, this reminded me of two border-line ridiculous lines of reasoning that I have encountered in the past, and that provide good illustrations of why simplistic reasoning and lack of critical thinking is a danger. See e.g. a previous post on science and reason, my website category on thinking, or any number of my posts on feminism or the politically correct. The world would look rather different from what it does, were the ability and willingness to actually think common.

Firstly, extrapolation that women are/were over-taking men in long-distance running*: In, I believe, the early 1990s**, I read a news-paper article that noted how the world records of women were improving much faster than those of men and how women were bound to move ahead within some years or decades. I looked at the accompanying graphic—and saw, immediately, from the graphic it self, with no additional thinking or background information needed, that women allegedly were over-taking men at an earlier time, sometimes noticeably so, the later they had taken up a particular distance. A journalist or scientist*** comes to and publishes a conclusion that is so obviously flawed that a teenager immediately saw that it was flawed!

*Note very carefully: The notion that women could over-take men is not the problem. There can even be a few good arguments raised, e.g. regarding fat reserves or average weight, which would make this plausible a priori. The problem is the simplistic (not to say “simpleton-istic”…) reasoning used. Being right for the wrong reason is often as bad as being wrong.

**At any rate, with several repetitions over the years, until it became obvious that the idea did not pan out.

***It is always hard to tell whether a case of “bad science” reported in popular journalism is bad because of the scientists or because the journalist distorted the claims. Considering the extreme incompetence of the average journalist, I would tend to give the scientists the benefit of the doubt—but there are also plenty of bad scientists out there, especially in the softer sciences.

The problem here is obvious: The newer a discipline is, the lower the standard tends to be, and the record development correspondingly faster. Consider e.g. “the female Bubka”: I heard this epithet applied to at least three different women (Emma George, Stacy Dragila, Yelena Isinbayeva) in the space of likely less than ten years. George (as the first) is by now a nobody on the all-time lists; Dragila is still very good, but not really remarkable, with several women a year jumping on a comparable level; and Isinbayeva lost her indoor world-record earlier than Bubka lost his—but with him setting his far earlier. To make matters worse, George was by no means the first woman to break the world record at a Bubka-esque frequency—just the first to make headlines in Sweden.

In addition, new events often have a certain “hipness” or can be attractive through being new, the greater ease that athletes have at reaching the top, etc., which can also contribute to the faster record development.

Only after an event has reached a certain degree of maturity are extrapolations like in that idiotic article sensible—or the extrapolation has to be done in a far more sophisticated (and still error prone) manner to compensate for the relative youth of an event

In effect, this was a comparison of apples and oranges. History has proved the prediction utterly wrong—but even if the prediction had turned out to be true, the reasoning behind it would have remained so flawed that the scientists (or journalist) might just as well have been tossing coins.

Secondly, an almost derisive article by Douglas Hofstadter*, who claimed (likely correctly) that the female swimmers of some college or high-school matched the times of their male counter-parts just a few decades earlier.** He now concluded that if women could match men physically after so short a time span—how ridiculous would it then be to even contemplate that there was a mental difference worthy of mention***.

*His book “Gödel, Escher, Bach” impressed me immensely as a teenager and I would long have considered such nonsensically reasoning unlikely from him. However, what I have read by him since has impressed me less—as has “Gödel, Escher, Bach” in each subsequent reading (possibly five by now). Remove the funny stories, the dumbing-down, and the “pedagogical scaffolding”, then what remains could be abbreviated into a fraction of the book’s actual length and remains solidly in the undergraduate, usually freshman, curriculum. While it remains a strong accomplishment, those of Gödel (and, in their own ways, Escher and Bach) utterly dwarf Hofstadter’s, and I have come to see him more and more as a self-promoter, possibly even a pseudo-intellectual, than a true thinker.

**I do not recall the exact years and circumstance, but it might have been the early 1980s vs. the early 1960s. Beware that my analysis below can conceivably be off in detail too, seeing that I read this article more than ten years ago.

***As above, the problem is not the claim it self but the reasoning behind the claim. (However, it is no secret that I argue both for the existence of differences in mentality and distribution of abilities, as well as a clear tendency for men to do better in almost any area when we look at “the best of the best” and, likely, the average individual or the group aggregate due to biological factors. Not, however, automatically any individual man compared to any individual woman, due to large individual variations—a point that the politically correct appear to be utterly unable to comprehend.)

There are a number of problems with this line of reasoning, including:

  1. Comparing results from two groups so limited in size is misleading. In order to make a reasonable comparison, the groups have to be so large that the effect of individual variation does not hide the group characteristics. If in doubt, the best women in virtually any sport will be better than a very clear majority of all men in the general population and than most hobby and amateur players; for some sports they might even be better than most professional men.
  2. Comparing using such a limited measure is misleading. It could simply have been that women were naturally better* at swimming (e.g. through having a better buoyancy), but that this fact was hidden in the past due to lower participation numbers—and that they would still have lost out in other physical areas, e.g. power lifting.

    *While men have many physical advantages and are naturally better at the vast majority, possibly all, common sports of today, it would be naive to assume that they are naturally better at any and all conceivable sports: A prime Michael Jordan would have beaten most grown men in most sports—but would have had his ass handed to him by many children in a limbo contest.

  3. Even if we accept the premise that women were equally good swimmers as men (or better power lifters, for all I care ) once equal opportunity was given (or some other change of a similar character), it does not follow that they would be equal in other regards that have little or no connection to the ability to swim. In contrast, if women were as good chess players* as men, the case would have been far, far less weak (but by no means conclusive: Chess is more relevant, but still only covers a small area of all what would need to be covered).

    *From what I have seen so far, they are not even close: The famed Judith Polgar topped out at number 8 on the world ranking and the current female number one ranks as number 73 (at the time of writing, according to the given link). I have heard the claim that female success would be proportionate to their participation and, therefore, the difference is not biological. This too is an example of flawed and simplistic reasoning, although more subtly so than the above examples, because it assumes that the difference in participation is not based in biology; however, both different preferences (e.g. a greater interest in games that require thinking or a greater competitiveness) and different abilities (we tend to enjoy doing things that we are good at; too poor players might not had the opportunity to play in the long-term) contribute to the degree of participation and both are likely to have a strong biological aspect. By analogy, if we find that the success of NBA players of various heights match the expectation based on their proportion of the overall number of players, we cannot conclude that height is irrelevant to success in basket ball.

  4. The circumstances of athletes and within sports change over time and these changes must be considered before comparing different times. Swimming, in particular, appears to be very strongly influenced by issues like bathing suits and pool construction. Other factors include understanding of training methods and diet, level of competition (if someone wins in weak competition (s)he will lack the incentive to train harder of someone who narrowly looses), state of technique*, and, sadly, what drugs are available.

    *With the four established swimming techniques and their separation into different events, there is less revolutionary change and more improvement in detail, but even such detail can make a tremendous difference in the end. Sjöström, e.g., is known for her exquisite technique. In other sports, however, game altering changes have taken place, including in the high jump, shot put, cross-country skiing, and ski jump.

  5. If the women had caught up not only with the men of “yore”, but also with their contemporaries, this would have been far more impressive and had supported the claim less weakly. They had not… Correspondingly, it is unlikely that the times posted by these women were a sign of a removed difference in opportunity—but rather a result of factors like the above.

    For a further comparison with Sjöström, let us look at the world-record progression according to Wikipedia:

    Sjöström’s current 55.64 is roughly equal to Spitz’ 55.7* from 1967. The women’s world record in 1967 was 1:04.5 or 15.8** % slower. The current men’s world record is at 49.82, making Sjöström 11.7 % slower. Not only is the gap still very large, but it has not diminished by very much, when considering the aforementioned arguments about the age of an event. The 1980 world records actually differed by noticeably less with 9.4 %.***

    *Presumably, timing was in tenths of a second back then. Additional differences might exist, notably with regard to hand timing vs. automatic timing.

    **With the potential flaws in the measurements, 15–16 % might be a better statement, but let us keep it simple for now.

    ***1980 was picked as a round number when women’s swimming might have had a reasonable time to mature, in order to have an additional comparison. Going to 1981, the difference is far smaller yet, due to an extreme outlier. The presence of such outliers make a comparison with e.g. the tenth best time of the year more sensible—but I simply do not have the time to do the leg work. Even 1980 might be somewhat misleading due to PED issues, which tend to affect women more strongly, or the systematic selection programs of the GDR, which had dominated the 1970s. (However, the 1980 world-record holder, Mary T. Meagher, was from the U.S.) On the other hand, the current men’s recording might be misleading too, due to now banned swimming suits. The point remains: Differences might be smaller or larger than in the past, but they are still far too large to claim that women would have caught up with men in swimming; which kills Hofstadter’s premise.

And, no, as much as I enjoy her success, the claim that Sjöström’s times “match” those of Spitz is, at best, misleading: For the reasons discussed above, comparing their times is another case of comparing apples and oranges. (Not to mention that she still is far from Spitz’ career best.) The same is not unlikely to apply to the students of Hofstadter’s example.

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Written by michaeleriksson

May 22, 2016 at 5:58 pm

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