Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Not perfect; ergo, useless

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Quite a few odd human behaviors, especially on the political Left, could be explained by assuming a “not perfect; ergo, useless” principle, be it as a logical fallacy or as an intellectually dishonest line of pseudo-argumentation. (To the latter, I note that this principle seems to be applied hypocritically to the ideas of opponents but not to own ideas.)

A typical use is to find some flaw or disadvantage and use it to discredit the whole. (If a small flaw, usually combined with rhetorical exaggeration.) This without weighing the overall pros-and-cons, without acknowledging similar flaws in other ideas, products, whatnot, and without considering whether the flaw is repairable*. Consider e.g. an infomercial that I watched at a tender age: A hyper-energetic salesman ran around comparing “his” fitness product to the competition’s:** “The X is great—but, unlike my product, you can’t stow it under the bed!”, “The Y is great—but twice as expensive!”, “The Z is great—but not portable!”, etc., without comparing stowability, price, portability, and whatnot, over all products. It was simply not a fair comparison or an attempt to find the best choice, just a series of excuses to “prove” that any given competing product was inferior to the one sold by him.

*As a good counter-example, complicated mathematical proofs often turn out to contain defects. While these are sometimes fatal, they are often repairable and often the proof can still stand by limiting the conclusion to a subset of the original scope. Wiles’s proof of Fermat’s wild claim is a good example.

**This was likely more than 30 years ago, so I cannot vouch for the exact comparisons (let alone formulations), but the idea should be clear.

Or consider the example that was the impulse to write this text: In Hans Fallada’s Kleiner Mann — was nun?, the protagonist (Pinneberg) tries to get a payment from an insurance company, is met with an unexpected request for must-be-provided-before-payout documents, and inquires at some type of supervisory agency whether these were justified. He obtains and sends all the documents in a batch to the insurance company (in parallel). Now, some of these document were obtainable sooner (e.g. a birth certificate); others later. Pinneberg’s actions are then limited by the availability of the last of the documents that the insurance company requested. When the insurance company replies to the supervisory agency, it, among other things, tries to pawn off the delay on Pinneberg: he had the birth certificate at date X and sent it at date Y; ergo, the delay from date X to date Y was his own fault.*

*The book is not sufficiently detailed for me to judge whether these documents were reasonable and exactly how the blame is to be divided. However, this particular reasoning remains faulty, as Pinneberg could not have expected more than very marginally faster treatment through sending in a partial set of documents at an earlier time, and as the extra costs might have been unconscionable. (Pinneberg was a low earner with wife and child in the depression era, and want of money, unexpected expenses, risk of unemployment, etc., were constant issues.)

A more common example is IQ, which (among many other invalid attacks) is often met by e.g. variations of “there are poor high-IQ individuals; ergo, IQ is useless”, “the correlation between scholastic achievement and IQ is not perfect; ergo, IQ is useless”, “IQ is only X% heritable; ergo, we should ignore heritability of IQ”, …*

*Note the difference between these and perfectly legitimate and correct ones, e.g. “there are poor high-IQ individuals; ergo, IQ is not the sole determinant of wealth and income”. These, however, appear to be rarer in politics.

The last points to another common example: nature vs. nurture: too many* seem to think that because “nature” only explains some portion of individual** variation, it can or should be ignored entirely. Note e.g. calls for very high female quotas even in absurd areas, as with a 50% quota within a Conservative party, or various forms of distortive U.S. college recruiting to “help minorities”, unless these minorities happen to be Jewish or Asian. (Or male, for that matter.)

*Even among those who do not blindly deny any non-trivial influence of nature at all, whose position is solidly refuted by the biological sciences. It is rarely clear to me which school any given debater belongs to, which makes the division and the giving of examples tricky.

**This also relates to another fallacy: assuming that a small difference (in e.g. characteristics or outcomes) between typical individual members of different groups implies small group differences. This is sometimes the case, but not always, and especially not on the tails of a distribution.

The possibly paramount example, however, is postmodernism and its take on knowledge and science (logic, whatnot):* because science cannot give us perfect knowledge, science is a waste of time (or, even, quackery). Worse, even attitudes like “because we cannot have perfect knowledge, all hypotheses are equal”, “[…], we can decide what the truth is”, “[…], we can each have our own truth”, are common in, at least, the political and pseudo-academical use. However, even absent perfect knowledge, science can achieve much, say, finding what hypotheses are likely resp. unlikely, what models are good and bad at approximating the results from the unknown “true” model, or increasingly better approximations of various truths. Certainly, I would not be writing this text on a computer had it not been for science and the practical work done based on science.

*At least, as applied practically and/or by those less insightful. I cannot rule out that some brighter theorists have a much more nuanced view.

Excursion on fatal flaws:
Of course, there are cases when a flaw is fatal enough that the whole or most of the whole must be given up. A good example is, again, nature–nurture: if someone wants to base policy on a “nurture only” assumption, any non-trivial “nature” component could invalidate the policy.* A good family of examples is “yes, X would be great, but we cannot afford it”.

*And vice versa, but I cannot recall anyone basing policy on “nature only” in today’s world, while a “nurture only” or a “too little nature to bother with” assumption is ubiquitous. Cf. above.

Excursion on nature vs. nurture and removed variability:
A common error is to assume that the relative influence of “nature” and “nurture” is fix, which is not the case: both depend strongly on how much variability is present. Notably, if we remove variability from “nurture”, which appears to be the big policy goal for many on the Left, then the variability of “nature” will be relatively more important—and when we look at group outcomes, where the individual variation through chance evens out, then “nature” will increasingly be the dominant determinant. In other words, if “nature” (strictly hypothetically) could have been mostly ignored in the Sweden of 1920, a century of Leftist hyper-egalitarianism would almost certainly have made it quite important today. Similarly, note how attempts at removing “cultural bias” from IQ tests have not eliminated the many group differences in test results, of which it allegedly was the cause. Indeed, the group differences have sometimes even grown larger, because the influence of “culture”/“nurture” has been diminished in favor of “nature”.


Written by michaeleriksson

July 24, 2020 at 3:58 pm

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  1. […] note a parallel with “not perfect; ergo, useless”, maybe as “went wrong once; ergo, too […]

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