Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

A call for more (!) discrimination

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The word “discrimination” and its variations (e.g. “to discriminate”) is hopelessly abused and misunderstood in today’s world. Indeed, while properly referring to something (potentially) highly beneficial and much needed, it has come to be a mere short for longer phrases like “sexual discrimination” and “racial discrimination”.* Worse, even these uses are often highly misleading.** Worse yet, the word has increasingly even lost the connection with these special cases, degenerating into a mere ad hominem credibility killer or a blanket term for any unpopular behavior related (or perceived as related) to e.g. race.***

*Note that it is “sexual” and “racial”—not “sexist” and “racist”. The latter two involve ascribing an intention and mentality to someone else, beyond (in almost all cases) what can possibly be known—and is sometimes manifestly false. Further, their focus on the intent rather than the criteria would often make them unsuitable even in the rare cases where the use could otherwise be justified.

**E.g because a discrimination on a contextually rational and reasonable criterion (e.g. GPA for college admissions) indirectly results in differences in group outcome, which are then incorrectly ascribed to e.g. “racial discrimination”. The latter, however, requires that race was the direct criterion for discrimination.

***Including e.g. having non-PC opinions about some group or expressing that opinion, neither of which can in any meaningful sense be considered discrimination—even in cases where the opinion or expression is worthy of disapproval. This including even the (already fundamentally flawed) concept of micro-aggressions.

What then is discrimination? Roughly speaking: The ability to recognize the differences between whatever individuals/objects/phenomena/… are being considered, to recognize the expected effects of decisions involving them, and to act accordingly. Indeed, if I were to restrict the meaning further, it is the “act” part that I would remove…* (Also see a below excursion on the Wiktionary definitions.)

*E.g. in that I would not necessarily consider someone discriminating who flipped a coin and then hired exclusively men or exclusively women based on the outcome—apart from the greater group impact, this is not much different from the entirely undiscriminating hiring by a coin flip per candidate. I might possibly even exclude e.g. the feminist stereotype of a White Old Man who deliberately hires only men because of the perceived inferiority of women: This is, at best, poor discrimination on one level and a proof of a lack of discrimination on another. C.f. below. (While at the same time being a feminist’s prime example of “discrimination” in the distorted sense.)

For instance, deciding to hire or not to hire someone as a physician based on education and whether a license to practice medicine is present, is discrimination. So is requiring a lawyer to have passed a bar exam in order to perform certain tasks. So is requiring a fire fighter to pass certain physical tests. So is using easier tests for women* than for men. So is using health-related criteria to choose between food stuffs. So is buying one horse over another based on quality of teeth or one car over another based on less rust damage. Etc. Even being able to tell the difference between different types of discrimination based on justification and effects could be seen as discrimination!

*This is, specifically, sexual discrimination, which shows that even such special cases can have the blessing of the PC crowd. It also provides an example of why it is wrong to equate “sexual” and “sexist”, because, no matter how misguided this discrimination is, it is unlikely to be rooted in more than a greater wish for equality of outcome. To boot, it is an example of poor discrimination through focus on the wrong criteria or having the wrong priorities. (Is equality of outcome when hiring really more important than the lives of fire victims?!?)

Why do we need it?

Discrimination is very closely related to the ability to make good decisions (arguably, any decision short of flipping a coin)—and the better someone is at discriminating, the better the outcomes tend to be. Note that this is by no means restricted to such obvious cases as hiring decisions based on education. It also involves e.g. seeing small-but-critical differences in cases where an argument, analogy, or whatnot does or does not apply; or being able to tell what criteria are actually relevant to understanding the matter/making the decision at hand.*

*Consider e.g. parts of the discussion in the text that prompted this one; for instance, where to draw the line between speech and action, or the difference between the IOC’s sponsor bans and bans on kneeling football players. Or consider why my statements there about employer’s rights do not, or only partially, extend to colleges: Without a lack of understanding, someone might see the situations as analogous, based e.g. on “it’s their building” or “it’s their organization”. Using other factors, the situation changes radically, e.g. in that the employer pays the employee while the college is paid by the student; that co-workers who do not get along can threaten company profits, while this is only rarely the case with students who do not get along; and that a larger part of the “college experience” overlaps with the students personal life than is, m.m., the case for an employee—especially within the U.S. campus system. (For instance, what characteristic of a college would give it greater rights to restrict free speech in a dorm than a regular landlord in an apartment building? A lecture hall, possibly—a dorm, no.)

Indeed, very many of today’s societal problems and poor political decisions go back, at least partially, to a failure to discriminate resp. to discriminate based on appropriate criteria.

Consider e.g. the common tendency to consider everything relating to “nuclear” or “radioactive” to be automatically evil (or the greater evil): Nuclear power is “evil”, yet fossil energies do far more damage to the world. The nuclear bombings of Japan were “evil”, yet their conventional counter-part killed more people. Radioactive sterilization of food is “evil”, yet science considers it safe—much unlike food poisoning… What if discrimination was not done by name or underlying technology, but rather based on the effects, risks, opportunities?

Consider the (ignorant or deliberate) failure to discriminate between e.g. anti-Islamists and anti-Muslims or immigration critics and xenophobes, treating them the same and severely hindering a civilized public debate.

Consider the failure to discriminate between school children by ability and the enforcing of a “one size fits all” system that barely even fits the average*, and leaves the weakest and strongest as misfits—and which tries to force everyone to at a minimum go through high school (or its local equivalent). (Germany still does a reasonable job, but chances are that this will not last; Sweden was an absolute horror already when I went to school; and the U.S. is a lot worse than it should and could be.)

*Or worse, is so centered on the weakest that school turns into a problem even for the average… Indeed, some claim that e.g. the U.S. “No Child Left Behind Act” has done more harm than good for this very reason.

Consider the failure to discriminate between politicians based on their expected long-term effect on society, rather than the short-term effect on one-self.

Consider the failure to discriminate between mere effort and actual result, especially with regard to political decisions. (Especially in the light of the many politicians who do not merely appear to fail at own discrimination, but actually try to fool the voters through showing that “something is being done”—even should that something be both ineffective and inefficient.)

Consider the failure to discriminate between those who can think for themselves (and rationally, critically, whatnot) and those who can not when it comes to e.g. regulations, the right to vote, self-determination, …

Consider the failure to discriminate between use and abuse, e.g. of alcohol or various performance enhancing drugs. (Or between performance enhancing drugs that are more and less dangerous…)

Consider the undue discrimination between sex crimes (or sexcrimes…) and regular crimes, especially regarding restrictions on due process or reversal of reasonable expectations. (Whether sex is involved is not a valid criterion, seeing that e.g. due process is undermined as soon as any crime is exempt from it.)

Consider the undue discrimination between Israelis and Palestinians by many Westerners, where the one is held to a “Western” standard of behavior and the other is not. (Nationality is not relevant to this aspect of the conflict.)

A particularly interesting example is the classification of people not yet 18 as “children”*, which effectively puts e.g. those aged 3, 10, and 17 on the same level—an often absurd lack of discrimination, considering the enormous differences (be they physical, mental, in terms of experience or world-view, …) between people of these respective ages. Nowhere is this absurdity larger than in that the “child” turns into an “adult” merely through the arrival of a certain date, while being virtually identically the same as the day before—and this accompanied with blanket rights and obligations, with no other test of suitability. Note how this applies equally to someone well-adjusted, intelligent, and precocious as it does to someone who is intellectually over-challenged even by high school and who prefers to lead a life of petty crimes and drug abuse. (To boot, this rapid change of status is highly likely to make the “children” less prepared for adulthood, worsening the situation further.)

*The size of the problem can vary from country to country, however. In e.g. the U.S. there is a fair chance that a word like “minor” will be used, especially in more formal contexts, which at least reduces the mental misassociations; in Sweden, “barn” (“child”) dominates in virtually all contexts, including (at least newer) laws.

However, there are many other problems relating to the grouping of “children” with children, especially concerning undifferentiated societal and political debates around behavior from and towards these “children”. This in particular in the area of sex, where it is not just common to use terms like “pedophile”* and “child-porn” for the entire age-range, but where I have actually repeatedly seen the claim that those sexually attracted to someone even just shy of 18 would be perverts**—despite the age limit being largely arbitrary***, despite that many are at or close to their life-time peak in attractiveness at that age, despite that most of that age are fully sexually mature, and despite that people have married and had children at considerably lower ages for large stretches of human history.

*This word strictly speaking refers to someone interested in pre-pubescent children, making it an abuse of language not covered by the (disputable) justification that can be given to “child-porn” through the wide definition of “child”. Even if the use was semantically sound, however, the extremely different implications would remain, when children and “children” at various ages are considered.

**Presumably, because the classification of someone younger as a “child” has become so ingrained with some weak thinkers that they actually see 18 as a magic limit transcending mere laws, mere biological development, mere maturity (or lack there of), and leaving those aged 17 with more in common with those aged 8 than those aged 18.

***Indeed, the “age of consent” is strictly speaking separate from the “age of maturity”, with e.g. Sweden (15) and Germany (14 or 16, depending on circumstances) having a considerably lower age of consent while keeping the age of maturity at 18.

Not all discrimination, depending on exact meaning implied, is good, but this is usually due to a lack of discrimination. Consider e.g. making a hiring decision between a Jewish high-school drop-out and a Black Ph.D. holder: With only that information present, the hiring decision can be based on either the educational aspect, the race/ethnicity aspect, or a random choice.* If we go by the educational or race aspect, there is discrimination towards the candidates. However, if the race aspect is used, then this is a sign that there has been too little or incorrect discrimination towards the hiring criteria—otherwise the unsuitability of the race aspect as a criterion would have been recognized. This, in turn, is the reason why racial discrimination is almost always wrong: It discriminates by an unsound criterion. We can also clearly see why “discrimination” must not be reduced to the meanings implied by “racial [and whatnot] discrimination”—indeed, someone truly discriminating (adjective) would not have been discriminating (verb) based on race in the above example.

*Or a combination thereof, which I will ignore: Including the combinations has no further illustrative value.

Excursion on proxy criteria:
Making decisions virtually always involves some degree of proxy criteria, because it is impossible to judge e.g. how well an applicant for a job fairs on the true criteria. For instance, the true criterion might amount to “Who gives us the best value for our money?”. This, however, is impossible to know in advance, and the prospective employer resorts to proxy criteria like prior experience, references, education, … that are likely to give a decent, if far from perfect, idea of what to expect. (Indeed, even these criteria are arguably proxies-for-proxies like intelligence, industriousness, conscientiousness, …—and, obviously, the ability to discriminate!)

Unfortunately, sometimes proxies are used that are less likely to give valuable information (e.g. impression from an interview) and/or are “a proxy too far” (e.g. race). To look at the latter, a potential U.S. employer might (correctly) observe that Jews currently tend to have higher grades than Blacks and tend to advance higher in the educational system, and conclude that the Jew is the better choice. However, seeing that this is a group characteristic, it would be much better to look at the actual individual data, removing a spurious proxy: Which of the two candidates does have the better grades and the more advanced education—not who might be expected to do so based on population statistics.

As an aside, one of my main beefs with increasing the number of college graduates (even at the cost of lowering academic standards to let the unsuitable graduate) is that the main role of a diploma was to serve as a proxy for e.g. intelligence and diligence, and that this proxy function is increasingly destroyed. Similarly, the greater infantilization of college students removes the proxy effect for ability to work and think for oneself.

Excursion on discrimination and double standards:
Interestingly, discrimination otherwise rejected, usually relating to the passage of time, is sometimes arbitrarily considered perfectly acceptable and normal. A good example is the age of maturity and variations of “age of X” (cf. above)—a certain age is used as an extremely poor and arbitrary proxy for a set of personal characteristics.

In other cases, such discrimination might have a sufficient contextual justification that it is tolerated or even considered positive. For instance, even a well qualified locker-room attendant of the wrong sex might not be acceptable to the visitors of a public bath, and the bath might then use sex as a hiring criterion. Not allowing men to compete in e.g. the WTA or WNBA can be necessary to give women a reasonable chance at sports success (and excluding women from the ATP or the NBA would then be fair from a symmetry point of view). Etc.

Then there is affirmative action…

Excursion on how to discriminate better:
A few general tips on how to discriminate better: Question whether a criterion is actually relevant, in it self, or is just as proxy, proxy-for-a-proxy, proxy-for-a-proxy-for-a-proxy, …; and try to find a more immediate criterion. Question the effectiveness of criteria (even immediate ones). Do not just look at what two things have in common (e.g. building ownership, cf. above) but what makes them different (e.g. being paid or paying). Try to understand the why and the details of something and question whether your current assumptions on the issue are actually correct—why is X done this way*, why is Y a criterion, why is Z treated differently, … Try to look at issues with reason and impartiality, not emotion or personal sympathy/antipathy; especially, when the issues are personal, involve loved ones or archenemies, concern “pet peeves”, or otherwise are likely to cause a biased reaction.

*The results can be surprising. There is a famous anecdote about a member of the younger generation who wanted to find out why the family recipe for a pot-roast (?) called for cutting off part of it in a certain manner. Many questions later, someone a few generations older, and the origin of the tradition, revealed the truth: She had always done so in order to … make the pot-roast fit into her too small pan. Everyone else did so in the erroneous belief that there was some more significant purpose behind it—even when their pans were larger.

Excursion on when not to discriminate (at all):
There might be instances where potential discrimination, even when based on superficially reasonable grounds, is better not done.

For instance, topics like free speech, especially in a U.S. campus setting, especially with an eye on PC/Leftist/whatnot censorship, feature heavily in my current thoughts and readings. Here we can see an interesting application of discrimination: Some PC/Leftist/whatnot groups selectively (try to) disallow free speech when opinions contrary to theirs are concerned. Now, if someone is convinced that he is right, is that not a reasonable type of discrimination (from his point of view)?

If the goal is to push one’s own opinion through at all cost, then, yes, it is.

Is that enough justification? Only to those who are not just dead certain and lacking in respect for others, but who also are very short-sighted:

Firstly, as I often note, there is always a chance that even those convinced beyond the shadow of a doubt are wrong. (Indeed, those dead certain often turn out to be dead wrong, while those who turn out to be right often were open to doubts.) What if someone silences the opposition, forces public policy to follow a particular scheme without debate, indoctrinates future generations in a one-sided manner, …—and then turns out to be wrong? What if the wrongness is only discovered with a great delay, or not at all, due to the free-speech restrictions? Better then to allow other opinions to be uttered.

Secondly, if the power situation changes, those once censoring can suddenly find themselves censored—especially, when they have themselves established censorship as the state of normality. Better then to have a societal standard that those in power do not censor those out of power.

Thirdly, there is a dangerous overlap between the Niemöller issue and the fellow-traveler fallacy: What if the fellow travelers who jointly condemn their common enemies today, condemn each other tomorrow? (Similarly, it is not at all uncommon for a previously respected member of e.g. the feminist community to be immediately cast out upon saying something “heretic”.) Better then to speak up in defense of the censored now, before it is too late.

Fourthly, exposure to other opinions, dialectic, eclecticism, synthesis, … can all be beneficial for the individual—and almost a necessity when we look at e.g. society as a whole, science, philosophy, … Better then to not forego these benefits.

Fifthly, and possibly most importantly, censorship is not just an infringement of rights against the censored speaker—it is also an infringement of rights against the listeners. If we were (I do not!) to consider the act against the speaker justified (e.g. because he is “evil”, “racist”, “sexist”, or just plainly “wrong”); by what reasoning can this be extended to the listeners? Short of “it’s for their own good” (or, just possibly, “it’s for the greater good”), I can see nothing. We would then rob others of their right to form their own opinions, to expose themselves to new ideas, whatnot, in the name of “their own good”—truly abhorrent. Better then to allow everyone the right to choose freely, both in terms of whom to listen to and what to do with what is heard.

Excursion on failure to discriminate in terminology:
As with the child vs. “child” issue above, there are many problems with (lack of) discrimination that can arise through use of inappropriate words or inconsistent use of words. A very good example is the deliberate abuse of the word “rape” to imply a very loosely and widely defined group of acts, in order to ensure that “statistics” show a great prevalence, combined with a (stated or implied) more stringent use when these “statistics” are presented as an argument for e.g. policy change. Since there is too little discrimination between rape and “rape”, these statistics are grossly misleading. Other examples include not discriminating between the words* “racial” and “racist”, “[anabolic] steroid” and “PED”, “convicted” and “guilty”, …

*Or the concepts: I am uncertain to what degree the common abuse of “racist” for “racial” is based on ignorance of language or genuine confusion about the corresponding concepts. (Or intellectually dishonest rhetoric by those who do know the difference…) Similar remarks can apply elsewhere.

(In a bigger picture, similar problems include e.g. euphemistic self-labeling, as with e.g. “pro-life” and “pro-choice”; derogatory enemy-labeling, e.g. “moonbat” and “wingnut”; and emotionally manipulative labels on others, e.g. the absurd rhetorical misnomer “dreamer” for some illegal aliens. Such cases are usually at most indirectly related to discrimination, however.)

Excursion on Wikipedia and Wiktionary:
Wikipedia, often corrupted by PC editors [1], predictably focuses solely on the misleading special-case meanings in the allegedly main Wikipedia article on discrimination, leaving appropriate use only to alleged special cases… A particular perversity is a separate article on Discrimination in bar exam, which largely ignores the deliberate discriminatory attempt to filter out those unsuited for the bar and focuses on alleged discrimination of Blacks and other ethnicities. Not only does this article obviously fall into the trap of seeing a difference in outcome (on the exam) as proof of differences in opportunity; it also fails to consider that Whites are typically filtered more strongly before* they encounter the bar exam, e.g. through admittance criteria to college often being tougher.**

*Implying that the exam results of e.g. Blacks and Whites are not comparable. As an illustration: Take two parallel school-classes and the task to find all students taller than 6′. The one teacher just sends all the students directly to the official measurement, the other grabs a ruler and only sends those appearing to be taller than 5′ 10”. Of course, a greater proportion of the already filtered students will exceed the 6′ filtering… However, this is proof neither that the members of their class would be taller (in general), nor that the test would favor their class over the other.

**Incidentally, a type of racial discrimination gone wrong: By weakening criteria like SAT success in favor of race, the standard of the student body is lowered without necessarily helping those it intends to help. (According to some, e.g. [2] and [3], with very different perspectives and with a long time between them.) To boot, this type of discrimination appears to hit another minority group, the East-Asians, quite hard. (They do better on the objective criteria than Whites; hence, they, not Whites, are the greater victims.)

Worse, one of its main sources (and the one source that I checked) is an opinion piece from a magazine (i.e. a source acceptable for a blog, but not for an encyclopedia), which is cited in a misleading manner:* Skimming through the opinion piece, the main theses appear to be (a) that the bar exam protects the “insiders” from competition by “outsiders” by ensuring a high entry barrier**, (b) that this strikes the poor*** unduly, and (c) that the bar exam should be abolished.

*Poor use of sources is another thing I criticized in [1].

**This is Economics 101. The only debatable point is whether the advantages offset the disadvantages for society as a whole.

***Indeed, references to minorities appear to merely consider them a special case of the “poor”, quite unlike the Wikipedia article. To boot, from context and time, I suspect that the “minorities” might have been e.g. the Irish rather than the Blacks or the Hispanics…

Wiktionary does a far better job. To quote and briefly discuss the given meanings:

  1. Discernment, the act of discriminating, discerning, distinguishing, noting or perceiving differences between things, with intent to understand rightly and make correct decisions.

    Rightfully placed at the beginning: This is the core meaning, the reason why discrimination is a good thing and something to strive for, and what we should strive to preserve when we use the word.

  2. The act of recognizing the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ in situations and choosing good.

    Mostly a subset of the above meaning, with reservations for the exact meaning of “good”. (But I note that even a moral “good” could be seen as included above.)

  3. The setting apart of a person or group of people in a negative way, as in being discriminated against.

    Here we have something that could be interpreted in the abused sense; however, it too could be seen as a subset of the first item, with some reservation for the formulation “negative way”. Note that e.g. failing to hire someone without a license to practice medicine for a job as a practicing physician would be a good example of the meaning (and would be well within the first item).

  4. (sometimes discrimination against) Distinct treatment of an individual or group to their disadvantage; treatment or consideration based on class or category rather than individual merit; partiality; prejudice; bigotry.

    sexual or racial discrimination

    Only here do we have the abused meaning—and here we see the central flaw: The example provided (“sexual or racial discrimination”) only carries the given meaning (in as far as exceeding the previous item) when combined with a qualifier; dropping such qualifiers leads to the abuse. “Sexual discrimination”, “racial discrimination”, etc., carry such meanings—just “discrimination” does not. This makes it vital never to drop these qualifiers.

    Similarly, not all ships are space ships or steam ships, the existence of the terms “space ship” and “steam ship” notwithstanding; not all forest are rain forests; sea lions are not lions at all and sea monkeys are not even vertebrates; …

    Note that some of the listed meanings only apply when viewed in the overall context of the entire sentence. Bigotry, e.g., can be a cause of discrimination by an irrelevant criterion; however, “sexual discrimination”, etc., is not it self bigotry. Prejudice* can contain sexual discrimination but is in turn a much wider concept.

    *“Prejudice” is also often misunderstood in a potentially harmful manner: A prejudice is not defined by being incorrect—but by being made in advance and without knowing all the relevant facts. For example, it is prejudice to hear that someone plays in the NBA and assume, without further investigation, that he is tall—more often than not (in this case), it is also true.

  5. The quality of being discriminating, acute discernment, specifically in a learning situation; as to show great discrimination in the choice of means.

    Here we return to a broadly correct use, compatible with the first item, but in a different grammatical role (for want of a better formulation).

    I admit to having some doubts as to whether the implied grammatical role makes sense. Can the quality of being discriminating be referred to as “discrimination”? (As opposed to e.g. “showing discrimination”.) Vice versa for the second half.

  6. That which discriminates; mark of distinction, a characteristic.

    The same, but without reservations for grammatical role.


Written by michaeleriksson

August 9, 2018 at 2:08 am

Guns don’t kill people; people kill people

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For most of my life, I have considered “Guns don’t kill people; people kill people.” to be a cheap and pointless slogan. It is not without cleverness, but the main observation is so trivial as to be uninteresting and I detest argumentation by slogan instead of real arguments.

However, over the last few years, I have encountered several discussions of mass- and school-shootings—all followed by a call for greater gun-control. In light of these, I have slowly grown to understand that this slogan contains a truly profound insight into issues around guns and gun-control, or (more accurately) what is wrong with the debate on these issues:

If a teenage boy goes to his school and blasts away at students and teachers alike, how can questions like “Where did he get the gun?” and “How do we prevent others from getting a gun?” be the first to be asked?!? Is it not self-evident that the first questions should and must be “Why did he do it?” and “How do we prevent others from wanting to do the same?” in an exploration of actual motive, motivation, psychological problems, social situation, …?!? Is it not self-evident that a society (and/or school system) that brings about such events again and again has something much worse wrong with it than too little gun-control?!?

For that matter, would gun-control really even have helped? There are other ways to kill people than guns, e.g. by setting a fire, driving a car into a crowd, building a home-made bomb (instructions are available on the Internet), stabbing someone with a kitchen knife, poisoning a punch bowl, … True, guns might have enabled at least some shooters to kill more people than they otherwise could have, but if someone is driven to the point where these people have obviously been driven, I seriously doubt that a lack of guns would have stopped him.

Here is the rub, or at least a part of it: More gun-control is easy to come up with, easy to explain, easy to paint as (in a contextually unfortunate metaphor) a silver bullet, whatnot. Deeper analysis of what went wrong with the shooter, not just his guns, requires far more thinking and understanding, and might lead to answers that are unpopular. What if, as is my personal suspicion, it turns out that the school or school system carries a significant part of the burden? What if the consequence is that decades of ideas and reforms relating to school must be rolled back?

Now, I do not know what went wrong with the shooters or who/what is to blame, I do not know what the best way to prevent future shootings is, I do not know whether more gun-control would have helped. I do know this: The focus must be on the shooter—not the gun: Guns don’t kill people; people kill people…

Written by michaeleriksson

August 6, 2018 at 9:54 am

Linear texts vs. non-linear thoughts / My style of writing

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With my intense recent writing, and especially writing of longer texts, I have had plenty of opportunity to reflect upon my writing process, the quality of the results, what I might do differently now than in the past, and similar.

I am particularly interested in the problematic linearity of language, something I wrote about as early as (almost) a decade ago, in a text on the Limitations of language [1]: Language is linear; thoughts are not.

The thoughts (opinions, ideas, associations, whatnots) of the human mind form a complex network. An ideal communication would not just bring a single strand or chain of thought into the minds of the “receiver”—it would bring the entire network. Not only is this required for comprehending the totality of what the “sender” thinks, it is also required to truly understand even the single strand that might be the main point of the communication: All understanding of others is imperfect. The degree can vary considerably, but perfection cannot be reached without having the entire network of the counter-part. Notably, relying on one’s own network can lead to very considerable miscomprehension when the networks are far apart, e.g. due to changing times, different cultural backgrounds, differently evolved understanding of the topic, different emotional modes or practical contexts, …

Solving this problem is the Holy Grail of communication.

Unfortunately, it is likely to remain unsolved, at least for human communications: Not only is it unrealistic to even put into words more than a small, pertinent part of the network, but the more of the network is included, the greater the demands on the reader in terms of comprehension, ability to absorb and retain, time and patience needed, … A particular complication is the connections between the nodes of the network: In reality, a text will mostly deal with the nodes, putting most of the burden of correct interconnection with the reader—doing otherwise would lead to impossibly long texts.* Even the collected works of a great philosopher are unlikely to give a complete network—and how many have actually read, let alone retained and comprehended, such a collection? (This even discounting some trifling details like the philosopher’s opinions possibly changing between books A and B…)

*For an understanding, look into elementary combinatorics.

Looking at my own writings, I have long tried to put larger parts of my network into my texts than most others do. This partially for the above reasons, partially (admittedly) through lack of discipline, and partially because doing so helps me develop my network and to extend and revise my understanding of the issues and arguments at hand, society, myself, …—and self-improvement is the main purpose of my writings (cf. [2], [3]). I deliberately do so even at the risk of a text appearing or being unstructured, excessively long, lacking in focus, or violating some other characteristic typically considered part of quality writing.

Notably, given the right reader, “appearing” is often more appropriate than “being”: Someone who reads and thinks like I do, and who is willing to go the extra mile, will gain more from my texts as they are than from the same text written “by the book”—and will do so with little discomfort. (But I realize that only a minority of the potential readers will match this description.)

Consider e.g. what I wrote a week ago (when I did most of the thinking for the current text): On a superficial inspection, the text might look entirely haphazard; in actuality, it is not.

Notably, the general structure of the main text actually has a plan: First, an event (Bahta’s test issues) is taken, described, and expanded upon in terms of implications. Second, the event is generalized to a bigger picture (consequences of anti-doping measures on athletes) and problems of the bigger picture are described. Third, as a center and turning point, a call for change (re-evaluation of doping) is made based on the preceding. Fourth, the call is given additional motivation through a discussion of other aspects than the athletes’ situations. Fifth, some counter-arguments are discussed (partly to “declaw” them; partly to be reasonably complete). Finally, a very strong argument in favor of my call from outside sports is thrown in, to show that the benefits are not limited to sports, and to hammer home the point. (Admittedly, the placing of this final argument was less a rhetorical plan and more a problem of where to fit it.)

Here the main part of the text, when skipping the footnotes, is formed into a linear skeleton, or strand, which during my own readings* moved my mind from A to B to C … in a pleasing, structured, and target reaching manner—even be it somewhat unusually.

*I try to read and proof-read my texts several times before publication. I am aware that my experience of the text can be different from what others see, because my mind tends to work differently and because being the author can change the experience for anyone.

This strand is expanded by a number of footnotes that can be read during, alternating with, or after the reading of the strand—or they can be left out entirely, at some risk of reaching a simplistic understanding of my intentions and the details of the issue. The result is not quite a net, but goes well beyond a single strand.

A further expansion takes place as a series of excursion at the end, that either did not fit content-wise in the main text, or were simply too long to be a constructive part of the main text or the footnotes.

With the occasional intra-text and (per link) inter-text reference, as well as some combinatory ability on part of the reader, I now have a “net-ish” overall structure. This remains far from being the complete net, but it covers far more ground than the single strand does.

(Of course, the description above need only partially reflect an original plan—as my understanding, intentions, whatnot change, so can the plan. Equally, it does not necessarily reflect the order of writing: Footnotes are mostly written concurrently with the paragraph they appear in, and excursions can, in rare cases, even be written before the main text.)

Looking at the negatives of my writings, there are many things that I could do better (even in the light of my priorities). For instance, not every piece has a structure or focus that I approve of myself. Consider e.g. yesterday’s post and the sub-topic of pharmacies: This text would have been better, had I removed every single word on pharmacies. Barring that, this sub-topic should have been cut considerably—especially, being somewhat off topic. However, since pharmacies were a part of my original intention, I thought that I would just mention this and why I had chosen not to expand on the intention. Doing so, I was led to speculate on the underlying mechanisms, the topic of service reared its head—and then things got out of hand…* In terms of my main priority, this was not necessarily a bad thing, seeing that it caused me to think some things through, do a bit of reading around pharmacies, and brought me the realization that I have a surprising amount of annoyance at them (relative my comparatively few interactions); however, the published text was worse off, and I should have put this sub-topic in a separate text or even canned it entirely—not every word I write must be published.** More generally, the fact that I put in comparatively little effort in preparation regularly leaves me with pieces that do not quite fit in the whole, or a need to restructure the text as the writing proceeds.***

*A sometime danger with my approach to writing. Similarly, I have on some occasions started to write on topic A and found that the main part of the text actually dealt with other topics, because I began with a specific idea around topic A, saw it sprout a few associations, that in turn sprouted further associations, …, and most of these associations related to topic B. (Mostly, I have either moved the “official” topic of the text to B, or divided it into several smaller texts.)

**I failed to do so out of a mixture of laziness, tiredness after the already long work on the text, and a misguided feeling of “it’s a shame to waste all that effort”.

***This is contrary to many recommendations on writing, e.g. that one should start with a very clear outline (and stick to that outline) or that preparation is key. However, having more than a very rough outline would hinder me in my main priority: With these texts, it is not the goal of the journey that is important—but the journey, it self.

Another problem is the lack of more formal structure, e.g. the use of headings and sub-headings or the inclusion of e.g. a brief introduction or conclusion. Here the recent considerable increase in text length has caught me off guard, and I still proceed in a manner more suited to my pre-sabbatical texts.* As a special case, I have found that for shorter and more focused texts, a simple list/enumeration often works better than formal headings, especially when it allows a more natural textual flow; however, this can fail for longer texts, when the items of the list grow too long, or when several lists would be needed. The matter is complicated by technical restrictions and a fear of technical problems in my current markup-to-HTML-to-Wordpress setup, which make me hesitant to introduce headings before I am back on my website proper.

*I have more time to spend on writing, the process is less of a chore, and I usually have a clearer head than I do in the hours between “got back from work” and “time to sleep”. In combination with my writing approach, this has lead to an entirely unplanned change of typical length.

Obviously, this length issue could prove problematic for the type of structure discussed above too: It might be a pragmatical necessity to change approach with works of such lengths. (Or to deliberately write shorter pieces…)

Yet other problems have nothing to do with structure. For instance, I noted my own wordiness a decade ago, and things have not approved since then—for the very reason given in that text.

Excursion on the Holy Grail vs. own understanding:
Receiving a message as intended is only a part of message processing. While the goal of communication, per se, is to send and receive messages with as little loss as possible, it is not a given that understanding the sender is the best the receiver can do. In many cases, interpreting the message in the own network can be more worthwhile, especially when the receiver is (in some sense) more advanced than the sender or when sender and receiver have different priorities. (But he should then keep this in mind when e.g. criticizing the message.) For instance, if the sender presents some facts and arguments, the receiver might use them for other purposes than the sender did. Certainly, there is no obligation to accept the sender’s conclusions and recommendations: The receiver should strive to understand why the sender came to a certain conclusion and how the sender reasoned, but whether he agrees with the sender is a matter of his own reasoning, possibly under application of additional facts and arguments that might not have been present in the message.

Excursion on footnotes*:
An interesting difference in structure between my current writings and what I once wrote for my website is the use of footnotes and “informal” excursions rather than “formal” boxes with side-notes. The latter are more optically pleasing and I originally only started to use footnotes as a quick-and-dirty solution. By now, however, I actually find the new way to be superior in most regards, including being less intrusive (at a given length) and having a better possibility to anchor the footnote to a specific part of the main text. (Possible technical and formatting improvements, e.g., a switch from “starred” markers to numerical markers, notwithstanding.)

*“Paragraph note” might hit the actual use better, but might also cause more confusion than it brings clarity.

Excursion on writing vs. coding:
My approach to writing is likely unconsciously influenced by how I (often) program: I have had considerable exposure to e.g. systematic refactoring, Scrum, and test-driven development, often leading to an approach of writing code according to the current need and then constantly adapting it as requirements are incrementally specified, weaknesses are spotted, … A critical difference, however, is that the code is driven by a specific goal and my texts are more driven by the learning experience; making e.g. an excursion a waste of time and a potential source of problems in the former case, but a beneficial means of growth in the latter. I stress, however, that I do not recommend shoddy planning when it comes to coding. On the contrary, spending time thinking through the general outline of the code, what complications might ensue, what interface must be provided, what might be modularized how, etc. in advance is highly recommendable. (With the reservation that the simpler the problem and more competent the developer, less planning tends to be needed. With the right “feel” and experience, much of this is sufficiently intuitively obvious that the planning stage can be diminished.)

Written by michaeleriksson

August 5, 2018 at 12:15 am

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German regulations sabotaging markets

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Yesterday, I was skimming through a few of my older texts and stumbled upon the claim:

This too is likely a result of the flawed German model: The only reason that realtors do not have money effortlessly pouring in, is that the potential profits have lured too many people into this business…

(In the context of complaining about realtors, their cost, their service level, and the proportion of realtors to real estate in Germany.)

If there are, in some sense, too many realtors, should that not drive down the prices and increase the service level? Should not the more competitive (better, cheaper, more efficient, …) realtors drive the less competitive off the market?

Unfortunately, the aforementioned flawed German model strikes again (see the link for more details): Because realtors provide a service to the seller* for which the buyer pays, the whole price argument goes down the drain. The seller hires the realtor in the knowledge that he will not need to pay him, and therefore does not** care about the actual price, implying that a realtor who lowers his prices will lose in income per object without being handed more objects. At the same time, there is a regulatory upper limit on the percentage*** of the object price that the realtor may charge. In combination, this leads to almost all realtors charging the regulatory limit on almost all objects…

*Until fairly recently, this situation applied both to rented and sold objects, which strongly contributed to the historical development of the situation. Today, landlords have to pay for themselves, and I restrict the text to speak of “seller” (and so on). It is to be hoped that this change will at least partially remedy the problem—but it is unlikely to truly do so unless the seller–buyer situation is also changed.

**With some reservations for objects that are hard to get rid of and where the realtor’s fees might be the last straw for a prospective buyer. That objects are hard to move is the exception in today’s Germany, however, and the realtor’s fee is usually too small (as a proportion of the overall price and costs) to be a major psychological deterrent. (Note that there are a number of other costs than the actual price and the realtor’s fees, including a purchase tax, various administrative fees, bank fees and interest when a loan is needed, fees to the building manager (for an apartment), and possibly a few others—and that is not even counting the costs for the actual move, needed repairs, and whatnots.)

***An interesting twist is that since fees are percentage based, realtors are paid the more, the easier their job is: In an hotter seller’s market, unloading an object is correspondingly easier; in a hotter seller’s market, the price (and thereby the realtor fee) is correspondingly higher.

However, this also means that there is little incentive for realtors to try to compete through better service: If they try to do more for the sellers (let alone buyers…), they have extra costs that cannot be put on the bill; and such a “more” would be bad business. (Obviously, someone who has a better turnaround might be able to sell more objects, but with the over-establishment present, there is no guarantee that such would be found. The seller might be happier with a faster sale, but most will not need to sell another object for the next two decades, leaving word-of-mouth the main benefit to the realtor—then again, since the seller need not even understand that his sale was unusually fast, there might be no word-of-mouth either.)

The problems are worsened by the minimal qualifications needed to become a realtor, allowing more-or-less anyone to move onto the market at will, increasing the risk of over-establishment. This also contributes to keeping the competence levels down, because those with a brain will usually have sufficiently good prospects elsewhere that they do not consider becoming realtors, while many who are worse off believe it to be an easy way to get wealthy. (Which it, except for over-establishment, would have been, at least in the major cities.) This is not only immediately bad for both buyer and seller, but can also have an indirect effect through poor “strategic” decision: For instance, if better service does lead to a sufficiently higher turnaround (cf. above) that the increase in costs is considerably outweighed, a less competent realtor is less likely to realize this.

To this we have to factor in the various problems discussed in the linked earlier text and in an even older, and it is clear that the law has very severely reduced the ability of market mechanisms to improve the abysmal situation— we are left where we were.

Unfortunately, there are quite a few other areas in Germany that suffer from very similar problems.

Consider e.g. taxicabs*: What happens when someone starts a new cab company (be it larger scale or as a one-man operation) or when an existing company adds a few new cabs? Do the prices drop? No—but the line of cabs at the train station or airport that waits for their turn grows longer… In effect, the prices remain the same, the service level remains** the same, and each cabby or cab company just ends up with a smaller piece of the pie. This to the point that I am often*** asked point blank whether I would like to arrange for this specific cab/cabby to pick me up again after work—business must truly be booming… (The extremely negative reactions to Uber and similar services, and the attempts to ban them by court, are understandable, seeing that they drain the market further. However, these reactions are also a great shame, because they do/would introduce a positive competition, and the bans kill that. To boot, Uber shows that regular cab companies, and/or the regulators, might do well to reconsider business models…) When someone calls for a cab, it is pretty much the same, except that there is now a virtual line of cabs…

*The fare conditions are prescribed by the respective city (or some similar entity).

**In this specific setting. In other settings, e.g. how soon a cab can be sent to pick someone up, there might be a positive effect; however, it is unlikely to be very large considering the overall situation.

***On those rare occasions that I do take a cab. Mostly I get by on foot or with public transportation.

Or consider the “Buchpreisbindung”*: Bookstores cannot compete by price, implying not only that books remain unnecessarily expensive, but also that e.g. a “lower price for lower service” or a “better opening hours for a higher price” strategy cannot even be attempted. A family bookstore that might have better margins, absent the need to pay employees, cannot compensate for a smaller set of available books by dropping prices, neither can it drop prices in the “off season”** to get by until business picks up again. Online retailers cannot compete with a lower price based on lower costs. The single low-volume bookstore in Hicktown cannot raise its prices in order to survive; the one-of-many in central Metropolis cannot lower them for a bigger share of the customers. Customers do not have the ability to travel a little further for a better price and a bulk-buy. Etc. In contrast, a large bookstore chain can buy the books at a greater discount from the publishers and pocket the difference. Predictably, the big chains and publishers are great fans of the Buchpreisbindung—they get most of the extra money from the customers and their smaller/newer/paradigm-changing competitors are hindered.

*The obligation for book publishers to set a fix price for every book and the simultaneous obligation for bookstores to sell at exactly that price. I note that the book industry in most other countries, and e.g. the DVD and CD industries in Germany, work without the equivalent of a Buchpreisbindung.

**I am frankly uncertain what this would be for a bookstore; however, there are definitely seasonal variations, including around Christmas and the “back to school” rush in the autumn.

The situation is made the more annoying by the, often idiotic, attempts to justify the Buchpreisbindung, including that it would benefit the smaller stores*. Other arguments point to advantages for first-time authors or small publishers—but how are they helped? The Buchpreisbindung only mandates a fix selling price for any given book, it does not prescribe the amount—and no price is of any help unless a sale takes place! A smaller publisher could try to compete by setting a lower price than comparable books from the competition, but if the book then becomes a hit, a lot of the potential winnings would be lost, because the price cannot trivially** be raised back to the competitions’ level. Vice versa, if the price is originally set too high for the book to sell, lowering it to make the book more attractive is not trivial. Similarly, the first-time author could try to sell himself cheaply, but it is not a given that any publisher would cooperate (preferring other authors who are established and give them a greater profit margin), and he otherwise faces problems similar to the publisher’s. Of course, if (!) and to the degree that these justifications do hold, they are not necessarily doing the world a favor, seeing that they would often artificially keep inefficient businesses afloat at the cost of someone else…

*This seems highly unlikely both due to reasoning like the above, the overall reduction of the market caused by higher prices, and the fact that smaller stores de facto are being wiped out by the larger chains. (The larger chains can compete with more books, a big cafe, name recognition, an advertising budget, special events, better trained staff, … The mom-and-pop store? Precious little…) In as far as the argument holds, e.g. in that the many smaller store with higher costs would be supported, it does not hold by altering the relative ability to compete—but through forcing an artificial subsidy from the unwilling customers.

**Strictly speaking, it can raise or lower the price relative the bookstores, but since their willingness to pay is limited by what they can charge the readers (i.e. the fix price) and since a price change towards the bookstore has no effect on the readers’ willingness to buy, this is not that much of a help. Apart from that, it might (I lack detail knowledge) even be that the publisher would be forced to put out an entire new edition to change the price—and even if that is not necessary, there would be the problem of communicating the price change everywhere. (And what about a price lowering that went beyond what the bookstores originally paid for their current stock…) For price reductions, there is always remaindering (cf. below), but that could lessen future chances (especially for the author) and might not give much flexibility, seeing that remaindered books are usually sold in competition with other remaindered books, which necessitates a very major price cut to be competitive in the new setting.

An interesting twist is the extensive remaindering of books that have sold too poorly, which proves how flawed the system is: After some time period, books can be released from the Buchpreisbindung, and then take ridiculous hits in price, e.g. going from 25 to 5 Euro in one day, instead of gradually drifting downwards over time.

Oh, and yes, if the Buchpreisbindung worked as advertised, would there not be an abundance of new or low-selling “high literature” authors to be found in a bookstore? One might thinks so, but they are a very small minority. In fact, about half a modern German bookstore has no books at all, in favour of Cafes, reading areas, calendars, school supplies, …—and much of the rest is mass- or publisher produced, ghostwritten, whatnot. The cooking and travel sections alone might take up a quarter of the actual book part of a bookstore. Possibly half the books are translated from other languages (or imported without translation), and here the Buchpreisbindung has very little effect on the authors. Etc.

Other government induced market failures and injustices abound in Germany, as with e.g. the construction industry and “Kurzarbeit”: During the summer, the construction industry booms and charges high prices; during the winter, the temperature and weather conditions lead to a scale-back. However, instead of the industry now trying to find more work through a lowering of prices, or the individual construction worker by a temporary switch to another field, what happens? The construction companies go to the government, point to the lack of orders, and request a “Kurzarbeit” classification, allowing them to reduce hours and wages, with the government covering most of the wage reduction towards the construction workers. In effect, the construction industry can both eat its cake and have it too, at the cost of the tax payers and customers.

Pharmacies might be a strong candidate for this discussion (and were the first non-realtor example that occurred to me): Despite a massive over-establishment, pharmacies remain unduly pricey and lacking in service quality (see excursion)—implying a similar market paradox. However, I am uncertain whether the reasons are similar or, as it were, another disease manifests with similar symptoms. The strong regulations on the profession might be a partial reason, as might a partial or indirect price-regulation and price-insensitivity*. It might also be something relating to a poor ability of customers to compare prices, restrictions on the size of the individual pharmacy group** preventing economies of scale, and an undue trust placed in pharmacies by the naive.

*A significant part of the business is, obviously, prescription drugs. These are largely paid for by insurance companies, implying that (a) the individual customer is significantly less price sensitive than he ideally should be, (b) prices are geared at what the insurance companies are willing to pay, with any cent left off the maximum price being a cent lost. (There might or might not be additional regulations or central agreements controlling what the insurance companies pay.)

**In my recollection, a maximum of four (!) individual pharmacies; however, I could be wrong.

Excursion on pharmacies and service:
The problems include poor opening hours and deliberate attempts to fool customers into buying homeopathic* quackery products, the most expensive product that they have in a given product group** (without mention of alternatives), and/or something that the local drugstore or supermarket sells for a fraction of the price. Several of my talks with pharmacy staff*** have had more in common with a sales pitch than with medical advise. The one time I really would have needed advice, after some nit-wit physician actually prescribed (!) a homeopathic product, not one word of warning was given: No “are you aware that this product is useless”, no “are you sure that you want this”, no “you might want to get a second opinion”, … (I only discovered the issue when I had arrived home, leaving me understandably furious.)

*While this is for all intents and purposes fraud, it is unfortunately still legal in Germany, due to a long tradition and a strong lobby. (Or to be more specific: Either the pharmacy worker is so medicinally incompetent that she (it is almost always a woman) should be banned from the profession, or she is engaging in deliberate fraud by trying to sell an over-priced product that she knows does not work.) This is the worse, because it does not end at a fraud against the individual customer, it also helps perpetuate and legitimize homeopathy as a whole, thereby committing fraud against society.

**I recall once buying adhesive bandages and, of the dozens of variations present in the store, immediately being led to one with silver (as an anti-bacterial or whatnot) in it that cost twice or thrice the regular price—even by pharmacy standards. The regular ones were in turn twice or thrice as expensive as in the drugstore… Not only have I used the regular kind, without any type of problem, my whole life, but I usually only use up a small portion of the individual bandages before the claimed expiry—making the multi-markup silver ones a ridiculous waste of money. (For me… For the pharmacy, it is a high-markup, low-cost item.)

***Note that the people at the counter are not necessarily pharmacists proper (which requires formal qualifications comparable to those of a physician in Germany), they can also be various helpers. However, even these helpers underlie strict regulations and are much better qualified (at least, on paper) than what is needed for non-pharmacy counters.

Sadly, pharmacies like to claim that their good costumer service and medical advice would be highly valuable (thereby providing a pseudo-justification for the high prices and the qualifications needed). I have never found this to be the case: Yes, they do try to explain to me how to take Tylenol every time I buy a package—but why?!? I can read… (There are extensive instructions in the box*.) I have also actually used them before… If in doubt, to paraphrase a furious physician on “Scrubs”, having just been called down for a consult by a new intern: “It’s regular strength Tylenol. You grab a fistful, throw it down her throat, and whatever sticks is the right dose.” In all likelihood, the reason for the wish to explain Tylenol is not that there is any actual benefit in doing so—but because they want to create the faulty impression that they do provide additional value compared to e.g. a drugstore (which, unfortunately, is not allowed to sell even Tylenol).

*Drugs are usually sold pre-packaged in Germany, unlike the apparent (going by TV) U.S. system of each purchase being individually dispensed into small bottles by the pharmacy worker. (Incidentally giving another reason why the case for considerable qualification might be overstated. Most of what happens at and around the counter requires no skills more demanding than at many non-pharmacy counters—staff the counters with non-specialists and keep the specialists for tasks requiring specialist skills.)

Sure, when it comes to more dangerous or unusual medicines and e.g. the elderly, some advice might be beneficial, but is there any guarantee that what is said in the pharmacy is even remembered later? (Especially, with the elderly…) Is there any guarantee that the information given is actually correct, when we leave the area of Tylenol? I would certainly trust the written instructions by the manufacturer over the memory of a pharmacy worker. (Especially, with more dangerous or unusual medicines…)

And, no, I do not* want a pharmacy worker to give me something other than what the physician prescribed. Even if we assume that the pharmacy worker knows the drug side better than the physician (unlikely, when not an actual pharmacist; and not a given even for a pharmacist, especially when the physician is a specialist), the reverse will apply to the patient and his problem. This the more so, the more dangerous the problem and/or drug is.

*Apart from apparent errors and quackery (cf. above), and even here I would not just take the pharmacy workers word for it—I would check back with the physician. (And, obviously, apart from the special case of giving me the same drug with a different brand name.)

Finally, asking pharmacy workers for help, e.g. in lieu of going to a physician, is idiotic, because that just gives them an excuse to try to pawn off their homeopathic quackery or uselessly expensive products—see above.

Excursion on realtors vs. pharmacy workers:
In one case, I complain about too lax entry regulation; in the other, about too strict entry regulation. This is not a contradiction. Most notably, for realtors I speak of the entry criteria for a (possibly one-man) business, while for pharmacy workers I discuss the entry criteria for manning the counter in an existing business (run by someone with much higher qualifications, which I do not necessarily question). I would also consider a job as a realtor (even in employment) more demanding in terms of intelligence than as a counter clerk (even in a pharmacy). Further, there is nothing unusual with one “too much” and one “too little” being changed in opposite directions toward a “just right”—I do not, for instance, suggest that a realtor must have a topic-specific bachelor and two Staatsexamina*. (However, as a counter-point, most changes tend to have both positive and negative effects, and I do not rule out that there would be some negative effects accompanying the positive in both cases—but I do assume that the positive would be larger.)

*German official tests that must be passed by e.g. lawyers, physicians, and teachers before they are fully entitled to practice. Exactly what qualifications are reasonable I leave open, but something like an IHK (“chamber of commerce”) test to prove a reasonable knowledge of relevant law and regulation, accounting, construction, whatnot would be a possibility.

Written by michaeleriksson

August 4, 2018 at 3:18 am

Clarifications around freedom-of-X

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Many of my discussions have concerned freedom-of-X (X being e.g. opinion, speech, action, and possibly others). There are two important points in this area that I have probably never spelled out explicitly:

Firstly, freedom-of-X does not necessarily imply the same degree of freedom for all X. If we look e.g. at opinion (as opposed to expression of opinion), there can not and must not be any limits—there is no opinion so factually or morally wrong that it should be outlawed or e.g. be worthy of a beating or brain-washing. This includes even extreme opinions like that all bald** people deserve to die. On the other hand, there are plenty*** of actions that are unconscionable**** even under freedom of action—e.g. actually killing bald people for no other reason than their baldness.

*There might, however, be opinions that are worthy of other intervention, e.g. because they are signs of delusion (“I am Napoleon”), self-threatening (“suicide is painless”), or extremely naive (“the Earth is flat”). Even here, however, the intervention must be kept sufficiently reasonable that freedom of opinion or “the right to be wrong” is not threatened. For instance, a believer in a flat Earth may be presented with arguments, but must not be harassed with them (outside a debate or similar situation), and e.g. a brain-washing attempt must not be made. Further, the possibility that the apparent loon is correct and the self-appointed educator wrong must be kept in mind. (Indeed, political activists, most notably of a PC character, often condemn the opinions of others as e.g. prejudiced, outdated, or simply incorrect, even when those opinions actually match the scientific consensus in the area—the mere conviction that “I am right and you are wrong” does not make it so.)

**An example drawing on “Mein Kamm”, an absurdist Nazi parody by Ephraim Kishon. My intention is to provide an extreme example that is not open to misconstruction (be it out of stupidity or willfully), especially since I am myself bald. However, similarly extreme opinions concerning other groups do exist in this world.

***Where to draw the border is a tricky ethical issue, well beyond the intents of this text. However, a reasonable first approximation is that what is legal is OK, what is not is not OK. (Note that this cannot be more than an approximation, since the discussion is of abstract, not legal, rights. Consider e.g. a country that allows the at-will killing of bald people or forbids saving them from drowning.)

****In this text, I use “unconscionable” to imply something so bad that it would justify e.g. legal action even in a Rechtsstaat with a great respect for freedom-of-X; and “conscionable” to refer to something not unconscionable. (Using “illegal” and “legal” outright is problematic per the preceding footnote; and might also be too restrictive.) Other texts of mine, let alone other authors, might use these words differently. I stress that e.g. an utterance deemed conscionable is not automatically “good”—it can still be rude, ignorant, expressing hatred, worthy of condemnation, whatnot.

Secondly, when we look at speech and action, it is not always clear where speech crosses over into action, and then underlies greater constraints. Consider e.g. statements like “Go out and kill the bald!”, which contains a call for an unconscionable action (an unwarranted killing).* If such statements were allowed based on freedom of speech, this opens a loop-hole in the restrictions on freedom of action, e.g. because a convincing speaker could move an easily manipulated sympathizer to take the action—and what is the ethical difference between e.g. pulling a trigger and deliberately convincing someone else to pull the same trigger in one’s stead? Clearly, then, we should not allow such speech. On the other hand, drawing the borders too narrowly could easily invalidate free speech, e.g. by preventing someone from expressing a certain opinion, discussing that opinion with others, or trying to convince them of said opinion. Here I use the guide-line that any speech that involves a direct or clearly** implied call for action should be considered tantamount to or judged equally with an action. More generally, there are other cases of speech that by their nature are not intended to e.g. state, discuss, or further an opinion, but serve a more direct purpose of influence, say a taunt intended to provoke a fight, a threat intended to force an action, the provision of (possibly false) information to change someones behavior, … These too are better grouped with actions than with “regular” speech; however, they are rarely relevant to freedom of speech outside areas where it is used as an excuse.

* Note that the example is not one that would normally give a reasonable reason to act. In contrast, a “Go out and kill the enemy soldiers that are currently attacking us!” might be perfectly conscionable. (This is another instance of a tricky-to-determine border.)

**If this restriction is not made, there is endless room for abuse along the lines of “he claimed that he only expressed his opinion, but it is obvious that he actually intended others to act”. The “clearly implied” would include e.g. a “I believe that you should all go out and kill the bald”, because an attempt to dodge the rule on a technicality can very legitimately be assumed; it would not include “the only good baldy is a dead baldy”, because there is far less reason to make this assumption and in dubio pro reo should be applied: Such opinions are often held without an intention to act (to avoid punishment, if nothing else); such statements are often made hyperbolicly.

Excursion on speech as a special case of action:
Depending on perspective, it could be argued that any act of speech is automatically an action. However, in discussions of rights, this would merge two usually distinct categories in an unfortunate manner, and I consistently use “action” to refer to a concept not including speech (except as discussed above) in such contexts. The alternative would be to introduce more specialized terms at the cost of understandability. (Of course, similar simplifications are routinely made, e.g. in that “speech” is taken to include the written word, or even some acts that are of a symbolic or communicative nature, e.g. a flag burning. Also cf. the following excursion). As a disclaimer, the “special cases” of speech discussed above might very well form the majority of uses in a more everyday context.

Excursion on kneeling footballers:
The controversy around kneeling footballers is an interesting illustration of how freedom of action, even freedom of speech, can legitimately be restricted in certain contexts. We could argue that they are only expressing their right to free speech*—and if I thought that they actually understood** what they were doing, I might even have let them be based on that, had I been a team manager, football commissioner, or whatnot. However, there are other arguments that speak against their having the right to express themselves in this manner: They are on the job, they are in uniforms proclaiming their association with an organization, they are using someone elses resources for their protest, … To consider a few similar and less controversial examples: A regular employer should*** not interfere with the employees private political activities, but may certainly ban political**** discussions in the office, during office hours (including for non-political reasons like this being a potential source of inter-team hostility or it taking away working time). A shop owner may certainly ban his employees from proselytizing towards customers and third-parties from pasting flyers on its windows. A TV station may certainly forbid its news anchors from using their on-air time to spread their own political opinions. A sports team may certainly prevent individual players from making considerable changes to their uniforms.

*As a general, abstract right. Note that free speech in the specific context of the U.S. constitution only covers rights of the people versus the government (or even a subset of it); with a similar situation applying in many other countries. Correspondingly, arguing the legality of such protests or the ban of such protests based on constitutionality is dubious.

**Some few might, but most are bound to be nothing more than “useful idiots”, who have a very skewed image of the issues, society, whatnot—most regular people do and football players are not renowned for their intelligence and erudition.

***I almost wrote “must”; however, going that far could violate the rights of the employer and/or be too lenient when it comes to extremes. For instance, a bald store-owner should not be forced to employ someone who walks around with “Kill all baldies” signs after hours. In the vast majority of cases, however, what employees do or do not do, say, and believe outside of work is none of the employer’s business.

****However, a more selective ban, e.g. that non-PC political discussions are forbidden, is far harder to defend. Similarly, if one type of political protest was allowed during a football game, it would be very hard to defend banning another, e.g. that someone were allowed to bring in a “Vote Democrat!” sign, while someone else was prevented from bringing a “Vote Republican!” sign.

As an aside, a somewhat similar line of reasoning could be attempted against a recent text on FIFA, IOC, advertising, …. However, that situation differs e.g. in that sponsorship money is a significant part of most professional athletes livelihood; that e.g. the IOC tries to earn money of someone elses* efforts and popularity through abuse of a virtual monopoly; that the behavior of these organizations is contrary to their ostensible and historical raison d’être; and that sponsors does not underlie a blanket ban**, only non-IOC sponsors. Restrictions on kneeling in the NFL, on the other hand, has no practical negative effects on the players, the NFL and its teams do not gain “unfair” income from these restrictions, there is no special treatment based on political position, etc. Even when looking at teams vs. league resp. teams vs. FIFA, the situation is different, in that the NFL (NBA, NHL, …) is in a much closer and more symbiotic relationship with the teams than FIFA—the latter earns money from the following the teams have gathered in the previous four years, while the former is in a constant state of mutually beneficial actions regarding earning potential, popularity, etc. with the teams.***

*Note the greater individual drawing power of many individual athletes in individual sports compared to team sports, as well as the greater impact on legitimacy when a major star is missing. Compare e.g. a Wimbledon without the world’s best tennis player and an NFL where the world’s best football player is missing.

**With which I would be fine-ish.

***On paper: That the one tries to get the better of the other here-and-there is likely unavoidable.

Excursion on discrimination:
Parts of the above point to the importance and benefits of discrimination, e.g. in recognizing the principal difference between “pure speech” and “speech as action” and to treat them differently. This includes being able to see through superficial similarities and inappropriate analogies.* With the constant, absurd abuse of “discrimination”, I plan to follow-up with a text on that topic within the next week.

*As a special case, contrary to the common abuse, a core of (competent) discrimination is to not just group people (or whatnot) together based on superficial criteria, but to look at the criteria that matters with regard to the individual and situation at hand.

Written by michaeleriksson

August 3, 2018 at 12:07 am

A few thoughts on what constitutes science

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I have long been annoyed by some general takes on science, especially with too great a focus on e.g. falsifiability, specific methods, and even, to some part, stringency.

To avoid misunderstandings, I consider these to all be important for science as a whole; however, they are not necessarily that important when we look at whether any given individual theory, hypothesis, experiment, model …, should be considered “scientific” at any given time. Ditto when it comes to the person behind them.

I tend to view science (in very abstract terms) as a combination of two antagonistic/interacting/complementary/whatnot aspects*: The addition of suggested knowledge, e.g. through observation, experimentation, induction, mathematical analysis, and even sheer speculation; and the removal of such suggested knowledge, e.g. through observation, experimentation, induction, mathematical analysis, and even sheer speculation**. In this manner, we have a gradually changing set of suggested knowledge, where the certainty*** ranges from next to nothing to very high, depending on factors like how long a certain item has remained unremoved, how much additional**** evidence has turned up, whether it is compatible with other suggested items, …

*Quite similar to how Evolution can, with some oversimplification, be viewed as the result of the combination of natural variation and natural selection. (I almost wrote “mutation”, but this would have been misleading, seeing that variation also occurs e.g. through genetic mixture in offspring, and at least some degree of Evolution would take place even absent mutation, or possibly further mutation. Instead, I opted for an ad hoc “natural variation”,)

**I am not entirely convinced that the inclusion of “speculation” is warranted in the second list. This could depend on perspective, the details of the matter, and how legitimate the filtering is. I choose to include it for reasons of symmetry, and lacking the reverse conviction that it must be excluded.

***This word should be taken with a grain of salt, as even long accepted “knowledge” can be modified or, rarely, rejected outright. If nothing else, it often turns out that e.g. a certain theory or model only is valid within certain contexts, e.g. sufficiently weak gravitational fields. The above process will (with some reservations for mathematics, formal logic, and similar) never create something true beyond the possibility of change—there is no certainty: What we have is more like a series of (ideally: improving) approximations of the true this-and-that.

****Which I have so far informally considered a part of the “addition” aspect; however, which might be better off in an aspect of its own. (As occurs to me during writing. Note that I am not trying to describe a formal and detailed philosophy of science, but merely my own intuitive and previously unwritten take.)

Consider e.g. the observation that the single apple hanging from a specific tree fell to the ground at sun-rise. We can now make, for instance, the two suggestions that if an apple falls, it will fall towards the ground; and that any apple will always fall at or around sun-rise. This is the addition aspect. To apply the removal aspect, we find another apple tree and watch it for some time. We might now find that no apple fell at or around sun-rise, and we can remove the second suggestion. At the same time, we might have observed that four apples fell at other times, and that these apples did fall towards the ground, thereby strengthening that suggestion. This remains the state of knowledge, well-supported by great amounts of additional observation, for quite some time—then someone brings an apple to a space-station… Observations on the space-station could then invalidate the “apples fall to the ground” hypothesis, but also add sufficient information to suggest a new and better hypothesis. (As can be seen, these two aspects are not necessarily separate phases or otherwise separate—quite often, they go hand in hand. However, the time between them can be long for any given suggestion.)

If we now consider the specific topic of falsification and science, the above did contain falsification—and, indeed, the removal aspect could to some degree be approximated by a pure falsification aspect. However, falsification is, then, at most half of science. Should someone who made the first observation and speculation be considered a non-scientist merely for not having himself performed further observation and experimentation, e.g. leaving it to someone who had a greater interest in the matter? No!* Should a hypothesis that is not falsifiable be considered “unscientific”, solely on the immediate** grounds of not being falsifiable? No—being or not being falsifiable does not alter the potential truth of a claim. We should, obviously, be aware and signal that what we see at an early stage might yet be highly speculative, lacking in independent verification, be poorly tested, …—but that does not automatically make it unscientific.***

*However, if he failed to appreciate the possibility that he was wrong, cf. below, the situation could be very different.

**But see below for why falsifiability is a hard-to-avoid criterion, even when its absence is allowed.

***In contrast, a refusal to consider evidence to the contrary, experimentation that is obviously flawed, conclusions that manifestly do not follow from the given set of observations, an overstatement of certainty, and outright cheating are all examples of things that can earn the label “unscientific” (or e.g. “pseudo-scientific”).

Indeed, to me, the core of being a scientist is simply this: Having a great wish to find out the truth—even should that truth be contrary to one’s own current beliefs, the scientific consensus, the public opinion, the claims of a powerful religion or the government, whatnot. This not necessarily to say that everyone having that core is automatically a scientist*; however, anyone who lacks it does not deserve the title. (In other words, the claim of being a scientist has been falsified for those who demonstrate the absence…) Similarly, the application of that attitude is the sine qua non for calling an activity “science” or “scientific”.

*Defining what makes a scientist, apart from the core, goes well beyond the area where I have a fix opinion. However, I do reject the notions that anyone with a Ph.D., or other specific degree, automatically is a scientist and that anyone without one automatically is not. (I also note that the word “scientist” could, depending on context, be used in a wider or narrower meaning, e.g. in that retirees or non-natural scientists are in- or excluded, or that someone with a certain qualification containing “scientist” or “science” is sloppily included in a blanket manner. These uses do not affect the more abstract concept discussed by me, however.)

Looking at falsification more in detail, there are (at least) two arguments for resp. against it. For it: Firstly, that anything really worth* knowing will have effects and that these effects can be tested against reality**, which opens a door for falsification. Secondly, that many hypotheses can by their nature not be positively proved (even should they be true!), while having a “co-hypothesis” that can be*** (which amounts to falsification of the hypothesis). Against it: Firstly, that falsifiability can usually (cf. the footnote***) only be used in one direction, making it a weak tool that needs other tools to help it. (Or, from another perspective: It only covers one of the two main aspects, cf. above). Secondly, that it often lacks the ability to consider anything but absolute existence/non-existence or another absolute.****

*Whether e.g. the Earth is orbited by a tea-pot is only interesting, beyond sheer curiosity, if its presence or absence has effects. Would it, e.g., double the tidal waves in size? If so, we can use mathematical modeling to to predict what the tidal waves should be with and without its presence. If the waves are not of the height predicted by the model, we can tentatively consider its existence falsified. (This cannot be done with certainty, e.g. because there might be other unknown influences or a modeling error.) On the other hand, if there are no suggested effects, be they tidal or other, it really does not matter whether the tea-pot exists. (As an aside, a reason why non-falsifiable hypotheses have a bad reputation is that exactly the absence of testable effects are used by charlatans to ensure that their claims cannot be repudiated. However, abusus non tollit usum.)

**In principle: It can well be that a practical test is only possible at some future time, e.g. due to restrictions in current technology. (Say, that current telescopes are not strong enough to spot a tea-pot in space.) Another reason could be that the effects that could be tested would only manifest at some point in the future, say that the tea-pot will only turn on its tidal magic ten years into the future (such complications are comparatively rare in e.g. physics, but could be of great interest if we look at e.g. economics).

***Consider again the tea-pot in space (with no “special powers”): In due time, its existence could be proved e.g. by observation from a space-ship, but its non-existence could never be, because we might simply have missed the right part of (enormously large) space: If we see it, we know that its there; if we do not see it, we do not know that it is not there. (This is, obviously, the traditional “black swan” example in a different guise.) In the same way, very many hypotheses are only open to one of proof and disproof—and those open to proof are often so only through the disproof of the co-hypothesis that the original hypothesis is false. Correspondingly, either we try to falsify the hypothesis it self (for a disproof), or we turn the hypothesis around and try to falsify the co-hypothesis (for a proof). (Fellow computer scientists should recognize the same principle in concepts like recursive and co-recursive enumerability; and see the similarity to the logical rules that A -> B and not-B implies not-A, while A -> B and B does not imply A.)

****In the original tea-pot example we have such an absolute—but what if the hypothesis was that tea-pots in space (not just Earth-orbit) are rare? Suddenly, finding that one tea-pot does not falsify the hypothesis. Even finding many millions of tea-pots would not necessarily help, unless they were distributed so that we could speculate (without a “true” falsification) that the density of of tea-pots in space is above some threshold. However, seeing that tea-pots have a connection to Earth, their presence near-by would not necessarily be even a rough indication when we move away from Earth. In contrast, (still non-falsifyingly), we could find that there are no or only very few (relative volume of space) tea-pots close to Earth, then that there are no or only very few tea-pots in increasingly greater and greater areas of space, after which the inductive claim could be made that tea-pots in space are in all likelihood rare, giving support to the hypothesis. If we had insisted on falsification, we could make no claim, not even of likelihood, in either direction; dropping falsification, we at least have something.

Excursion on myself:
Do I consider myself a scientist? Mostly, “no”; for the simple reason that my active* pursuit of truth and knowledge is usually related to areas outside of science. I do pride myself on having the above core, however; and I do have reasonable formal qualifications in form of two master degrees, should someone still use degrees as the main criterion. (I have a semi-finished text on “labels” where I will explore such topics a little further.)

*As in e.g. trying to come up with something on my own, and as opposed to e.g. reading and contemplating someone elses ideas. Cf. the difference between the first two items of an older list/discussion.

Excursion on pseudo-science:
A related problem is the application of “pseudo-science” based on e.g. the contents of what is researched. For instance, if a crypto-zoologist searches in good faith* for a rumored animal for which there are no strong scientific contraindications and whose existence is not obviously unlikely, it is wrong to automatically consider him (or his field) pseudo-science. Indeed, the undue tendency to do so has given crypto-zoologists a good excuse towards much of the (even rightfully) levied criticism of their work—on rare occasions, something new and spectacular has shown up (e.g. the mountain gorilla).** Instead, we should look at how scientific or unscientific his attitude and his methods are.

*As opposed e.g. a search for a hypothesized animal that not even he believes in, with the intent to give him publicity and to increase his book sales.

**And less spectacular new species are discovered quite often.

Similarly, older and now debunked theories, e.g. concerning the aether, phlogiston, or even phrenology, should not be condemned as pseudo-science after the fact. If someone today supports phrenology, that is quite likely to be pseudo-science, because the support will almost certainly require ignoring scientific developments that had not taken place when phrenology thrived. On the other hand, whether phrenology was a pseudo-science should be judged by the attitude and methods of the original proponents.* An area of science does not magically turn into pseudo-science when its ideas turn out to be wrong—it turns into outdated science. A good contrast is homeopathy: Today’s homeopathy is pseudo-science and/or quackery, because it has been continued against all reason; however, the original incarnation need not have been.

*Whether phrenologists (or the earliest homeopaths) would have passed the test, I honestly do not know. However, e.g. aether theories were a part of main-stream science for at least several decades, possibly considerably longer.

Of course, under no circumstances is it allowed to use “pseudo-science” based merely on disagreement with the conclusions or e.g. concerns of political correctness. Consider the common, usually grossly unfair, accusations raised by political activists against e.g. intelligence research as a racist or sexist pseudo-science—which is it self a thoroughly unscientific stance. (The reader might have seen me referring to e.g. gender studies as a pseudo-science. Based on what I have seen so far of attitude and methods, I stand by that assessment.)

Written by michaeleriksson

August 1, 2018 at 12:22 am

Further mistreatment of athletes / a call to revisit the illegality of large groups of drugs

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And again have I just published something on the situation of athletes, only to see something new pop up…

This time, it appears that the Swedish/Eritrean middle- and long-distance runner Meraf Bahta is in trouble* with doping** agencies. Not because she has been caught doping or because she had a suspect test result—but because she has (apparently inadvertently) violated “whereabouts” rules imposed by WADA.

*It is not yet a given that she will be sanctioned, but others in a similar situation already have been, and even her hypothetical acquittal does not change how problematic the current system is.

**In this text, I will mostly speak of “doping” (and variations) rather than e.g. “PED use”. The latter might still be saved from the automatic implication of something illegal, while the former either can not or (possibly) never has had other implications. (Due to an implicit “illegal” or similar that should have been explicit. This parallels the highly unfortunate situation with “discrimination”, where keywords have been left out of phrases like “illegal discrimination” and “sexual discrimination”, replacing the true meaning of “discrimination” with a special-case meaning.) I will make ample use of the word “drug[s]”, however, seeing that the matter of legality is often secondary to the points under discussion. As a further note on language, “illegal” and similar phrasings are not always to be taken as references to the literal legal situation, seeing that substances banned by e.g. WADA are not automatically illegal or illegal in all jurisdictions; it is enough for my purposes that they are banned in the current context.

According to the Swedish national T & F association, concerning general rules and her specific situation:

[…] Elitaktiva idrottare ska kontinuerligt redovisa var de befinner sig vid olika tidpunkter för att finnas tillgängliga för dopingkontroller, allt genom ett rapporteringsprogram, ADAMS. Den aktive ska för varje kvartal i förväg redovisa var han eller hon kommer att befinna sig under en timma varje dag. Därigenom kan idrottaren anträffas för oannonserade tester. Om en vistelserapport inte lämnas eller om idrottaren inte är där han eller hon uppgett (s.k. bomkontroll), är det en förseelse. En person tillåts göra två förseelser under en löpande tolvmånadersperiod. Vid en tredje förseelse anses den aktive inte ha uppfyllt de krav som ställs av WADA […]

[…]de bakomliggande orsakerna till att rapporteringen inte helt fungerat i detta fall. Flera av dessa är personliga, till exempel kopplade till läs- och skrivsvårigheter och olyckliga sjukdomsfall, och andra är rent administrativa såsom inloggningsproblem […] säger Stefan Olsson, Generalsekreterare.

[…] Sedan januari 2017 har Meraf Bahta dopingtestats 19 gånger av internationella och nationella dopingkontrollanter och 10 av dessa har skett utanför tävlingssammanhang.

[…]Vi kan dock konstatera att Meraf inte hållit sig undan eller medvetet felrapporterat, vilket bland annat är tydligt då vi alla kan följa hennes tränings- och tävlingsaktiviteter via sociala medier. […] säger Karin Torneklint, Förbundskapten.


[…] Active elite athletes shall* continuously make known where they are at different times to be available for doping tests, all through a reporting system, ADAMS. The active [elite athlete] shall for each quarter, in advance, make known where he or she will be present during one hour each day. Hereby, the athlete can be encountered for unannounced tests. If a report-of-presence [“vistelserapport”] is not provided or if the athlete is not where he or she has claimed (so called bomkontroll) this is a violation. A person is allowed to commit two violations during a running twelve-month period. In case of a third violation, the active is considered non-compliant with the requirements of WADA […]

*The translation of “ska” with “shall” can be disputed in context, but then the original use of “ska” is it self disputable. The more typical choice of words in a text of this descriptive nature is “måste”, with the translation “must”. (But “ska”, like “shall”, might have been appropriate in a prescriptive document.) Generally, the text is quite stilted and unnatural. It also uses some phrasings that are hard to translate into English without compromise. The words “vistelserapport” and “bomkontroll” (presumably, a play on “en bom”, “a miss [of a target]”) are either not standard Swedish or of a highly specialized nature. I have made some corresponding compromises, here and below, which I will not detail, seeing that the impact on my discussion will be negligible.

[…]the underlying reasons why the reporting has not worked entirely in this case. Several of these are personal, for instance connected to difficulties with reading and writing and unfortunate instances of sickness, and others are purely administrative, like log-in problems […] says Stefan Olsson, secretary general

[…] Since January 2017, Meraf Bahta has been doping tested 19 times by international and national doping testers and 10 of these have occurred outside of competition contexts.

[…]However, we can note that Meraf has not avoided [the testers] or deliberately misreported, which e.g. is obvious because we can all follow her training and competition activities on social media. […] says Karin Torneklint, head of the national team.

There are at least three remarkable things here:

  1. The constraints and privacy violations imposed on the athletes are extreme: Imagine, dear reader, that you would be forced to state for every day, long in advance*, where you will be for a part of that day. Imagine having to plan that far ahead. Imagine being so constrained in your later activities, e.g. in that an impromptu trip is impossible. Imagine being so vulnerable to external obstacles, e.g. a missed or severely delayed train. Imagine having to keep track of where you are allowed to be on a daily basis. Imagine the potential privacy violations. (Never mind the actual testing and the time needed to file the information.)

    *If my recollections from previous encounters with similar rules are correct (they are not new), there are some provisions for later changes, but this is obviously intended for exceptional cases. Similarly, a missed train would likely be forgiven on a rare occasion; however, the athlete would still need to apply for dispensation, and it might not be forthcoming when there have been repeated similar events. The take on anything relating directly or indirectly to doping is highly “strict liability” and with a one-sided burden placed on the athlete.

  2. The means for filing this information are obviously not what they should be. That log-in (or other technical) problems can prevent a correct reporting, and possibly require the athlete to ask the real perpetrator for clemency for the perpetration, is unacceptable. (In light of my own experiences with Elster, cf. [1] and further texts, I have great sympathies. Consider if professional athletes are met with similar problems.) That problems with reading and writing can be preventative is also a red flag.*

    *I am not clear on whether these are relating to use of Swedish (her being an immigrant) or general (her coming from a country with far lower standards of education than Sweden). In the latter case, the Federation/WADA/whoever should have provided other means and must carry the responsibility for the failure to do so—even (in a hypothetical and exaggerated example) an entirely uneducated, border-line retarded, trainer- and friendless athlete must not be excluded from competition based on restrictive software. As to the former, it should be self-evident that anyone who forces a tool upon someone must make sure that it is available in an acceptable language. (As an aside, I do believe that immigrants should learn the local language; however, that is an issue on a different dimension.)

  3. Bahta has been tested* roughly once per month, on average, since January 2017. More than half of these tests are likely to have been so random that she has been in no position to manipulate test results or alter any drug use in time. She is still in trouble.

    *Presumably, without any findings, or else it would have been mentioned or, more likely, already hit the news shortly after the test.

We have long reached a point where the impositions upon athletes are hard to defend. Note that it does not end with the above, the overall burden also including e.g. “biological passports”, the need to pee on command and in the presence of others after competitions, the constant risk and accompanying fear* that someone will mess with e.g. a water bottle, the risk of inadvertently** ingesting/injecting/whatnot something illegal, the risk of a lab screwing up, the risk of a natural-but-unusual level of something being interpreted as cheating, the risk of missing a change of classification*** of a substance, misestimations*** by organizations like WADA leading to unfair convictions, … To boot, the way potential violations are treated are contrary to the principles of due process, it usually being the obligation of the athlete to prove his innocence well beyond “reasonable doubt”.****

*I can recall Carolina Klüft, a now retired supreme heptathlete, repeatedly discussing this fear, and how she always made sure not to leave e.g. water bottles out of sight.

**The very recent case of Ryan Lochte springs to mind, who apparently took too much of an otherwise legal substance; as does the case of Martin Johnsrud Sundby, whose team physician screwed up.

***Meldonium was banned after long being allowed, and the “half-time” of Meldonium already (legally) present in the body was severely underestimated, leading to cases like Alexander Povetkin and Abeba Aregawi. The former missed a chance at winning a world-championship belt in boxing; the latter a chance at an Olympic gold. To boot, Aregawi has yet to make a serious come-back, implying that it might have been a career-ender.

****Which to some degree is understandable, in light of the many potential excuses that could create reasonable doubt. Consider the early case of Dieter Baumann and his (correctly or incorrectly) rejected explanation that his toothpaste was to blame. This is nevertheless highly unfortunate and has considerable negative consequences for the security of the athletes. To boot, the way this reversal of the burden of proof (lowering of proof limit, strict liability, whatnot) is implemented is usually through forcing the athletes to “voluntarily” agree to some set of rules only indirectly relating to doping. The “whereabouts” rules and potential punishment discussed above are a good example. Similarly, many of the banned substances are not considered performance enhancers, and there is no reason to believe that an athlete would (directly) cheat with them—they are masking agents that could hide the use of other drugs that are banned performance enhancers. In other words, we have a criminalization and punishment of suspect behavior rather than truly criminal behavior—as if someone was put in jail for having staked out a bank, with the reasoning that doing so is tantamount to actually robbing it.

Factoring in the many other problems, costs, and whatnot, I have, year for year, grown increasingly skeptical to whether it is justifiable to continue a “no doping” policy—by now, I am in favor of very considerably easing the regulations, just like the old ban on professionalism was once removed. More, I explicitly call for this question to be re-examined in detail, in order to either largely or wholly remove these bans, as well as to remove the excessive burden placed on the athletes. Further, that this be done in an open-minded and unprejudiced manner, independent of the current opinion corridor.

Consider negative effects like the enormous costs and efforts that go into these programs, the fact that there still is reason to believe that many of the athletes are not clean*, the risk of having to alter the official results of past events**, or the enormous credibility blow when a major name is revealed as a cheater (Lance Armstrong, for instance).

*Creating an unfair competition, where those with the better ability to hide their use, e.g. through a previously unknown drug, can gain an enormous advantage. See also parts of the first item below.

**Take e.g. the Women’s 1500m race of the 2012 Olympics, where there has been three different winners (the original winner, the original second-placer after the original winner was disqualified, and the original third-placer after the second winner was disqualified), and where another two finalist have also gone down the drain. To boot, the current second and third placers (Tomashova, and the aforementioned Aregawi), have also been suspended for doping at other times. The situation with Tour de France and Armstrong is also horrifying, with a long stretch of competitions invalidated considerably after their end. Consider the effect on fans and sponsors, who have the remaining fear that an apparent victory will be invalidated a few years later, and who might lose interest in the sport.

On the other hand, let us look at the some* justifications for a ban:

*Feel free to point me to others.

  1. Doping can artificially distort the playing field:

    However, this is already the case, due to the imperfectness of testing. True, it might be possible to reach perfection at some later time, but this could be far in the future and could involve even more intrusive and costly efforts. To this we have to add complications like some athletes being officially exempt from certain restrictions due to (real or fake) medical issues, notably asthma; or different countries having very different takes on issues like doping, e.g. the Swedish condemnation as a deadly sin, the Jamaican negligence, or the Russian deliberate support of doping. I strongly suspect that a less restricted take would actually make the playing field more even.

    To boot, there already are distortions* of the playing field that are perfectly accepted, including having a better trainer (and other helpers), better training conditions, the opportunities** created by more money, and (in some sports) better equipment. Indeed, the old resistance against professionalism was largely based in the wish to have a level playing field—but professionalism is considered perfectly normal today.

    *Compared to an athletes natural ability, willingness to work hard, personal knowledge of relevant theory, and similar.

    **Including not only the ability to train and compete full-time, but also e.g. with what comfort travel and hotels can be endured/enjoyed, access to more dedicated training facilities, and similar.

  2. Doping can be bad for the health of the athletes.

    However, athletes already do other things that are bad for their health, and what they do with their bodies is, at the end of the day, their decision. Many athletes in their thirties have damage to e.g. knees and back that are decades ahead of their real ages. Some few suffer so severe acute injuries that they die or must spend the rest of their lives in wheel-chairs. Practices like dehydration before a boxing match can be quite dangerous—not to mention the actual match! Some high-jumpers have been heavy smokers in order to keep their body-weight down. Sumo wrestlers are often so fat that they encounter severe health problems. Etc. To this might be added some involuntary and uncalculated excesses, e.g. the relatively common occurrence of severe eating disorders in young female athletes. How many other things would have to be banned, if we applied the same reasoning as with banned drugs?

    It is not a given that such quantities* of drugs make sense, as to cause a severe danger. Correspondingly, athletes would likely show restraint even without a ban, especially when also factoring in the health risks and the phenomenon of “diminishing returns”. It might make sense for a body-builder, power-lifter, or similar, to gorge himself on steroids and growth-hormone—but in most sports this would be counter-productive, because the extra weight will do more harm than good. For instance, a tennis or soccer player who puts on another forty pounds would see his endurance drop, and would need to compensate for that, while getting relatively little direct benefit from more muscle**. Marathon*** runners look like twigs for a reason. A high-jumper might not get enough benefit from more muscle to compensate for the weight-gain even during short efforts, especially when e.g. large glutes threaten to touch the bar during the crossing. Someone like the prime Ron Coleman would have been useless in many sports, because the protrusions of his muscles reduced his natural movements. Etc. (However, I raise the caveat that this might apply more to male athletes than to female, the latter having a lower starting point and, likely, room for greater consumption before the benefits of “more” drops below the disadvantages.)

    *Note that the damaging effects of drugs depend strongly on quantity, and that e.g. extrapolating negative effects from body-builders to sprinters makes little sense, unless the latter actually use at least somewhat similar quantities. (Not to mention similar drugs, which is far from a given. I can, e.g., see no obvious advantage for a 100m runner in using insulin—but I do see a risk of putting on dead weight…)

    **Here and elsewhere, once a certain amount has been reached.

    ***However, there are obviously drugs and other enhancers for other purposes than gaining muscle, e.g. EPO and blood doping—both of which have been used extensively by some endurance athletes and are not without their own dangers. I lack the detail knowledge to judge the reasonable limits in a similar manner to the above; however, I strongly suspect that similar reasons for restraint will apply. Even if not, the public image, the basis for regulation, and the exaggerated fear of PEDs (aka steroids, aka that thing that kills all the body-builders before 50; see also [2]) is still mostly based on muscle building.

    Newer and better drugs will appear over time that have fewer or lesser negative side-effects. (As they already have.) Indeed, current classifications of drugs by e.g. WADA are likely less directed by the risk of negative side-effects and more by the positive (main) effects.

    Drug taking under more controlled circumstances, including open visits to specialist physicians and the procurement of drugs free from e.g. cutting agents, can do a lot to reduce even the current risks. (Note that while true world-class athletes might already have access to such resources, this does not apply to the lower levels of competition and the younger athletes who might one day become true world-class.)

    Some drugs might, even performance aside, have positive effects that outweigh the negative, e.g. because they help the body heal or cope with stress. (And can even be prescribed to non-athletes for such reasons, notably corticosteroids. The above obviously with some reservations for length of use and the quantities involved.)

  3. In the overlap between the two, we have the risk that some athletes might feel themselves forced to take health-risking doses or types of drug in order to be competitive with those who willingly take such drugs. This introduces an ethical issue of a different type than in the first item. (Indeed, this was long my own main argument against doping.)

    However, with the lower risks possible for drug users per the second item, chances are that this will be mostly an academic question. In as far as it is not, we have to consider that the problem is not restricted to drugs. For instance, an athlete who trains through an injury, at the cost of greater long-term damage, can win that gold medal over the athlete who does not; the boxer who is willing to dehydrate further can put on more non-water weight and still remain in the same weight class; the down-hill skier who is willing to take greater, possibly life threatening risks, can gain those extra tenths of a second; etc.

    If push comes to shove, a reasonable way out might be to just disallow the more dangerous types of drugs or too large quantities: Someone with the choice of say running an illegal 9.80 or a legal 10.00 in the 100m dash has far stronger incentives to cheat than someone who chooses between an illegal 9.80 and a legal 9.85.

Apart from the above, we also have to consider that a freer drug use could lead to improvements of drugs, the understanding of drugs and the human body, etc., that can have a very positive impact on the general population: What if we e.g. find a combination of drugs that makes the body of an 80 y.o. function on the level of someone ten or twenty years younger, with minimal risks? (At that age, even larger risks could well be acceptable.) What if we find better means to combat e.g. muscular dystrophy and atrophy? What if we can reduce the exercise time needed to stay in great (non-athlete) shape to an hour a week?

Excursion on records:
A point that can be an advantage or a disadvantage is the comparison with old records in some sports. Track-and-Field, e.g., has a problem with some old records that appear close to unbreakable and that are strongly suspected of having been set by dopers. Freer rules could solve that problem. On the other hand, it might make the comparison in other disciplines less fair. Then again, any comparison over time risks being unfair, e.g. due to better equipment or a better technique. Swimming is a sport that appears to be ridiculously (and counter-intuitively) sensitive to changes to pools, suits, and whatnots. (In many other sports, there either are no significant records, or the records are not that dependent on artificial help. Even baseball, famed for its collection of statistics and notorious for rumored doping, sees a reduced sensitivity because of the opposing influences: For instance, drugs might make a batter swing harder and increase his chances of striking a home run when he hits; however, the same drugs can make the pitcher throw harder or with more spin, decreasing the chance that the batter hits. Drugs that help with recuperation and injuries will affect everyone on the field.)

Excursion on the chance of a rule change:
Unfortunately, there is a strong, but ultimately irrational, reason why the bans will continue: For various organizations and many legal systems, to do an about-turn at this late stage would cause an enormous loss of face and credibility. (Note that anything that is harmful to the organizations or their leaders will be much harder to push through than something that is harmful to the athletes.)

To boot, there would be tricky coordination and persuasion* issues: What if e.g. IAAF drops the ban now and the IOC only after the 2020 Olympics? Should IAAF athletes be forced to forego the Olympics or should they risk being less competitive at the 2019 World Championships? What if one country drops the ban and another does not? What about the extremely uneven playing field this would create? Such issues imply that any fair change could take many years to implement; and even a gradual change would take a similar time to be completed.

*If everyone was on-board at the same time, the coordination would not be that problematic. However, convincing not only various organization but also various law-makers around the world is very tough.

Excursion on drug use in the general population:
Restrictions on use in the general population are even more disputable than for professional athletes. The latter has at least some (if not necessarily strong) justification through the effect on others. Private use by a non-athlete affects the user, not the rest of the world. There might, obviously, be indirect effects on e.g. other family members, but those can be both positive* and negative, and are within the scope of how any action affects close-ones: Should a pizza lover be legally forbidden from indulging in that love, because a premature death could leave the spouse a widow[er]? Certainly, the often proposed specter of “roid rage” and physical violence against the family is a sufficiently rare exception to be classified as a scare tactic, and is only even relevant to some drugs in the first place. Also see parts of [2].

*For instance, a better body might be appreciated by the significant other.

Excursion on the right to set rules:
Note that arguments like “it is X’s competition; ergo, it can set whatever rules it wants” might be technically true, but are also irrelevant to the above. The point is not what rules X is allowed to set—it is what rules are better with an eye on the overall situation and reasoning. To boot, not everything legally allowed is also ethically allowable, and when sports organizations ignore the best of the sport and the athletes in favor of what is best for the organization, forgetting their raison d’être, they are acting unethically. (Whether they have done so in the case of doping is open to discussion, but there are plenty of cases where the issue is clear-cut, e.g. with advertising, or when the competition format is manipulated to the disadvantage of the athletes in order to be more “viewer friendly”, as e.g. the IAAF has repeatedly done.)

Written by michaeleriksson

July 28, 2018 at 4:25 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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