Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Posts Tagged ‘critical thinking

The fellow-traveler fallacy

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I am currently writing a shorter post on the use of the word “feminism”. As a result of my contemplations, I suggest the existence of a “fellow-traveler fallacy” (based on the originally Soviet concept of a fellow traveler and its later generalizations):

If a group of travelers take a ship from London to New York, can we assume that they share the same eventual destination? No: One might remain in New York indefinitely. Another might go back to London a week later. Yet another might take a different ship to cruise the Caribbean. Yet another might travel across the continent to Los Angeles. Yet another might move on to Anchorage. For some time, they are fellow travelers, but not because they wanted to reach the same destination: They merely had a part of the road in common, before their paths diverged.

During their time together, they might very well have enjoyed each others company, they might have helped each other, they might have even have collaborated to survive a ship-wreck. This, however, does not imply that their destinies and interests are forever bound to each other. Those who did not intend to remain in New York would have been grossly mistreated if forced to do so. The one heading for the Caribbean could hardly have been expected to be pleased about going to Anchorage instead. For the one to entrust his suit-case to the other (and not to collect it again in New York) would be silly. Etc. Even this does not directly consider the underlying reasons for the respective journey: What if the one was returning from a vacation and the other just starting his? What if one was going to a conference, another visiting a relative, and a third taking up a new position? With factors like these in the mix, even people who are fellow travelers through-out the journey might have so different objectives that grouping them together becomes misleading.

By analogy, it is a fallacy to assume that people who at some point have the same current goals and/or strive in the same current direction will continue to do so, will remain allies, can be permanently grouped together, whatnot—and, above all, to allow one of the temporary fellow travelers to permanently speak for the entire group. Similarly, if there is disagreement about methods, a status as fellow traveler is not necessarily a good thing: If the one buys a plane ticket to Cuba and the other, even for the exact same reason, forces a plane to go to Cuba at gun point, are they really the same?

An easily understood example is how the U.S. and the Soviet Union were close allies during WWII, only to become bitter enemies for the rest of the latter’s existence—they traveled together for a short span, forced by external circumstance, and then went their own, very different, ways for more than four decades. Ideologically, they were as night and day; but as long as they had a common all-important goal (i.e. defeating the Axis powers) they still fought on the same side. Those naive or uninformed enough to commit the fallacy by expecting a post-WWII friendship were severely disappointed; those who actually saw the alliance for what it was, an unnatural union of natural enemies to defeat a common enemy, were not surprised. (This is also a good example of why the saying “my enemy’s enemy is my friend” (a) is at best a semi-truth, (b) gives no guarantees once the common enemy is defeated.)

Most examples, however, are likely to be less obvious (and, therefore, more dangerous). Consider e.g. how the goals of feminism might be almost identical to those of a true equality movement when women are considerably disadvantaged, only to grow further and further apart as female disadvantages are removed or supplanted by new privileges, while male disadvantages remain or are increased and privileges removed, until, eventually, they are on opposing sides. Similarly, a classical liberal or a libertarian might have a considerable overlap with feminism in the original situation, only to end up on opposing sides as the situation changes.

Other potential examples include stretches of classical liberals and social-democrats or social-democrats and communists going hand-in-hand at various times and in various countries, as well as many other political cooperations or “common enemy”/“common goal” situations—even groups like vegetarians-for-health-reasons and vegetarians-for-animal-rights-reasons could conceivably be relevant. I am a little loath to be more specific and definite, because “fellow traveling”, in and by it self, does not automatically imply that the fallacy is present. To boot, even when the fallacy does occur, it will not necessarily affect the majority. (Feminism, in contrast, is an example where the fallacy is extremely common.)

As a sub-category of this fallacy, the temporary fellow travelers who fail to understand that later destinations will diverge, or who are apologetic for misbehavior by their current fellow travelers, are an ample source of “useful idiots”. (Feminism, again, provides many examples.) This becomes a great danger when apologeticism extends to methods, not just opinions, as when lies, censorship, or even violence is tolerated because “they are on our side”, “it helps our cause”, or similar, by someone who would condemn the exact same actions from a group that is not a current fellow traveler.

Another potential sub-category is those that identify some group as fellow travelers, fail to consider the fallacy, and then start to adopt opinions that they “should” have in order to conform further with the fellow travelers, leading themselves astray through committing a second fallacy. (Cf. parts of two older posts: [1], [2])

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Written by michaeleriksson

June 9, 2018 at 6:47 am

Examples of simplistic reasoning (and Sjöström rocks)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by michaeleriksson

May 22, 2016 at 5:58 pm

Interpreting statistics and research (housework among boys and girls)

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I just encountered a Swedish news service claiming that “Girls help [do housework] more at home”/“Flickor hjälper till mer hemma”.

While this article, to my mild surprise, did not make the usual partisan statements of e.g. “Girls are better at X”, it still manages to show some common problems with reading of statistics and how poor critical thinking can lead people (in particular, journalists) astray.

To quote relevant parts:

SCB har undersökt vilka hushålls-
sysslor barn i åldrarna 10-18 år
hjälper till med.

83 procent av flickorna och 79 pro-
cent av pojkarna hjälper till med hus-
hållsarbete minst en timme i veckan.

([“The bureau of statistics”] has investigated what household chores children in the age range 10–18 years help with.

83 per cent of the girls and 79 per cent of the boys help with household work for at least an hour a week.)

Syssla; Flickor; Pojkar

Bäddar sin säng; 82 proc; 77 proc

Diskar eller plockar i/ur diskmaskinen; 81 proc; 71 proc

Städar sitt rum; 78 proc; 64 proc

Tar hand om syskon; 35 proc; 36 proc

Arbetar utomhus; 23 proc; 40 proc

(Task; Girls; Boys

Makes own bed; 82 %; 77 %

Does the dishes or loads/unloads the dish-washer; 81 %; 71 %

Cleans own room; 78 %; 64 %

Takes care of siblings; 35 %; 36 %

Works outdoors; 23 %; 40 %)

(The news service in questione does not provide an archive, so I cannot give a permanent link. Should I encounter the data from another source, I will add one.)

Going by the numbers presented (but beware that the full report may give another view; for instance, the list of task is likely to be abbreviated), the claim is highly dubious. Firstly, the difference in overall numbers is comparatively small (certainly not large enough to allow for predictions about individuals) and, depending on the size of the sample, could lack statistical significance. Secondly, and more importantly, the tasks are oddly chosen:

Both making ones own bed and cleaning ones own room are things that do not constitute “helping at home”—they are something that a child in the age bracket given either does or does not do for his/her own benefit. (Similarly, baking cookies for ones own consumption is not “helping at home” either—nor is tweaking ones own moped.)

The natural step would be to adjust the overall numbers by removing these entries. For lack of in-depth data, this is not possible; however, we can make a very rough first comparison by simply adding percentages. Now, in the original version we have 82 + 81 + 78 + 35 + 23 = 299 for the girls and 77 + 71 + 64 + 36 + 40 = 288 for the boys. (Pleasingly, 288 / 299 * 83 is just shy of 80, which compares well to the original 79 % overall for boys—in particular, as rounding can cause minor distortions.) Removing the “self serving” tasks, we instead have 81 + 35 + 23 = 139 for the girls and 71 + 36 + 40 = 147 for the boys—who are now ahead by more than they used to trail (as a proportion of the total).

The tentative conclusion, then: Boys (!) help more at home. (Incidentally and anecdotally: This was definitely the case when looking at me and my sister as teenagers. She could barely be bothered to put her own plates in the dish-washer; I moved the lawn and chopped wood for the fireplace.) Of course, I cannot guarantee that this would remain true if the raw data was re-investigated, but the gap is sufficiently large that the original claim (that girls help more) should be viewed as unsupported.

As an aside, the removed categories reflect an issue that is worth keeping in mind when discussing housework: Men and women have different priorities when it comes to cleaning and use of available time. (In my opinion, men have it the right way around and women should take a more relaxed attitude.)

Written by michaeleriksson

June 19, 2011 at 2:06 pm

Science and reason

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As mentioned earlier, I had a piece in planning about about a few posts by a controversial Swedish professor, published Spiritist, and believer in Homeopathy—Robert Hahn. As it turns out, a reasonably full treatment would require dozens of pages, which forces me to re-think that idea. My current plan is to write a limited number of posts on various topics relating to some selected ideas and arguments of his. The number and the time frame are currently unclear (do not hold your breath), but the below is the first:

One of Hahn’s main claims appear to be that reason is bad for science—specifically, that reason leads scientists away from observable facts, allows them to explain away observations they do not like, cements their pre-existing opinions, whatnot. (See e.g. [1]e).

This claim is it self based on faulty reasoning: Science needs more reason, not less. Above all, those who correctly use reason are less likely to be caught up in excuses, more likely to interpret observations in line with reality (not with their own pre-conception of reality) respectively be more open to alternate explanations, more likely to critically examine and re-examine their opinions, and so on. Importantly, they are far more likely to apply Occam’s Razor on excessively complicated explanations, to avoid begging the question, to not confuse correlation and causation, etc.

He has a particular beef with the application of reason by outsiders, having the correct insight that outsiders can lack critical pieces of understanding and information, which can lead them astray; but failing to consider that those cases are easily resolved by the insider explaining, using reason or clearly established empirical facts, why the outsider is wrong. Should the insider not be able to do this, well, then it is time to ring the alarm bells. Ask a physicist to defend the counter-intuitive claim that a light object falls as fast as a heavy object (when the effect of air resistance is sufficiently small) and he can explain about energy conservation, potential and kinetic energy, and the connection between both types of energy and mass (all extremely well-supported by observation). Alternatively, he could explain about gravitational force, inertia, and the connection between acceleration and force (again, extremely well-supported by observation). Ask an astrologer to defend the counter-intuitive claim that a human’s life and personality are strongly determined by the configuration of the night sky at the time of his birth and no good answer will be forth-coming.

Looking specifically at observations (e.g. in a medical study) there are at least two important issues where reason is an absolute must: Firstly, interpretation of the observation and its implications. Secondly, critical examination of the correctness/representativeness of the observation and what lead to the observation. An only slightly caricatured example (I deliberately avoid the, in context, more natural area of Homeopathy, to avoid a new debate on that topic):

A gender-scientist visits a pre-school, observes that the boys and girls are treated differently (e.g. wrt attention given) and concludes that this prejudiced different treatment teaches the children to assume certain unnatural “gender-roles” and that this must be counter-acted. This line of thought has a number of problems in terms of lack of reasoning, including (but likely not limited to):

  1. The difference in treatment can arise because of individual variations in the children, non-representative behaviour in the adults, or previous mutual experiences between the involved children and adults. (A much larger study would be needed.)

  2. There is more than a fair chance that the observations were at least partially flawed due to a too casual form of observation or a pre-existing bias.

  3. The presence of an observer could have affected the behaviour of the observed, e.g. in that some boys wanted to play tough in front of the visitors or some teachers wanted to be more exemplary “motherly”.

  4. A specific causality (children of different sex are treated differently as a consequence of “gender stereotypes”) is assumed, when there are other options available—including that boys and girls behave differently to begin with, causing the adults to merely react to this behaviour.

  5. Even if different treatment occurs, it does not necessarily follow that it will have a major impact or the kind of impact that gender-scientists often propose (e.g. that women are excluded from technical professions because they are “forced” to play with dolls as children). Above all, it does not in any way, shape, or form follow that different treatment would be the only explanation for differences in later behaviour.

(Note that the point of the above is not to deny that the way children are treated can affect their development or their behaviour in adulthood, but to illustrate where “science” without reason can lead—a theory that need not reflect reality and which can do more harm than good.)

One of Hahn’s arguments against the use of reason is a list of statements that he claims as proof of how reason has lead people astray. (Rather than digging for the English originals of the statements that he presents in Swedish, I point to an article of my own which discusses a similar set of silly (?) statements). This argument contains several weaknesses, including that many of these statements are incorrectly attributed, misquoted, or made-up (not, I stress, by Hahn), being urban legends of sorts. Other problems are discussed on the linked-to page, including that they need not be silly when read in their original context. The biggest obstacle, however, is that these statements, when actually faulty, are not based in reason—on the contrary, reason would have prevented them! Indeed, these statements could be much better used as proof of something completely different, namely that people who should be experts are not always right, be it absolutely or when compared to outsiders with a better head—the opposite of what Hahn himself feels where e.g. Homeopathy is concerned.

For instance, one of Hahn’s quotes (attributed to Lord Kelvin) states that flying machines heavier than air are impossible. Application of reason shows this to be a preposterous claim (when taken as a general statement, with no unstated constraints wrt to e.g. the minimum size of the machine or the time frame involved—and assuming that the statement was at all made): Birds can fly despite being heavier than air; ergo, heavier than air flight is possible. Now, there might be some hitch which would make it impossible for machines to fly when heavier than air; however, this is extremely unlikely by Occam’s Razor, considering the possibilities of making machines with a better lift-to-weight ratio by e.g. miniaturization, considering the existence of various kites and gliders, and considering the, even then, on-going advances in motors and materials. True, reason has not showed us that e.g. manned flight would be possible in a heavier-than-air machine and this question (and a number of others) must still be left to the engineers and scientists; however, the literal statement could with near certainty be ruled as incorrect already in Kelvin’s days—and it could be so by many an intelligent and educated layman using reason. Further, if Kelvin did make this statement (subject to the above reservations), he either did not use reason or he was not displaying an intelligent and sound mind at the time.

It is true that some who try to use reason fail miserably (and that no-one can claim perfection). This is not an argument against reason, however—just as little as a medical study with poor methodology would be an argument against medical studies. The very core of science lies in the interaction between observation and reason—without reason we have no science. (Outside of highly theoretical areas, the same applies to “without observation”.)

Written by michaeleriksson

January 16, 2011 at 6:21 pm

Wrong-headed belief in claimed expertise

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During my journeys in the blogosphere, I am often confronted with a wrong-headed belief in alleged experts on this and that. Gender-studies (and other variations of PC studies) is a particularly strong source of examples; others include homeopathy, parapsychology, and various charlatans. Typical examples include e.g. “X has spent 20 years doing Y and must know what he is talking about—who cares that scientists claim that he is wrong!”, “It is presumptuous of people from without the field to make judgments about the field or its practitioners.” (see an excellent Swedish examplee; I have a longer piece on this in mind, but never seem to get around to writing it), “Those who have not studied gender-science lack the tools to think about issues around gender/sex [men and women, the male role, whatnot].”.

There are at least three major issues involved:

  1. The claimed knowledge is often not what it should be: Too many “experts” do not actually know much about the field. Too many others draw their knowledge from faulty sources, e.g. by learning about the stars from books on astrology rather than astronomy.

  2. Raw knowledge is rarely enough for true expertise: Understanding is also needed—and all too many ostensible experts lack the intelligence too develop a true understanding. Indeed, it is not uncommon that a new-comer with a better mind can spot errors, misunderstandings, whatnot, after having been exposed to the matter for a small fraction of the time. (Also note that an outsider’s perspective can often be valuable even to true experts.)

  3. Similarly, even understanding is not always enough, but can have its value severely limited if the expert lacks the intelligence to actually apply the expertise in a correct manner, draw correct conclusions when confronted with new situations, understand basic reasoning about various results, and so on.

With some over-simplification, it could be said that expertise consists of two components—intelligence and knowledge. The problem then is that the naive correctly conclude that intelligence alone is not enough, but fail to realize that neither is knowledge alone. Further, as said above, the intelligent new-comer can often outdo the unintelligent veteran in at least some areas. This, obviously, is a reason for why those lacking in intelligence tend to go with arguments by authority, while those with more intelligence tend to wish for actual proofs, explanations, and (ad rem) arguments—a true expert would not need to refer to his expertise, but would actually be willing and able to explain why he thinks he is right.

To take two specific example:

  1. The claim that women earn 77 cents on the dollar when compared to men:

    The point is not whether this claim is true or not—but whether it gives the right picture. (As discussed in the linked-to page, it does not.) It does not matter whether there are even one hundred scientific (let alone ideologically motivated “scientific”) investigations showing the uninterpreted numbers to be correct. It does not matter how many people with a degree in gender-studies who claim that this claim gives the right picture. What matters is that simple thinking, combined with some additional facts, shows the claim to be misleading. If the “true believers” fail to do this simple thinking, or reject the result for ideological reasons, then they only discredit themselves—not the thinking.

  2. The claim that homeopathy works:

    Even a layman can soon gather enough knowledge to make some basic observations that are highly troublesome for homeopaths—including that there is no known mechanism by which homeopathy could have a medical effect; that the higher the quality of the study, the lower the measured value of homeopathy; and that there are a number of mechanisms (placebo effect, better “human” treatment of patients, co-incidence, …) by which homeopathy can seem to work, while having no medical value, which make anecdotal evidence and trials with weak methodology near useless.

    The above is not enough to rule out that homeopathy works, but it is enough even for a layman to reject at least some pro-homeopathy arguments, to remain highly skeptical, and to lay the burden of proof solidly on the homeopaths.

    (Of course, those who dig even deeper see even more reason to remain skeptical—to the point that homeopathy almost certainly can be considered nonsense.)

Finally, it pays to bear in mind that even the true experts, the best of the best, with the knowledge, the understanding, and the intelligence, are still only human. They are not infallible gods, they are often wrong when it comes to details or new areas of investigation, and they are, themselves, well aware of this.

Written by michaeleriksson

December 19, 2010 at 2:23 pm

On the need for balanced thinking

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During the last half year (or so), I have done extensive readings on politics, issues in society, religion, and similar, through the lens of the blogosphere. Notably, this gives a very different perspective than when keeping to newspapers, what individual parties say, etc. Difference include not just opinions (a much wider spectrum and more freedom for those who do not adhere to the Official Truth or PC propaganda), but also very different quantities. For instance, I have read or been involved in more discussions concerning immigration issues since delving into WordPress than in my entire previous life—in fact, without actually being very interested in immigration per se, but mostly in intellectual honesty and critical thinking, I find that even my own blogging has had a disproportionate focus on this topic (including a long entry currently in preparation).

One central observation is the need for balanced thinking: We humans are naturally imperfect in knowledge and understanding (and certainly lack Sybillic skills). The implication of this is that it is very hard to say what opinion amounts to being clear-sighted and what to being paranoid; when a “slippery slope” warning is justified and when a fallacy; when a perceived danger is real and when a result of undue pessimism; whatnot.

Consider e.g. the privacy issue: With the recent behaviour of Facebook, the enormous amount of data available to Google, and the possibility of espionage through governments (at least here in Germany), it is quite possible that we stand at the brink of losing any reasonable informational self-control and will see our rights as consumers and citizens severely reduced. It is also possible that we will in ten years time notice that life has gone on more or less as before. Here it is important to be aware of both possibilities and to try to make an informed decision on how to proceed and react. For my part, I recommend that we err on the side of caution and remove the temptation for abuse by removing the ability for abuse (e.g. by blocking referrers, unneeded cookies, and similar when browsing; or by running servers for Tor or I2P—noting that there already are people, e.g. political dissidents in dictatorships, who will legitimately benefit from our doing so). Others may see the risk as sufficiently small that such efforts are not warranted. Others yet believe that I am overly optimistic, and that more drastic measures (e.g. surfing exclusively with various anonymity services) is a good idea. Irrespective of personal belief, they all benefit from gaining an understanding for the other side and its arguments, and from making an informed and unprejudiced evaluation—explicitly bearing in mind the possibility that their current opinion may be naively over-optimistic or ridiculously paranoid.

(At the same time, I must warn for the gut reaction many of my fellow Swedes seem to have: The blanket assumption that the truth is half-way between two opinions, without in any way investigating the plausibility of the individual opinions.)

In other cases, we have conflicts of interest, where one perceived threat has to be compared to an other, while considering questions like whether the threat is real, how great the potential damage is, what the probabilities are, which issue is the more urgent in what time-frame, etc. Immigration is an excellent illustration of this: Looking just at my own perspective (let alone those of others), I am caught between, on the one hand, the ideological view that each individual should have the right to himself decide where he lives, the knowledge that emigration from some problematic countries can be a necessity to enable a reasonable life, the belief that exposure to different cultures can be highly valuable, the conviction that many immigrants bring a net benefit to their adopted countries (I hope to belong to this category myself), etc.; and, on the other, complications like rates of immigration that makes integration impossible, significantly higher crime rates in some immigrant groups, the many immigrants that abuse the welfare systems (at least in Sweden and Germany), etc. Again balanced thinking and openness to others viewpoints are of paramount importance.

I would, in particular make the plea that debaters in all issues try to avoid the moral high-horse, try to understand both sides of the issues (note that understanding does not automatically imply agreement), and focus on argumentation ad rem. Above all, that they stop generalizing about their opponents, and realize that there is a spectrum of opinion in all groups. The last thing a debate needs is “You X are all Y!”—in particular, when this is abused as an ipso facto “proof” that the opponents are wrong (e.g. by the calls of “Racists!” or “Misogynists!” that are so popular in the PC communities). Achieving these items is not easy (certainly, I occasionally err myself), but even just starting with the right mentality could lead to an enormous improvement.

Written by michaeleriksson

May 23, 2010 at 1:30 am