Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Posts Tagged ‘reasoning

Correction / Mistaken plausibilities

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Recently, I wrote:

In the softer fields, sadly, similarly large-scale fraud does take place, as with e.g. the common IQ-denialism and, more generally, the “nature [sic!] only” claims.

This should read:

In the softer fields, sadly, similarly large-scale fraud does take place, as with e.g. the common IQ-denialism and, more generally, the “nurture only” claims.

Excursion on errors:
The above is an excellent illustration of some problems discussed in A few notes on my language errors: Firstly, it is usually parts that are edited during revision or proof-reading that contain errors, as they have fewer iterations of checks. Here I originally wrote “blank slateism”, moved to “tabula rasa”-something when my spell checker complained and I was uncertain whether “slateism” or “slatism” was the better version (neither was recognized). Then I found the “tabula rasa” formulation too awkward and switched to the faulty formulation actually used. Secondly, the issue of homophones and near homophones (“nature” vs. “nurture”), where I still make mistakes.


Written by michaeleriksson

September 26, 2022 at 8:48 am

Mistaken plausibilities

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In the past, I have written about topics like how some jump to conclusions about sexism or racism (e.g. [1], [2]) as causes for some certain event where a neutral and reasonable third party would, in most cases, suggest other causes.* This up to and including the systematic application of distorting gender-glasses** or their equivalent for e.g. race and/or systematic interpretation within a detached-from-reality framework like CRT. In light of later thoughts, I want to point to the possibility of an explanation that is (a) applicable to much more general situations, (b) is partially*** less incriminating when applied to allegations of sexism, racism, whatnot: mistaken plausibilities.

*Consider e.g. a woman being fired. The explanation for this might be sexism, but a more likely explanation is that she under- or outright mis-performed. Another explanation is a personal antipathy from a higher up—unrelated to her being a woman, maybe even involving a female higher up. Other explanations yet are possible that do not involve sexism.

**Yes, this is a thing and a thing that some Feminists, at least in Sweden, deliberately push.

***The jumped-to conclusions remain incorrect and there is an overlap in that e.g. PC propaganda might have brought on mistaken plausibilities that, in turn, led to a false conclusion of e.g. “sexism”.

To illustrate the general idea: When I was very, very young, I and my sister had been jumping on a bed. Mother was angry, as the previously well-made bed was now unmade. I tried to blame Martians, believing that this was sufficiently plausible to create reasonable doubt* (not that I knew the term at the time). Mother concluded that I was/we were still guilty and just trying to escape an “earful”. I, in turn, was honestly surprised that she was not open to my explanation.

*Indeed, I have long considered writing something about specifically the varying plausibility of reasonable doubt to various parties based on this event. For now, I just note that different levels (sometimes, areas) of knowledge, understanding, experience, intelligence, whatnot can lead to different positions on what doubt is reasonable.

I encountered Martians and other extraterrestrials, ghosts, witches, time travel, whatnot on a near daily basis—and I more-or-less took for granted, e.g., that there were Martians and that they often visited Earth. These encounters, true, had yet to manifest in my own life, but TV and my comics were full of them. My exposure to science and other aspects of a more adult worldview was much more limited, and my critical thinking was still that of a very, very young child.

My mother, on the other hand, had some* understanding that not everything on TV and whatnot** was to be trusted, she had lived a much longer life without a personal encounter with Martians, and she might have had the insight that children (and, sadly, adults) often lie to escape culpability.*** (She might also have considered factors that I had not, say, the relative likelihoods that Martians, should they exist and visit Earth, had and had not made their way into the house without her noticing.)

*Although, an imperfect one, as she was more culpable with regard to e.g. the news. A major point of this text is that adults often fall victim to similar errors, just in a more subtle manner. Witness e.g. the many true believers in the COVID-propaganda.

**Not limited to comics, of course, but also including novels (note e.g. how many historical inaccuracies the typical historical novel has), newspapers, works of non-fiction, etc. Their standard is usually higher or much higher than that of (children’s) comics, but most of them contain at least some amount of error and taking them too much at face value, as many adults do, is a mistake. Note, in parallel, how much of modern fiction engages in what appears to be deliberate reality distortion regarding e.g. crime rates in various racial groups, rates of domestic violence for the respective sexes, frequencies of clear cases of race- or sex-based discrimination, etc.; and the damage that this does to the worldview of the unwary. Ditto misleading journalism.

***Here she might have been well ahead of me at the same age. As an adult, I hardly ever lie, and I have often failed to consider the possibility that others could be lying, unless I either knew the truth to be something different or the lie was too obviously implausible.

Here we see how different persons can give a certain explanation drastically different plausibilities, which plays in to which explanations they prefer respectively reject.

We can apply the same thinking to e.g. a Catholic medieval village. Let us say that a statue in the church appears to be crying. The villagers have been raised to believe in miracles, saints, omens, whatnot, and would likely consider a miraculous* explanation highly plausible. Many might not even bother to consider other explanations, like a natural phenomenon, maybe relating to condensation or a previous rainfall.** From my point of view, however, a miraculous explanation is highly unlikely, as I have seen precious little evidence*** of miracles (and, as an atheist, would find them highly unexpected). At the same time, I have seen a great many cases of condensation, I know that a stony and/or unheated church might be prone to condensation, I have heard of alleged miracles that have turned out to have a scientific explanation, etc., and would be quite likely to consider natural causes. I have also encountered a great many hoaxes of various kinds, and would certainly not rule that option out.

*With reservations for terminology. My intent should be clear.

**This especially if a “I want to believe” factor plays in. Keeping such factors in mind when looking at other cases can be worthwhile.

***Strictly speaking, neither would the villagers have. However, they would have heard plausible-to-them claims from far away, they would have read/listened to stories, backed by higher authority, of saints performing miracles, they would know stories from the infallible-to-them Bible, etc. Compare this with the often too trusting attitude towards science, main-stream media, and the government today. (Also see excursion.)

Excursion on trusting science:
Many trust science in a highly naive manner, or, worse, trust others when they claim-that-science-claims. (Note e.g. [3], [4].) However, even highly critical thinkers, those who think for themselves, who are aware that even natural science sometimes gets things wrong, and who deeply mistrust the social “sciences”, usually take much on faith—and might not be that different from a medieval Catholic who trusted the Pope and the Bible. For instance, I know a fair bit about Relativity Theory, including being aware experimental evidence*, e.g. measurements involving atomic clocks that have remained still (relative the Earth) respectively traveled by airplane that show the time difference predicted by theory. Or do I? Strictly speaking, I have read accounts that claim that such experiments have taken place and have delivered certain results.

*Arguably, failed attempts at falsification.

Do I doubt these claims? No: physicists are (or have historically been) less likely to lie and distort than members of softer and/or more ideologically driven fields; plenty of physicists would have had much to gain by falsifying Relativity (so why have we seen so little contradictory evidence?); it would take a massive effort to keep such a big lie going for well over a hundred years; and the plausibilities are one-sided. Still, I am open to the theoretical-but-highly-unlikely possibility of fraud—just like I am open to the theoretical-but-highly-unlikely possibility that God does exist, after all.

In the softer fields, sadly, similarly large-scale fraud does take place, as with e.g. the common IQ-denialism and, more generally, the “nature only” claims. However, there are many voices that point out the faults of this denialism, and both the experimental evidence and everyday observations* are strongly in favor of IQ—not of the IQ-deniers.

*Everyday observations are, for natural reasons, not something that applies to Relativity (more correctly: to the differences between it and classical physics).

Written by michaeleriksson

September 24, 2022 at 6:25 pm

Not perfect; ergo, useless

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by michaeleriksson

July 24, 2020 at 3:58 pm

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