Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Posts Tagged ‘Society

Me too, and me too, and me too, and me too, …

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A common, by now unimaginative and hackneyed, scene in U.S. television and movies shows a person of authority (e.g. a principal) about to swoop down on a protagonist (e.g. a teacher) for some perceived sin (e.g. being unconventional or homosexual) in front of a group of comparatively powerless people (e.g. a school class). Suddenly, one brave soul from among the powerless steps forward in the protagonist’s defense. A long tense pause follows, and then another voices his support. A second tense pause, a little shorter this time—and another supporter. After a third pause, quite short this time, another one or two supporters declare themselves—and then the rest of the group cannot join fast enough.

Such scenes are a good illustration of what makes me greatly troubled by the “me too”* take on showing support, admitting something, pointing out culprits, … To take a more real-life example: Someone who stood up for gays or came out of the closet in 1977** was doing something brave, not just risking condemnation by his peers but quite possibly exposing himself to physical danger—and very few did. In 1987 things had changed a bit, but the area was at best highly controversial, and standing up or coming out could still be a major contribution—made by comparatively few. By 1997, homosexuality had gone a long way towards losing its stigma and was not a very big deal for large parts of the younger generations, but was not yet a mainstream phenomenon; standing up or coming out could still contribute, but far less than earlier, and was far less dangerous—and a reasonably large number of people did. In 2007, homosexuality was well in the main stream, nay-sayers were frowned upon, and people were coming out in droves***. 2017? We are now at a point where heterosexuals are more likely to have to explain themselves, where a TV show without at least on homosexual character feels like the exception, where objections towards “gay marriage”**** brings out the villagers with torches and pitch-forks , …—and still there are people jumping on the “me too” band-wagon, protesting how much must be done against “intolerance”, and seeing themselves as the brave heroes or enlightened minority.

*Apart from the correct phrase almost always being “I too” or even “and I”, but that correction would not mash well with the latter parts of this post.

**The years and implications will vary with geography and should not be taken as more than illustration of the principle—certainly not as an historically accurate overview. (I suspect that the text holds reasonably well for e.g. large parts of the U.S., however.)

***In my impression, those who remained in the closet often either had concerns relating to specific individuals, e.g. a parent with a known aversion, or were held back by (possibly justified) reasoning like “my boss would probably be OK with it, but if he is not then my career could be set back considerably”.

****Another unfortunate phrase.

Sorry, band-wagon-eers: By now you are not heroes, you are sheeple who just follow the main-stream without an ounce of courage. For celebrities, the suspicion of cheap attention seeking has to be added. In 1997 you might have had my respect—and you definitely would have in 1977. Today, I might go as far as seeing you as part of a problem…

A particularly interesting recent example is the situation around Harvey Weinstein and the “#MeToo” Twitter campaign, paralleled, if on a lesser scale, by a number of more individual cases in the past (e.g. the accusations against Bill Cosby):

Allegedly*, Weinstein has a very long history of sexual abuse towards actresses. Yet, until very recently, this was not public knowledge and no-one seemed to publicly care—the more surprising, since the list of actresses includes quite a few women of considerable success**. Even if worst came to worst and raising accusations actually became a career ender***, these are not people who would see themselves living off food-stamps. Why did none of them try to cause a stir in the past? If what happened to them was that bad, why did none of them try to protect the next generation of actresses from the same experiences?

*I have seen somewhat conflicting claims to what he has and has not admitted and do not wish make any assertions in either direction. See the below discussion on presumption of innocence, however.

**I can understand very well if a barely adult actress at the very beginning of her career chooses to not speak up. Neither, apparently, were they all in that situation, nor did all of them remain in that situation.

***And not leaving the career untouched or even giving it a boost through the extra publicity and courage shown, which might or might not have been the case.

Then, earlier this year, allegedly after decades of misbehavior, the news breaks—and we are inundated with “me too” claims. Real courage there…

Now, I lack the detail knowledge of what (allegedly or not) happened in any specific case, and I have no psychic powers enabling me to understand what motivated each of these individual women. However, there are a number of conceivable scenarios in which actresses come off as bad as Weinstein. For instance, allegedly a number of them accepted hush money to keep quite about their experiences—willingly taking into account that others would later find themselves in the same situation… (And possibly committing breach of contract by later coming forward despite taking the money.)

Excursion on behavior as a result of feedback: A particularly problematic point is that in situations like these a lack of sufficient or sufficiently early protest could have strongly contributed to the problem. Such behaviors are highly unlikely to continue for a prolonged time unless the benefits outweigh the costs for the perpetrator. With too little protest or too much success, it is even possible that he fails to realize that certain behaviors are inappropriate. Consider two situations: In the one, nine out of ten women remain uncooperative but silent and the tenth gives him a blow-job. In the other, the tenth sends a knee to his groin. In which of these situations will we see what long-term behaviors? What self-perception and perception of own behavior? Humans are not rats in a lab—but some aspects can be quite similar. (More generally, much of intersex interactions is driven by past experiences. Consider e.g. a rich and famous athlete who is used to women wanting to be with him. He might, especially when not among the brightest, not interpret a negative reaction correctly. Or take the guy with the sleazy pick-up line that instantly turned a given woman off: Chances are that it does work with sufficiently many other women that it pays for him to keep using it…)

Excursion on presumption of innocence: A very disturbing secondary element of the recent waves of accusations is that people are being fired, outright fired, based merely on the accusations. This leads us to a very dangerous territory of deliberate false* accusations for reasons like personal gain or revenge: Jack and Jill compete for the same promotion—good-bye Jack, congratulations Jill. Jack is Jill’s boss and (rightfully) fires her for incompetence—goody-bye Jack, welcome back Jill. Jack voted for Trump and Jill is in tears over Hillary’s failure—good-bye Jack, chin-up Jill. Etc. It is of paramount importance that such drastic actions only be taken in clear-cut cases (e.g. after a confession or a conviction), and that, for interim measures, the interests of the accused are given due concern.

*While this is not a behavior that I would expect from the average woman, there are enough non-average women who would resort to such tactics. Common feminist claims like “a woman would never lie about rape” or “a woman would never lie about her children being abused” are demonstrably (and very…) false—and the lie is often calculated, e.g. to avoid a revelation of infidelity or to gain the upper hand in a divorce. Some previous discussion and links to other sources are present on [1], [2].

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Written by michaeleriksson

November 23, 2017 at 5:53 pm

Starting school too soon (Sweden wants reduce the start-of-school age)

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Earlier today, I had a brief talk with two colleagues on the problems of early schooling, including that it is largely a waste of time and that the large developmental differences between individual children makes it highly problematic.

I get home—and find that my native Sweden is about to lower the entry age for mandatory schooling from 7 years to 6… Generally, it is truly depressing how naive politicians, especially in Sweden, try to “solve” problems around schooling, competence levels, skill shortages in the labor force, …, by just throwing on more time, be it an extra early year, an extra later year, more hours per week, or more people directed towards college (irrespective of their suitability). The one hope is that the additional damage in this particular case will be comparatively small—for the simple reason that most Swedish children are already in non-mandatory school at age 6.

Before moving on, I stress that I am a great fan of education (including having earned two master’s degrees)—but that there is a very, very large difference between education and schooling. Understanding this difference is paramount. This post, obviously, deals mostly with schooling.

To now look at some of the issues involved:

  1. Waste of time (as above): The simple truth is that someone 6 (or 7…) years old is not a quick learner. Theoretical learning will be mostly fact based, without any understanding (let alone deeper understanding). The amount retained in memory will be far lower than for an older student, and the time available to forget it again longer (cf. the concept of a learning curve). Practical learning will be equally limited, e.g. in that the ability to write with a pen or pencil is not only dependent on training but also on pre-existing fine-motor skills*, or that it is fairly pointless to learn by rote what the hands of the clock imply when the child’s mind** lacks the ability to understand why and to extrapolate correspondingly.

    *To some degree the fine-motor skills can certainly be improved by e.g. learning hand-writing. However, at this age, the physical maturation is more important. What I took away from the early days of mindlessly repeating letters (which was the Swedish approach at the time), was a hatred of writing—nothing more. My handwriting remained a disaster through-out my entire school years. As an adult, when I had forgotten the hatred and I could draw on the fine-motor skills I had since developed, I easily learned how to write at least passably (when I wanted to…), and I fully assume that I had sufficiently strong motor skills years earlier—with the initial “training” sabotaging my use of them. Similarly, this hatred for writing (extended from the mere motorics to the overall intellectual process) set back other parts of my remaining development: Only as an adult, long after school ended, did I rediscover writing as something positive. (My current belief in the benefits of voluntary writing e.g. for developing my own thoughts and understanding should be manifestly clear.)

    **Not to mention the teacher’s mind… Now, very few teachers, even of first year students, are so dense that they have problems with comprehending the clock—but they do exist. More to the point, very many, even in the majority that does understand the clock, do not understand that understanding is important, that understanding is more valuable than knowledge, than understanding makes remembering that much easier, that someone who understands can take a special case (“when the little hand is on 3…”) and apply it more generally (“when the little hand is on X…”), etc. Notably, this problem is not in anyway limited to the first school years—even in high school I had a few teachers with severe problems in this regard (when dealing with more complex topics than the hands of the clock).

    Comparing the amount of material covered in various years of my own education is tricky, both due to my fallible memory and due to the very different contents and goals at various stages. However, I can say with certainty that I learned more in my last semester of high school than I did during the entire “lågstadiet” (the first three years). What if I had skipped lågstadiet and spent an extra semester in high school? (This suggestion is admittedly a bit simplistic, in that a later start could have slowed down the following stages. The general principle holds true, however, and this danger could have been reduced severely by ensuring that some core skills, notably reading, were still covered in a minimized hour plan covering, say, ten hours a week.) Similarly, why are some younger children allowed to “skip a grade”? Normally, it is not because they have already learned all the material of that grade, but because they are deemed to be sufficiently intelligent or sufficiently strong learners that they are better off in a higher grade. That they would “miss” some material (and that this is considered acceptable) and/or have to make up for it in parallel with their normal studies is a strong sign of how little ground is actually covered.

  2. Developmental differences (as above): Not only do children develop at different rates, including a somewhat consistent boy–girl difference*, but they are also born at different points of the year—and the younger the children, the larger is the relative difference, possibly even absolute difference. In typical systems**, there can be close to a year’s age difference between the oldest and youngest child in a group, to which the development rates must be added. How do we sensibly, effectively, and efficiently teach a class where the one child is on the intellectual level of an eight y.o. and the other of a five y.o.? It might be possible to do—but the one-size-fits-all schooling that is normally attempted will fail.

    *It is possible, however, that this is of little relevance for this specific age group. Overall, it remains a very important issue.

    **Here and elsewhere some problems could conceivably be reduced through alternate approaches (although often with new side-effects). For instance, by grouping children by the half-year they are born in, instead of the year, the above problem would shrink. I will not explicitly discuss such alternate approaches elsewhere, but I encourage the reader to keep the possibilities in mind.

  3. Taking in younger children increases the risk of a harmful uniformization and indoctrination (cf. e.g. parts of [1]. Note that this is not primarily a matter of being in school for a longer period—the main problem is the lower ability to analyze arguments, think critically, etc. I point specifically to the risk of a deliberate abuse: We do not have to worry about just individual teachers with an agenda or a distorted world view. We also have to consider more systematic abuse from above—even in Sweden, I have heard the claim that school should be used to raise good social-democrat citizens… (Consider also the situation in many U.S. colleges.)

    I note that a Swedish source cites the minister of education (Gustav Fridolin, whom I have considered a complete idiot for years…) as saying “Vi vill ge barnen en jämlik start”—“We want to give the children an equal* start”.

    *“Equal” does not catch exactly the right nuisances. “Jämlik[het]” historically started in an “equal rights”/“equal opportunity” sense, but is not very often used in an “equal outcome” sense and/or has strong implications of “social justice”, where the playing field is leveled at all cost, even if it means making the situation worse for one person without improving it for anyone else. Depending on who uses it, other implications are possible, e.g. as with a sport reporter who considered it a sign of increasing jämlikhet that the number of female competitors in a city run had almost caught up with the number of male competitors… Use often goes hand in hand with extreme and out-dated “tabula rasa” opinions of human development. (While I cannot speak for the exact intentions of Fridolin, his previous history points in the direction of these interpretations.)

  4. An extra year of school is not free: teachers cost money, facilities cost money, stationary costs money, school books cost money, … Someone has to foot the bill. In Sweden, this most likely means the tax payers—irrespective of how many, few, or any children they have. This, of course, unless the new expenses are offset with cost-cuts for older children… (With potential effects similar to the next item.)
  5. More schooling almost necessarily implies a lower quality of tuition: The number of people who are suitable* to be teachers is limited. If more schooling is needed, then we have to take in more people not suited, and/or let those suited work longer hours, and/or cut the hours spent per child, and/or yank up class sizes even further.** In all cases an extra year implies choosing quantity over quality, which is entirely the wrong way to go about education.

    *I note that, contrary to what many naive politicians believe, just ensuring that someone has the appropriate degree (as a teacher, engineer, physician, …) does not automatically make him good at the job—people are not fungible! Just increasing the number of graduates with a degree in teaching will not remove the underlying problem.

    **Some relief might be available through directing candidates from other areas into teaching. However, this comes with at least two problems: Firstly, this will not remove the resource problem, just move it from one area to another. Secondly, these people did not go into teaching for a reason, and they might not be willing to reconsider, or they might require more money, or they might make the switch only to later grow dissatisfied, …

  6. The more time is spent in school, the greater the risk that the will to learn, natural curiosity, and the like, are diminished. (Cf. e.g. an earlier footnote.) This is a big enough problem as it is. We should not make the problem larger.
  7. The result of an extra school year is more time spent with age peers and less with adults, yet more time with adults will give the children better examples, better opportunities to learn, etc. More time with other children will, if anything, be harmful. This holds already for fairly average children—when we move on to those who are highly introverted, sensitive, and/or on the autistic spectrum, it holds ten times over. “Hell is other children” to us.

    I note that people favoring more time with other children tend to use the “they learn social skills” argument (as more-or-less their only argument). There is little or no support for this from research, and both common sense and my own experiences clearly indicate that social skills are best learned in interaction with adults or considerably older children—not same-age children.

  8. More early-years schooling is arguably a theft of childhood. Life is long and filled with duties. Let children be children.

    By all means, give them skills, teach them how to read (and encourage reading!), give them every opportunity to learn when they want to learn, … But: Do so in a reasonable manner that does not entail hours a day of being force fed information.

Some of the above points apply generally to increased schooling, others specifically to increased early-years schooling. However, there are also points that would apply to a discussion of the high-school or college years, but not the early years. Consider e.g. that someone in college is not available to the job market. True, once done with college, he might be “a better product”, but it is not a given that this will outweigh the opportunity costs caused by the earlier absence from a societal point of view. This especially, since it is possible that he will be able to improve the skill set relevant for the job better on the job than in school. Also note that one of the greatest benefits with hiring a college graduate in the past was that he had been filtered more strongly (than e.g. a high-school graduate) on criteria like intelligence, work ethic, ability to work independently, … With the current strong trends towards dumbing-down college and ever more people entering and graduating college, this filter effect is more-or-less gone.

I note that there are many other points of criticism towards the school system in e.g. Sweden. The above deals with a specific sub-issue and is not intended as a complete analysis of the problems. Consider e.g. the ineffectiveness of school in that I learned more English from watching TV than I did in the class room, or that I learned things about physics from educational television at age seven that impressed a few class-mates when we were in seventh grade.

Written by michaeleriksson

November 16, 2017 at 1:08 am

The 500th anniversary of Luther’s protests

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Today is a day of considerable importance in Germany—and, no, I am still not talking about Halloween…

It is the 500th anniversary* of the beginnings of Martin Luther’s official protests, and while October 31st is normally only a public holiday in parts of Germany (“Reformationstag”), on this occasion a one-time country-wide holiday has been called.

*At least officially: I very strongly suspect that intervening calendar changes makes the claim somewhat approximate, but have not actually investigated the issue.

Having already written a lengthy piece (on another topic) today, I will not go into details, but I will note that this was the beginning of a very long period* of upheaval, wars, and conflicts, in Europe arguably worse than in the 20th century, which resulted in a permanent split of the then Catholic Church (the Christian German population is still roughly 50% Catholic, 50% Lutheran), and (if largely for non-religious reasons) the creation of e.g. the Swedish and English (i.e. Anglican Church) State Churches. While it would be wrong to attribute this day too much of a cause-and-effect value**, its symbolic value as the delimiter between the pre-Reformation and Reformation eras is immense.

*Incidentally, a good example that it does not always pay to suppress dissenters with violence: All that suffering on both sides and the “heretics” still got a draw…

**Something very similar would very likely have happened anyway, be it without Luther’s action on this day or Luther himself (entirely), albeit possibly with some delay. In situations like these, the one man or the one event is typically just the trigger of the avalanche—not the avalanche it self.

As for the underlying religious issues, the question of who has the greater right to claim “true” Christianity (then or now), who is closer to the original teachings of Jesus, etc. that is still a matter of debate. (On which I have no strong feelings, but where I suspect that they are all off the mark to a considerable degree.) It seems quite clear, however, that the doings of the Catholic Church were often severely at odds with what they should have been, and that reforms of behavior (not necessarily religion) were direly needed.

In a bigger picture, it is quite possible that the departure from the Catholic Church had positive societal effects (post-conflict), e.g. in that non-conformant thinking was seen in a less negative light, that native-language Bibles help with increasing the proportions of the populace who could read, that secular government needed to pay less attention to religious matters, …

Written by michaeleriksson

October 31, 2017 at 3:36 pm

The temptation of conservatism

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I am currently in a period of reading various political articles and opinions on the Internet, including e.g. the blog of Pat Buchanan and other more conservative sources. (These readings have already contributed to my being more active in writing, and will likely result in a few more posts in the near future.)

Venturing into the conservative direction is always a little odd to me, because much of the conservative thoughts and principles* are almost as hard to combine with my libertarian**/classical liberal stance as what is found on the left (including the alleged liberals of the modern U.S., whose ideas are quite often antithetical to what the word “liberal” used to imply). At the same time, conservatives and libertarians have been allies against the Left in a great many countries and over long periods of time. Moreover, the “conservative world” has a certain beauty and many of the ideas have a potential pragmatic value (much unlike the very ugly world and largely hare-brained ideas of many Leftist groups, notably feminists).

*With the caveat that there are a many variations on the conservative theme, from country to country, from era to era, and even within e.g. the U.S. Republican party. For the purposes of this discussion, I speak approximately of those (or some of those) variations found among current Republicans self-identifying as conservative (and not e.g. libertarian), possibly with a tilt towards the paleoconservative faction. I avoid a direct interpretation of the word “conservative” to include e.g. “keep things as they were” and instead look at the expressed ideas.

**For the sake of convenience and to avoid confusion with pseudo-liberals, I will speak only of “libertarian” below, even if this is potentially imprecise, and could be taken to include e.g. “Left libertarians”. Such inclusion is not intended, and I find the latter combination to border on a contradiction in terms.

To take a few examples (where I stress that I discuss pragmatic possibilities, and do not express ethical or ideological approval):

  1. Christianity: In a country with a strong (if preferably moderate) Christianity, there are a number of potential benefits, including stronger “Christian values”*, a greater focus on “core families” (cf. below), and greater contentment/less existential doubt/more purpose in life through the belief in a bigger something, rewards (to me) and punishments (to my enemies) after death, and similar. However, the probably greatest benefit is as an inoculation against more** dangerous belief systems: Many people appear to have a positive need for something to believe in, often in a fanatical manner, or something to fill their lives in a quasi-religious manner—in particular, among those less-than-bright. In the past and large parts of the “West”, Christianity has swept up many or most of these people (together with many considerably more reasoned individuals). In e.g. 1920s/1930s Germany, this was not (or not sufficiently) the case. Ditto e.g. revolutionary Russia***. Ditto large parts of the current Islamic world. Ditto e.g. various politically correct extremists, the Antifa, …, in the modern U.S., Germany, and Sweden. The result ranges from droves of the easily lead gathering around a detrimental “golden calf” to fanatics trying to over-through society-as-it-is with force or shutting down their opponents through violence. It is no coincidence that dictatorships and groups of fanatics are often strongly anti-religious****—the religions are competitors.

    *Exactly what is meant with this expression is another thing that can vary considerably, but by-and-large few see them as negative, and what forms the “common core” is almost invariably (including by me) seen as something positive, notably the “Golden Rule” and related values.

    **Christianity is obviously not free from disadvantages and risks—no religion, quasi-religious ideology, or similar belief system is. Compared to many others, however, the reasonably modern Christianity fairs well. If we posit that some form of religion or quasi-religion is near unavoidable, modern Christianity is a much better choice than modern Islam, feminism, “anti-fascism” (a movement with disturbingly much in common with fascism…), and many others.

    ***A case can be made that Russia was in very urgent need of change, and I find it easier to understand a communist revolutionary of that time than a non-revolutionary communist of today—it was a different world with a different set of problems. (And the communists were not the only revolutionaries in Russia back then…) Still, the cure was worse than the disease and far worse than the competing Western democracies. To boot, other countries have proved that a more peaceful transition is possible, e.g. Sweden and the U.K. (To which can be noted that the English civil war and the over-through of monarchy by violence proved very short-lived, while the later gradual drift of power from the King/Queen to parliament has stuck. France, similarly, went like a pendulum between monarchy and republic for a disturbingly long time after the French revolution.)

    ****Which is not in anyway to imply that being anti-religious is automatically bad: There are other reasons why someone can be anti-religious.

    As an aside, the same principle very likely contributes to the wasteful obsession with celebrities many display today, replacing, so to speak, the one Madonna with the other.

  2. The “traditional family” has much to offer, especially when compared to the all-too-common divorce scenarios of today, or the many single mothers who never entered a stable relationship with the father.* There are many studies to show both that divorces are damaging to children and that they benefit from having two parents. My personal experiences after my parents divorce, even was it an amicable one, are very much in the same line. Other changes in family demographics, notably the higher average age of marriage** (the more so in Europe than in the U.S.), can have negative effects, including a lack of population growth or a dysgenic pressure***. To boot, rational considerations aside, the wholesomeness so often depicted in family life in somewhat older sources (whether more or less idealized than today) has a great temptation.

    *Some other comparisons are trickier and might require considerable research, e.g. on whether marriage provides benefits over a more casual, but stable and long-term, relationship, or the one male and one female parent constellation over male/male or female/female constellations. (I would voice some a priori skepticism towards the female/female constellation, however: I was raised by my mother and grand-mother, with comparatively little male involvement, which comes close to this situation, and the lack of a male role-model/mentor/whatnot was a very severe disadvantage to my development, and likely to my sister’s. I refrain from an outright rejection because there is no guarantee that it would be the same with another child, other women, or other circumstances in detail. However, note that my complaint is not an uncommon one.)

    **While not stringently related to the “traditional family” there are strong connections, e.g. in that a more relaxed attitude towards pre-marital sex, prostitution, and pornography reduces the incentives to get married at a younger age.

    ***Another contributing factor is how long people study after high school, and this can lead to more generations and a greater population of the less bright: Few people start a family in an economically insecure situation, and if we compare the scenarios “graduate high school and get a job” with “graduate high school, complete a bachelor, throw in a master, pay off most of the debt accumulated in college” there is a clear difference. (Other factors can contribute too.) I stress that I do not suggest cutting down on education to increase birth-rates among the bright.

    Several other common (value-)conservative opinions could have benefits in the general area of family. For instance, a more restrictive approach to abortions could result in a more responsible behavior towards sex or preventatives, or, again, increase the chance that people (or at least women) seek an earlier marriage in order to avoid the risk of becoming a single parent.

  3. A focus on “law and order” has very obvious advantages (as long as one remains on the right side of the law*), including greater physical security, less corporate losses to criminals, fewer junkies**, … An interesting point to bear in mind is that it is often minorities and “weak” societal groups that are hurt the most by crime. For instance, Black people (as a group) are not only put in prison at a considerably higher rate than Whites—they are also the victims of crimes at a higher rate, live in more insecure neighborhoods, deal with more fall-out, … A magic wish to eradicate all crime without negative side-effects would correspondingly favor them the more—and even more conventional methods could very well have a greater positive net effect.

    *One of the reasons I stress the importance of “civic rights” over e.g. the interests of the police is that doing this is not always easy (or even recommendable) and not always under the control of the citizen: There are laws that are outright unjust, others that are arbitrary or unpredictable, and even someone who still sticks to the letter of the law can be the victim of false accusations (or unwarranted suspicions arising for other reasons). This is particularly dangerous when computers come into play.

    **At least under some set of assumptions. By and large, the overall societal problems appear to diminish when various drugs are treated more leniently, if in doubt because of the profitability of criminal enterprises. Cf. e.g. the great failure of the Great Experiment. Here and elsewhere it can pay to keep in mind that the result that would seem to occur at a casual look are not always the results that actually do occur. Then again, this post is not about why conservatism would be a great thing, but why some of its ideas can have benefits and why they sometimes tempt me.

Unfortunately, there is often a conflict between my world-view and such ideas. As an atheist, I would be troubled recommending a greater focus on Christianity. As someone in favour of individual choice, I cannot mandate e.g. that reproduction take place solely within traditional marriages. Etc. Indeed, it is often not even necessarily the case that e.g. Christianity would be better in general (including for the intelligent and educated). Some advantages can apply; others will not, and the inoculation effect is certainly for the dumb masses. An attempt to apply these ideas could amount to dividing the population into those (in some sense) trusted to think for themselves/act on their own discretion and those required to be guided by others—an idea that could be taken from a great many Leftist parties and movements around the world… These simultaneously show why this is a potentially very bad idea (even ethics aside): Those who see themselves as the enlightened few and who presume to dictate* what other people should feel and think are quite often highly unsuitable for the task, themselves among those who would be in greatest need of guidance…

*As opposed to conviction through rational arguments and presentation of facts.

Of course, in many other cases there is a more direct overlap, for instance in that U.S. conservatives tend to favour small government. In other cases, the widely held ideas can make sense outright without being something that follows naturally from being e.g. conservative or libertarian, as with the tendency to an “old school” interpretation of the constitution: The U.S. constitution (including the “Bill of Rights”, but not necessarily later amendments) was an unusually thought-through document intended to preserve rights and balance powers with an eye on the risk that some part of government, most likely the executive or legislative branch or a part thereof, would at some point try reduce the rights of the population (or otherwise cause mischief). If a re-interpretation of the original intention is allowed or if too great a lee-way is given when interpreting new situations*, then this central function is weakened and the constitution fails in its purpose.

*A 240 or so years old document cannot realistically have foreseen every situation that can arise today or the society we currently live in. By implication, some degree of deviation might well be necessary. It should, however, be kept to the necessary minimum, in order to a. keep the constitution intact, b. ensure that the judicial branch does not intrude on the legislative through implicitly making new laws by such re-interpretation. For farther-going changes I point to the possibility of introducing new amendments.

As an excursion on how little it can take to bring those weak in critical thinking into a “fold” (and the potential benefits of an inoculation through bringing them into another fold in time): During my later school years, a few of us grew politically active. After already having developed a reasonably mature ideology (for a teen), I read up thoroughly on all the major Swedish parties, and only after that joined one them* —and I kept reading after that. A former class mate had joined the social democrats. Her road? “I read one of their pamphlets and it seemed to make sense!” (Or something very similar. This is not a verbatim quote, but the pamphlet part and the brevity of her “research” reflect her unambiguous own statements.) There are people who are so lacking in insight and naive that they join a party based on a single pamphlet—and which party they join is then mostly determined by whose pamphlet they read first… (Such documents are by their nature written to appeal to the readers, show only one side of the issues, and give an over-simplified view of the world—when the politically naive and weak at critical thinking pick up any political pamphlet, chances are that it will “make sense”!)

*“Moderaterna”, in U.S. terms a comparatively centrist part of the Republicans with a strong libertarian/neo-liberal streak (at least back then).

Excursion on “respect”: A common complaint from conservatives appear to be lack of respect, especially in the younger generation (“children do not respect their teachers/parents anymore”). At the same time, a stereotypical “angry black youth” complaint is lack of respect, being disrespected, whatnot, while Aretha Franklin was quite keen on just respect. I am honestly far from certain that it was better in the past, especially lacking the direct comparison, and do believe that e.g. teachers should not be respected more than anyone else just for being teachers (“respect is earned”). However, I do agree that there is a major problem with a lack of even a basic respect for other people and their rights, boundaries, interests, whatnot, that permeates (in my case, German) society in a depressing manner. For instance, about half the bicycle drivers in Cologne drive (illegally) on the side-walk instead of the street when no separate bicycle lane is present—even to the point of blocking or endangering the pedestrians. (To which can be added a number of other traffic violations and a general disregard for both pedestrians and cars.) Similarly, there are plenty of people who take small children into public, including grocery stores and even restaurants—and make no attempts whatsoever to silence them when they start screaming. Most corporations, let alone government agencies, appear to view their customers as a mere nuisance when it comes to anything but paying: There is no respect for the customer as a client, for the agreements entered (unless the customer is in violation…), or often even the law. Etc. (And do not get me started on the politically correct…) Lack of respect for others, the unwillingness to see them as humans with rights and feelings, the refusal to pause and ask whether a certain action is actually justifiable or just convenient, …, that is a truly major societal problem. Other conservative complaints about attitude, e.g. that the people of today are lazy or lack a sense of responsibility for their own lives, have a lot of truth in them and can be pragmatical societal problems, but are not that much of an issue from a libertarian ideological point of view: If someone is lazy, he rarely hurts others*; someone who lacks respect for others tends to very soon hurt others, be it out of carelessness or callousness.

*With some reservations for the details involved. For instance, if someone is lazy and does not fulfill his obligations towards his employer or if he stays at home and collects a social security check he really does not need, then others are being hurt. This is a step beyond e.g. “is in a dead-end job because of laziness in school”, “lives from day to day because he only works when the money runs out”, “never is promoted because he never goes the extra mile”, etc. (This also points to the benefit of investigating why people are lazy and what society might be doing wrong.)

Excursion on the level of reasoning, etc.: It is interesting that the level of reasoning used in conservative (generally, non-Leftist) contexts tends to be much higher than in e.g. politically correct (generally, Leftist) contexts, the tone against others less negative, the risk of misrepresentation of others opinions smaller, the degree of emotionality lower, and so on. Often, it appears to be a group of adults trying to have a conversation with a group children. (Caveat: There are obviously great variations within any group and the impression could in parts result from having visited more “deplorables” from one group than from the other. However, this well matches what I have seen over decades in several countries, and I am loath to give too much “benefit of a doubt”. I note that even e.g. some Leftist college professors/institutions are known to behave in an absurd manner.) Even Buchanan, who appears to be widely considered a crack-pot on the Left and who was usually mentioned with some condescension in Sweden during his presidential campaigning, does better than a great many Leftist debaters—and compared to the typical Leftist blogger he is a shining beacon of rationality and fairness.

Written by michaeleriksson

October 31, 2017 at 2:17 pm

The 2017 Nobel Prizes: Women and the Nobel Prize

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To briefly follow-up on women and the Nobel Prize, I note that 2017 saw a total of 11 laureates (not counting the Peace Prize, awarded to an organization). Again, all of them were men.

See the 2016 article for a deeper discussion, or the article that caused my interest in the matter.

Written by michaeleriksson

October 14, 2017 at 11:00 pm

Reality disconnect

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I have often, including in some of my latest posts, written about a “reality disconnect”* among e.g. politicians, journalists, feminist propagandists, … where the things that they loudly claim** in public simply do not match reality. And, no, I am not saying that they simply see the world differently than I do (if I did, I might be the problem!): There are many points where main stream science says something very different; where actual statistics are incompatible with the claims; where the statistic might seem superficially compatible, but logically must be interpreted differently than they do***; etc. Not to mention the many cases where a certain set of data allows a handful of conclusions and they just jump to and stick with the one single conclusion that matches their world view, without even considering the possibility that one of the other conclusions could be true.

*I am not certain whether I have ever used this particular phrasing, however.

**What is genuine opinion and what attempts to manipulate the public is often hard or impossible to tell. In the case of high level politicians, I would tend towards manipulation attempts; in the case of journalists, feminists, and lower level party sympathizers (including many bloggers), genuine opinion could be more likely.

***Cf. e.g. the the “77 cents on the dollar” bullshit.

To date, I have been focused on issues relating to e.g. political correctness; however, there are many, many other instances where similar reality disconnects exist.

Take e.g. the issue of doping (in general) and anabolic steroids (in particular)*: The view painted in media and “public information” is invariably that this is a great evil, with numerous unavoidable and debilitating side-effects. The high use among e.g. gym goers is viewed as a major issue. If we look at actual experiences and data a much more nuanced picture arises, up to the point that the overall effect on someones life can be positive.

*Disclaimers: a) The intent is not to paint doping in a positive light, nor even to paint it in a more nuanced light (although I would see it as positive if some of the readers develop a more nuanced view). The purpose is rather to demonstrate the problems of reality disconnect, intellectual dishonesty, lack of critical thinking, etc. The apparent topic matter is just a very suitable example, especially since I would rather not write yet another piece on e.g. feminism. b) The only drugs I take myself are coffee (large quantities), alcohol (small quantities), and the odd aspirin/tylenol/whatnot. (However, I did originally look into the topic with an eye on a possible future use, to compensate for the effects of aging that will eventually manifest. I leave this option open for now.) c) No-one should ever take these types of drugs before knowing what he is doing. (Cf. e.g. item 1 below.)

Consider some common problems with reporting:

  1. Severe problems, let alone disastrous ones, usually go back to people taking drugs without doing the appropriate research (either not researching at all or going by what some guy in the gym said) or people simply being stupid.

    For instance, I once saw a YouTube video speak of a body-builder friend who, as a first time user, had taken a large shot of insulin* on an empty stomach and not eaten anything afterwards. He started to feel weak and, instead of now urgently eating something, went to bed to rest. He fell unconscious and hours of seizures and life in a wheel-chair followed. Notwithstanding that insulin is a drug that is generally considered dangerous, being a “lesser evil” even for actual diabetics, this shows a great degree of ignorance and stupidity: Even five minutes on the Internet would have taught him that it was vital to compensate with carbohydrates; indeed, an at least vague awareness of “insulin shocks” and similar in diabetics should be present in anyone who has even graduated junior high school, and that at least the potential for danger was there would follow immediately. To boot, chances are that a low blood-sugar level would have diminished the results he was hoping for, because one of the main ideas would be to increase the muscles uptake of glycogen, thereby making them larger**—but with low blood sugar…

    *Insulin is used by many (non-diabetic) body builders for the purpose of muscle growth.

    **Whether this actually works, I do not know—the line between science and “bro science” can be hard to detect on the Internet. It is notable, however, that body builders often go for size over strength. Glycogen can contribute to overall muscle size, but the actual “weight pulling” parts of the muscle remain unchanged.

    A common issue is failing to “cycle” (effectively, taking a break from drug use): This is basically the first thing to pick-up when even considering to use drugs—yet many fail to do so and see a health detriment with no off-setting benefit. Cycling has the dual benefit of a) giving the body time off to function normally and to at least partially restore it self from side-effects, and b) to diminish the “tolerance” towards the drug, so that a smaller dose is needed once the break is over: As with e.g. alcohol, the more the body is used to it, the more is needed to get the effect one is looking for—and the greater the damage to those parts of the body that cannot or are slower to adapt. Take a break and the effectiveness of a smaller dose increases again.

  2. Many reported cases go back to misrepresentations of the actual events.

    A particular notable case is Arnold Schwarzenegger’s heart surgery, which has been blamed on steroids. In reality, there is no proof of a connection whatsoever. More over, his version is that it was a congenital problem… (Schwarzenegger could, obviously, be lying, but there is no obvious reason for him to do so: He has already publicly admitted to drug use and what he did was, at the time, perfectly legal.)

    Another is Gregg Valentino and his “exploding arms”: This issue, including the invasive surgery needed, did not stem directly from use of any type of enhancer—it stemmed from being sloppy with injections, especially re-using dirty needles. This sloppiness led to a severe infection, the situation was made worse through amateurish attempts at self-surgery, and the professionals were forced to take drastic measures. With proper handling of injections (possibly even with a sufficiently early visit to a physician) this would not have happened; with such improper handling even medically legitimate injections (e.g. to treat diabetes) would have led to similar problems with equal probability. (With some reservations for where injections for what purpose take place.) To boot, one documentary that I saw claimed that “steroids” ruined his arms—which is not at all the case. What he injected was synthol, a type of oil which is used for localized, artificial optical improvements (often highly unsuccessfully…), which has nothing at all to do with steroids (or any other actual performance enhancer). We could equally claim “dieting ruined her breasts” when a looks obsessed woman suffers a breast-implant burst—a ridiculous non sequitur.

  3. Comparisons are usually made based on extremes. If e.g. a world-class body builder spends twenty years taking steroids, HGH, IGF-1, and whatnot in enormous doses, and develops some form of health problems, this does not automatically mean that an amateur who uses much more moderates doses of a single drug will immediately develop such problems—or necessarily even after twenty years.

    Similarly, much of the public perception on steroids (and PEDs in general) go back to the East-German (and other Eastern European) athletes from the 1980s, in particular the female athletes. What was seen there, however, does not necessarily have much importance for the average gym goer of today, including that we compare with world class athletes on a forced regimen—but also because the knowledge of how drugs work has grown and the drugs available has become more sophisticated. For a man, the partial comparison with women is also misleading, both because the physiological reactions can be different outright and because some effects considered negative for a woman need not be negative for a man. Some, e.g. a deeper voice, might even be seen as positive. (Of course, those that affect health, not just superficialities, are negatives for everyone.)

  4. Effects of various drugs are often conflated, especially through “steroid blaming” (e.g. with Gregg Valentino above). For instance, the so called “roid gut” appears to have little or nothing to do with steroids. Instead, it arises through growth hormones*, which simply make everything grow—including the internal organs. This to the point that some people appear to think that any and all PEDs are steroids.

    *Generally, I have the impression that growth hormones are considerably more problematic than steroids in terms of side-effects. This impression could be wrong, however.

  5. There seems to be a knee-jerk reaction to associate any health problem in a body builder or strength athlete with drugs in general or steroids in particular. However, a proper comparison must look at aggregates and not individual examples: There are plenty of non-drug users who have developed severe health problems, including e.g. the heart, at forty or fifty, even many who have died. The question is therefore not whether such cases occur among drug users—but whether* they are more common and/or more severe. However, this differentiation is not made: Instead it is X died at age 50, he took drugs; ergo, the drugs killed him.

    *The result of such an investigation can very well be that they are more common and/or severe—I am not saying that e.g. steroids are harmless. The matter at hand is one of scientific thinking and intellectual honesty, not the pros and cons of drugs.

    Similarly, there is often a blanket attribution of cause and effect whenever a potential cause is known—and this is not limited to e.g. PEDs. If x percent of the users of a certain drug has a certain problem, we cannot conclude that this drug caused the whole x. Instead, we have to make a comparison with an otherwise comparable control group. If we find that y percent of these have the same problem, then the drug, approximately/statistically speaking, caused x – y percentage points of the cases. Similarly, a smoker who dies of lung cancer did not necessarily develop lung cancer because he smoked: Chances are that he did, and smoking certainly did not help—but he could still be among those caught by another reason, e.g. air pollution. There simply is no guarantee that he would have lived, had he not smoked.

    Strictly speaking, we would also have to make more detailed comparisons in order to judge various issues, but this too is never done (at least outside of scientific research): How is a particular aspect of health influenced by spending hours a day training with weights? By eating twice, thrice, or even four times as much as ordinary people? By using a diet with unusual fat/carbohydrate/protein proportions? By repeatedly “bulking up” and then forcing the body fat down to just a few percent? By weighing a hundred pounds more than normally expected, even be it muscle instead of fat? What if there is some genetic link between an inborn increased ability to build muscle, as would be expected even in a drug-taking top body-builder, and some medical problem? …

  6. Side-effects are often overstated or misreported. For instance, hypogonadism is often cited as a negative side-effect of steroid use: “If you take steroids your testicles will shrink!” Now, this is at least potentially true; however, there is an important addendum that is virtually always left out: They will usually* bounce back again after the steroid use ceases. Not all steroids have the same strength of various side-effects. Some side-effects can be countered by other drugs**, notably where excess estrogen is concerned.

    *Depending on the state of research, where I lack the depth of knowledge, “usually” might be an unnecessary addendum or replaceable by “almost always”. The time frame and the probability will naturally depend on length of use and quantities used; as well as whether the user has “cycled”.

    **Whether this is a good idea, I leave unstated. It will likely depend on the specifics of the situation, notably what side-effects the second drug has. However, when viewed in light of some arguments against steroids, the possibility must be considered. To e.g. try to scare someone away from steroids with the threat of gynecomastia without mentioning potential counter-measures is just unethical.

  7. A particular nefarious issue is the constant phrasing with “abuse”: Basically, any and all use of e.g. steroids is called “abuse” in a blanket manner. Good journalism should be impartial and stick to the facts. This includes using value-neutral words like “use” and not value-loaded words like “abuse”—no matter the journalist’s own opinions.

Of course, a side-effect of such propaganda is that we no longer know what we can or cannot trust: Is this-or-that recreational drug as dangerous as claimed? It might or might not be—but we are robbed the opportunity to learn this without doing time consuming research, because what is said in the media simply cannot be trusted.

In the bigger picture, I suspect that at least part of the problem is that some people come to the conclusion that something is evil, and take it upon themselves to prevent others from coming to a different conclusion through deliberate distortion of facts, demonizing something or someone, irrational emotional arguments, whatnot—they believe* that they have the truth and fear that others are not smart enough to find this truth, if left to their own devices. Indeed, this explains very well the apparent paradox that the surest way to be censored on a feminist blog is to comment with a strong counter-argument, a link to statistics contrary to the point of the original post, or otherwise doing something that could bring other readers away from the (often outrageously untrue) “truth”.

*The twist is, of course, that these people, more often than not, are less intelligent, less informed and more prejudiced, and worse at critical thinking than many or most of the people they try to “protect”. Unsurprisingly, they are also often wrong…

A good example of this is a group of anti-tobacco campaigners who visited my school class when I was some 10 to 12 years old: They started off trying to disgust the pupils away from snus, by discussing the potash content* and how potash was gathered for snus production through doing something** to the contents of chamber pots***… Now, snus is a nicotine product, it is addictive, it can cause health problems: These are all things that could, conceivably should, be told to school children and/or the public in general. Putting forth an absurdly wrong story in order to convince children through a shock effect is simply unethical, intellectually dishonest, and likely does more harm than good: When adults lie about one thing, how can children trust them on another? Why should they believe that snus is addictive, that this is not just another lie to scare them away? Etc.

*I seem to vaguely recall that even this claim was outdated, potash once having been an ingredient, but no longer being so. I could be wrong, however.

**I am a little vague on the details, especially since they simply did not make sense to me even then. (And, of course, the claim had nothing to do with reality, starting with the simple fact that chamber pots barely existed in Sweden at that time.) The story was so preposterous that it can be safely assumed that they were neither ignorant nor stupid enough to believe this themselves—it had to be a deliberate lie told to children in order to manipulate them.

***Surprisingly, the implied pseudo-etymology works almost as well in English as in Swedish: potash -> pottaska, chamber pot -> potta

Another example, which depending on developments might result in a separate post, is the recent claims of the German SPD that women would earn 79 cents on the euro—and, oh my, how unfair! I contacted them per email to complain and the answer (among a number of naive statements) showed that they actually, indisputably knew that any true difference was far smaller at, on the outside*, 5–8 % (i.e. 92–95 cents on the euro)—even using their own numbers. They are deliberately lying to their voters! See also e.g. my discussion of the 77 cents on the dollar and note the similarity of numbers over geography and time—this is exactly the kind of similarity that tends to indicate a biological (rather than e.g. a cultural or societal) variation.**

*Contrary to the beliefs of the SPD, an unexplained difference of 5–8 % does not mean that we have a systematic wage discrimination of 5–8 %—this interval is just an upper limit on the maximal size of any wage discrimination. Using studies with more factors, there is no reason to expect more than at most a marginal variation to remain. Interestingly, they also claim that while the West-German difference was 23 % (i.e. exactly the U.S. 77 cents), the East-German was a mere 8, which ties in well with some thoughts in my previous post. Note especially, this the eastern parts of Germany are still worse off than the western part and that there are still plenty of educational choices made and careers started during the GDR era.

**However, two data points does not make for any degree of certainty.

Written by michaeleriksson

August 26, 2017 at 7:11 pm

A few thoughts after watching Hjernevask

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A while back, I wrote a post with an excursion on the TV series “Hjernevask”. Having a number of thoughts in my head after watching said series, I wrote most of the below a day or two later, but I never got around to complete it, in particular having several other sub-topics unstarted. As is, I just publish what I have—especially since I want to reference it in the post I started today…

Thoughts on homosexuality:

An often cited problem with the existence of homosexuality is the apparent contradiction of evolutionary principles: Reproduction is not possible between members of the same sex in humans (and a great many other animals, likely including all mammals); ergo, men who like men and women who like women will not have children; ergo, if homosexuality has a genetic background*, it should be a fringe phenomenon.

*This is not a given, even if we see homosexuality as something mainly or entirely congenital. An entirely different line of explanation is then simply that homosexuality has a non-genetic background. Below I will make the “for the sake of argument” assumption that the reasons are genetic (or otherwise inherited by a sufficiently similar mechanism).

This has led to all sorts of speculation and explanation attempts, e.g. that homosexuals could benefit their non-homosexual relatives (who share a considerable amount of genes) in a way that partially outweighs the immediate reproductive disadvantages. This might or might not be true; but is not that convincing because the proper focus of selection is usually the genes themselves and the non-homosexual relatives would still have to share in the “homosexual” genes for this to work out. (While this is by no means impossible, e.g. through some constellation of recessive genes, it requires additional assumptions to be true.)

There is an easier way out, however: What if homosexuals do reproduce in the ordinary manner? My own father, e.g., is a gay man with two children; I am a straight man with no children. (In both cases, that I know of.) In fact, in cultures with a low tolerance for homosexuality, chances are that most homosexuals will lead more or less normal reproductive lives. They will try to fit in, they will marry, they will have children*, and they will pass their genes on. A low-tolerance society is good for homosexuality (but not for homosexuals). In contrast, in a high-tolerance society, like the current, homosexuals will have a far lower probability of having children—it is bad for homosexuality (but not for homosexuals). There is much more evolutionary pressure against homosexuality in the tolerant society.

*It is true that they will be less interested in intercourse with their partners. However, we have to consider factors like the own wish for children (no need for “gay adoption”), the partner’s wish for children, the partner’s wish for sex, and that lack of other release possibilities can make sex with even the “wrong” partner a positive. The latter in particular in cultures that frown upon masturbation.

This applies already for homosexuals. If we widen the field to include bisexuals*, the effect in the low-tolerance society is strengthened; however, it is weakened in the high-tolerance society.

*If homo- and bisexuality do have a genetic background, it would be surprising if they were unrelated.

Thoughts on comparisons and the effects of variation:

A problem with making comparisons is the lack of a common base line, as well as the choice of an unsuitable base line. This is exemplified e.g. by claims that men and women are so similar that it does not make sense to focus on the differences: For some base lines and some purposes this will be true; for others, it will be false. (Cf. also the “math professor” example from the original post.)

If we make a four-way comparison between a male and a female human and a male and a female horse, e.g., we will likely see (although this could depend on what is compared) that the interspecies differences dwarf the intraspecies differences. (Still there will be some aspects of being a male shared by horse and human, but not male and female, and so on.) Add a mollusk and even the human/horse differences seem small. Throw in a rock and they might seem negligible. Why? Because the reasonable base line for the comparison changes.

Still, while a horse and a human may seem similar when compared to a rock, horses and humans are normally seen as living very different lives, having very different capabilities, whatnot. Why? Because when comparing humans and horses in everyday life, the relevant baseline is not the baseline from the comparison with the rock. The observable differences do not arise out of similarities—but out of underlying, genetic* differences. Now, the smaller the differences are, the lesser the effect might be and the fewer areas might be affected. Indeed, the differences between men and women are much smaller than between humans and horses, and their lives, abilities, whatnots, are correspondingly closer.

*The human–horse differences can probably be safely considered genetic; however, quite often the wider set of congenital differences should be considered, including when comparing humans with other humans. (In all fairness, even the human–horse difference could have a non-genetic component, because minor parts of the differences could go back to the uterine environment and gestation process—and in the highly unlikely event that a horse/human could be gestated by a human/horse, then some of these difference might manifest in the wrong species. For species that are considerably closer related, e.g. donkeys and horses, this might be an interesting experiment.)

However, men and women are biologically different, even mentally. Open for discussion is only by how much and how relevant the differences are. It borders on a statistical impossibility that there would not be some difference. Sign two letters, even the one immediately after the other, even using the same pen, same ink, and same type of paper, even while deliberately trying to keep the signature constant, and there will be differences in the result. Likely, they can be seen by the naked eye; if they cannot, a microscope will show plenty of differences. Even the minor differences in input that will still occur, say a minuscule difference in the placing of the hand, a slight hesitation in a stroke, whatnot, will lead to differences in the result. Male and female brains have physiological differences akin to writing on a different day, with different pen, ink, and paper, …—possibly even a different hand. That they would happen to neutralize so perfectly that differences in behavior, abilities, preferences, whatnot, are not obvious is unlikely—that there would be no difference at all, well, that is virtually impossible.

Now take even a small difference and look at what can happen in sub-populations. Imagine a hypothetical type of competition where men have an average result of 100s, women 98s, both (unrealistically) a standard deviation of 10s in an approximate normal distribution and assuming equal amounts of training* (etc.). Gather your colleagues, put them through training, and have a competition: Pick a man and a woman completely at random and the chance of the man or woman placing better is toss up; and whether a man or a woman wins will depend mostly on whether there are more men or women among your colleagues… In stark contrast: What would be the sex of the (non-segregated) Olympic Champion? Very likely a male if a higher time is better; very likely female if a lower time is better. Indeed, chances are that the field would be dominated accordingly. This through a difference of two parts in a hundred in one single aspect (resp. one fifth of a standard deviation, which is mathematically more significant). Let us say that you have to be one in thirty thousand**/*** to make the final. This corresponds to being roughly four standard deviations above the mean. Looking just at women and assuming that a lower time is better, the limit for a final would be 58 (= 98 – 4 x 10). Any man who wants to make that final has to have a score no worse than 58 (but possible better). Now, this corresponds to 4.2 standard deviations (58 = 100 – 4.2 x 10) or roughly one in eighty thousand. In other words, if 240 thousand women compete at this sport, roughly eight would be candidates for the final; among 240 thousand men, only 3. Assuming eight-people finals (as in e.g. the 100m dash), we might have six women and two men. We might have two or three female medalists to one or no male medalists—and the winner is very likely a woman.

*This is of course unrealistic in the real world, or even when looking at the Olympics (cf. the rest of the discussion). It might e.g. be necessary to use a greater standard deviation in the example calculations, which would make the effect smaller—but would not change the principles. When looking e.g. who excels at what profession, we might find a variety of unrelated caused (notably variations on interest and ability), some of which might favour the one sex, some of which might favour the other. It is, however, enough for there to be a net difference to be present in these for a net difference in outcome to result. Of course, depending on how these turn out, they can make the net difference larger than if only one factor had been present, just as they could make it smaller or turn it around.

**In the following some numbers are a mixture of experiments with a statistical package I am unfamiliar with and rough guesstimates. The math could be wrong in detail, but not in a manner that invalidates the principle. For the purposes of demonstrating the effects at extremes, the above should be sufficient. If in doubt, just throw on another standard deviation and any misestimate will be dwarfed.

***Looking at the global population in sports, we have to factor in the many people who do not compete in a given sport, are too old or too young, or might have some other reason for being out of the race. Olympic champions are typically nowhere near one-in-seven-billion. A small sport might have someone as low as one in a few hundred; a large one might conceivably go into one in a few millions. (However, feel free to do calculations based on one in billions—my point will be even clearer.)

A pseudo-paradoxical result of attempts to “even the playing field” is that those factors that are not evened out will be the more important. Now, barring massive interventions, congenital factors cannot be evened out after the fact; while e.g. factors like number of school years can. Consider a situation where men and women are perfectly equal in all rights, responsibilities, opportunities, whatnot. Any variation of outcome will now be explained by one of two things: Congenital factors and coincidence. Looking at sufficiently large samples, the effects of coincidence will even out and disappear—and differences in sample outcome will depend only on congenital factors!

When we look at sufficiently exclusive groups, then, (even small) differences in e.g. ability distribution have a larger effect* on an even playing field than they do on an uneven one. To boot, using the same principles as above, given a sufficiently exclusive group, even very small differences will have an effect. The result is that if it were true that a difference in outcomes was un- or only weakly related to ability in 1917, 1967, or even 1987, it could very well be strongly related in 2017.

*Which is not automatically to say that the differences in outcome are larger. If women are not allowed to run for office, they will not land in office (barring some exceptional scenarios like a woman running for office under a false, male identity). At the same time, in that scenario, no difference in ability distribution, no matter how large or in what direction, between men and women will have any effect on the sex distribution of those successfully elected. Allowing women to run will decrease the difference in outcome—while increasing the importance of the differences.

A somewhat similar mechanism is suggested in Hjernevask: Women (and men) might be more prone to follow their natural inclinations in today’s West than in poorer parts of the world or in the West of earlier days. Because society is more affluent, survival is easier, etc., they have less external restrictions in the form of e.g. lack of money, and they can afford to forego a better paying career in, say, software development, for a worse payed career in nursing or teaching (should they find the latter more interesting). If women do not move into lucrative careers that are open to them, chances are that they have other, natural preferences; ditto, if e.g. Norwegian women stay away from tech and Indian* do not. If and when India grows more affluent, it will be interesting to see whether its women will be more or less interested in tech careers.

*As occurs to me, the proportion of female software developers (in particular) and IT people (in general) with a foreign background has been considerably higher than for male ones in the projects that I have worked in. (With both men and women, Eastern Europe has been the main source.) For instance, out of three women in the IT department of my current client, one was a native (German), one is Romanian (?), and one was Iranian—and at the moment only the Romanian remains. The project before that had one out one being native but likely from the former GDR area (the project was in an “East-German” city, Chemnitz, and most of the team members were “Easterners”); the one before that one out one Eastern European; with similar numbers going back. However, I caution both that the statistical sample could be too small to draw conclusions and that foreigners are by no means rare among the men either.

Written by michaeleriksson

August 26, 2017 at 7:10 pm