Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Posts Tagged ‘stupidity

Why the world is going to Hell

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As the world appears to go to Hell faster and faster, and as problems that I complained about ten years ago appear to go from a Swedish phenomenon to a world-wide disaster, it might be time to reflect on the causes. How can it, e.g., be that group A brings factual arguments, reasoning, statistics, whatnot, that group B brings ad hominem and other unethical rhetorical tricks, sloganeering, pseudo-arguments and -reasoning that fall apart when prodded with a stick, etc., and that group B wins? How can the virtual astrologers defeat the astronomers? The virtual homeopaths defeat the “allopaths’?

A dominance in media might contribute, certainly. (But how did that dominance arise?) Ditto less stringent schooling. Ditto less exposure to history. Ditto less exposure to past thinkers. Ditto this and ditto that.

The core problem is something else, however, namely that most humans are very bad at thinking (or choose not to think, in the first place).

In particular, someone of “average” intellectual/cognitive abilities, IQ, g, whatnot, is deeply stupid.

I am sorry, but it really, really has to be said:

The average human is deeply stupid.

More than that, even humans a fair bit above average are usually far from ideal. For instance, my main tour at university was at a program* widely considered one the most challenging in Sweden, loaded with math and physics—the type of program where the (in U.S. terms) average AP math A-scorer has problems keeping up. Even here, I saw plenty of students unable to follow not-too-complicated arguments or who preferred to ask for help instead of thinking for themselves—students who were not just less smart than I was, but who were depressingly far behind.

*Civilingenjör in “teknisk fysik” at the Royal Institute of Technology (KTH) in Stockholm.

In parallel, I took roughly two semesters of business classes at one of the hardest-to-get-into programs* in Sweden—where (again, in U.S. terms) a near perfect GPA and/or SAT score is needed to get in. My impression of most students was not one of awe (certainly, not compared to the above), many were more leg-workers than head-workers, and the tests usually checked more for rote-learning and ability to replicate from memory than for understanding and ability to apply knowledge independently. Still, this might have been second brainiest “peer group” that I ever had.

*Civilekonom at the Stockholm School of Economics. I interrupted my studies when I moved to Germany as an exchange student within my main program. (I deliberately leave out my studies in Germany from the discussion, as issues like my own language deficits made it hard to judge the level of the students.)

Go back to “year nine” of school, where brain-development was at an almost adult level and I last interacted with students who had not been strongly pre-filtered* for intelligence—and most were deeply stupid. So stupid, in fact, that I consider it a joke that they, a few years later, gained the right to vote by dint of turning eighteen.

*Years ten-through-twelve, the Swedish “gymnasiet” is voluntary, with many of the dumbest dropping out, and with a self-filtering into different programs, some academic, some vocational. I went to the the usually-considered-hardest academic program (natural science). Compared to year nine, almost everyone in my new class would have rated in the upper half or better.

Before I switched to writing, I worked in different software positions over twenty years. Most of my colleagues have likely had Master-level STEM-degrees. If not, most have definitely had at least Bachelor-level STEM-degrees. Very few have been smart enough to make good software developers; about half so dumb* that they should have been kept away from the profession entirely. Looking at other departments, (e.g. HR, product management, project management), the standard has been far lower, even though most of these have had some type of university level qualification, often undergraduate degrees in some business or administration topic.

*But, to avoid misunderstandings, a clear majority of these were still above the population average.

Looking at other people that I have interacted with over the years, including roughly half of my pre-college teachers*, most-or-almost-all civil servants, most-or-almost-all customer-service workers, most-or-almost-all social contacts (outside work), there is a clear dominance of “deeply stupid” and “has no business voting” (among those that I have seen enough of to form an impression). Then we have my impressions of most journalists, many elected politicians, whatnot—-just depressing.

*I left for university in 1994. In my impression, the quality has dropped even further since then.

The simple truth is that most activities that humans engage in, even most post-school activities that many have ever encountered, require very little “higher” intelligence—but that tasks like software development, politics, and voting do.* Holding a conversation, e.g., requires comparatively little, because humans come with a tremendous amount of built-in “circuitry” for conversation and what is not built-in can be trained simply through talking a few hours a day. Children and people with an I.Q. of 80 can do it—as long as the topics include the weather, who has a crush on whom, and what team won the game last Saturday. Performing simple routine tasks after a bit of instruction is not that intellectually straining. Etc.

*To do well, that is: Just getting a position as a software developer is far, far easier than becoming a good software developer, some complete idiots have managed to be elected, and the right to vote is usually handed out in a blanket manner to those who turn eighteen.

But: let the intellectual demands increase and most fall of the map fairly rapidly. Disturbingly many have problems with so elementary concepts as fractions, even when explained. Fewer yet could be told the concept and come up, on their own, with simply arithmetic laws for fractions. Most of the population appears unable to learn non-trivial matters from books. Think critically, see through a flawed argument, make abstractions, understand cause and consequence, create new knowledge, understand a math proof, …? Now we are down to a small minority.

One way or another, almost all modern problems boil down to human stupidity and irrationality. For instance, is it really reasonable that someone is allowed a say in politics who wrecks a child’s math score for illustrating “3 x 8” by adding 3 eight times instead of adding 8 three times?* Someone who does not understand that causality and correlation are different things? Someone who believes that if X implies Y then not-X necessarily implies not-Y? Someone who fails to understand that a difference in incentives can alter human behavior? Someone who hears “First they came …” and fails to see how it could apply to any other group than the Nazis (or, on the outside, other members of pseudo-category “Right”)? Someone who cannot understand the point of the previous questions without examples?

*A real example that I encountered on the Internet a few months ago (with reservations for the exact details). Even posing the question is disputable, as it does little to test the child. Picking the one over the other is idiotic, on this level, because both points of view are arithmetically equivalent, and a significant difference will only be relevant when we start to think about math in terms of operators—which is not productive for small children and somewhat arbitrary in general.

Also see e.g. [1] for previous discussions.

Excursion on IQ, etc.:
A more extensive and slightly quantified attempt to classify IQ and capabilities is found in a text by James Thompson. Comparing his speculation with my personal experiences and observations, I believe that he errs on the side of optimism in some cases. I suspect that at least some readers will be tempted to use flawed arguments like “Michael speaks of IQ, IQ is this-and-that; ergo, everything above is nonsense”. To this I add that the value of IQ as measure is well established, contrary to PC propaganda, and that none of the above requires IQ to be valid. (Neither does it require e.g. that I.Q. is heritable.)

Excursion on my second Master:
I earned a second Master in Germany, a few years after my original studies. As this was a distance program, my interactions with other students were to small for me to form an impression, but I have written very unfavorably about the quality of the university in the past ([2]).

Excursion on “Civil”-degrees:
Swedish degrees that start with “Civil” are usually broadly equivalent to a U.S. Bachelor immediately followed by a U.S. Master, thesis included. I compare the progress of my own studies with a U.S. J.D in an older text ([3]), which might be a useful illustration.

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June 21, 2020 at 11:46 am

Creating leadership to raise awareness of poor language

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I recently skimmed a Wikipedia page with the almost absurd claim “[he] devoted his time to raising awareness of childhood obesity”, which leads me to have a look at a few words/phrases that have annoyed me for a long time.

To begin with, unsurprisingly, “raising awareness”:

I cannot count the number of times that I have encountered this nonsensical “raising awareness” and I cannot remember more than a small fraction of the causes for which awareness is being raised. This makes the phrase hackneyed and pointless.

I have never quite understood what “raising awareness” would amount to, the phrase is too generic, and the implications can be very different from context to context. This makes the phrase uninformative, even potentially misleading.

The number of apparent causes is so large that it makes the phrase, even the general idea, disputable (also see an excursion below): Firstly, most of the underlying issues are either too trivial to bother the broad masses with or so obvious that any even semi-educated person will already be aware of them. (As with e.g. childhood obesity in the modern U.S.) Secondly, the number of issues is too large for anyone to be seriously “aware” of more than a small fraction of them. (And the limited “awareness” is, obviously, best spent on issues with a personal relevance or where a personal effort can bring something. Someone who tries to “raise awareness” of childhood obesity with me, a childless adult, wastes my time.)

There might well be worthy actions available to those who want to help with a certain cause or issue (and there might be some causes and issues far worthier than others), but “raising awareness” will hardly ever be one of them.

If someone provides an information service, then say so.

If someone raises funds, then say so.

If someone holds speeches, then say so.

Etc.

The we have variations on the “leader” and “leadership” theme:

For instance, consider how many colleges proudly proclaim that they are “educating the leaders of tomorrow”, how many activities will “improve leadership skills”, or how many “leadership” awards there seems to be.

“Leader” seems to be increasingly used merely as a term for someone of some level of accomplishment, and not necessarily a very high one. The aspect of actually leading* is often absent or reduced to being a claimed role-model, being a “leader by example”, or having at some point led something trivial, like a handful of boy-scouts or a three-person department (as opposed to e.g. an army regiment resp. a Fortune-500 company). Indeed, the truly competent are often not found in leadership positions, e.g. because they are not sufficiently interested in self-promotion and socializing, or because their ideas are voted down by a less competent majority.

*As an aside, I have a fairly low opinion of many types of leaders and leadership ideas in general. This in particular with leaders who focus greatly on motivation and/or are poor decision makers.

A brilliant scientist, e.g., might well be a “leading scientist” and might even legitimately have “led the field”, in the sense of being a forerunner, but these meanings are only tangentially related to “leadership” and “being a leader”. Why then speak of “leadership” and “being a leader”, unless separate proof of leadership is present?

From another point of view, consider the reality of the world vs. a Lake Wobegon where everyone is a leader: How many college graduates, e.g., will ever have a leadership position actually worth mentioning? Is it not better for an engineering student to focus on becoming a great engineer than on being one of the “future leaders of the engineering profession”? For a med student to focus on becoming a great physician than on being one of the “future leaders of the medical profession”? If in doubt, very many engineers will end up in a “Dilbert” scenario, “led” by an incompetent middle-manager*, while very many physicians work endless hours to remain in the middle off the pack. Looking at non-STEM students, they are often found “leading” customers to include fries in their fast-food orders.

*As an aside, making managers and administrators more than assistants of and paper-work handlers for the core work-force might have been a grave mistake.

If in doubt, when a college degree has become the norm, calling college graduates “leaders” would result in an army with more generals than privates.

Similarly, if someone played a major part in a sports win (possibly, any part), he “led” the team to victory, while, apparently, the team’s coach did not. Going by biographies and CVs there might be teams out there with as many leaders as players …

I might go as far as suggest that the reader bans terms like “leadership” from his vocabulary. Often, they are entirely misleading; when not, more specific* words are usually better, to avoid both the taint of today’s wishy-washy meaning and the risk, when applied to oneself, of sounding self-aggrandizing.

*Which words will depend on the circumstances, but calling Trump “president”, Merkel “chancellor”, the mayor “mayor” and the major “major”, and so on, would be better than speaking of the “leader of [whatnot]”. In collectives, “heads of government” would be better than “leaders of countries”, etc. Semi-generic, but still more specific, terms like “decision maker” can work well in many contexts.

Finally, consider “create”:

Increasingly, a song-writer no longer writes songs but “creates” them; a designer no longer designs but “creates”; replace an ingredient in an existing drink, and you have now “created” the whatever-you-choose-to-call-it; etc. On one occasion, I actually read that someone had “created” the hair of some celebrity or other—not even the hair style, but the hair …

A particular negative examples is an actor “creating” a part: Never mind the preceding work of a playwright or director—if an actor takes on a new part, he “creates” it. As much as I acknowledge an actor’s ability to interpret a part, variations of “create” will hardly ever be fair and meaningful. If this was limited to the first actor to play the part, I might have been content with pointing out that “originate” would be a better word, but, no, if the play moves from London to New York, a second actor might be credited with “creating” the very same part, move to Paris and we have a third, etc.

The word is used in such a blanket manner that it is beginning to lose all meaning. (Not to mention removing nuance from the language. Compare e.g. “I wrote this text” with “I created this text”.)

And, yes, I have seen cases of the double-whammy “create awareness” … (But, in all fairness, that use of “create” is much more acceptable.)

Excursion on the purpose of “awareness”:
From a non-language angle: What is awareness supposed to achieve? Those who are actually affected will usually already be aware—and those who are not, are unlikely to be sufficiently bright and willing to be made aware.* On the other hand, if someone never interacts with children, it will rarely matter whether awareness of childhood obesity is present. If some old lady spends her evening with concerns about all those poor obese children while she watches TV, how does that make the world better? Her evening would certainly be more pleasant without the awareness. If awareness changes voting patterns, it will usually do more harm than good, because few issues are even remotely important enough to outweigh the totality of other factors that decide a vote. If someone donates money, it might harm another charity or take away business from someone else—and money given to charities often mainly serve to keep the charity, it self, its employees, and its contractors in money. (Raising all that awareness can be quite expensive …) If more people join a march or run a marathon with a certain badge, then this achieves nothing, except, possibly, to raise more awareness.

*Take someone who is sufficiently uninformed, unobservant, or uncaring, to not prevent an obese child from stuffing himself with chips and soft-drinks. Would this someone be likely to listen to warnings against childhood obesity? Fervently write down tips for a better diet? I doubt it.

Now, if awareness was directed at truly big issues where ignorance is common, there might be a point—but it rarely is. For instance, consider formation of opinion (political opinion, in particular): if more were aware of how important it is to think for oneself, to look at both sides of a story, to read deeper accounts than what newspapers provide, to have a solid knowledge of history, to have free speech even for dissenters, …, that could have a major positive impact on the outdated or otherwise flawed opinions that plague current societies, which, in turn, could have a major positive impact on public policy. Very few* actually “raise awareness” (if that loathsome phrase is tolerated) in this area. Of those who do, hardly any are considered philanthropists, and quite a few are condemned for spurious reasons, like allegedly supporting a particular movement after merely having advocated that its members, too, must have free speech.

*I am one of the few, which explains the example.

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June 18, 2020 at 4:35 pm

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Overreactions and Fukushima

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Yesterday, I read a very interesting take on the Fukushima accident. Apart from repeating some of my own observations, e.g. that the death-toll from nuclear accidents is dwarfed by that of e.g. fossil fuels, it brings up claims of politically motivated overreaction and distortion around Fukushima, including a very expensive and mostly useless clean-up and an original evacuation that did more harm than good.

This is an interesting parallel to my recent texts on COVID-19 (e.g. [1]), where (at least until now*) most of the damage in e.g. Germany has been caused by overreactions, counter-measures, fear, whatnot. It is also a further strong sign of the danger of trusting populist politicians and sensationalist journalists.

*The hitch, obviously, is that we do not know how great the eventual scope of the disease will be, and cannot know what the scope would have been with a more moderate set of counter-measures.

Moreover, if* the claims of the above article hold, then much of the (already extremely short-sighted, ignorant, and/or intellectually dishonest**) abolish-nuclear-power propaganda falls flat on its feet. For instance, a recurring news item over the years since the Fukushima accident has been some version of “The clean-up goes on and on and costs more and more money–yikes!”. But what if (even just most of) the clean-up has been unnecessary? What if someone agitates with “Do we want to risk evacuating tens of thousands of people?” when the evacuation was not really necessary? Etc.

*I have mostly not attempted to verify those claims that were new to me. An exception is the evacuation death-toll, which is broadly corroborated by an article from 2013. (Larger numbers in the above 2019 article would be unremarkable due to ongoing side-effects.)

**Including failing to account for the extreme causes behind the Fukushima accident, failing to compare (or grossly misstating) deaths by nuclear power with e.g. fossil fuels, ditto the Fukushima disaster vs. the natural disaster that caused it, and (at least before the recent climate panic) not having an eye on the immense damage caused by fossil fuels.

Similarly, it might well be that COVID-19 is the most costly and damaging epidemic in a long time—but why is this the case? It is not the disease, it self, but the reactions to the disease. If COVID-19 was magically exterminated from today till tomorrow, if every single currently infected person was brought back to pre-COVID-19 health, even if every single death was somehow reversed, it would still remain the most costly and damaging epidemic in a long time. The damage caused by the reactions and counter-measures is that large.

Written by michaeleriksson

March 24, 2020 at 6:21 pm

Escalation of virtue signaling

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The recent COVID-19 reactions by politicians are likely partially a problem that I have suspected repeatedly in the past, e.g. in the context of political correctness, the environment, and, more historically, e.g. religion and Communist dictatorships:

Many are very keen to prove themselves among the righteous/enlightened/orthodox/whatnot (preferably, the most righteous, but the main thing is to avoid condemnation)—and in order to do so, they make sure to go one step further than others: If X says that we should voluntarily abstain from visiting restaurants, then Y says that opening hours must be forcefully restricted to prove himself “better” than X, Z that restaurants must be closed altogether to prove himself “better” than Y, etc.

Obviously, if Z does have the audacity to suggest mere voluntary abstinence when the bar has already been raised, his opponents can condemn him for being too cavalier, ignorant, naive, whatnot. In more dire situations, e.g. Soviet Russia, the epithets could be harsher and the consequences worse.

Broadly, this could be seen as a continual escalation of virtue signaling.

An interesting question is to what degree such behavior would be by conscious decision, as above, and to what degree have unconscious causes, e.g. some type of fallacy or a pathological drive to be the “best” in some area.

(The above was intended as an excursion to [1], but slipped my mind.)

Written by michaeleriksson

March 22, 2020 at 1:22 pm

Caster Semenya, human irrationality, and fairness in competions

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The last few days, there has been renewed controversy around Caster Semenya (for the umpteenth time).

Caster Semenya is a case that has interested me on an abstract level, because there have been so many proofs of human irrationality around it and a few somewhat similar cases, notably Oscar Pistorius. Again, this is so:

The latest round is a new study (c.f. e.g. [1]) showing that rates of testosterone affect the performance of female athletes—something that even semi-informed people would consider almost* a given without a study. A potential consequence could be that Semenya must undergo a drug therapy to get rid of an “unfair” advantage (or not being allowed to compete).

*There could have been some unexpected quirk involved due to the different way male and female bodies tend to handle testosterone and estrogen, or similar, but that is not very likely in light of existing observational evidence, e.g. that women do not only have a strong advantage from anabolic steroids used as PEDs (testosterone is a natural anabolic stereoid), but, arguably, a stronger advantage than men. Look e.g. at the age and level of the current world records in throwing events vs. the performance level of today.

This is a disastrously wrong approach, which would also imply that other natural physical characteristics, e.g. height, must by analogy be considered: Basket-ball players taller than, say, 8 feet should only be allowed to compete if they have a corresponding offsetting handicap. Ditto sprinters with too high a proportion of fast-twitch fibers. Ditto limbo dancers who are too short. Ditto chess players who have to high an I.Q. or too good a memory. Etc.

That way lies the world of Harrison Bergeron

The correct question to ask is not whether Semenya is an extreme outlier in terms of testosterone and has a corresponding advantage—but why:

If she happens to be an ordinary XX with a (in some sense) normal body, which just happens to have so an unusual* configuration that she is an extreme outlier, then she should be allowed to compete on exactly the same terms as everyone else. She does have an advantage, possibly an immense one, but that advantage is within the realms of fair play—just like a basket-ball player should not be barred merely for being 8 feet tall**.

*Say that she has simply won the genetic lottery—all the numbers just happened to go her way, in that she has a genetic configuration where unusually many stimuli are “on” and unusually many inhibitors are “off”. In contrast, the examples below are more comparable to someone who manipulates the drawing of the numbers.

**However, here too there might be some situation where the reason for the tallness could be a relevant criterion. Possibly, people with a pituitary condition might need a class of their own. (Not implausible; however, this would go against historical precedence.)

If she has gained her high levels through e.g. having male testes*, being a cross dresser or a transgender person**, or deliberately injecting testosterone*** then the reason for her advantage is such that the advantage becomes unfair. (Exactly how to resolve this individual cases is beyond the scope of this post. Whether, when, and against whom genetic configurations that are neither XX nor XY should be allowed to compete, provided that they are otherwise “normal” women resp. men, is something that I lack the depth of knowledge to judge, but they could very well be relevant for inclusion upon deeper investigation.)

*One of the rumors I have heard. The actual investigations made are confidential, which implies that this discussion must be hypothetical.

**Almost certainly not the case, but some gender extremists have actually made demands that biological men who consider themselves women should be allowed to compete against women—which would make a complete mockery of women’s sport.

***Possible, but it is unlikely that she would have gotten away with that for so long with the amount of scrutiny she has been subjected to. However, exactly this accusation has been raised against e.g. Jarmila Kratochvilova (the long retired world-record holder at 800 m, which is also Semenya’s main distance).

Of course, another possible take would be to abolish the separate women’s class in competitions, either entirely or through replacement with some other categorization, e.g. by testosterone level, height, and/or (paralleling many existing sports) weight. Somehow I doubt that the other female competitors would be happy with that solution… (And this could turn out to be impractical.)

The case of Pistorius is slightly different: Here it is clear that if he has an advantage, then that advantage is unfair. In a second step, it is at least likely that he does have an advantage*—and if he does not, then he or someone else will in due time. Determining with certainty when that time has come, however, will be virtually impossible, and there would by necessity be some period of time in which the “blade runners” do have an unfair advantage before being separated—unless they are separated at a time before this determination has taken place.

*Contrary to some naive people who have taken it for granted that he has a disadvantage and have reached his level of performance despite his handicap—rather than because of it.

Written by michaeleriksson

July 4, 2017 at 9:34 pm

Ridiculous news stories

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Today, I encountered two stories on Spiegel Onlinew that really made me cringe (and, regrettably, are good stand-ins for greater problems).

The first discusses how Miss Piggy (of Muppet fame) has been awarded a feminist prizee. (An English piece reporting on the same topic with differences in detaile.)

Let us see here: Miss Piggy is shallow, conceited, belligerent and over-aggressive, (extremely) prone to violence, lacking in self-perspective and self-understanding, and so on and so forth. When Kermit lamented that “it’s not easy being green”, I have long suspected that she was one of the main reasons… Miss Piggy is in many ways a caricature of a (particular type of) woman.

The motivation for her receiving the award appears to be (lacking a formal statement, I read between the lines) that she was a strong woman who made it in a man’s world. To this I will re-iterate a point that I have often made in the past: The common complaint that strong women are often seen as bitches by men, that men are afraid of strong women, whatnot, is an utter misunderstanding or misrepresentation of what happens. The simple fact is that many of the women who are considered strong by feminists are in fact just bitches, often displaying a behaviour which would not be tolerated in a man, or bullies just as bad as the worst of men. They rarely share the characteristics of a strong man. Indeed, I strongly suspect that this behaviour is actually usually driven by fear and weakness rather than strength in the first place. In contrast, truly strong women are rarely called by the name—those who stand up to and conquer adversity instead of bullying weaker people into submission, stubbornly insisting that they are right even in the face of proof of the opposite, or over-aggressively attacking anyone who dares to criticize them. Miss Piggy is a bitch and a bully. No matter how funny she is when viewed from afar, if I ended up with her in real life, I would pick up my legs and run.

In addition, picking a fictional character is somewhat dubious per se. Picking one where the character’s creator is dead and unable to confirm or reject the chosen portrayal—well, that raises some serious ethical issues.

The second relays a suggestion by Ellen Pao to ban salary negotiationse—in order to reduce differences in outcome between men and women. (An English piece reporting on the same topic with differences in detail.e)

The premise (with which I concur) is that men tend to negotiate tougher than women and thus earn higher salaries; the conclusion (with which I strongly disagree) is that everyone should be payed the same based on position.

First off, I must admit that I have toyed with ideas of removing negotiations from the picture myself, being a man who has historically had a more female negotiation style and likely have less accumulated earnings than I should have because of it. The underlying problem is real: Some people get more than they deserve measured by accomplishment because they negotiate well; others get less than they deserve because they negotiate poorly. However, setting salary by position alone is not viable.

To state some obvious, but probably incomplete, counters to the proposition and the reasoning behind it:

  1. Other and better solutions to such problems exist, including better performance reviews, better tracking of accomplishment, and interviewers and negotiators who are better at judging ability (as opposed to superficial impressions).

  2. This is not a matter of men and women but of good and poor negotiators. If women are less willing to negotiate or less good at it (on average), then this is irrelevant. Any individual has the same choices to make and the same options open—man or woman. This is not a matter of sexual discrimination, it is a matter of discrimination by behaviour. If anything, this type of reasoning should be used to counter e.g. claims that women earn less merely through being women—the reality is that they earn less through behaving differently, making different choices, etc. (In as far as they do earn less at all: With the common positive discrimination of women and alterations in the demographics of education, this is not universally true anymore.)

    In many ways, this is as stupid as the nutcases who want to lower physical criteria for firemen so that more women are eligible—without considering the consequences on performance.

  3. The conclusion ignores the down-side of taking an aggressive negotiating position: The risk of getting nothing… Indeed, male unemployment is typically higher than for women and some portion of that is almost certainly explained by an unwillingness to take a position that is not attractive enough. Furthermore, in a twist, if negotiations were banned, some of these people would be back in contention for lower paying positions—and thereby forcing some others out of a job.

  4. Finally, and likely most significantly: A premise of this type of idea is that people working in the same position bring the same amount of value to their employers.

    This is utterly, utterly wrong.

    In reality, even low-level employees at McDonald’s (who have a very different amount of leeway for negotiations to begin with) differ significantly in terms of performance, value-added, whatnot. When we look at e.g. my own area of work (software development), the differences are gigantic. In fact, they are so enormous that I do not hesitate in saying that typical intra-company salary differences are far too small to fairly reflect the situation.

    That the best and worst in a given team differ by less than the two-fold in terms of performance is the exception; that it reaches the ten-fold is not unheard off. Indeed, I have had a few colleagues, who through their lack of understanding of what makes good and poor code, their laziness, their destructiveness, …, actually hurt the team/the project/their employer by their presence.


    Side-note:

    A discussion of what makes good code/a good software developer goes far beyond the scope of this post. However, I stress that it is not just a matter of having a certain number of lines of code, or just whether a certain feature works. (Such misconceptions being one of the reasons why there are many poor software developers out there.) Other highly important factors include whether the code is understandable, maintainable, extendable, …; whether it is well tested, preferably with automatic tests; how many bugs there are; whether the documentation is adequate; …

    Much of the issue can indeed be summarized simply by asking: What will this piece of code cost me/us/my employer/… not just today when it is written—but tomorrow, next week, next month, next year?


In addition, where there is a well-intended rule that does not match the will of the ruled, circumventions tend to be found. Here an obvious such circumvention would be to simply create more positions with different salaries and then to hand out positions based on old criteria.

Written by michaeleriksson

June 6, 2015 at 12:30 am

On my inactivity and human stupidity

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Even after returning to the Internet almost a year-and-a-half-ago I have published (or written, for that matter) very little. There are several reasons for this, including that I have decided to and benefited from cutting down on my “extra curriculars” in favour of more post-work relaxation and that I grown more and more critical as to what I consider a text worthy of publishing and a thought worthy of writing up in the first place—to the point that I must force myself to artificially lower my criteria, lest I remain silent.

The greatest reason, however, is something very different: Sheer frustration with the stupidity of most humans, with the way those more in need of feedback are correspondingly less responsive to it, and with how many of the greatest ignorants are sure of their own (imagined) knowledge and understanding. (Including the important special cases of incorrectly believing that knowledge or experience automatically implies understanding, failure to realize that understanding is almost always the more important of the three, and entirely overlooking that none of them is worth much without actual thought.) My activities in the Blogosphere have been particularly unrewarding and frustrating, and it has been a long time since I had a non-trivial activity there.

It is no coincidence that there are many sayings or quotes expressing the principle that the fool is cock-sure and the wise man doubts—nor that the Dunning–Kruger principle has gained fame among those who do think. (Executive summary of Dunning–Kruger: Ability at A goes hand in hand with the meta-ability to judge ability at A.) Indeed, one of the few things that give me some amount of personal pride is simply that I belong to the small minority of people actually willing to actively challenge their own opinions and modify them as time goes by.

The examples of this are very common and the effects extremely demotivating to me. It is proverbially better to light a candle than to curse the darkness (and I have long tried to live by this claim), but there simply comes a point where it is hard to keep it up—especially, since there are many ignorants not only impervious to candle light—but who actively put out candles lit by others. Those who are familiar with my writings will know that I have written a lot about censorship—and the sad truth is that there are many blogs (notably feminist ones) who simply censor comments that have a dissenting view. This includes even polite comments using factual arguments, links to statistics, pointers to logical errors, … Indeed, often the comments that are the more likely to convince a third-party are the ones preferentially censored… Specifically in the realm of political correctness (in general and to some degree) and feminism (in particular and to high degree), there appears to be no willingness to actually look for the truth. Instead, pre-formed claims are pushed with great insistence, even when no more justified than e.g. the claims of a creationist: Both kinds live in their own special world where some things just have to be true because else they would find themselves in another world or have to face possibilities that they cannot cope with. Scientific proof, logical arguments, whatnot, are all secondary: The truth that these point to is abhorred and therefore they must, ipso facto, be faulty. It is inconceivable that God did not create the world; it is inconceivable that differences in outcome could have any other explanation than differences in opportunity. Anyone claiming otherwise is uninformed and should let himself be enlightened—or an evil liar deliberately trying to ruin the game, a heretic, a sexist, … Meanwhile, those wishing to “enlighten” the dissenters typically give ample proof of their own ignorance, undeveloped ability to understand arguments, and lacking prowess with critical thinking. A particular annoyance is the constantly recurring claim that those who criticize feminism (more specifically gender-feminism and feminist populism) are ignorants who must be exposed to the truth—when most critics (at least in Sweden) actually grew up under feminist indoctrination, long took feminist claims to be true, and only over time developed a more nuanced world view, by means of critical thinking, exposure to more scientific information, personal experience contrary to the feminist world-view, and so on: If the feminist claims about e.g. rape statistics, domestic violence, earning capacity, discrimination against women, …, were true, then almost everyone would be feminists—but I have over time learned that these claims for the most part are invalid. (For varying reasons for different cases, but often including hiding vital details that radically change the interpretation of data, misreporting of data, use of unsound methodology and non-standard definitions, statistics extrapolated to different areas or times without verification of relevance, and even statistics simply made up.)

These problems, however, are by no means limited to the Blogosphere, nor to the politically correct or any other ideology or religion. No, stupidity, irrationality, incompetence, and so on, permeate the world and all its aspects, the main question often being whether a certain phenomenon is explained directly or just indirectly by such factors: Is the advertising industry filled with idiots or does it merely try to convince idiots? (I suspect that it is a bit of both: People of highly disputable competence and judgment trying to preferentially convince the most stupid, irrational, and uninformed consumers.)

Even in software development, stereotypically associated with the gifted and the border-line autistic, there are few who have the competence level they should have and many who have a good standing through social relationships and despite their lack of skill. About five in ten of the colleagues that I have worked with have been so poor that I would simply not have considered them an option, had I been setting up a new team. No more than one in ten is someone I would give a blanket “yes”. Another one in ten may be a border-line case, picked or rejected depending on the available alternatives. The remaining three might do if nothing else is available and a sufficient mentoring and reviewing could be guaranteed. Even those worthy of a “yes” are typically lacking of the competence they should have, for the simple reason that they have the competence level of a worthy developer—but typically work as lead developers. Notably, most of them have a very limited own understanding, instead basing their decisions on rules, recommendations, or things that they have read somewhere without giving sufficient thought to e.g. why the recommendation is made and when it does not apply because the underlying cause for the recommendation is irrelevant. For instance, The lead-developer of a team that I was assisting a while ago was highly surprised by the suggestion of replacing an ugly set of conditionals with a look-up in map—apparently, he was unaware of this obvious and well-established technique that even a junior should (but rarely does) know. Going outside the “yes” developers and the border-line cases, things deteriorate very rapidly. The average developer has no feeling whatsoever for what makes good and poor code, does not use the benefits of polymorphy over if-statements, uses copy-and-paste when he should write a new method or class to abstract the same functionality, writes test cases that are next to useless through checking the implementation instead of the interface, …

It is the same with other professions—software developers still do better than most other groups. Looking at most business graduates I have dealt with, I marvel that they actually did graduate… Most are lacking in knowledge, almost all are devoid of understanding, and areas such as critical thinking are uncharted territories. Large egos and great efforts to create an appearance of competence are more common.

A particularly frustrating problem: The few of us who actually do strive for understanding often see problems, opportunities, solutions, …, that others do not. However, because the ignorants are in the majority, the minority is considered lacking… (E.g. through being seen as obsessing with unimportant details when these particular details actually are important, or as being wrong in a dispute for lacking some insight of the majority—but where the reason for disagreement is that the minority has this insight and several more that the majority is lacking…) A project I worked on last year had me crawling up the walls for frustration for this reason (in several areas, but mainly with regard to Scrum):

I had spent some considerable time deepening my knowledge and understanding of Scrum and was actually enthusiastic (rarely happens with me…) about testing this and that, in particular seeing what gains might be possible through systematic inspect and adapt. My efforts where almost entirely blocked by a team that had no understanding of Scrum but merely followed a certain formulaic approach, leaving inspect and adapt (the very core of Scrum) entirely by the wayside. This regrettably extended to both the Scrum Masters that the project saw: The first had masterly conned large parts of the company into believing she was a true expert, making anything she said an ipse dixit during any discussion. In reality, she was a disaster in her role, not merely through failing to understand inspect and adapt, but also through failing Scrum in several critical regards, notably including trying to prescribe what the developers should do and how they should do it (and not limited to Scrum at that). The second had no previous Scrum background, but went through a crash course consisting of tail-coating number one for two weeks combined with some informal tutoring of the blind-leading-the-blind kind. Discussions with her were even less productive, with an even more limited intellect and the one implicit argument of “number one said and number one is the expert”. No: Sorry, the only one in the project who had any claim whatsoever of being a Scrum expert was yours truly—I was the only one who had bothered to go beyond superficial knowledge and actually gain an understanding of the principles and ideas, as well as the only one who seemed to actually evaluate how well or poorly something worked.

Many examples of how stupidity rules the world can be found in the UIs of modern software programs, with explanations coming to a high degree from the made-for-idiots camp, but also, if to a lesser degree from the made-by-idiots camp (e.g. through not understanding the benefits of separation of concerns, not having knowledge of alternate paradigms, or undue prejudice against e.g. command lines). Take web browsers: For a considerable part of the post-2000 period, I was a dedicated Opera user—Opera delivering superior functionality and speed. However, for each subsequent version, Opera grew less and less user-friendly, to the point that I threw up my hands in anger and reluctantly switched to what seemed the least of the many evils: Firefox. Unfortunately, Firefox has continued with the same user-despising trend as Opera. Negative developments include, but are by no means limited to, removing the options to turn images and JavaScript on/off from the GUI, necessitating a visit to about:config, or reducing the usability of the image filtering severely by removing the generic black-/white-list system in favour of a rights system where rights can only be set for the domain of the current page (but not for e.g. a domain that provides images displayed on that page). Worse, as I recently discovered during the update of an older system, when these were left in the “off” position in a version that had the toggle in the GUI, an upgrade to a version with the toggle in about:config would automatically, without asking the user, and in direct violation of reasonable expectation, turn them on again—absolutely inexcusable! Generally, Firefox has a severe usability problem through forcing central functionality into unofficial plug-ins that have to be installed separately. Yes, plug-ins are great. No, it is not acceptable to move functionality central to the product to plug-ins or to force the user to install a plug-in for something that should be done through a setting. (However, installing a plug-in to provide a more advanced version of the central functionality is acceptable. A JavaScript on/off switch is a must in a browser, and a per site toggle very highly recommended, but the full functionality of the NoScript plug-in is legitimately put in a plug-in.)

While Firefox removes central functionality, it also includes more and more non-central functionality that rightfully should be (but is not) in a plug-in, e.g. the “sync” functionality. Or what about the many, many URLs that can be found under about:config for a variety of unspecified tasks, some of which is highly likely to include unethical “phone-homes” or definitely expose data to Google (a by now entirely untrustworthy third party)?

One of my main beefs with Firefox since day one has not improved one iota over possibly some five years: I like to run different instances of browsers for different tasks (at home using different user accounts, at work at least using different profiles). Under Firefox this means a lot of unnecessary work. For instance, installing a certain plug-in for all users is not possible (resp. there is an alleged way, but it is poorly documented, it is non-obvious, it requires far more work than a single-user installation, and it, judging by my one attempt a few years back, simply does not work). Profiles, in turn, are very poorly thought-through, having no official means to copy them, requiring command-line intervention to run more than one profile at any given time, and, when push comes to shove, merely solving a problem that would not have existed in the first place—had Firefox made proper use of config files. If it had, one could just tell it to use the settings from file A for this instance and File B for that instance, with no additional programming or a cumbersome profile concept. Whether using profiles or additional user accounts, a major issue is to have to go through a good many settings for each instance: Settings is the most natural thing to export and import between parallel instances—but this is not allowed. What Firefox provides is a means to export bookmarks and similar—but that is near useless for any practical use. (Yes, this could be handy when e.g. moving from computer A to computer B. However, then I would most certainly want the settings too. For parallel use, in contrast, the settings are far more important: I may need to alter one or two individual settings between instances, but the website visited will be almost entirely disjunct.)

One of the most atrocious examples of stupidity is the German “Energiewende”: A massive and costly intervention has been made to move energy consumption and production to “renewable energies”, and many criticize it already for the costs or the many implementation errors that have unnecessarily increased the cost or distributed it unfairly. Personally, I could live with the costs—and have to admit that the increase in renewable production capacity has been far more successful than I thought it would be. Unfortunately, there is one major, disastrous, and incredibly counter-productive catch: The production form which has been replaced is almost exclusively nuclear power—while the use of “fossil fuels” (especially coal) has actually increased (!). In other words, the net-effect of this massive and costly intervention is increased pollution… (Notably, very few people are aware that fossil fuels do far more damage to the environment and cause far more human deaths on a yearly basis than nuclear power has in its entire history, including the accumulated effects of Chernobyl and Fukushima.)

I could go on and on from a virtually endless list of examples, causing the writing of this article continue for far too long and ensuring that almost all potential readers will have the feared “to long; did not read” reaction. (Not that I have any illusion about the proportion still reading, even as is.) Instead, I prefer to make a cut here, but I will make some honourable mentions that I had originally intended to include with one or several paragraphs each:

  1. Deutsche Bahn (“German Railways”) demonstrates so much incompetence on a daily basis that I could write several articles on that topic alone.

  2. Museums used to be a way for those with an interest to actually learn something. Today they are rapidly degenerating into cheap entertainment–and they pride themselves with their “family friendliness”, which means that those who try to learn have to cope with children running around and screaming without anyone intervening. In many ways, what the typical museum of today does, is antithetical to the purpose of a museum…

  3. The abysmal state of groups like journalists and teachers, who should be among the intellectual elite and are so often so embarrasingly poorly informed and poor at thinking.

  4. Belief in various superstitions and pseudo-sciences, e.g. astrology, homeopathy.

  5. The lacking queue management in stores where a further checkout-counter is only opened when the queue is already several times as long as it should be—not when it becomes clear that the queue is starting to get out of hand.

Written by michaeleriksson

October 13, 2014 at 8:48 pm

Opinion and the wish to be well-behaved (brav sein)

with 4 comments

Preamble: The “be well-behaved” of the title is an approximate translation of the German “brav sein”. As this translation does not quite catch the concept I try to pin-point, a brief explanation: “Brav sein” is a phrase usually applied to children or pets, either as an imperative (“Sei brav!”–“Behave yourself!”/“Be nice!”) or a complimentary description (“Ein braves Kind.”–“A well-behaved child.”), in many ways being the opposite of the out-dated English “wicked child”. The child who is “brav” is rewarded; the one who is not is punished. While the decision about what is “brav” is often highly arbitrary, an implication of morality is still often involved (but “brav” and “moral” are not the same)—and the implication of approval or disapproval from the “powers that be” (adults/humans) is central. Somewhat similar concepts are reflected in the English cognates “bravo” and (in one meaning) “brave”.

Looking back at my own teenager years, I see an occasional tendency of wanting to have the “brav” opinion—not an opinion that had convinced me through facts and arguments, but one that was the “enlightened” opinion to have, the one that was “expected” of those who were not barbarians. (Causing the odd moment of cognitive dissonance, because the “brav” opinion and the facts often clashed—nowadays, I have learned to go where the facts and arguments point.) Over the years, I have seen many signs that this kind of thinking applies to a very significant part of even the adult population—and almost all teenagers and children. Paradoxically, there are some signs that those of above-average intelligence are actually more easily snared than the below average. (Possibly, through often being more conformant in school and being used to seeing “brav” behaviour rewarded, or because they have a greater exposure to “brav” ideas, e.g. through newspapers.)

The politically correct are possibly the example. This manifests e.g. in not merely abandoning old prejudice but to actually err in the other direction, or in the belief that the world conforms to what it “should” be, that we do live in “the best of worlds”. Conversely, when someone questions the “truth”, even with scientific support, he is denounced as “wicked” (respectively, “racist”, “sexist”, whatnot). Consider e.g the events around Lawrence Summers.

Political parties and ideologies (in general) often have some component of this “brav sein”; however, rarely to the extreme degree that the politically correct do. An important case is the leftist use of “progressive” (likely in a deliberately play on this principle) to make their own opinions seem “brav”—despite often being consider regressive, anti-progress, and anti-enlightenment by their opponents. Other words that often appear to be used with a similar intent include “democratic”, “American” (in the US), and “freedom [something-or-other]”. Besides, who would willingly declare himself to be part of the “immoral minority”?

Religion is similar: It is “brav” to do or to abstain from this-or-that. The imposition of belief and behaviour does not follow merely from arguments or through threats of hell-fire, but also from the general attitude that some things are more “brav” than others.

Some book authors, including e.g. Daniel Goleman, provide yet other examples. For instance, the concept of “Cultural Creatives”w (official pagee) is a first rate illustration:

Some people have a certain set of opinions and are rewarded by being allowed to call themselves “Cultural Creative”—a very progressive and enlightened sounding title. More than that, they are now among the “50 Million People [who] Are Changing the World”, with the possibility to advance to being a “Core Cultural Creative”. Interestingly, looking at the list of opinions presented on the Wikipedia page, a very sizable part of the population of any western country would qualify as “Cultural Creative”—often for having opinions that have no real connection with each other, nor have anything to do with either culture or creativity. (I could count myself as one too, with only ten matching opinions being needed; however, there is little doubt that I am in a different camp from what the authors would want.) Indeed, I would even voice the suspicion that the originators of the concept deliberately attempt to gather in as many people as possible by the Forer effectw (“Hey, I am Cultural Creative! Yay me!”) and then to guide them to the “right” opinions in other areas (“I want to be a good Cultural Creative! Now, what should I believe?”), thereby overriding reason.

One Michael Hardy makes a comment on the talk page of the Wikipedia article that well catches both my own impression of “Cultural Creatives” and (with the last sentence) much of what I try to say in the larger context of this post:

But if you scan down the list of things that alleged “Cultural Creatives” are interested in, it looks as if they’re just people who want to follow popular trends. That’s the common thread. And the book congratulates them on their superiority, so they look down on their less trendy neighbors and feel warm fuzzies about how much better they are than those other people.

Written by michaeleriksson

February 9, 2011 at 2:47 pm

Unfair argumentation methods VI: German example (flawed, cf. comments)

with 6 comments

I have promised three examples of the discussed problems, which I had in mind when I started this article series. Due to the growth in scope, I have not gotten around to them until now; however, here I present the first:

I commented on a German blog named after a leading GDR womane, requesting actual arguments to support an almost nonsensical and definitely absurd thesis. The resulting counter-comments included e.g.:

Was willst Du hier dauernd mit »Argumenten«, »Erklärungen«, »Nachweisen« und »Begründungen«? Am Ende vielleicht noch Tatsachen? Die Partei hat immer recht und basta! Oder bist Du vielleicht Kulak oder trotzkistischer Troll, daß Du das in Frage stellst? Es sind schon Leute für weniger Nachfragen nach Workuta gekommen, oder wenigstens nach Bautzen.

(What do you want with “arguments”, “explanations”, and “proof”? In the end possibly even facts? The party is always right and basta! Or are you possibly a Kulak or a Trotzkistic troll, since you put this in question? People have been sent to Workuta [Gulag labour camp], or at least Bautzen [similar character], for less.)

and

Und wenn man schaut, was mit solchen zersetzenden ElementInnen, die sich in der Vergangenheit tatsächlich über unsere gemeinsamen Ziele lustig gemacht haben, gerechterweise widerfahren ist, würde ich ein solches Tun auch nicht unbedingt empfehlen. Nur so viel an michaeleriksson: Sei Du jetzt mal ganz vorsichtig!!!

(And when one considers what has rightfully happened to such disturbing elements, who have made fun [a characterization of my comments that I do not agree with] of our common goals in the past, I would not recommend it. Only this to michaeleriksson: Be very careful!!!)

Notable are the lack of actual arguments, the thinly veiled threats, the unpleasant tone, and the absence of self-insight/-critique. Even by the standards of political blogs, this is a horrifying example.

For some time, I actually thought that this page was a parody; however, the continued reactions of the other commenters soon made me rule this possibility out—the likelihood that someone would go to such extreme efforts to keep pretenses up is smaller than that of extremest stupidity. (The razors of Hanlon and Occam both apply in this case—Sacha Baron Cohen notwithstanding.) Notably, there are many other similar pages on the blog, and Google yields other pages yet that seem to take the blog seriously.

(If you wish to comment, please make sure that you have read Unfair argumentation methods I: Preliminaries first.)

Written by michaeleriksson

June 24, 2010 at 2:21 pm