Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Posts Tagged ‘thinking

Writing as stimulation of thought

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As a meta-reflection, one of the greatest reasons that I* write is how it can stimulate my thoughts and, notably, in a manner that does not end with the writing of the text. (But, on the contrary, can lead to new texts that are follow-ups or spin-offs of a first text, or, while not formally connected, arose as a consequence of it.) This applies in particular to topics where I have a comparatively undeveloped point of view, as there can be much to reflect upon that never occurred to me prior to writing a text. As a related benefit, I also find myself paying more attention to portions of new information that relate to the topics of recent texts, which can give me a more nuanced perspective on the areas and issues at hand.**

*The general idea is likely to apply to very many others too, but I can only speak for myself.

**The difference in take-away when e.g. reading a newspaper article can be large depending on what details seem important and unimportant, what aspects draw the eye, etc.

A good example is the development of music. While I have, of course, spent time thinking about music in the past, it has usually related to music-as-such. In November, however, I wrote a text ([1]; incidentally, it self a spin-off of [2]) partially dealing with the development of music in the 20th century. In the week or so following, I was struck by a number of other ideas in the same area that had always been there for the grasping, but which had gone ungrasped. Consider e.g. the increased tendency to put in a beat by explicit percussion instead of emphasis through the “regular” instruments,* the lessening importance of solo performances relative group performance and how this might change musical choices,** and the move from performance of “standards”, including how a good new song could soon see covers by everyone and his uncle, to predominantly music written to be performed by a single act. The last, maybe, with an additional move from early songwriting-by-the-performers to later songwriting-by-specialists, which to some degree goes in the other direction, but also, and more importantly, points to a very important overall trend—that the “faces” are often interchangeable marionettes, while the true creative control lies elsewhere.***/**** For a completely different angle, I found myself questioning the degree to which more “sophisticated” types of music were representative of the music of old: Is, say, a young woman playing classical music on a piano to entertain her family the better image—or a rural square dance? Or something else altogether? If we go with something more “folksy”, might I then have underestimated the influence of the beat in [1] or overestimated the change in how beat is kept mentioned above? (To the last, I note that movie scenes depicting older “folksy” music often have a strong explicit beat, if need be kept by tapping or stomping with feet.)

*To the point that some genres might use percussion in a manner semi-detached from the overall music.

**Relating largely to the move from “make your own kind of music” to passively listening to music. Note that there are plenty of nominal solo acts in today’s commercial music, but that these rarely engage in solo performances.

***Yes, the big stars of today often have control, but mostly because of their brand value. That they originally achieved stardom was often dependent on being fed the right hits early in their careers—and I suspect that many a one-hit wonder arose from recording a designated hit as a first single, failing to be cooperative enough with the record company, and not receiving any further designated hits. Equally, there is a long history of bands being created by someone (note e.g. the Monkees and Boney M.) and of individual artists becoming stars through promotion, but the sheer proportion today is ridiculous (albeit, partially hidden through alibi mechanisms like “American Idol”).

****This could include some more subtle differences. For instance, I suspect that some who would have been big-band leaders in the 1930s might have sought careers as record producers today (and vice versa).

(Note the “for the grasping” aspect in the examples: These are not revolutionary insights, nor insights that necessarily require much thought, nor insights that are beyond extensive revision—they are simply some of what I found through walking down a sideroad that I had never walked down before.)

More generally, I often find that just spending some time thinking about a topic/subject/field/problem/whatnot can make an enormous difference in understanding, in seeing new perspectives, in finding possible improvements, etc. This thinking need not even be an intense mental exercise—it can be a casual thought here and a casual thought there, spread out over days or weeks.

In particular, I reiterate my observation that what we read, hear, whatnot, is just food for thought—we still have to do the thinking/digesting ourselves to benefit from the food. (With corollaries like the risk that someone well-read lacks a commensurate understanding through not having spent enough time thinking. This particular problem appears to be extremely common…) However, having such food for thought is important and writing, at least to me, is indirectly a source: when I write, I constantly look things up, ranging from the etymology and exact meaning of some word, over a fact-check, to various readings on related topics, often based on Internet searches—and because I, on average, read with more of a purpose* when writing than I ordinarily do, the effect in terms of thought is the greater. Unfortunately, this benefit has been lessened over time, in part through the disappearance of a phase that used to come after the actual writing: once upon a time, the “tag” links of W-rdpr-ss lead to global listings of texts with the same tag, which gave an excellent opportunity to read what others had thought on the same or related topics (and which was a decent source of traffic). Unfortunately, years ago, W-rdpr-ss changed these links to just go to a blog-specific page.**

*A good trick in general is to find some more specific purpose to read, e.g. to replace a “I am interested in field X” with “I am looking for answers to the questions A, B, and C”. However, this should be used with some caution, as a negative side-effect can be a too narrow focus and that too much outside A, B, and C is missed.

**As part of a recurring issue in the world of software and the Internet over the last one or two decades: What is good is killed off, what is bad is kept, and what is added is skewed heavily towards the bad to begin with.

Nevertheless, writing usually provides a greater stimulation and a greater need to think than does reading, be it reading in general or reading-for-the-purpose-of-writing. Reasons include that holes and contradictions in own prior thought become more obvious, that there is a greater need to consider details, that thoughts are pursued for longer, that thoughts on different aspects of a topic and different perspectives of an issue are considered together with a higher likelihood, etc. Describing something can also make vaguer and more abstract parts become clearer and more concrete—as just happened with the thoughts of the previous sentence. (To continue the digestion analogy, writing could be seen as better way to ensure digestion than merely reading.)

Excursion on writing and “undeveloped point of view”:
To expand on “undeveloped point of view”, these are strongly contributing reasons for why I have no qualms about writing about such a wide range of topics. Mostly, I turn out to be at least approximately right,* but even when my understanding happens to be outright wrong, not just incomplete or simplistic, when I begin to write, it might be correct when I stop—and if it is still wrong when I stop, it might be correct the next time around. Without the writing, my error might not be in print, but it would be likely to survive for much longer. By analogy, should a gym-goer go in order to show off what muscles and strength he already has—or in order to improve them? (However, in all fairness, the same does not seem to apply to a great many others: they begin wrong and they remain wrong, whether they write or not. They form an opinion once and then stick with that opinion no matter what new data and arguments are presented.)

*I also depressingly often find that when I was wrong, it was because I made too kind assumptions about others, e.g. in terms of intelligence, professionalism, fairness, whatnot. An important special case is being too uncritical of news reporting and claims by politicians—and that this can happen even to someone like me shows how large the problems in that area are.


Written by michaeleriksson

January 17, 2023 at 1:21 pm

Explanations and observations

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As I said in a footnote to my previous text, “note that I, here and elsewhere, am open to other explanations that cover a similar set of observations”. In the comparison with many others, this is a critical point: One of the most common reasons for incorrect opinions (especially in, but by no means limited to, politics) is the failure to understand the difference between a hypothesis* that explains the observations, is consistent with the observations, or similar, and a hypothesis that is actually correct, combined with a tendency to jump to conclusions of “X is a matching hypothesis; ergo, X is the matching hypothesis” or “[…]; ergo, X is the truth”. This the more so, cf. below, when a mere “almost explains”,
“is almost consistent”, etc., is allowed.

*The choice of “hypothesis” over “theory” (and e.g. “model”) is a little arbitrary, but I prefer it, as my main focus is on the usually unsystematic and poorly developed ideas of non-specialists (in the field at hand). However, similar errors are quite common even among (real or self-proclaimed) specialists, as with e.g. gender-studies.

The correct hypothesis must* be consistent with the observations, but it need not be the only consistent one and mere consistency does not guarantee that the current consistent candidate is the correct one. (Indeed, even a, in some sense or to some approximation, correct candidate need not be the last word. In the hard sciences, continual refinement over time is the standard expectation.)

*To some approximation. It might e.g. be that the observations contain errors or statistical fluctuations. (This is a reason why good science is not content with matching prior observations, but also makes new predictions and then sees whether the predictions match reality. Generally, a critical difference between science, on the one hand, and proto-science from before the “scientific method”, current pseudo-science, and similar not- or not-quite-science groupings, on the other, is the openness to put assumptions and theoretical deductions to a practical test—and to adapt the theory when a test is failed.)

To take one of my go-to examples, that a woman was fired (or, m.m., not hired, not promoted, whatnot) might be because “My boss discriminated me because I’m a woman!!!”, but it might also be because she was incompetent—or a number of other explanations. On the balance, the likelihood that this self-serving Feminist explanation is correct is comparatively small.

Generally, many errors go back to assuming that a certain event was based on membership in a population group, e.g. the group of women or the group of Blacks, without properly considering the influence of own behavior and other factors on other dimensions.* This applies even when we look at aggregates,** as different groups often show different behaviors, abilities, and other characteristics—and this regardless of the cause of these differences. For instance, before drawing any conclusion from an over-/under-representation*** of some group in some category, beyond “is over-/under-represented”, we must consider the possibility of more immediate causes than “X belongs to group G” (with the common rider “ergo, …”), e.g. that “X displayed behavior B, and while B might be more common in group G than elsewhere, the immediate cause was B—not G”.

*It might be argued that e.g. the group of incompetents is a population group, but, if so, it is one less obvious and one less likely to find self-professed members, and I will ignore this possibility in the following.

**While the above woman was an individual example that need not tell us anything about the big picture, even had she been correct, and where she might also have been incorrect for statistical reasons.

***Relative some naive standard, e.g. proportion of the overall population. More generally, over-/under-representation might disappear if another standard is used, e.g. in that the proportion of convicts might seem unduly high for one group when we look at its proportion of the overall population but not when we look at its proportion of criminals. What standard is the most reasonable will usually depend on the purpose of comparison. To boot, even a naive standard might be open to alternatives, e.g. through variations in age demographics and local demographics.

A notable family of examples stems from the confusion of correlation with causality. If X tends to go hand in hand with Y, it is not correct to assume that X causes Y. Yes, if X causes Y this might explain the observations at hand, but it might be that Y causes X, that each has a causal effect on the other,* that both are independently caused by Z, etc.—and these scenarios, too, might explain the observations at hand. We might even have cases where there is a causality from X to Y but this causality is drowned out in the big picture: Consider the observation that (a) those buried alive tend to die, (b) the cemeteries are filled with dead humans who are buried. These observations are consistent with the (posthumorous) hypothesis that there has been a large-scale burying of living humans; it might certainly be that some very few of these were buried alive; and it might even be that, under some exceptional circumstances, e.g. in a genocidal Communist dictatorship, a great number of live burials took place. However, chances are that all or almost all those buried at the nearest cemetery died first and were buried because they had died—not first buried and then dying because they had been buried.

*Height and weight is a good example: Those taller tend to be naturally heavier (“vertical” heaviness), but someone malnourished might see his growth stunted and be shorter than he would have been, had he been better nourished, in which case “horizontal” heaviness (or lack thereof) affects height.

Another notable family stems from misinterpreting claims like “observation X is consistent with hypothesis Y” (e.g. that certain observations from an autopsy are consistent with the hypothesis that the cause of death was strangulation). This does not imply that Y is true, merely that Y cannot, at this time, be ruled out. In contrast, the claim that “X is not consistent with Y” would rule Y out. (With reservations for mistakes, confounding factors, and whatnot.) More generally, demonstrations of consistency can make a claim more plausible, but cannot fundamentally prove the claim, which is were the idea of “falsifiability” comes in.* The typical reference to Sherlock Holmes and the dog that did not bark is a good illustration—the fact that the dog did not bark was inconsistent with some explanations but not with others.**

*As a counterpoint, some cases of apparent-to-the-layman falsifications are not falsifications. For example, if a study claims that it “failed to show X”, it does not follow that it “showed not-X”. It might even be that the study shows reasonably strong support for X—just support that fell short of the typical, semi-arbitrary, bars used to measure when a finding is considered statistically significant, say, that a “p-value” of 0.05 or less has been found (0.10, e.g., falls well short of this bar, but is still a strong indication).

**Notably, depending on whether the perpetrator was presumed to be someone strange or someone familiar to the dog. Here we see another complication, namely that the one might fail to see an inconsistency that the other does see, notably in terms of consequences. Indeed, one of my own main complaints about e.g. politicians is that they seem to miss a great many of the likely consequences of their suggestions. (This has also been a common annoyance in the office, in that someone makes a suggestion that I suspect will do more harm than good, that the majority fails to listen to my warnings, and that no-one remembers my warnings, when I am, in due time, proven right.)

More generally, Sherlock Holmes differed from the competition through a lesser willingness to accept an explanation that explained almost all observations resp. was consistent with almost all restrictions involved.* The question, then, is what does someone do when some previously unknown observations, facts, arguments, whatnot contradict a pet hypothesis? (Or, worse, when someone else points to contradictory evidence that has been swept under the carpet?) The rational attitude is to take a hard look, with an open mind, at the hypothesis and these observations (etc.) with an eye at determining where the problem is. It might now be e.g. that some contradictions were spurious, but it might also be that the hypothesis needs to be refined or rejected. Too many, however, and especially in Leftist camps, just bite down on the hypothesis, ignore/distort/defame the contradictions, or, even, try to turn the contradictions into proof of the hypothesis… The latter in at least two variations, which can be roughly described as willful ignorance/obstructionism and/or bending the facts to fit the hypothesis** resp. a “damned, if you do; damned, if you don’t” double-bind***.

*Similarly, as a software developer, I have learned to look hard at even seemingly small issues of mis- or unexpected behavior from the software in development. That virtual blip on the radar screen might be something small, but it is hardly ever nothing and sometimes it, at the risk of mixing metaphors, is the tip of an iceberg capable of sinking the Titanic. Any known deviation from the intended behavior is bad.

**E.g. “Even small kids show signs of male and female behaviors?!? Gender stereotyping must be even more powerful and begin even earlier than we thought! We must redouble our efforts!”, instead of a sane “[…]?!? Hmm, maybe there might be something biological to this, after all.”)

***E.g. “Either you agree with us that male privilege [White privilege, White Supremacy, whatnot] is a massive problem or your denial proves us right by exemplifying male privilege!!!”.

Excursion on competing “good” hypotheses:
It is often the case that there are more than one hypothesis that explains what should be explained, is consistent with what is known, etc. This includes cases where the one hypothesis* is a suggested refinement of the other (as with e.g. Newton’s laws of motion being superseded by Einstein’s) and where the one uses a significantly different model from the other (as with e.g. the switch from geocentrism to heliocentrism).** Depending on the circumstances at hand, the choice might be arbitrary, require additional data, be based on factors like ease of use, and/or be a candidate for the heuristic of Occam’s Razor. A key point, however, is that the success of actions suggested based on such a hypothesis can be highly dependent on how correct the hypothesis is, not just on how well it matches observations, and that corresponding efforts must be spent on making sure before large-scale or undoable action is taken. For instance, the hypothesis that poor educational outcomes in a certain group are caused by “being underprivileged” is not absurd a priori, but the attempts to improve school results by remedies focused on “privilege” have never worked well (or never well beyond a certain low limit). As an untested model, this explanation might seem tempting, but the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Still, the main explanations used by the Left, today, decades after the first experiments and after decades of wasted money and other resources, are still in the extended “underprivileged” family—and the suggested solutions broadly amount to more of the same and to throwing good money after bad.

*Here, more often, scientific theory/model.

**While the approaches of Einstein and Newton were different, and while e.g. their equations of motion look different, their results are virtually identical for sufficiently “classical” conditions and Newton’s equations can be derived as limit cases from Einstein’s. In contrast, geocentrism and heliocentrism are fundamentally different and contradictory, with the former requiring convoluted corrections to predict reality. (Note that a seeming equivalency in e.g. explanatory power might depend on the time of comparison. For instance, a geocentric or Newtonian model suggested today would fall well short of explaining known observations.)

Excursion on “What’s the next number?”:
A similar issue is found with a particularly idiotic family of pseudo-math problems, namely where some few numbers are given and the problem solver is asked to find the next number. The issue here is that there are always multiple solutions and that “Which solution is the best?” is a matter of taste. In some cases, this “best” solution might seem obvious, as with 1, 2, 3, ? and the answer 4. However, even here, other solutions exist, e.g. 5 (assuming that 1 and 2 are the initial values of a Fibonacci-style sequence) and 0 (the result of putting n = 4 in the function f(n) = (4 – n) (1/6 (2 – n) (3 – n) – (1 – n) (3 – n) + 3/2 (1 – n) (2 – n)), deliberately constructed to give the results 1, 2, 3, 0 on the inputs 1, 2, 3, 4).* In other cases, the ambiguity is intolerably high and/or the solution hinges on knowing some obscure fact. For instance, should 0, 7, 0, 7, ? give 0 (assuming that 0 and 7 alternate for the duration) or 1 (assuming that these are digits from 2^(-1/2) = 0.7071…**) or possibly something different yet.

*This particular solution is better reached through simply taking n modulo 4, which leads to an ever repeating 1, 2, 3, 0, 1, 2, 3, 0, … However, my original intent was to demonstrate how a similar type of polynomial construction can always be made to match a series, which indirectly led me to the above. See excursion.

**A number that will be easily recognizable to most mathematicians and many with some mathematical interest, but hardly to the “average Joe”.

Excursion on constructing polynomials to match any series:
For a sequence like a, b, c, …, simply take a series of terms in n where all but one of the terms equal zero for each position in the sequence and adjust the non-zero term to match the correct value. For instance, to create a sequence where n = 1 -> a, n = 2 -> b, n = 3 -> c, we can take a first “raw” term of (2 – n) (3 – n), which is 0 for n = 2 and n = 3. It is also 2 for n = 1 and a first “cooked” term of a/2 (2 – n) (3 – n) now gives the correct value for n = 1. Proceed in the same manner for the second and third term to get b and c for n = 2 resp. n = 3, with the idea that each term is 0 for all but one n and gives the right value for that n. The overall result is a/2 (2 – n) (3 – n) – b (1 – n) (3 – n) + c/2 (1 – n) (2 – n). The same idea can be applied to e.g. a, b, c, d, e, ? and a, b, ?, c, d.

This is what I originally did with 1, 2, 3 in the previous excursion, assuming that I would get something other than 4 for n = 4. However, the resulting polynomial annoyingly* reduced to n, and n = 4 then, obviously, still resulted in 4, which caused me to go with the workaround of forcing a 0 for n = 4. (Note how the shape of the polynomial is a factor that is 0 for n = 4, times an expression that is a modified** version of a polynomial as constructed above, with a/b/c = 1/2/3.)

*But, with hindsight, predictably: it can be shown that any two nth-degree polynomials that are identical in n + 1 different points must be identical throughout, which implies that any 2nd-degree polynomial with p(1) = 1, p(2) = 2, and p(3) = 3 must be identical to n = 0n^2 + n + 0.

**The same procedure of creation can be used, but it must now be corrected for the (4 – n) term, giving us a first “cooked” term of a/6 (2 – n) (3 – n) or a third of the original, as 4 – 1 = 3. The other terms are similarly scaled by 1/2 = 1 / (4 – 2) and (with no effect) 1 = 1 / (4 – 3).

Excursion on other issues:
There are of course a great many other (but off topic) reasons why someone could be wrong. A particularly interesting one is mistaking some else’s inter- or extrapolation for truth, taking an “artist’s rendering” of something to be more realistic than it is, taking historical fiction to be more historically correct than it is, or similar. For instance, I am currently reading/skimming “The World Encyclopedia of Dinosaurs & Prehistoric Creatures”, which contains a great many illustrations, with a fair amount of detail, and fanciful colors—but these illustrations are often accompanied by claims like “is known only from the left half of the lower jaw” (specific quote from the entry for Sarcolestes, with reservations for errors in transcription). Anyone who trusts the accompanying illustration would risk being laughably wrong, and even the less fanciful conjectures mentioned, e.g. that Sarcolestes was an ankylosaurid, might turn out to be incorrect. Indeed, its name, “flesh thief” goes back to earlier speculation that it was a meat eater, while the current belief points to a “slow-moving plant-eating animal”.

Written by michaeleriksson

December 18, 2022 at 11:53 pm

Reading and thinking / Follow-up: Profound vs. trite

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In an excursion to a recent text, I wrote that:

A reason for my scepticism towards e.g. business studies and social sciences is that I, when reading such materials, often find myself raising issues like “this cannot be true—consider X”, “but what about special case Y?”, “important observation Z immediately follows—why is there no mention of this?” only to see the book address X, Y, and Z a few pages later on—and in a manner that makes it clear that the author is now teaching the reader something that he could not expect to figure out on his own.

(Footnote removed.)

Looking at harder sciences, the situation is usually better (if less so today than in the past, cf. below). I have, for instance, always tended to think ahead, put claims to scrutiny, whatnot with math books too—but with math this seems to be not just allowed or welcomed but outright expected by the authors.* Indeed, most math books relegate pieces of reasoning entirely to exercises and/or add exercises to make the reader expand on his knowledge and understanding on his own. In math, we are supposed to think for ourselves; in business (to some degree) and social sciences (to a high degree), we are all too often supposed to just accept the Revealed Wisdom.

*Beyond a certain border, maybe somewhere during high school. (To specify the border would require considerable research; it might vary from time to time, country to country, and field to field; and it must be seen as an average over many authors.) There might or might not be a similar border in any other given field, but, with reservation for math adjacent fields, it is then far further up the years.

Unfortunately, there seems to be a general trend for the worse in most fields, math included, likely as a result of continual dumbing down and the acceptance of evermore students into college or specific college programs who are not actually college material resp. sufficiently strong for the specific program. An increasing assumption seems to be that the reader/student/whatnot simply does not have the brains to master something without being led by the hand.* In particular, the obsession with lectures and teachers is depressing—two tools to reach education, knowledge, and understanding that are highly inefficient, yet remain ubiquitous.**

*Leaving the question aside, whether this type of “mastery” truly deserves the name, as the ability to create new knowledge, to apply old knowledge to new problems, to understand unaided a book on the topic, and similar is likely to be far more developed in those who have proved themselves on a harder road.

**The claim “there are no bad students—there are only bad teachers” is pretty much the reverse of the truth. A bright and motivated student with a good book can learn despite the teacher, barring the possibility that the teacher kills his motivation or otherwise outright sabotages him; a dull one can hardly be taught much beyond rote learning, even should he be motivated.

It might be argued that many books of yore* took the issue of understandability too lightly, put a burden of thought on the reader that excluded too many, and made the journey unnecessarily hard for the included.** However, today’s books err on the other side, and are often “premasticated” to such a degree that little thinking is needed, which hampers the development of a deeper understanding. Worse, those who do enjoy to think can see the opportunity to do so diminished. There is also often a shift from time spent thinking to time spent reading, which removes much of the time that could have been saved (at the cost of inferior understanding), e.g. in that a book of old might require one minute of reading and two minutes of thinking (for some amount of content), while a newer book might require two minutes of reading and one of thinking—or, worse, three minutes of reading and none of thinking. Then there is the issue of half-truths, “lying to students”, etc.

*Here, too, I cannot give a specific border, but in a very rough guestimate, the 19th century and earlier might have been too low on understandability, most of the 20th was “just right”, while the latter parts of the 20th century and onwards have been too dumbed down and simplistic.

**Note that this often included a shift of brainpower from understanding the underlying matter to deciphering the text qua text. (I realize that I am not the ideal thrower of the first stone, but sometimes stones still should be thrown.)

Written by michaeleriksson

December 15, 2022 at 10:42 pm

Profound vs. trite

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An interesting* observation is that what is considered profound (insightful, whatnot) and what trite (trivial, whatnot) depends on factors like how often we have been exposed to this “what” and how far back the first exposure is. The main break is, of course, between a first exposure and no exposure; however, both time passed and the number of exposures can play in long after this main break. (On other dimensions, factors like correct–incorrect and depth of understanding can play in, as with e.g. the superficialness of the trouser–skirt observation below. These factors are off-topic, however. Ditto own level of brains, cf. excursion.)

*With some reservations that should be immediately clear from this text.

A particular annoyance to me is when someone else presents something as if it were original and thought-worthy but leaves me with a feeling of “not this shit again”—and chances are that I have, without realizing it, been on the other side of that equation a number of times. For instance, during my school years, there were at least three occasions when a (different) teacher pulled up some quote about the dire state of the modern youth, and followed the quote by almost triumphantly declaring that it had actually been the words of some commentator from ancient Greece. Well, the first time around I did find it a revelation, and that some issues tend to be eternal is an important insight, but there was little or no benefit to the repetitions.* For instance, earlier today, I had someone try the old “How do you pronounce ‘ghoti’? You will never guess!!!” riddle/demonstration.** I will never guess? Considering that I first (likely in the context of Shaw’s complaints) encountered this contorted spelling of “fish” no later than in my early twenties, more likely in my teens, and have encountered it on at least another dozen occasions since, I beg to differ.***

*The different teachers did hardly set out with an intent to be repetitive, but the end effect is the same. As to “why”, I speculate that there was some type of source on pedagogy, maybe a college course, that had recommended this as a good way to make the students think, and that each of the teachers independently decided to try it, with, in the later cases, no awareness that someone else had already pulled the trick.

**This encounter was the trigger to finally move ahead with this text—and a good thing too: in another few years, it might have seemed too trite to bother with…

***While my interest in language and related matters is likely considerably above average, and I might be at a correspondingly greater risk for repeated exposures, I am not a native English speaker and it puzzles me that an adult native speaker would have failed even to reach one exposure.

Looking over time, I have had ideas that I considered “worthy” at one time but do not consider so today, because I have grown so used to them that the familiarity has bred contempt. (While the respective idea only rarely has changed in value: either it was an “unworthy” idea to begin with or it is still “worthy”.) Similar effects can be present when I encounter an old own idea in the writings of someone else, which might imply that the idea was less original than I thought.* In some cases, a seemingly original idea can turn out to be common knowledge within a certain field, even when it is obscure outside that field. (The main difference is then whether someone has or has not already encountered that field. At the extreme, I had long had ideas in the direction of evolutionary psychology before I became aware that the field of evolutionary psychology existed—likely, because this field is very un-PC, while my exposure to information was more strongly PC-ified in the days before the Internet grew dominant.) In some cases, what amounts to the same idea(s) can be developed independently in different fields.**

*However, I have repeatedly noted that it is very hard to come up with an idea that no-one else has ever had. A difference remains between ideas that are “had” by relatively larger and smaller portions of the population.

**As a specific example, I have encountered (at least apparently) independently developed ideas on queues and queueing in both math/computer science and business studies, with the latter trailing the former considerably. (This at the “textbook level”. I cannot speak for the research level, but as those bright enough to do strong mathematical thinking rarely do business research, be it at all or specifically in an academic setting, I suspect an even larger gap.)

There have even been quite a few cases where I once had the intention to write something around a certain idea, but later realized that it would be too trite in light of the many others who already had written something on the same idea, lost interest due to the “familiarity breeds contempt” angle, or began to consider the idea “too obvious”. A good example is the display of neoteny in women, which seemed like an important insight to me, maybe, twenty years ago, but where I, today, am almost ashamed to admit that I once considered such a “Duh!” noteworthy. In other news, fire is hot.

The question of encounters with a certain field, or a specific problem,* can be of great importance in that even someone highly educated and highly intelligent might not yet have had any non-trivial contact with a great number of fields, simply because there are so many. Similarly, two highly educated and highly intelligent persons can go through a similar set of fields or problems in a different order, which can make what appears a profound insight to the one seem trite to the other—and vice versa.

*There might be a problem that someone could solve in five minutes or five days, but which he has simply never encountered and, therefore, can say little about. He might then trail someone who needed five hours resp. five weeks, but who also has the advantage of prior contact and who already has those five hours/weeks behind him.

An important side-issue is that those who are poor thinkers, poorly read, whatnot can be exposed to an important-seeming idea and be swept away with it, be it because they overestimate its importance or because they lack the perspective built from having seen different takes on the underlying issue. This likely explains much of the success of various religions, ideological movements, and similar. I have particular suspicions that the success of Feminism and “gender studies” to a large part go back to the naivety of the victims, that many naive young women are exposed to certain thoughts at a late stage and from an external source that others have had earlier and on their own. Now having a world-turning moment, the young women think that they have discovered something profound and become adherents—while they have, in fact, discovered something trite and should laugh it off.

For instance, I was no older than five,* maybe younger, when I confronted my parents about skirts and trousers, and why women/girls could choose which one to wear, while men/boys had to stick to trousers. This is an appropriate age to notice and address such obvious things—but what if someone goes for another ten years without doing so and is then fed some line about “Have you ever thought about skirts and trousers? See how the evil Patriarchy oppresses us poor womyn!”. Or consider the idea of a fix two sexes and/or “genders”: By the time that I was twelve, maybe younger, I had already had repeated exposures to other ideas, including some (non-fiction) book mentioning fish that switched sexes during their life cycles and a sci-fi book where some alien species had three sexes—and this was in the 1980s, far away from the current gender-mania. Then there were various works featuring body swaps, “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” scenarios, girls pretending to be boys and vice versa,** which left me well prepared for such ideas (although the former two more often involved same-sex scenarios). I remain unimpressed by the idea of someone being “non-binary”, but how might things look for someone with little brains, little prior readings, and few own thoughts, who is suddenly exposed to such ideas?

*My parents separated when I was five and we moved to another apartment in another town soon after, providing an upper limit.

**This, I wish to recall, included a portion of one of the Tom Sawyer/Huckleberry Finn books, where the protagonist poses as a girl, and is found out by catching something in his lap by putting his legs together, like a boy, where (it is claimed) a girl would have spread her legs and used her skirt to make the same catch. These books were written in the late 19th century, so hardly something new. Norse mythology, which I enjoyed greatly in my youth, includes several instances of similar situations, including Thor pretending to be Freya in order to get his hammer back and Loki actually managing to get himself pregnant.

As an aside, I find the common claims by various Leftist groups that their opponents are unenlightened and have missed these Big Revelations deeply offensive. More or much more often, the opponents are better informed, have gone through all the Big Revelations (but understood that they are not actually Big and/or noticed the distortions introduced by the Left), and, often, have once held similar ideas, which they later abandoned in light of additional evidence and critical thinking. This is particularly notable with Swedish Feminists, who like to claim that their opponents are opponents only because they are unenlightened and should listen to Feminist wisdom and superior insight with a becoming humility, while these opponents had, usually, been indoctrinated into a Feminist worldview* since they were children and had later broken free from it—as the Feminist worldview simply does not match the facts at hand.

*Including e.g. that domestic violence would be a one-sided men-on-women affair, that women only fail at this-or-that due to discrimination/Patriarchy/“structures”/whatnot, and that differences between the sexes would be limited to reproductive functions.

Excursion on memory:
Above, I gloss over the issue of memory, e.g. in that someone might be exposed to a certain idea once and forget it again, or twice and view both exposures as revelations, etc. This, in part, to keep things simple; in part, as truly worthwhile insights are less likely to be truly forgotten. (Yes, they might need a prompt to be remembered and the details might be lost in the fogs of time, but chances are that the big picture will be remembered given a prompt—and many will be remembered even without a prompt.) Exceptions certainly do exist, however, as with the nectarine phenomenon.

Excursion on own thinking and similar effects:
Another issue is how good we are at own thinking, at coming up with own ideas, and similar. Someone who has only few own ideas might think more highly of those that he does have than someone with more ideas; someone who has spent a day reaching a certain conclusion might value it higher than someone who arrived at the same conclusion in five minutes; etc. A reason for my scepticism towards e.g. business studies and social sciences is that I, when reading such materials, often find myself raising issues like “this cannot be true—consider X”, “but what about special case Y?”, “important observation Z immediately follows—why is there no mention of this?” only to see the book address X, Y, and Z a few pages later on—and in a manner that makes it clear that the author is now teaching the reader something that he could not expect to figure out on his own.*

*More generally, but decidedly off topic, I am often greatly annoyed by the extreme condescension, arrogance, and attitude of “my readers are idiots” shown by some authors. Those annoying “in this chapter you will learn” are just the tip of the iceberg. Consider formulations like “This seems very complicated, but never fear, it is not that hard to understand!”, which would be disputable in a book for first-graders but are still used for adults. Ditto questions like “What pattern do you notice?” and “How do you think that this made X feel?”.

Excursion on other areas:
The above deals mostly with ideas of an “understand the world/humanity/whatnot” type. The phenomenon is much more general, however. Among the many examples we have e.g. works of fiction with a brilliant or hackneyed plot twist (depending on whether the viewer/reader/whatnot encountered the twist for the first or the tenth time and/or whether he managed to foresee it). Another interesting example is jokes, as with “When is a door not a door? When it is ajar!”. This joke is actually brilliantly funny, but it suffers from the many, many, many repetitions. Worse, chances are that most native English speakers first hear it a too low age to truly appreciate the pun, while already being tired of the joke by the time that they are old enough. (I am uncertain when I heard it first, myself, but I suspect that I was in my mid teens, which might have made me twice as old, or more, as the typical “native” for that first exposure.)

Written by michaeleriksson

December 14, 2022 at 8:33 pm

Fallacy fallacies: Introduction and the “small savings count” fallacy fallacy

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Earlier today, I wrote:

A secondary motivation is that being somewhat price conscious might bring a considerable gain over the sum of all products, even when it does not do so over a single product. Shave, say, 10 percent of the yearly grocery bill and we are talking something noticeable.

This brings me to a text series that have long lingered in my backlog (and will likely only be written by-and-by): That something is invoked as a fallacy in a fallacious manner, for which I suggest the term “fallacy fallacy”.*

*Off the top of my head, I have at least two further entries, namely the “slippery slope” fallacy fallacy and the “etymological” fallacy fallacy. There might or might not be more in my backlog and or more that will appear over time. The fallacy fallacy discussed below, respectively the claimed underlying fallacy, has no name that I am aware of, and I go with the “small savings count” fallacy and fallacy fallacy for the sake of having some label.

Specifically, I recall taking some sort of psychology class during my long ago business studies, when the professor almost triumphantly began to expound on how it was not important to pay attention to the price of milk, because even 20 percent of 1 Euro is only 20 cent.* It was a fallacy to think otherwise and a fallacy to waste time on milk prices.

*Translated into approximate current prices and Euro, and with reservations for exact details (the original discussion might have been in Swedish crowns in 1995). The principle should be clear. Note that Swedish and German milk is usually sold in 1-liter cartons.

Now, as with the above single product, this might well hold true if we look at that single product and/or at a single purchase, if cheap enough—and if he had instead spoken of a principle of optimization, that we should optimize where it counts,* then I would even have agreed. Ditto, if he had pointed to e.g. the need to consider opportunity costs (and not just the savings).** Ditto, if he had focused on a one-off purchase.*** He either did not or only did so very cursorily with the sole point of pushing his thesis that “small savings count” is a fallacy.

*If someone wants to reduce costs, he should first look at where his main spendings are and what might be cut there. If someone wants to make a program run faster, he should first look at where the program spends most time and what might be cut there. Etc.

**Ten minutes extra in a car might bring greater costs than the milk savings through each of gasoline costs, wear and tear on the car, and own time lost. Then we have factors like the increased accident risk and air pollution.

***As will be clear from the below, even a larger one-off purchase might be a smaller source of savings than a smaller again-and-again purchase.

Cut 20 percent of 1 Euro once, and, yes, that is only 20 cent—which is not normally* worth the trouble of, say, going to another store for a better price on milk. However, even for just milk, the calculation might be different over a longer time. Say that someone averages a liter every two days over a life of 80 post-weaning years.** Ignoring leap years and assuming inflation-corrected prices, we then have a total of 80 x 365/2 x 1 = 14600 (Euro). A savings of 20 percent now amounts to 2920 Euro, and even one of 10 percent reaches 1460 Euro. Suddenly, things look different.

*Exceptions might exist. Consider someone with only 80 cents left the day before the next pay check.

**Here I assume that the life stages even out in terms of who-buys-for-whom.

In another dimension, milk is rarely the only thing bought, and if someone spends 50 Euro per week on groceries, etc., this gives 10 resp. 5 Euro per week in savings at 20 resp. 10 percent. This is then (slightly more than) 520 resp. 260 Euro per year—and then take that times 80…

The savings on milk is, of course, to be contrasted with any additional costs, e.g. time for research, additional travel, whatnot—but these are often trivial. For instance, someone can simply take note that store A sells milk for 1 Euro and store B for 80 cents and then make a point to try to buy milk when at store B anyway. Ditto other products. Indeed, it will very often be enough to note that store A sells several brands of milk and that these are differently priced, or to simply bend down from the eye-height shelf to the bottom shelf, where prices tend to be lower. (Also see excursion on heuristics.) Spending half-an-hour to research milk prices and then driving for another half-an-hour to the right store, for a one time purchase of a single 1-liter carton, is nonsensical—but who has suggested that for something like milk? (On the other hand, for e.g. buying a car, the same efforts and costs might be extremely well spent.)

Of course, arguments in yet other dimensions might apply, as with, cf. [1], sending the grocery store the right signal. And, yes, if a single someone does it, it is almost certainly pointless—but if many do…

Here we see that the underlying principle holds more generally: that something is pointless when done in the small does not imply that it is pointless. Taking a single step of a journey, reading/writing a single page of a book, whatnot, might not bring that much—but steps plural and pages plural can be a very different matter. Similarly, to revisit program optimization, say that we have two lines of code, the first of which takes a thousand times longer to execute than the second. Surely, we should focus our efforts on the first? Not necessarily: it might well be that this line is executed once a day, while the executions of the other go into the thousands every single hour.

Excursion on the varying degree of fallaciousness:
As I say above, a fallacy fallacy is something “invoked as a fallacy in a fallacious manner”. It does not automatically follow that any invocation poses a fallacy fallacy. Often, we need to look at the exact circumstances; often, we need to keep in mind that things not yet known might be deciding for whether “fallacy fallacy” applies. However, it is noteworthy that many fallacy fallacies arise exactly when the invoker fails to consider the circumstances and commits the meta-fallacy-fallacy “sometimes a fallacy; always a fallacy”—arguably, including the above, not too bright,* professor.

*If he had left it at the one fallacy fallacy, I might have given him the benefit of the doubt, but he failed to respond with reason when several students, including yours truly, tried to point out issues like the above, and he otherwise failed to impress.

Excursion on the “small savings do not count” fallacy:
Why not just suggest a “small savings do not count” fallacy over the current “small savings count” fallacy fallacy? Logically, they would be almost the same and the former is certainly less complicated. The point is that the professor, who was the origin of my take, pushed for a “small savings count” fallacy, and did so in a context of consumer irrationality and psychology, thereby setting the scene.

Excursion on smaller savings:
An overlapping error, and one that might partially have been behind the professor’s take, is to assume that smaller savings do not count when larger can be achieved. Let us say that making one cut saves a thousand Euro a year and another a hundred Euro. It might or might not be that the smaller savings is too little to bother with for someone (but take it times 80…); however, if money is an issue, proper optimization only implies that we should look at the larger savings first—not that we should only look at the larger savings. (With the same applying, m.m., in other areas, e.g. program optimization.) It might even be that the smaller savings should be implemented first, because the implementation is that much faster, requires that much less up-front effort, whatnot. For instance, someone can switch milk brands today, but changing electricity provider might take months and switching to a more fuel-efficient car might not pay off until the old car has reached a certain length of ownership.

Of course, speaking of cars, if the professor had argued that “it is irrational to pinch pennies when it comes to milk but miss thousands of Euros in savings through not doing a price comparison on cars”, he would have had a much better point and been met with much more sympathy from me. Again, he did not.

Excursion on money-saving heuristics:
Finding the optimal price for each and every product would be a ton of work. However, much can be reached by just using some few heuristic, like having a look at the bottom shelf (cf. above). Others include picking the right store (I prefer Aldi to Rewe, e.g.), being on the look-out for reduced prices,* preferring house and generic brands to “brand brands” (as with the “Ja!” brand repeatedly mentioned in [1]), and buying in bulk. Quality-wise, the compromises are comparatively small and the biggest difference between the high- and low-end brands is often just the price. Indeed, “Trader Joe’s” appears to be considered a high-markup brand in the U.S., but my encounters in Germany has been with products sold by Aldi, sometimes in what could be surplus sell-offs, and “Trader Joe’s” left the impression of being a cheap brand to me, before I heard very different references relative the U.S.**

*While keeping in mind that the reduced price in an expensive store might still exceed the regular price in a cheap store.

**I cannot guarantee, of course, that the quality and selection is the same as in the U.S., but I have no reason to expect significant differences either. The product selection found at Aldi certainly tends to be “American”, with e.g. peanut butter and cup-cakes often occurring.

Excursion on poverty and spending:
I have many times heard the claim that poor earners often spend more money than bigger earners, e.g. through a brand obsession or a wish for “cool” entertainment electronics,* and a failure to consider the benefit of small savings can certainly contribute to such a situation. Cutting food (or electronics) costs by smarter buying can make a significant difference in the bank account of especially poor earners.

*To some degree, this amounts to the stupid both having problems finding good jobs and being wasteful. For instance, I do not have a 40-inch TV, an expensive stereo, an iPhone, and whatnot. What I do have is a few notebooks that do almost everything for me, a very low-end smart phone, and some minor other electronics for travel. Historically, it has been “notebook” singular, and I would get by with one even today. (Not counting a soundbar that I bought solely to serve as a noise source to help drown out construction works and would otherwise not have needed.)

Written by michaeleriksson

November 21, 2022 at 11:35 pm

Correction / Mistaken plausibilities

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Recently, I wrote:

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

This should read:

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

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

Written by michaeleriksson

September 26, 2022 at 8:48 am

Mistaken plausibilities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*Arguably, failed attempts at falsification.

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

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

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

Written by michaeleriksson

September 24, 2022 at 6:25 pm

Agnostic scepticism

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Earlier today, I encountered a text by Peter Hitchens, which includes the claims:

Not since the wild frenzy after the death of Princess Diana have I ever met such a wave of ignorant sentiment. Nobody knows anything about Ukraine. Everyone has ferocious opinions about it.

The other night I shocked a distinguished Oxford academic by informing her that the lovely, angelic, saintly, perfect Ukrainians had blocked off the water supply to Crimea in 2014.

She was rightly shocked by this nasty, uncivilised act of spite, but it was far more shocking that this highly educated person did not know this important fact.

This fits well with my own increasing approach of (what I think of as) “agnostic scepticism”—that I (a) avoid taking positions on issues where I am too poorly informed, (b) do not believe claims by others without independent own verification.* (I have often spoken about “not having done the leg-work”.) The recurring reader will, e.g., have seen me complain about the high degree of ignorance and/or deliberate distortion in claims made by politicians, journalists,** and teachers, and about how I am no longer willing to base my opinions on what they claim—not even when the claim is “scientific consensus is X”. Maybe, scientific consensus is X; maybe, it is not. The key issue, that I only have their word for what the scientific consensus might be, remains. (To which must be added that even a genuine scientific consensus often eventually proves wrong in detail, and sometimes even in the big picture.) A mere claim-to-be-taken-entirely-at-trust of “scientific consensus says Martians exist” is no better than the claim-to-be-taken-entirely-at-trust of “Martians exist”. To this might be added some further considerations, like the risk that a correct opinion held for a poor reason can be worse than the wrong opinion held for a good reason—let alone worse than a more agnostic take.***

*Which is not to say that everything must be independently verified. It is perfectly acceptable to mentally file “Hitchens claims X, but I have not verified it”. The problem arises when “X” is filed with neither reservations nor verifications. Given the right circumstances, even a “Mr. Y claims X and, while I have not verified that specific claim, previous exposure makes me consider Mr. Y highly competent and trustworthy on the topic of X.” is acceptable. (But should remain a rare exception. The same confidence should not be extended e.g. because “Mr. Y is my teacher”, “Dr. Y has a Ph.D. in this field”, or “Ms. Y is a famous young singer/actress/model/activist/philanthropist”.)

**I note that I have very long been very sceptical towards journalists and journalism based on the often grotesque incompetence on display. (Journalists should be well-informed, objective, strong critical thinkers, and good writers—and, more often than not, fail on two or more of these counts. If the mode is four failures, I would be unsurprised.) What has changed over the last few years, based on gross misreporting on e.g. PC-issues and, later, COVID, is that I no longer see mere incompetence and mere “unconscious bias” as enough to explain their reality distortions. (My view of teachers have undergone a somewhat similar transformation, if not as strong. That politicians lie borders on a “Duh!”.)

***I am too lazy to search for links to older texts right now, but I have written on similar topics repeatedly in the past.

As a specific case, I have switched my original standpoint on global warming from “does exist and is anthropogenic” to “I do not know,* because I have not done the leg-work”. The original standpoint was caused by a too unquestioning acceptance of what e.g. the papers claimed; my current is much sounder.

*Note the very major difference between “I do not know” and “I disagree”. It is very possible that I will return to my old standpoint at some point in the future—but, if so, for a much better reason.

As another case, I have deliberately chosen not to take sides in the underlying issues of the Russia–Ukraine situation (not limited to the war). In light of the conflicting claims from the two camps (and mutual attempts at censorship), I am not saying that Putin (Zelensky, Biden, …) is or is not to blame, that Russia is losing badly or winning comfortably, etc. For the time being, I take the position that I do not know—and I will revise that position only if and when I gain a better understanding.

But what of all the others, who are so cocksure? Well, for starters, there are plenty of sayings, aphorisms, and famous quotes to the effect that the cocksure tend to be wrong, while those who are right tend to be uncertain. Looking more in detail, the Russia–Ukraine situation, with, as Hitchens complains, “the wholly one-sided nature of public opinion”, seems to be a matter of weak critical thinkers blindly swallowing a certain narrative*—just like many have or still do with regard to global warming, COVID, and various Leftist talking points. (Let us face it: the vast majority of the population has not bothered to actually gain even remotely the level of knowledge and understanding to hold a justifiable opinion on any of these issues, be if pro or contra.)

*And this narrative is (again!) not defended against counter-narratives or criticism by factual arguments—but by attempts to prevent dissenters from being heard. The more-or-less first reaction of the West? Shutdown access to all Russian news-media.

And here I must disagree with Hitchens: It is not “far more shocking” that this woman did not know about a blocked off water supply. Indeed, I did not either—and, for that matter, I will not take his word for it being true. (I would not be the slightest surprised, if he is correct, in light of other readings on the situation, but he too could be wrong or, even, lying.) No, the problem is that she appears* to have expressed a strong and unnuanced opinion while being poorly informed.

*Note that some interpretation of the original text is needed here, that I only have Hitchens’s claim to go by, and that I do not even know that she exists.

Exactly this type of behavior has led to no end of issues, including poor politicians being elected and poor policies followed, organizations favoring (often destructive or dishonest*) causes raking in millions in donations, etc.

*Note e.g. recent renewed controversies around BLM.

In particular, I have repeatedly heard young voters be told that “it does not matter whether you pick the right party, the main thing is that you vote at all (but please vote for us)”; I have many times heard politicians complain about citizens not voting, often framed in terms of “not doing their civic duty” or “being lazy”, with no regard for the possibility that someone might not have a firm opinion or, more importantly, might not find any of the current parties/candidates acceptable; I have on some few occasions heard the claim that the main thing would be to have an opinion, and an opinion about everything, as if agnosticism would be a bad thing.

The saner approach is the exact opposite: Vote only when you are certain that you can justify your vote based on a solid knowledge and understanding.* Form** opinions only when your knowledge and understanding allows it. Etc.

*Which is neither to say that this must amount to support of the one (it might equally be a “lesser evil” choice or opposition to the other), nor that the details of e.g. each and every candidate must be known (a heuristic based on a sound knowledge from a more general case might be enough, e.g. the sound knowledge that Republicans are currently vastly preferable to the Democrats, combined with candidate X being a Republican, candidate X not being a RINO and having no major marks against him, and candidate Y being a Democrat).

**Some degree of opinion formation is automatic and unavoidable. This is acceptable, as long as the opinion is considered tentative, no big decisions or statements are made based on it, and the opinion is revised with an open mind as need arises. Feel free to dislike Putin for the time being and in the privacy of your own head, but do not condemn him in public, donate money to the Ukraine, or urge for a referendum to have your country declare war on Russia—unless you already have done the required research.

Excursion on Michael Crichton and scientific consensus:
Taking a break before proof-reading, I went to another browser tab and found another text with considerable overlap with the above. Among other things, it has a quote by Michael Crichton that is highly relevant to my own statements about scientific consensus above:*

*Or, in the spirit of agnostic scepticism, it claims to quote Michael Crichton. I have no particular reason to doubt the claim, but, no, I have not verified it myself.

Let’s be clear: the work of science has nothing whatever to do with consensus. Consensus is the business of politics. Science, on the contrary, requires only one investigator who happens to be right, which means that he or she has results that are verifiable by reference to the real world. In science consensus is irrelevant. What is relevant is reproducible results. The greatest scientists in history are great precisely because they broke with the consensus. There is no such thing as consensus science. If it’s consensus, it isn’t science. If it’s science, it isn’t consensus. Period.

I would not go that far (at least not assuming that we see the same concept behind the word “consensus”), but I agree in as far as the sentiment is e.g. “consensus does not determine what is true, only what is currently thought to be true”, “a claim of consensus must not be invoked to proclaim dissenting positions false”, or “politicians can make laws based on consensus, but physicists have to take the natural laws as they are”. (Indeed, consensus, especially scientific consensus, is often used as the ultimate argument to authority, as a means to end a debate without having to bother with factual arguments, counter-arguments, critique, and pesky facts.)

Excursion on future stringency:
Above, I have pointed out several cases where assumptions about e.g. sources apply. This is for the purpose of illustration and I will be more relaxed in other texts—without implying a lesser degree of scepticism.

Written by michaeleriksson

May 23, 2022 at 2:09 am

Example of misinterpretable scenes / Follow-up: Eriksson’s Razor(s)

with 2 comments

Skimming through a recent text that partially deals with misinterpretation of intent/behavior/whatnot as racist, sexist, or generally “ist”, I recall an excellent example:

When I began the preparations for my second master’s thesis, I was talking for the first* time with the professor who would supervise it. Half-way through, he asked whether I knew what the “Newton” method was. I answered in the negative, and from that point on, like flipping a switch, he seemed to think much less of me—no matter what I said or did later.** Indeed, he seemed to think that someone who did not know the “Newton” method, must have slept his way through college.

*This was at a distance university and direct student–professor interaction was correspondingly rare. I might have taken one of his classes at an earlier junction. If so, there might have been one prior meeting for an oral examination, but I have no recollection of such a meeting (by now).

**Not that we had many interactions after this talk.

Now, what is this “Newton” method? Well, what he patronizingly described to me was something that I immediately recognized—from high school (!), where it had been taught under the name “Newton–Raphson”. Moreover, this name had always been used during my (very math heavy) undergraduate years. (But see excursion.) Indeed, as the topic was theoretical computer science, it is a near given that my background was actually heavier or much heavier in math than most of his other students. Indeed, even the high-school curriculum had involved at least a casual use of e.g. Runge–Kutta.*

*Or “Runge-Karlsson” as my math teacher (jokingly) insisted, “Kutta” being a slang word roughly equivalent to “pussy” in Sweden. This, of course, only made us the more aware of the “Kutta” part.

I immediately tried to explain the misunderstanding, but he would have none of it. Maybe I could have pushed the point further, but I did not want to antagonize him, it seemed like a small issue at the time, just a harmless misunderstanding, and he was quite old and I have had several negative experiences with trying to convince old people of something. So I let it slide—not realizing that this simple misunderstanding would dominate his impression of me and his later interactions with me: I did not know his “Newton” method and, therefore, must be a mathematical novice.

*I do not know how old, but optically he might have been well past seventy. Also note that my sentiment was stronger then than now, while my (already) negative feelings about kids have grow more negative over time. This is another aspect that those who cry “racism” and “sexism” might want to consider both where they, themselves, and their perceived oppressors are concerned.

It is very possible that my being Swedish had something to do with this, e.g. that the typical name simply is different in Sweden and Germany—but it was not a matter of anti-Swedish sentiment or, even, anti-foreigner in general. He arguably behaved poorly through not being open to my explanation, for not considering the possibility of differences in terminology, and for sticking to a first impression, but, again, it is unlikely to have been anything even resembling anti-Swedish or anti-foreigner sentiments or prejudices: “stubborn old man” and “used to students being ignorants” are more likely explanations.* Certainly, there might have been some mistake of my own, e.g. in that he might (or might not!) have turned out to be less stubborn than I thought, had I pushed the issue a little harder, or that my intellectual honesty was misplaced: instead of saying “no” I might have been better off with “of course, but I have not done any math in the last six** years, so refresh my memory, just in case”.

*To which I note that I would, myself, agree with that assessment of a great many students; and that I have, myself, been accused of being stubborn on occasion.

**As a rough approximation of the time between the completion of my first master and this event. I might be off a little. Portions of my pre-thesis studies were also arguably math, but (a) were not formally called math, (b) were a very different type of math (dealing with questions like computability and complexity in the computer-science senses).

Now, take the above situation and replace me with a certain type of woman, e.g. someone who believes what her gender-studies professor and Hillary Clinton have told her: Old White Man who refused to listen to me because I am a woman, just assumed that I know no math because I am a woman, and talked down to me because I am a woman!

Depending on the exact woman, it need not end here and e.g. a “No wonder that there are no women in STEM! We need quotas!” or a “He must be fired for discriminating me!” is possible.

But here is the thing: I am a man and this still happened to me.

Excursion on other cases:
In my early years in Germany, similar misunderstandings were comparatively common and by no means limited to technical terminology.

For instance, a very similar, but more easily resolved, incident involved one of my first interactions as an exchange student. The professor spoke of “CAD”, an abbreviation of “Computer Aided Design” in use both in German and Swedish, as well as the original English. The hitch: Swedes speak it as one word, in the English manner and usually with a roughly English pronunciation; Germans spell out the letters C-A-D in a German pronunciation.* Moreover, he had a fairly guttural pronunciation of “A”, even by German standards, and my not-yet-acclimatized ears heard C-R-D. And, of course, I had no idea what this CRD might be—while CAD was one of the known-even-by-laymen buzzwords of the day.

*Or they did at the time—this was over twenty years ago and I have not paid attention to current use. For that matter, I am uncertain when I last heard it spoken in any language.

For instance, I was once puzzled, while taking a class on environmental topics, by the oddly unambitious discussion of the “three-liter car” (“Drei-Liter-Auto”) as a future vision for fuel consumption. Swedish fuel consumption was (at the time) usually measured per Swedish mile, i.e. 10 kilometers—and three liters per 10 kilometers is not very impressive. However, Germany usually uses fuel consumption per 100 kilometers. Re-think the value in the context of a ten times longer distance, and it makes more sense. (Presumably, “three-liters-per-100-kilometers car” is not catchy enough.)

More generally, such traps can easily cause confusion of various kinds, and might well occur even among native speakers with a sufficiently different cultural background. Sometimes the distinctions can be quite subtle and surprising, e.g. because two scientists working in the same field have slightly different definitions of the same term or use different terms for the same concept. (Also see my last-minute discovery in the following excursion.) Then we have the confusion that can be caused by deliberate misdefinitions, as with e.g. the grossly incompatible-with-established-meaning use of “racism” to indicate something that requires a position of dominance.

Excursion on Newton–Raphson:
I am honestly surprised to see the Wikipedia page on Newton–Raphson method redirect to “Newton’s method”. Ditto that the Swedish page is located under “Newtons metod”. On the upside, the German page on “Newtonverfahren” (and the other two) does mention “Newton-Raphson-Verfahren” in the first sentence, implying that it is not unreasonable to believe that (even) a German professor (of a math-adjacent field) would have known that name too.

A possible explanation is that there is a difference between written material vs. oral conversation or e.g. formal contexts vs. informal ones; another that a certain set of books used by me happened to follow a certain convention; yet another that there has been a drift in use over time. This actually strengthens the example, because we now move from a Swedish–German incompatibility to something that could have happened even to a native Swede in Sweden (man or woman!), or a native X in X-land.

The issue of the correct name for the method has been discussed on (at least) the English talk pages and the page has in the past been found under that name (at least temporarily, going by the discussion). Based on a skimming, the camps seem to be broadly “Newton–Raphson is more accurate” vs. “Just Newton is more common”.

Written by michaeleriksson

July 5, 2020 at 3:14 pm

Eriksson’s Razor(s)

with 6 comments

One of the main cognitive problems among humans is an overly large tendency to assume a conscious driving force of some kind, even when it is not necessary to explain the observed phenomena. For instance, a dominance of Jews in some area does not require a Jewish World Conspiracy—it might just as well be a result of different personal or cultural characteristics (e.g. a higher average IQ to explain success in science) or Jews being directed by outside forces (in the case of medieval banking). Ditto the Feminist paranoia “the Patriarchy”. Ditto the alleged “systemic racism” that makes head-lines in the U.S. at the moment, which, to the degree that it at all exists, is better explained by individual actions than systemic problems, and is largely a misinterpretation or incorrect explanation of observations to begin with—much of it discussed in “The Bell-Curve” decades ago.

Similarly, we do not need to postulate a divine creator or an extraterrestrial intervention to explain life as we know it: known chemical processes followed by Evolution suffices. We certainly need not give Evolution a teleological aspect, as with naive ideas of eyes having evolved for the purpose of seeing or that Evolution would be a continual, automatic process from worse to better. (The latter include such whoppers as ascribing the post-industrial increases in human height or the Flynn effect mostly to Evolution and being blind to the risk of a dysgenic effect from the currently low evolutionary pressure.)

That earth-quake was not caused by the wrath of the gods, but by natural processes in the Earth. That ball did not hit little Billy in the head because it was “stupid” or “mean”, it did so because external influences moved it to do so, including the wind and little Bobby. (Little Bobby, in all fairness, might have deliberately tried to hit little Billy, but there is a fair chance that he was genuinely just trying to score a point.)

I have seen so much absurd behavior from e.g. civil servants and customer service staff that I have often been tempted to assume a conspiracy—but I know that sheer incompetence is a (much, much) more likely explanation. Why would both the German “IRS” and DHL, e.g., be out to get specifically me? They might have an aversion to Swedes*, but shit happens all the time, even when my counter-part has no way of knowing** that I am a Swede. In those cases where I have a legitimate reason to suspect that my being a Swede was an issue, it has usually*** been in an indirect manner, e.g. that I might have had problems getting my first job in Germany because my German was quite poor at the time—or been something going back to the individual at hand, not a massive anti-Swede sentiment or deliberate policies directed at keeping Swedes down. If we look at foreigners in general, the risk of negative sentiments might be considerably larger, but would genuine xenophobes care about the few Swedes (geographical neighbors and members of another Germanic people) when there are Turks and Arabs to worry about? Unlikely, but my negative experiences remain.

*I am a Swede living in Germany.

**Most persons and entities that I casually interact with would not have access to this information through e.g. files, my name could easily be explained by a single Swedish great-grandfather, and many will have no opportunity to deduce otherwise. For instance, the DHL never rings my doorbell and can, therefore, not deduce my status through a Swedish accent. For instance, someone who sees me in the street would have little reason to reflect on the possibility that I am not a born-and-bred German. However, I could easily see how e.g. a Black man with a name like “LeBron Ali” could have drawn the opposite conclusion based on even my set of experiences (if transferred to him).

***One truly glaring exception was my first German bank account, at the now defunct Dresdner Bank. The bank refused to hand out the PIN for my ATM card, claiming something about my youth or my status as a student and explicitly telling me to go to the counter every time I wanted to make a withdrawal. I took this at face value at the time, but was soon told that this was unheard of by other students in the same age bracket and even another branch of the same bank called it an absurdity.

Even in the case of the Left, where there is some reason* to assume deliberate large-scale driving forces, chances are that much what might look like a conspiracy is just coincidence or caused by “natural” forces. For instance, the trigger for this text is a Mike Whitney text on UNZ, which pushes the envelope of a Leftist U.S. Conspiracy beyond the plausible.** For instance, is the DNC an evil force masterminding everything that happens—or is it just driven hither and thither by attempts to use the unstable political winds? For instance, is journalism (ditto, m.m., colleges, and whatnot) dominated by Left-leaning people because of a conspiracy, because people with Leftist opinions coincidentally are more interested in journalism, or because many Left-leaning people have independently (and to a higher degree than “Right”-leaning) had thoughts like “if I become a journalist [professor, whatnot], I have the opportunity to push my political agenda”? Has non-Leftist journalists [professors, whatnot] had a harder time to be accepted or get printed because of a systematic mistreatment by their peers or because the Left has had a majority and contained sufficiently many intolerant and bigoted individual journalists?***

*As with the “long march through the institutions”, the Frankfurt School, and Marcuse. (More on him in a later text.)

**Not to deny that individual portions of his writings might be correct or make sense, but when taken as a whole the result becomes highly dubious. I do not give specific examples, because the text and reasoning is confused, draws strongly on other sources, and it is hard to say for certain what individual speculation is right or wrong.

***If so, with the implication that the reverse might have happened if the Left had been a small enough minority in the press. (I use “might” as my experience with the Left and the non-Left point to a greater intolerance problem within the Left.)

A conscious driving force, a conspiracy, a deliberate attempt at sabotage, whatnot, might be the explanation in any given case, but it should not be our first assumption. Other explanations must be considered, we must look closer at the evidence and not jump to conclusions, we must consider the relative plausibility of various explanations, etc.

To this end, I suggest “Eriksson’s Razor” (V1.0):

Never explain an observation with a conscious mover, a conspiracy, a systemic problem, or a teleological force when coincidence, individual choices, game theory, natural processes, emergence, or similar, are sufficient.

To this, knowing the Internet, I add “Eriksson’s dumbed-down Razor” (V1.0):

Not a conspiracy, stupid!

Moreover, looking at the current world, I add “Eriksson’s PC Razor” (V1.0):

Never assume racism, sexism, or another “ism”, when the observations can be explained by either individual characteristics/behaviors of the subject(s) or non-“ism” characteristics of the actor(s), like a personal antipathy, selfishness, general misanthropy, a pre-existing bad mood, etc.

Finally, I add “Eriksson’s dumbed-down PC Razor” (V1.0):

Never assume “ism”, when “idiot” will do.

To give examples of the “PC Razor”: If a woman is fired, do not just scream “sexist boss”, but do consider whether she was performing her job well or poorly and whether other reasons might have applied, e.g. that her boss simply (whether for good or bad reasons) did not like her personally.* If Black men appear underrepresented at a college, do not just scream “racist college”, but do investigate whether they are admitted by unfair or fair criteria and might actually be held back by, on average, worse grades and/or SAT scores.** If a White cop kneels on a Black criminals neck, do not just scream “racist cop”, but do investigate whether he used acceptable methods and whether he has a prior history of unacceptable behavior against arrested citizens (and, if so, by all means, whether Black victims were over-represented relative their proportion of arrests and/or criminals).

*As can be seen, a ruling of “not sexism” does not automatically imply that no fault or unfairness of another kind took place.

**Either could, obviously, point to some other problem that might need intervention, e.g. worse schools, but that is not the college’s fault. (And, again, I refer to “The Bell-Curve”, for why differences in cognitive distributions are a likelier explanation.)

Note on “mover”:
The term “mover” is taken to include e.g. the eponymous “Prime Mover”, divine beings, secret governmental agencies, the Illuminati, “mean” balls, and individual humans. This with the reservation that e.g. individual humans will very often not be covered by the Razor as a whole. For instance, an assumed Kennedy shooter could be a conscious mover, but would not be covered by the Razor: Kennedy was shot and any attempt to explain this without a human shooter would be far-fetched. (A dog accidentally triggered a loaded gun that just happened to hit the U.S. President in the head?) In contrast, an unknown mastermind behind the shooting is an example of a conscious mover that probably would be covered by the Razor.

I have considered a switch from “mover” to “agent”, as the original choice of mover was motivated by the exclusion of humans, where I changed my mind during the writing of this text. For the time being, I remain with “mover”.

Note on “conscious”:
This is not an entirely ideal word, as it e.g. can be disputed whether a secret government agency could be described as “conscious”. My very first draft used “deliberate”, but that seemed even worse. I also considered and rejected “sentient”. The point is that there is something more going on than e.g. a wind moving a ship forward. (But not necessarily as much as a fully sentient Boreas deliberately driving the ship of an offending Greek sailor onto a deserted island for the purpose of punishing his hubris.)

Excursion on other Razors:
Compared to the two most famous pre-existing “Razors”, Eriksson’s Razor could* be viewed as a sub-set of Occam’s Razor and as potentially slightly overlapping** with Hanlon’s Razor (which, in turn, could* also be viewed as a sub-set of Occam’s Razor). In addition, both Eriksson’s and Hanlon’s Razors have some overlap with the claim “shit happens”.

*For both Eriksson and Hanlon, they would be sub-sets if we assume that the respective encouraged type of explanation is more economical than the discouraged one. While I believe this to be the case, there is room for discussion and it need not be true generally.

**For instance, if Bobby, above, was covered by Eriksson’s Razor (but I would tend to exclude him), we would have an overlap with Hanlon’s Razor (which prescribes that we assume that Bobby did not intend to hurt Billy, unless more proof to this is present). The “mean” ball would be covered by Eriksson’s Razor, but would probably not be covered by most interpretations of Hanlon’s Razor. The Jewish World Conspiracy would be covered by Eriksson’s Razor, while Hanlon’s Razor has no bearing. The “PC Razor” has larger overlap; the “dumbed-down PC Razor” even more so.

Written by michaeleriksson

June 24, 2020 at 5:29 pm