Friday, September 9, 2011

On Whiskey and Scorpions

Practical fallacies and the virtue of practical thinking.

There’s a ton of content out there on logical fallacies—the concept of logical fallacy has definitely entered into the network of “pop sci” content outlets (Boing Boing, Wired, Radiolab, Malcolm Gladwell, TED, etc). The idea being, I think, that if you can rid humanity of logically improper thinking, you can get right to the business of landing on Mars, ending poverty and disease, and/or finally cancelling “The Bachelorette”.

 I applaud this effort, even though I was recently caught using the phrase “begging the question” terribly wrong. Stamping out the Lake Wobegon Effect or “If-By-Whiskey” is absolutely a worthwhile endeavor, but I do have one concern (without being a concern troll): logic only gets you halfway to the door.

This guy is doing his part to stamp out "If-By-Whiskey"
Here’s an example: there’s an infamous game theory puzzle called the Two Envelopes Problem. In it, a participant is given two identical envelopes, one containing X amount of money, and the other containing twice that. This hypothetical participant takes one envelope, but before opening is, she’s given an opportunity to exchange the envelopes. When she gets that envelope, she’s given the opportunity to exchange the envelopes, and so on.

The trick here is that the math says you’re always better off to switch envelopes (much like in the Monty Hall Problem, you’re better off to switch doors). Unfortunately, the math doesn’t take into consideration that you don’t have all eternity, dang it, and $X is better than $0 (for positive values of X, of course). “Wait, wait,” you’re saying, “this is game theory! If the math doesn’t reveal the most logical course of action, there’s something wrong with the math, not with logical thinking on the whole!”

And you’d be right. But, as of right now, the math isn’t there. It hasn’t been corrected fully, so it can’t be used. So you’re stuck there shuffling envelopes indefinitely until you make an illogical, but practical, solution (though I would switch envelopes at least twice, in case the weight of the money is a giveaway). Unfortunately, there are a lot of people in the world still shuffling envelopes. I see three big ways this happens, and I'll talk about one right now:

Forgetting Why. The TED-friendly marketing dude Simon Sinek has a whole talk on “Starting with Why”, and the tl;dr version is this: “People won’t buy your product, they’ll buy your vision.” And that’s awesome, but the “why” I’m talking about is more like the “why” in “Why do scorpions have poisonous stingers?” or “Why does my car have bags of air that inflate when I crash?” and less like “Why does Apple make cool gadgets?” Forgetting Why is forgetting that scorpions can't choose not to have stingers.

A classic example of Forgetting Why stems from Malcolm Gladwell’s recent appearance on the Radiolab episode “Games”. Jad and Robert were talking about a study that showed that 4 out of 5 people root for the underdog in any given, unbiased scenario. Gladwell, apparently did not, and briefly mentioned his sadness when the expected winner fails in an athletic contest. In doing so, he illustrates just what I mean by “forgetting why”.

You see, the “purpose” of a tournament isn’t to identify the strongest team. If that goal were more important than all others, we could simply have a committee do some math to the field of teams after a long season and we’d have a verifiable winner without all the madness. But the reason we have an NCAA basketball tournament is because it’s entertaining, and entertainment has a market value. The reason March Madness exists is not to tell us who's the best—it's to make lots and lots of money.

Conflating the perceived “purpose” of a thing with its function is a problem, because it can have the logical conclusion of a stung child telling the scorpion to get rid of that stupid stinger. We've all seen people who are obsessed with a cause that they cannot possibly effectively champion. Many of them are Forgetting Why, assuming that someone, somewhere, is making life unfair by his or her choice, and if he or she would only choose otherwise, a massive problem would be solved.

In other words, if you can’t assume that products of evolutionary systems control their existence. Like scorpions, or basketball tournaments, or cultures, or economies. Next up: Forgetting How.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Beat the Filter Bubble: News from Outside the Spotlight

Camila’s War

In a nation thousands of miles away, one that has, along with its neighbors, a history of despotic rulers, brutal coups, and ground-shaking political conflicts, a youth-led uprising is taking place against perceived injustices. The protests have been taking place for months now, and are beginning to spread to neighboring countries. The leader of these rebels against authority has given the federal government an ultimatum: he only has one chance to address their cause, at a meeting this Saturday.

That nation isn’t Libya, Syria, or Bahrain—it’s Chile. The charismatic leader is 23-year-old Camila Vallejo, president of the student government of the University of Chile, and the issue is nationalizing education. Her nemesis is Chilean president Sebastián Piñera, notable for being a right-of-center leader in a Latin America that is increasingly swinging to the left. Ms. Vallejo’s group demands nothing less than education [through post-secondary] that is “free, public, and of [high] quality”.

Camila Vallejo
Camila Vallejo in German newspaper Die Zeit. CC-BY: Germán Póo-Camaño

And their protests prove they are serious. Over the last two months, students have converged on public squares in the capital, supported the Chilean labor movement’s strike, and visited neighboring Brazil to spark protests there and meet with Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff. (Interestingly, Brazil does have public universities, but the protesters are demanding that the government double their investment in education.)

The group’s seriousness is matched only by its savvy. Ms. Vallejo, like so many revolutionaries these days, has a strong online presence. Her Twitter feed updates at least a few times every day, posts which have recently been accompanied by a black square where a profile picture should be—a show of solidarity with the loved ones of 16-year-old Manuel Gutiérrez, who was killed during the protests that accompanied the labor strike. Vallejo has over 200,000 followers.

Along with the support, of course, comes the resistance. Piñera for his part has repeatedly denounced the nationalization of education, indicating that he will never support it, which should no doubt make Saturday’s meeting very interesting. And Vallejo has informed authorities that her life has been threatened via Twitter, including one tweet that said, roughly translated, “We’re going to kill you like the bitch you are.”

Not everyone who opposes the student movement is quite that severe. La Tercera, a newspaper with wide circulation, published an opinion that the privatization of universities in Chile serves a purpose: to facilitate the explosive growth university attendance in the country, which currently sits atop the Latin American list for percentage of college-aged student currently engaging in studies. The free market, says the editorial, is the only engine that could have supported that growth.

Free-market solutions have been the hallmark of Piñera’s administration, and while they seemed popular at the time of his election, Mr. Piñera’s popularity has waned severely since taking office in March of last year. Popular or not, though, he is still in charge, which means something different in Chile, when has been largely stable and democratic since the strangely peaceful removal of military dictator Augusto Pinochet in 1990, than it would in Syria or Egypt.

The Arab Spring, in fact, may be an unfortunate backdrop for the educational protests, as Chile’s situation does not, in fact, involve widespread oppression, religious infighting, nor oil interests. A better comparison might be the anti-corruption movement in India, led by Anna Hazare, a man who has been called (admittedly in hyperbole) “a second Gandhi”. Hazare’s followers protested, non-violently, and when their leader was jailed, they watched with rapt attention as he began a hunger fast.

It may seem that these tactics of protest, normally reserved for the brutally oppressed, are unlikely to be useful for a movement like the one in Chile, over something as distant from life and liberty as free college tuition. It should be noted, then, that after a few days of Hazare’s hunger fast, India’s Parliament acquiesced, and have been working on meeting his demand: simply to close the loopholes on an already existing anti-corruption bill.