Wednesday, 23 August 2017

Generation Snowflake Gets The Wrong End Of The Stick Again

Let me introduce you to a terribly thought out article in The Guardian by Afua Hirsch, where she tells us how 'alienating and elitist' she finds Oxford and Cambridge Universities because they contain too many white students.

Like Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, Salma Yaqoob, Mehdi Hasan and Diane Abbott, Afua Hirsch is one of the leading figures in cry-baby politics: a group of half-witted snowflakes who craft a public profile out of looking for things to take offence to, even when, as you'll see below, there is nothing offensive happening at all. 

Because of which, they almost never arrive at the (correct) conclusion that the problem is they haven't thought their arguments through adequately, and instead arrive at the (incorrect) conclusion that the reason so many people are against them is because of their skin colour, religion or ethnicity. The result of this is that all kinds of people and institutions frequently face unfair slurs due to intellectually sub-standard criticisms.

Anyway, personalities aside, let's be generous and just focus on the intellectual weight of Afua Hirsch's argument in the article: that the reason there are so few BME (black minority ethnic) students at Oxford or Cambridge is because those two universities are so horribly 'alienating and elitist'.

Even if we grant Afua Hirsch the so-called fact of Oxford and Cambridge being under-represented by BME students, it's easy to see that it is not to do with institutional racism at our top universities, it is to do with the fact that prospective BME candidates are far outnumbered by white British candidates, which has a lot of complex causes - but none of them are the fault of Oxford or Cambridge.

It is quite easy to be outraged at statistics if you don't understand them, and clearly Ms Hirsch misses the most important statistic in all of this: that there are simply not enough BME people in the country to fulfil her wish. A quick Google search reveals to me that if a top university accepted students in a way that precisely represented the UK demographic, then for every 100 people, there would be 87 whites, 7 Asians, 3 blacks and 3 others. Even on strict egalitarian grounds it is very difficult to justify a selection policy that doesn't see BME people vastly outnumbered by whites.

But, of course, that's only part of the flaw in her reasoning - the other thing wrong with her misunderstanding of statistics is that Oxford and Cambridge are not looking for a representation in terms of ethnicity or skin colour; they are looking for representation in terms of academic ability. The only way they are 'alienating and elitist' is by wanting the best and brightest students.

Cambridge and Oxford universities are the seat of academic excellence in the UK - and if the statistics show that only a small proportion of BME people get into Oxford or Cambridge, and a large majority of students are white, that does not show any institutional unfairness on the part of Oxford or Cambridge. It simply shows that if Oxford and Cambridge are trying to attract the most academically gifted students in the country, and if by far the greatest proportion of the most academically gifted students in the country are not in the BME demographic, then Cambridge and Oxford's admission policy is completely fair.

There is certainly a conversation to be had about all the ways that BME and under-privileged pupils in schools are disadvantaged or coming up against barriers to fulfilling their potential, but that's not an indictment against our two best universities.

The same principle is true when talking about pupils who are not privately educated - they are also not being unfairly discriminated against. The statistics show that only 10% of UK pupils are privately educated yet around 50% of Cambridge and Oxford graduates come from private education. Once again, people who think this exhibits unfairness are confused about what fairness is.

A scholastic system is fair if results match ability, hard work and diligence. Therefore, if Cambridge and Oxford are trying to attract the most academically gifted students in the country, and if 50% of the most academically gifted students in the country are in private schools, then Cambridge and Oxford's admission policy is completely fair on this matter too.
Afua Hirsch's article is a crassly distorted attempt to stir up ill-feeling when none need exist. By failing to understand statistics she has not grasped that Oxford and Cambridge Universities aim to admit the most academically talented students - and that therefore, the fair percentage of BME admissions depends on what proportion of the UK's most academically talented students are BME students.
If it is the number that is currently studying at Oxford and Cambridge then those admissions have the right ratio of BME students. Otherwise, what Afua Hirsch is asking us to believe is that Oxford and Cambridge Universities are deliberately disadvantaging themselves in the academic results tables by discriminating against brighter but unselected BME students. There is no madness to which our nation's leading snowflakes won't subject us if it gives them a chance to play the victim game and divest these topics of rational enquiry and sensible reasoning. 

Friday, 18 August 2017

Something (Probably) About 98% Of Americans Are Wrong About!!

Greetings!! Holidaying in America, and ingratiating myself with the locals, as you do, there is one belief that literally every American I've spoken with about this has. Both Trump supporters and Trump haters alike all seem unified on one basic consensus: that America badly needs to get back all those manufacturing jobs it has lost to foreigners.

Allowing for the proportion of the American population that knows why this is an ill-conceived idea - and America is more like a continent than a country, lest we forget - it could be that as many as 98% of the population actually believes this erroneous notion. This isn't unique to the USA, of course - you'd probably find similar ratios in most European countries too.

To see why the notion is wrong, you have to understand why it's so much better for Americans that foreign competition enables them to buy their local goods and services cheaper than if they were produced domestically. For simplicity, suppose you are an American who only eats bangers and mash - and you get all your potatoes from Tom the greengrocer, and all your sausages from Fred the butcher.

Suppose that you buy your potatoes for $2 a pound (it is pounds and ounces in America, not kilos), and your sausages for $5 a pound every week. On a typical weekly shop you buy 30 pounds of sausages and 50 pounds of potatoes.

Then one day you find out about Jack the butcher in the next street, who is selling the same quality sausages for $4 a pound, and because he has a bigger store he also sells potatoes for $1.50 a pound. Suppose, again for simplicity, that in the first 26 weeks of the year you had been shopping with Tom and Fred, and then at the end of week 26 you find out about Jack, and you shop with him for the remaining 26 weeks of the year.

I'm sure even an 8th grader could understand why you are now better off on the deal, as is Jack of course (too often people forget about the benefits to Jack as well). The maths will show you by how much better off you actually are:

Weeks 1-26 shopping with Tom and Fred - total expenditure: $6500 ($100 of potatoes x 26 and $150 of sausages x 26)

Weeks 27-52 shopping with Jack - total expenditure: $5070 ($75 of potatoes x 26 and $120 of sausages x 26)  

Total saving by shopping with Jack: $1430

Your saving money by shopping with more efficient Jack has no important logical difference to shopping with more efficient foreign competitors - in both cases there are significant consumer (and producer) benefits.

It's astonishing that almost all people in the world's most developed nations get this simple piece of logic and fact-finding bang wrong! Domestic producers of steel, aluminium, glass, plastic and timber are far outnumbered by the number of domestic citizens who are consumers, because except for perhaps Amish-type sects, everybody in America is a consumer on an international level.

And yet it seems the vast majority of people in the developed world desire the crafting of policies that benefit a small minority of the population at the expense of the rest of the population. When will people learn what's good for them?

Sunday, 6 August 2017

Why Greens Are Probably Hindering The Green Revolution

You've probably heard the one about being on the camping trip and being faced by a ferocious bear. As illustrated in the above image; to survive, you don't have to run faster than the bear, you just have to run faster than the slowest member of the group.

But what if you cared about the group because it comprises a family unit, where you love each and every member? Then your concern would be that every member of the group could outrun the bear. Again, despite different priorities, the same maxim still holds - the survival of your family in one piece is contingent not on the fastest runners but on the slowest runner.

There's a version of this wisdom in economics - it's called Liebig's law - and it basically says that the growth or success or quality of something is not contingent on its strongest components but its weakest one. It's often stated in the form of "A chain is only as strong as its weakest link", and is applied in economic theory to speak of, for example, a business's growth being potentially retarded by its most significant impediments to development (faulty machinery, inadequate premises, failure to meet government-mandated green targets, to name just three examples).

You may have noticed that out of my three examples, two are within the hands of the business (to the greatest degree) and the third is not. A business can be hamstrung by a government's green targets and that can be the difference between being solvent and going under, or (invisibly to the naked eye) never becoming a business in the first place. You see, most green initiatives don't just impede extant businesses; they impede all those businesses in prospect that never became businesses because of the regulations.

Liebig's law is a fairly reliable rule of thumb, but it doesn't wholly factor in the extent to which adaptability occurs in very dynamical processes. When misapplied it can be as misjudged as the assertion about robots stealing our jobs based only on a short-sighted inability to conceive of the future jobs that are currently not jobs.

So, a chain is only as strong as its weakest link if human development is in any way comparable to a chain full of links - but it isn't. Applying this to Liebig's barrel (see below), human progression is not like having a fixed barrel with staves of unequal length limited by the shortest stave, it is like a barrel that is continually built larger to accommodate the continually increasing volume of liquid contained, where liquid here is comparable to economic growth.
In this paper, Indur Goklany examines the worldwide trends, and shows that deaths resulting from extreme weather conditions like tsunamis, floods, hurricanes and droughts have actually declined by 95% since the 1920s (see graph below) - totally undermining the claim that the frequency of global catastrophes are causally linked with climate change.

The principal cause of this huge century-long diminution of deaths has not been closely ascribable to any Green movement - it has been the solid, consistent process of market-led improvements of technology and stronger economic infrastructures. The computer and the mobile phone have done infinitely more to save the earth's natural habitat than any group of people from Greenpeace ever have or ever will.


Thursday, 3 August 2017

Trying To Solve An Age-Old Puzzle Of Humanity

With Venezuela in chaos, and with the recent calls for Jeremy Corbyn to publically apologise for his insanely short-sighted endorsement of Hugo Chavez, it would seem like an obvious thing for Corbyn to admit he’s been a fool and repudiate his former beliefs. But of course, we know that’s not going to happen: there is about as much chance of that happening as there is of Diane Abbott being asked to present the numbers round on Countdown.

This is, of course, one of the age-old puzzles of humanity - why human beings are so terribly beset by confirmation bias (the tendency to embrace information that supports your beliefs and reject information that contradicts them) and so intransigently irrational even when presented with good reasons that they are wrong about things. I’ve thought about this in the past, and I think the reason is twofold.

The first reason is that our biological evolution has resulted in our being very flawed creatures. Our evolutionary legacies are seen broadly across our behaviour, because they are vestiges of our past. The evolution of the eye has left us with a large blind area in the middle of the retina. Our prurience is the result of our sexual past.  Our long spine and susceptibility to back pains and injuries are the result of our quadruped ancestry. Our wisdom teeth are a result of our once having bigger jaws.

Plus our fear of the dark, our blushing, our sneezing, our hairs standing up, our goose bumps, our reactions to moving objects, our trepidation at wild animals, and our behavioural similarities with other primates closest to us in origin, all of these show that we are a medley of inherited ineptitudes, built for the Savannah. 

The second reason is that our cognition is an evolved phenomenon just like all our other evolved traits, and the kind of reasoning (or lack of) we are complaining about when Corbyn won’t change his mind about Venezuelan socialism is not the kind of cognition that we’ve optimally evolved.

Our biggest selection pressures on survival were much more about group symbiosis and cooperation than trying to solve lateral and complex problems. Things like confirmation bias and other general irrationalities are probably bootstrapped by powerful underlying survival legacies that stretch out across our evolutionary past.

Consequently, although this might seem counterintuitive at first, it’s probably largely true that the kind of habits of human thinking that best helped us survive in tribes with an in-group mentality are also the kind of habits that don’t serve us well when it comes to abstract reasoning and intellectual discourse. To be smart you have to unlearn as well as learn.

One would think that in an evolutionary game of survival, mistaken thoughts would disadvantage us - after all, failure to process facts and truths accurately can cost you your life if a predator is lurking. But maybe that is to uncover the answer - our evolution has primed us for over-simplistic analyses precisely because our brains are designed by natural selection to form patterns of causality that once upon a time aided us in survival. 

This has been demonstrated in studies of brain states, where neurological analyses have shown how our brains naturally become excited when they interface with patterns, harmony, beauty, and symmetry - it seems we are primed to place a higher qualitative value on pattern over non-pattern and beauty over ugliness.

But there is a price to pay. Suppose you're a distant ancestor still making sense of the world - you will gain by false positives, but you are liable to lose a lot if you get it wrong. A rustling in the bushes may be the wind, but it may be a predator. It's more costly to assume it's a predator and find out it's the wind than to assume it's the wind and find out it's a predator.

So over the years we have been primed for false positives - to sense potential danger, patterns and breaks from normalcy, and ascribe them to something causal or deliberate or predatory, even when such things are not there.

As well as that, it has been useful for us to evolve mechanisms for thinking simplistically. Intellection has served us well in rising to great heights as a species, but thinking simplistically means humans too fondly look to pigeon-hole things into black and white, with a primary focus on right or wrong and true or false, without understanding or considering the complex areas of grey in between.

When you combine that with the aforementioned tendency to see patterns when none are there, and the tendency for tribalism and in-group mentality, you can see how susceptible humans are to falling into bad thinking habits.

Once you combine all that with two other effects; the Dunning-Kruger effect (overestimating your own competence in reasoning) and the illusion of explanatory depth (believing you know more of the complex, finer details of a situation than you actually do) it is fairly easy to see why humans are constantly getting so much wrong, and why even when presented with good reason to change their mind, it’s quite unlikely that they will. 

Wednesday, 2 August 2017

Please Excuse Me If I Don't Listen Up!

"And that is what is behind the abrupt rise in climate change denial among hardcore conservatives: they have come to understand that as soon as they admit that climate change is real, they will lose the central ideological battle of our time—whether we need to plan and manage our societies to reflect our goals and values, or whether that task can be left to the magic of the market." Naomi Klein

This is one of most widely circulated quotes I've seen about the climate change debate since the Internet began, and it is from one of the most vociferous mouthpieces on this subject, Naomi Klein. It's an opinion that's gathered a lot of momentum over the years - that once you admit that man-made climate change is a real thing you are compelled to be on the side of the climate change alarmists and endorse the same political policies they endorse.

The confusion here is in mistaking scientific truths for political truths. They are not the same, and just because we may happen to agree on the scientific truth of a situation does not mean that we have to agree on the politics. Scientifically, you and I may both agree that an electric fence energiser converts electromagnetic power into a high voltage pulse, but that doesn't mean we will agree if you tell me you think the state should pay for every house to have one fitted around everybody's house in the country.

My thinking your nationalised electric fence policy is a bad use of resources wouldn't make me an electricity-denier - and similarly just because we may disagree on your political policies to tackle climate change, it doesn't mean I'm a climate change-denier.

Similarly, just because I think your sugar tax policies and your minimum alcohol pricing policies are oppressive and lazy-minded, that doesn't mean I deny that too much sugar and alcohol are bad for you. It simply means I am very dissatisfied by your attempts to tackle these issues, or I'm unsatisfied that these are even issues that need satisfying by legislation.

This kind of opprobrium was prominent recently when Donald Trump pulled out of the climate agreement - everyone accused him of being irresponsible in not caring about the state of our planet. Perhaps he is, or perhaps he isn't, but either way - pulling out of the Paris agreement is not enough to go on, because anyone can reject it on the basis that they don't think it is trying to solve the problems in the right way, or that in some case their proposed solutions are actually worse than the problems they are trying to solve.

If I were a political leader, I would reject Naomi Klein-isms, the Paris agreement, and all manner of other movements and coalitions that are so evidently failing the tests before them. Because what none of the aforementioned do is get the basics right, regarding things like demonstrating how their policies will have a net positive effect on tackling climate change; predicting the effects of climate change alongside the effects of market progression; demonstrate that the costs of these policies are lower than the costs of climate change; and make any mention of all the opportunity costs associated with their policies and why they are worth sacrificing for this movement.

For all of those reasons and more, they are not giving us even a smidgen of a reason to believe they should be listened to on these matters.

Note: For further reading, my four part series on climate change attempts to address all the questions and answers that the alarmists have failed to address.