Why civil discussion of politics and social issues is so difficult

I want to get this off of my chest prior to driving home. I just read about the murder of the police officers in Dallas, just the day after reading about more unarmed black men getting killed by law enforcement (one victim: by all accounts an excellent citizen; I say this because all too often the victim’s criminal record (if he has one) is brought up).

It is sad; here is one person’s lament.

Obviously, the deaths and violence saddens me. But what makes it harder is that these things are very difficult to discuss outside of “safe bubbles” of like minded friends.

1. People bring different points of view and different life experiences to the table. I don’t know how many times I’ve tired to have a conversation with a conservative only to find that they have no conception as to why an “innocent, law abiding” black (or brown) person would fear the police! Of course, in their lives, they’ve never had to have such fear.

2. On the other hand, “activists” seem to forget that police officers are human just like the rest of us; they are subject to fear and to reasoning inductively just like the rest of us. And when police screw up (as we all do), the results can be tragic. The police are human beings, not robots.

3. It is so easy to demonize “the other” (e. g.: “all people who support X suck”); here is a very balanced article about Trump supporters which I urge liberals to read.

4. Sometimes events are complicated and contain nuance. So I am loathe to jump on the “this person who supposedly did X is evil and stupid” bandwagon. Example: here is an excellent article about the judge in the “Stanford swimmer rape case”. Upshot: judges have to follow the law, and the judges have to rule on what is brought before them by the district attorneys. And no, Hillary Clinton’s e-mail issue really isn’t like some of the other “mishandling of classified materials” issues. Example: there is a big difference between having an e-mail thread which has an e-mail message with some classified elements in it and deliberately downloading known, sensitive classified stuff onto your own laptop for some personal reason (book, espionage, etc.).

5. And when you discuss, or attempt to discuss this issue outside of your bubble, some well intentioned but “less than informed” person will probably litter your post with false “talking points” or..perhaps, at best, “partial truths”, taken from non-credible sources (e. g. Newsmax, Rush Limbaugh, Joe the Plummer, Natural News, Food babe, creationist websites, anti-vaccination websites, Huffington Post blogs, Salon, etc.). “Bernie is going to win California”, “Benghazi”, “scientists are Monsanto shills”, “scientists just hate God and know that the Bible is literally true”, etc.

If you try to point them in the right direction, they’ll just think that you are either lying or deluded; in their mind they have zero reason to listen to you. If they will reject a Nobel Laureate scientist or economist, they won’t listen to you. And it is bad form to remind them that someone who scored a 22 on their ACT or struggled with *business calculus* is highly unlikely to be able to grasp the details of a technical issue that requires knowledge of science and/or statistics to understand.

Lest you accuse me of arrogance: ok, you might have a point, but I am prone to making mistakes as well. That is why I rely so much on experts in the field, when they are talking about their own discipline (e. g. Paul Krugman in economics, the lawyers who wrote the article about the judge in the Stanford rape case, etc.).

And I have doubts all of the time; this is why I am loathe to jump aboard the “instant outrage at X” movements; I realize that there is more to the issue than I am realizing.

End rant; time to drive home.

July 8, 2016 Posted by | social/political | , , , , | Leave a comment

Death of Expertise (really not that new)

This is an interesting article:

How conversation became exhausting
Critics might dismiss all this by saying that everyone has a right to participate in the public sphere. That’s true. But every discussion must take place within limits and above a certain baseline of competence. And competence is sorely lacking in the public arena. People with strong views on going to war in other countries can barely find their own nation on a map; people who want to punish Congress for this or that law can’t name their own member of the House.

None of this ignorance stops people from arguing as though they are research scientists. Tackle a complex policy issue with a layman today, and you will get snippy and sophistic demands to show ever increasing amounts of “proof” or “evidence” for your case, even though the ordinary interlocutor in such debates isn’t really equipped to decide what constitutes “evidence” or to know it when it’s presented. The use of evidence is a specialized form of knowledge that takes a long time to learn, which is why articles and books are subjected to “peer review” and not to “everyone review,” but don’t tell that to someone hectoring you about the how things really work in Moscow or Beijing or Washington.

This subverts any real hope of a conversation, because it is simply exhausting — at least speaking from my perspective as the policy expert in most of these discussions — to have to start from the very beginning of every argument and establish the merest baseline of knowledge, and then constantly to have to negotiate the rules of logical argument.

I see this all of the time on social media. No, I am NOT talking about “only conservatives” but also fellow liberals. Take any issue: sexual violence statistics, safety of GMO foods vs “organic” foods, who is ahead in a primary election (really), creationism, vaccinations, you name it.

Ok, yes, you might accurately point out that *I* am not an expert in these fields. But I know that I am not and so I DO turn to the experts. Yes, sometimes there is genuine debate within the expert community (degree of certain problems in climate change, the mechanisms of evolution, supply side vs. demand side economics, etc.) and all I can do is say “this makes sense to me”.

As far as math: I make it a point to not discuss mathematics “in public” (though I do have a blog aimed at other college teachers). It is simply too exhausting to do.

And yes, some students have gotten caught up in this too:

Universities, without doubt, have to own some of this mess. The idea of telling students that professors run the show and know better than they do strikes many students as something like uppity lip from the help, and so many profs don’t do it. (One of the greatest teachers I ever had, James Schall, once wrote many years ago that “students have obligations to teachers,” including “trust, docility, effort, and thinking,” an assertion that would produce howls of outrage from the entitled generations roaming campuses today.) As a result, many academic departments are boutiques, in which the professors are expected to be something like intellectual valets. This produces nothing but a delusion of intellectual adequacy in children who should be instructed, not catered to.

Sorry, but regardless of what some educators will tell you, the students aren’t going to “discover calculus on their own” (calculus was developed by some exceptionally intelligent people). And no, your undergraduates (or the vast, vast, vast majority of them anyway) will NOT be doing “cutting edge research” while undergraduates. Fact: at a typical 9-12 hour teaching load institution, your FACULTY won’t be doing such research either. Being a genuine “cutting edge” researcher is a 24/7 job.

And what might be worse: some who have never become experts at anything don’t know what expert knowledge is. And those who are: well, some think that being really good at, say, law, means that their opinions on, say, biology, ought to be taken as seriously as those of a professional biologist.

The confidence of the dumb
There’s also that immutable problem known as “human nature.” It has a name now: it’s called the Dunning-Kruger effect, which says, in sum, that the dumber you are, the more confident you are that you’re not actually dumb. And when you get invested in being aggressively dumb…well, the last thing you want to encounter are experts who disagree with you, and so you dismiss them in order to maintain your unreasonably high opinion of yourself. (There’s a lot of that loose on social media, especially.)

But remember: EVERYONE ELSE is dumb; you are smart. 🙂

Oh well…

But here is my quibble: this sort of dismissing expertise is not that new. Think: creationism. Think: the church’s reluctance to even admit that heliocentric astronomy was completely wrong.

Religious people have been dismissing expert opinion for a long, long time.

June 26, 2016 Posted by | religion, social/political | , | Leave a comment

The Dunning-Kruger club…


Upshot: it takes a bit of intelligence, awareness and humility to be aware of your own intellectual limitations. If you think that your “common sense” overrides the opinion of experts who are talking about their field of expertise, you belong to the Dunning-Kruger club.

That might sound snarky, but there are times when I find myself as being too close to being in that club. Here is one such example:

Pass the sick bag. A device that allows people to empty a portion of their stomach contents into a toilet after a meal has just got the go-ahead from the US Food and Drug Administration. The device is approved for use by people who are severely obese, defined as having a body mass index of over 35 kg/m2.

The stomach-churning device, which is already available in some European countries, involves a tube being placed into the stomach in a short surgical procedure. The end of the tube contains a valve that lies flush against the skin.

Normally it is kept closed, but after meals, the person can connect the valve to another tube to drain about a third of their partially digested food into the toilet. It cannot remove more food than this, because the end of the internal tube is positioned higher than most of the stomach’s contents.

Manufacturer Aspire Bariatrics, based in Pennsylvania, says users need to chew their food well and eat more slowly to stop the 6 millimetre tube from getting blocked, and that this in itself helps reduce overeating.

“You get some solid chunks,” says Kathy Crothall, head of Aspire Bariatrics. “If a patient doesn’t chew their food very carefully they won’t get anything out of this device.”

The link contains a video and a description of the experimental results.

Now my emotional reaction is YUCK…THAT CAN”T BE GOOD FOR YOU (disclaimer: I used to weigh 320 pounds so this arouses some emotions in me). But I am not an expert in medicine and …IF this actually helps some people lead healthier lives…well, that is a good thing, despite my “yuck reaction”.

June 17, 2016 Posted by | obesity, science, social/political | , | Leave a comment

Being smart enough to know that you are dumb….

There is some truth here, though it isn’t just intelligence. There is ignorance too: the more you know about a subject, the more aware you are as to the vast amount of stuff that you don’t know and probably never will.

September 30, 2014 Posted by | social/political | | Leave a comment

One thing that puzzles me…..issues

There are many issues that are worthy of discussion.

But here is what I find curious: many of these issues are complicated and understanding them requires brining a whole lot of knowledge together. Many are multisided and …IMHO, if there is an optimal solution it isn’t obvious. At least, it isn’t obvious to me. I KNOW that there is much I don’t know about many of these issues.

And yet: so many people seem so sure that they KNOW the optimal thing to do…and many of these people haven’t exactly achieved excellence in their own careers.

No, this is NOT a partisan rant; this is one thing that appears to not be partisan at all.

July 8, 2014 Posted by | political/social, social/political | , | Leave a comment

If you aren’t the best in YOUR field, why do you think that you know more than the best in other fields?

Yes, this is a topic I’ve discussed numerous times (here here here and here.

But it still…sort of…baffles me. Why would someone who isn’t even remotely national class in what they do best think that they can give advice to the best in another discipline?

But…I suppose this might be some version of “hope springs eternal”; say I’ve realized that what I am rather average at what do best (a type of mathematics called “geometric topology) but…hey…maybe it is because my field is much harder than these other fields?

Well, not all fields are equal; I’ll grant you that. But if one is talking about something like mathematics, science, engineering or economics: well the best in these fields not only have looked hard a long at the problems, but they are very smart as well. If I don’t have a new technique to offer (say, a new application of knot theory to DNA research)…well, these folks don’t make basic mistakes. OTHER EXPERTS might catch an error, but it is likely to be a technical, nuanced error.

Now there is always the smart but foolishly arrogant expert in one field who thinks that he/she is better suited to attack problems in a field that isn’t theirs than the elite in those fields, at least in a fundamental way.

Of course, they might be highly qualified to offer new techniques that might apply, but they aren’t going to make a fundamental change to a discipline.

April 29, 2014 Posted by | social/political | | Leave a comment

They walk among us….


Okkkkaaaayyyyy (this isn’t “Poe”)


The Dunning-Kruger effect is alive and well.

April 17, 2014 Posted by | social/political | | Leave a comment

Amateurs: the established experts are better at it (with p = 10^-6)

I was amused at this article from Bruce Schneier’s security blog: it was an eye-rolling “here we go again” response to a headline in an article in the popular media. They reported of an “unbreakable code” that came from non-established experts.

That happens when the non-trained try to report on a technical area.

But this brings up a larger point: there are some fields in which people who don’t know what they are doing THINK that they know what they are doing and attempt to contribute…based on…..well, I am not sure what.

Here is Schneier’s advice to amateur cipher creators:

Memo to the Amateur Cipher Designer
Congratulations. You’ve just invented this great new cipher, and you want to do something with it. You’re new in the field; no one’s heard of you, and you don’t have any credentials as a cryptanalyst. You want to get well-known cryptographers to look at your work. What can you do?

Unfortunately, you have a tough road ahead of you. I see about two new cipher designs from amateur cryptographers every week. The odds of any of these ciphers being secure are slim. The odds of any of them being both secure and efficient are negligible. The odds of any of them being worth actual money are virtually non-existent.

Anyone, from the most clueless amateur to the best cryptographer, can create an algorithm that he himself can’t break. It’s not even hard. What is hard is creating an algorithm that no one else can break, even after years of analysis. And the only way to prove that is to subject the algorithm to years of analysis by the best cryptographers around.

“The best cryptographers around” break a lot of ciphers. The academic literature is littered with the carcasses of ciphers broken by their analyses. But they’re a busy bunch; they don’t have time to break everything. How do they decide what to look at? […]

This post has some advice (e. g. “learn the current lingo of the area and communicate in that” and “remember some really smart, experienced people have already covered this ground and the chances that you came up with something that they didn’t is close to zero..”)

Then there is this from Richard Dawkins:

In the nicest possible way and with great respect, could I make two suggestions to would-be commenters, based on past experience when this topic has come up-
Please pause before offering your own common sense view. There are topics in science, of which this is one, where common sense is not a good guide. If it were, professional biologists would not have been arguing about it for five decades. There is a large back literature in which the likelihood is strong that whatever commonsense view you put forward has already been proposed and exhaustively discussed. As an analogy, common sense is notoriously misleading when we try to understand quantum mechanics. If you could do physics by common sense, we wouldn’t need physicists. To a lesser extent, something like the same thing applies here.

You see this in many other guises: woo-woos trying to correct scientists about GMOs, creationists trying to refute evolutionary science, climate change skeptics trying to refute climate scientists.

I am NOT saying that experts don’t argue with each other and accuse each other of making “elementary errors”: they certainly do and sometimes to in harsh language. But they aren’t arguing with non-experts.

April 9, 2014 Posted by | science, social/political | | 1 Comment

On knowing what you are talking about….

First: this is how some discussions about religion appear to me. Comments to the effect of “I don’t see how it could be otherwise” are not convincing.


When people talk about raising the retirement age, remember that there is a big spread in “years lived after 65” between wealthier white collar workers and poorer blue collar ones.

See here:

I was pleased to see this article by Annie Lowrey documenting the growing disparity in life expectancy between the haves and the have-nots. It’s kind of frustrating, however, that this is apparently coming as news not just to many readers but to many policymakers and pundits. Many of us have been trying for years to get this point across — to point out that when people call for raising the Social Security and Medicare ages, they’re basically saying that janitors must keep working because corporate lawyers are living longer. Yet it never seems to sink in.

Maybe this article will change that. But my guess is that in a week or two we will once again hear a supposed wise man saying that we need to raise the retirement age to 67 because of higher life expectancy, unaware that (a) life expectancy hasn’t risen much for half of workers (b) we’ve already raised the retirement age to 67.

Ms. Lowrey’s article is here.

Here is one of my pet peeves: all too often, a non-specialist will attempt to claim that the mainstream view/theory in a different profession is wrong because it doesn’t make sense to them. Here Larry Moran takes on a chemistry professor’s (at Rice University, no less) claim that evolutionary theory is flawed. Professor Moran concludes:

I suppose I’m going to be labeled as one of those evil “Darwinists” who won’t tolerate anyone who disagrees with me about evolution.1

I’m actually not. I just don’t like stupid people who think they are experts in evolution when they have never bothered to learn about it. Here’s my advice to graduate students in organic chemistry: if you want to know about evolution then take a course or read a textbook. And remember, there’s nothing wrong with admitting that you don’t understand a subject. Just don’t assume your own ignorance means that all the experts in the subject are wrong too.

It isn’t just “experts at a different field” though. Right now, we are hearing more and more from people who think that vaccines are bad and contain lots of harmful chemicals. One scientist had enough and made an epic drunken rant:


No, this is not a partisan issue; there are plenty of liberal anti-vaccination types out there, and they are a disgrace.

March 16, 2014 Posted by | creationism, economy, evolution, ranting, religion, science, social/political, Uncategorized | , , , | Leave a comment

Memes and massive online open courses and education for the masses

A description of the massive online open courses movement can be seen here. I’ve read where some have said that somehow this was supposed to be a threat to conventional higher education.


Yes, I think that the MOOC is a good thing; it makes a ton of good, valuable resources available to those who want supplemental work or to those who are, say geographically isolated.
But there are some factors that I don’t see discussed that often.

1. Learning some types of material is hard. I’ve taught college mathematics for upwards of 20 years. The students almost always THINK that they know the material better than they actually know it; I find this out when I grade their examinations. How are they going to learn the stuff if they don’t have the “pass the test” incentive? Yes, I know that some of these MOOCs have a online exam at the end (multiple choice) that is machine graded, but only a tiny percentage of people get to them.

Learning is hard and time consuming.

2. Prerequisites: many might find, say, some of the counter intuitive conclusions of quantum mechanics interesting. But how many are going to be disciplined enough to learn the math to learn this area properly? How many are even capable of learning the mathematics properly?

Here is a hint:


Yes, I know that this is nonsense; there is nothing to “solve” here; this is the Fourier function representation formula. And yes, given a function f you need to know how to solve for a_n, b_n to even begin a proper undergraduate quantum mechanics course.

So if you don’t know this already, are you going to spend the years necessary learning enough mathematics?

So. I think that this massive open online stuff is good, it isn’t going to benefit a high percentage of the population. It IS a boon to a tiny percentage of outliers though.


Yep, when you see some internet arguments about subjects such as the constitutionality of a given law, whether a given GMO is safe, climate change, evolution, fracking, etc., well, people think that providing a link to an “activist” website or their having half-digested a couple of pop-books on the subject (IF that) qualifies them as an expert, or at least gives them an opinion that is worth taking seriously.

Psst: it doesn’t.

And, of course, it is ALWAYS someone else who is “stoopid”


Yes, I’ve seen the unmodified version of this meme (modification is in red) posted on many people’s walls, including the walls of woo-woos and those who really haven’t accomplished all that much. I know that the National Academy of Science isn’t in my future, and I don’t have any members on my friends list.

I have lots of blind spots and, if I have an advantage on most, it is that I know that there is a huge gap between me and the truly genius level people AND I understand that what “makes sense to me” might well be false, or at best, incomplete. But the Dunning-Kruger effect is strong in many.

January 19, 2014 Posted by | education, ranting, social/political | , | Leave a comment