These are two errors people make in all types of organizations.  They seem to be complete opposites, but in fact they stem from the same failure in logic.

“The Competition Is Doing It”: People in business, sports, politics etc. will often say this to justify doing something.  “We need to spend the big bucks on this.” “Why?” “Because the competitors spent big bucks on it–we don’t want to be left behind.”

The problem is, this makes you susceptible to fads and fashions.  If the other guys are doing it and it’s actually a bad idea, then you are copying their mistakes. It’s an advanced form of peer-pressure. People who don’t know what they are doing will just copy other people on the assumption they do.

This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t see what the competition is doing–of course you should–but rather that the fact that they are doing something is not in itself a reason to copy them.  Only if it’s working for them is it a reason to copy them.

Of course, people sometimes make the complete opposite mistake…

Not Invented Here Syndrome“: This is where people are too concerned about keeping their own insular culture, and refuse to adopt new ideas. A variant is “we’ve always done it that way” as a justification for something.  People are too afraid to try something new and justify it by saying its not “who we are” or “how we do it”.

Now, on the surface, these errors are in complete opposite directions.  One is about taking ideas from the outside, the other is about refusing to do so.  But the common theme in both is that people are unwilling to do something no one else is doing. They are afraid of the risks involved with trying something no one else has tried.

So, how to avoid making either of these errors?  It seems like a delicate balancing act, where if you try too hard to avoid one, you end up making the other one.

The answer is to focus on what actually works. That way, when someone says, “The competitors are doing it”, you can say, “And is it working for them?” And when someone says, “We’ve always done it that way”, you can say, “And has it worked for us?”

The truth is, many screw-ups occur because someone was afraid to do the thing that they knew would work, either because no one else was doing it, or because they themselves had never done it.


Pilate therefore said unto him, Art thou a king then? Jesus answered, Thou sayest that I am a king. To this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth. Every one that is of the truth heareth my voice.

Pilate saith unto him, What is truth?

–John 18:37-38, King James Version

After a lecture on cosmology and the structure of the solar system, William James was accosted by a little old lady.
“Your theory that the sun is the centre of the solar system, and the earth is a ball which rotates around it has a very convincing ring to it, Mr. James, but it’s wrong. I’ve got a better theory,” said the little old lady.
“And what is that, madam?” Inquired James politely.
“That we live on a crust of earth which is on the back of a giant turtle,”
Not wishing to demolish this absurd little theory by bringing to bear the masses of scientific evidence he had at his command, James decided to gently dissuade his opponent by making her see some of the inadequacies of her position.
“If your theory is correct, madam,” he asked, “what does this turtle stand on?”
“You’re a very clever man, Mr. James, and that’s a very good question,” replied the little old lady, “but I have an answer to it. And it is this: The first turtle stands on the back of a second, far larger, turtle, who stands directly under him.”
“But what does this second turtle stand on?” persisted James patiently.
To this the little old lady crowed triumphantly. “It’s no use, Mr. James – it’s turtles all the way down.”

–J.R. Ross, Constraints on Variables in Syntax. 1967, via Wikipeida

Everything sticks until it goes away / And the truth is we don’t know anything.

–They Might Be Giants, Ana Ng.

I got into a debate the other day with a Trump supporter. Our disagreement was originally whether or not Russia had attempted to influence the U.S. Election by hacking into Democratic Party files and releasing them via Wikileaks.

My position was that the Russians did it. As evidence, I cited the fact that they had motive, opportunity, ability, and that the U.S. Intelligence agencies have now said that the Russians did exactly this.

My opponent conceded that the Russians did have motive and opportunity, but argued that many other nations did as well.  Moreover, he argued, there was no evidence the Russians had done it, and no one at the CIA had said the Russians did it. That was propaganda from the liberals to delegitimize Trump.

“What about the Director of the CIA saying as much?” I asked.

“Made-up story,” he countered. “Fake news.”

According to my opponent, this is a typical strategy used by Democrats to undercut Republicans who win Presidential elections.  He claims that they have done similar things in the past–for example, they told everyone that Al Gore won the popular vote in 2000.

“Al Gore did win the popular vote in 2000″, I responded.

He shakes his head.  “No–liberal propaganda.”

“You can look up the vote count online,” I persisted.

He was dismissive. “The government is run by liberals–they lie about the votes.”

It quickly became clear that there was no way we could ever conclude this argument.  Both of us had to invoke authorities the other considered unreliable. If I referred him to the National Archives count of the votes, he deemed it liberal propaganda. Similarly, if he referred me to Breitbart or Rush Limbaugh supposedly refuting the published vote tallies, I would deem that conservative propaganda.

The only way it could possibly be resolved would be if the two of us were able to personally count all the ballots ourselves. And even then it wouldn’t work–if it came out against him, my opponent would no doubt insist that liberals had secretly removed some ballots before the counting.

And when you get right down to it, I can’t absolutely prove that’s false. I can make all sorts of educated guesses, assert things with 99.99% confidence, but I technically can’t prove it beyond all doubt.

If you push it far enough, no one truly knows much of anything with “absolute metaphysical certitude”, as John McLaughlin would say.  People are just proceeding based on logical assumptions. We don’t know for absolute certain that aliens didn’t secretly replace all our family and friends with evil body doubles overnight–but it’s fair to feel confident they probably didn’t.

There’s a term for this need for absolute certainty: it’s a form of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. People with this disorder experience crippling anxiety and disturbing thoughts because they have uncertainty about something.

You have to either accept some level of uncertainty, or live a miserable life.

At the moment, the entire country suffers from this crippling anxiety because they have lost faith in all the old institutions–the Press, the Government, and even Religious organizations. (Except on the issue of abortion, where Priests and Preachers still have some influence.)

The real problem is that people have not only lost their faith in old institutions, but put their faith in new, highly dubious ones, that promise to assuage their anxieties. It reminds me of a quote often attributed to G.K. Chesterton:

When a man stops believing in God he doesn’t then believe in nothing, he believes anything.

This may not always be true of single individuals, but I think it is true of populations. Once a whole culture has lost faith in the institutions they used to believe in, they are vulnerable to being taken in by any charismatic con man with a compelling tale.

Scientific reasoning is about analyzing data gathered via scientific methods. It does not allow for appeals to authority.  However, the average person does not have time to rigorously test every single issue that might affect his or her life. This means that it is sometimes necessary to either believe authority or, if the authority is thought to be untrustworthy, find a new one. As my vote-count problem above illustrates, there are some matters that cannot be personally verified by every single person.

But, in a quest for reassurance from authority, people will not seek the authorities who give them the most truthful answer, but rather the most comforting. A man with the supreme confidence to assert “I alone can fix it”, whether he can or not, will inevitably be more popular with people adrift in a world of doubt and uncertainty than one who seems unsure.

There’s a final irony to this: Trump himself talks about the importance of making decisions while uncertain.  In The Art of the Deal, he discusses how many of his deals involve some element of risk-taking.  He says he simply makes decisions by gathering information from as many people with knowledge of the issue as he can, and then going with whatever his gut instincts tell him.

Most executives, military commanders, and other leaders throughout history learned to cope with the idea of uncertainty or risk.  They simply made the best decision they could with the information available. They did not constantly question all information or demand it be replaced with new information that was favorable to them.

(Interestingly, people like Stalin and Hitler would require that their intelligence be favorable to them, and filled most of their officer corps with politicians and “yes-men” who wouldn’t give them the full story.)

The argument strategy like the one I described above is to first devalue all information by emphasizing the tiny element of uncertainty that exists in everything not witnessed first-hand, and then appeal to charismatic and reassuring authorities who promise to fix all problems.

The best way to counter it is as follows: argue based simply on facts everyone–or at least, the person with whom you are arguing–agrees on, and extrapolate logically from there. As I said, even my bull-headed opponent had to admit the Russians had motive and opportunity for hacking the election.

Above all, when arguing with someone like that, don’t make any appeal to authority, or cite any source, because they will immediately dismiss it.

I had a friendly bet with Barb Knowles on the AFC Championship game.  The loser had to do a post about the winner’s blog.  But, I like her blog “saneteachers” so much that I am going to post about it even though I didn’t lose.

She has a delightful post about the dialect differences she encountered on coming to Ohio Wesleyan University from New York. As she puts it:

They don’t speak New York in Ohio.  They speak Ohio in Ohio. Of course, to me it sounded more like Ahia.

As a lifelong Ohio resident–I grew up about a half-hour from Ohio Wesleyan’s campus–I know what she means.  Non-Ohioans have frequently pointed out that central Ohioans sound like this when listing our home country, city and state:

I’m ‘Merican, from C’lumbus, Ahia.

but then again, they might be from a place a little way east of Columbus: Newark, which is pronounced something close to “Nerk”.

I took a linguistics class in college where we had to do an assignment on regional dialect differences.  For instance, when informally addressing a group of people, Southerners would say “you all” (often rendered as “y’all”) whereas Midwesterners say “you guys”.

That of course was small potatoes next to the big dialect difference: what do you call those glowing insects we get in the summer–fireflies or lightning bugs?

In her post, Barb also mentions the age-old debate of “soda” vs. “pop”.  (Some also call them “soft drinks” or “fizzy drinks”.)  This one I missed, because in my family we called the drinks by their brand name, but I remember the first time I heard someone call it “pop” I was puzzled.

I’d also never heard of the confusion over “bag” and “sack” that she describes–I’ve always heard both used interchangeably. With the prevalence of television regional dialects have declined over time–maybe that’s the reason. I also never heard “rubber” for “rubber band”.  I shudder to think at the mix-ups that could cause.

I once got into an argument with two of my friends–both of whom are also native Ohioans–about whether you call this a “flathead” or a “slotted” screwdriver. (It’s “slotted”.  Don’t let my evil friends tell you otherwise.) I don’t know if this is a generational or regional thing, but it was interesting.

I’m lucky in that I have relatives all over the country, so I get to hear a lot of different regionalisms.  Even if it does cause some confusion sometimes…

Anyway, you guys–and you all–should check out Barb’s blog.  She’s a terrific writer, and has some very witty observations.  I wouldn’t have made my bet with her if I didn’t think so–and the fun of a bet like this is that everyone wins.

There’s a good debate in the WSJ on whether or not to abolish tenure for college professors.

I come down mostly on the side of the anti-tenure person.  In my view, the system of tenure is good intentions gone wrong. The person arguing for tenure writes: “Tenure doesn’t guarantee that every faculty member is courageous, but it protects those who are.”  No, it doesn’t.  His logic is flawed.  Faculty members who have tenure have the opportunity to be courageous and challenge the system if they see fit, but that doesn’t mean that it is granted to faculty members who do that.  In fact, there is an inherent reason not to give tenure to rebellious faculty.

Sure, a person seeking to do radical research or something might play “within the system” long enough to get tenure, and then start working on their crazy, status-quo challenging ideas.  And Mitt Romney might grow a beard, wear a tie-dyed shirt and change the National Anthem to “Purple Haze” if he gets elected, but it’s not likely.  The care and scrutiny which goes into making the tenure decision only defeats the supposed benefits of academic freedom and “risk-taking” it was meant to encourage.

Besides the fact that tenure doesn’t actually solve the problem it is supposed to solve, there is also the problem of the incentives.  Obviously, there is a degree of comfort that comes with tenure that carries the potential to lessen, rather than heighten, the vigor with which the professors pursue their work.  This of course will not be true of all individuals; only some, but still it remains a  flawed incentive structure.

In the first three parts of this series, I have established what I see as the logic of the American political system as it stands today.   Now, we need to examine the flaws and the potential dangers in this system.

It is first of all the case that nationalists—as opposed to patriots, the distinction between which you can see analyzed here or here—have been on the losing end of things since the 1960s.  Cosmopolitan liberals have been gaining since then, and this the nationalists will not abide.

But still, the clear winner over this time period has been the materialist business interests, for whom the nationalists vote based on their promises to cut the size of government, and with whom the cosmopolitans are obliged to compromise in the interest of seeing their gains on social issues protected.

The Thomas Frank question is: why do the nationalists continually vote for the anti-government big money people when they never do actually do anything to help the nationalists in their quest to abolish gay marriage, feminism, and secularism and restore militarism, flag-waving culture, traditional families and Christian dominance?

One hypothesis is that the nationalists are, by and large, ignorant hicks.  They certainly do hate the education system, bastion of liberalism that it allegedly is.  Thus, they can be duped every four years by some businessman who spouts slogans about “family values” and “sanctity of marriage” and who once elected cuts the capital gains tax and curtails welfare benefits.

When you add in that most nationalists are rural, and that many of them are Southern, where the schools have never been as good as the North or West, it looks compelling to say that they are just easily-tricked bumpkins.  Some liberals pity them, some liberals mock them; but they are seen widely as buffoons.

There is some evidence against this hypothesis, however.  That is why I read the works of Oswald Spengler or the political writings of H.P. Lovecraft.  They were both nationalists and, abhorrent though their views may be to me, there can be no doubt they were very intelligent men.

Moreover, you can see intelligent, educated nationalists even in the present day: a loose association sometimes called “the alt-right”.  I had a brief exchange with one of their number, OneSTDV, that some readers may recall.

Many of them are quite intelligent and well accustomed to philosophical debate and reasoning.  And they hold political views which I think many people supposed were now extinct in this country.  For example, they are fairly open about their admiration for fascism. They are more reactionary than most liberals can even imagine.

There are a few mainstream figures as well—Pat Buchanan is one—who may be classed as reasonably well-educated nationalists.  So, it is possible for such people to exist. Their philosophy is surprisingly intricate, and they can prove quite formidable in debate.

Given that, why keep voting for the materialist business interests, which care nothing for nationalism except insofar as it dictates the currency whose flow dictates their actions?  Well, in some cases, the nationalists don’t.  But in general, the reason is simply that both sides have common cause in that they hate the government. (With the exception of the military, in the case of the nationalists.)

They have different reasons: the nationalists hate it because it is populated by liberals.  (Most Republicans in government are far too liberal for their taste.)  Materialist corporate-types hate it because it has the power to take their money.  This fact means that business interests have a much easier time compromising with government than nationalists do.  Business wants to keep the government from getting its money; nationalists hate the actual people in the government .

Nonetheless, the nationalists’ plan is therefore rational: allow the Randian-minded businessmen to screw with the government long enough and it will eventually become weak.  Once it is weak, they will be in fine position to send in a candidate who really does mean to take us back to the 1950s. But clearly that day has not yet come.

Liberals are semi- cognizant of this threat, but it is very difficult to make the connections and realize that the nationalists may not be merely an angry group of people, but actually followers of a philosophy; one that is internally consistent and entirely antithetical to liberal values.

When I had my exchange with OneSTDV, many of his readers commented on my blog.  Interestingly, the topic that they focused on was this part:

[OneSTDV’s] belief that blacks are inherently inferior to whites intellectually. He calls this idea “Human BioDiversity” or “HBD”. I call it “racism” myself, and I believe it to be false.

Most of their comments centered on this point, and there was a lot of back-and-forth about the validity of it. One thing that caused some confusion—and this is my fault—was disagreement over whether “HBD” was the same thing as “racism”.  To my mind, they amount to the same thing: the belief that different races are in inherently different in non-trivial, especially mental, ways.  Now, some HBDers seemed to object to my effectively calling them racists, but I didn’t mean to imply that they are all klansmen; merely that they see race as an important factor in determining how well a person’s mind functions.

That’s an aside, but I wanted to get that bit of terminology clarified before proceeding.  What was especially interesting to me about the response to my OneSTDV post was a comment by “Ken S”:

“I am a fairly liberal HBD’er and I also frequently find OneSTDV’s blogging distasteful.  But don’t let that turn you off from finding out more about this viewpoint, there is much evidence in support of some of the non-political tenets of HBD…

While I like might like what you have expressed in the context of the arts, this is not the proper context that HBD lies in.  HBD itself is a scientific idea and the politics expressed at blogs like OneSTDV are responses to scientific data that question whether or not current social policies are doing more harm than good.  Even if he is wrong about the politics it would not make him wrong about the scientific findings that he uses to support his position.”

I also discovered the writings of a blogger named “John” at the sadly now-removed blog Stream of John, who also holds fairly liberal political views while still agreeing with the validity of “HBD”.  (I assume that he discovered my blog through reading OneSTDV)

Together, these two go to demonstrate a very interesting point: agreeing with the HBD hypothesis does not automatically determine one’s political beliefs.  After all, if these two can be liberals while still agreeing with the HBD view of things, it shows that there is no political philosophy that automatically follows from it.

Which is interesting, for it implies that OneSTDV and I would still have cause to quarrel even if one of us were somehow able to persuade the other on issues of race.  More broadly speaking, it shows that the divide between cosmopolitans and nationalists runs much deeper than even racial issues.

At bottom, these are whole philosophies of life that clash; they cannot be reduced to beliefs about race, or gender, or economics or any of the other issues.  The philosophical battle encompasses all of these.  If this hypothesis is correct, it in turn implies that there will never be consensus, and thus there is constant tension the political system.

Lefty Parent has a good post on liberals who homeschool. It’s a response to an article in Slate by Dana Goldstein, which argues against the practice.

Personally, I believe people should be free to homeschool their children if they so choose. Despite Goldstein’s claim that homeschooling is “illiberal”, this is by circumstance only, and need not always be true. If you are a liberal, ask yourself: would you rather your children be educated by you or by, for instance, the employees of the Texas School Board–the body that two years ago made changes to its curriculum

[A]imed at calling into question, among other things, concepts like the separation of church and state and the secular nature of the American Revolution

as the New York Times put it.

Conservatives like Rick Santorum say they oppose public education. Maybe, but I’ll bet anything what he really means is “I oppose the people who are currently in charge of public education, because they are liberals.” A lot of the Conservatives I know don’t want to abolish the public schools; they want to take them over and use them to teach their own beliefs. For that reason alone, it’s worth reserving the right to homeschool.

I sometimes feel sorry for politicians like Mitt Romney or John Kerry who are accused of “flip-flopping”. After all, if you receive new information, or simply think a little longer, it may be that you have no choice but to change your assessment. And sometimes, you don’t always make it clear what brought about the change, so it seems rather abrupt.

If I were a politician, I would probably be getting roasted in the press for the apparent contradiction between my statement on the afternoon of December 27th, 2011:

“There is no mystical force that makes [college students] stupider if the team wins; it’s just that they lack the discipline to prioritize effectively.”

And my statement on the evening of September 17, 2011:

“[M]ajor programs, such as football and basketball, provide revenue for the University to spend on other things related to academic pursuits… however, I believe that in this instance the matter of ideals plays a role…  If a university raises money for itself through football, then by football it is defined. What it does with its money is secondary.

 This may not seem terribly important. But in my opinion, it indicates a shift in attitude which may be unhealthy, a focus upon sport at the expense of scholarship.”

These seem to be pretty obviously opposites. Clearly, in at least one instance, I am quite wrong. But I am still going to try to weasel out of it.

My opinions have altered somewhat since the statement from September, although I still feel a bit uneasy about major collegiate athletics programs. Upon further review, my ruling on the field must be qualified. Sports are only a threat to the universities’ purported aim of higher learning if the students themselves are not dedicated.

In my past post on the subject I made it sound like it was all the fault of the greedy upper-management at universities turning the institutions of higher learning into “football factories”. While this does occur, I should have noted that it is not as if the universities are going and making money off of football and basketball and nobody can do a thing about it. On the contrary, it is only so profitable because it is so popular, both with students and the general public.

So, while you could say that the universities are wrong to tempt their students into shirking their studies to watch sports and enthusiastically support their team, you also must allow that if most students had enough self-discipline to study and not watch sports, there would be no problem with academics taking a backseat to sports. Nobody is making students watch sports–they may be encouraging them to, yes, but not making them.

And just to be clear, I want to stress that I am not advocating for students to commit themselves entirely to studying for classes and doing nothing else. I can’t say it enough; I enjoy watching college sports myself. If students dedicated themselves only to studying they would by no means be better off. I am only saying that if they lack the proper discipline to know what must get priority, it will be a problem. Sports are one distraction which the university itself provides to the students, but if there were no sports, I’m sure these students would find something else.

Freddie deBoer and Matthew Yglesias offer contrasting viewpoints on the business model of universities. DeBoer states that:

“[T]he purpose of the university has never been solely, or even primarily, or even largely to deliver information, that this is not why they are funded, and that this is not why students attend them.”

Well, I think he’s right. But given that, what is their purpose? As best I can tell, it is to offer people a way to prove they have information. The degree which a university sells you is a certificate that verifies the nature and extent of the information you possess. (Yes, this is a way of looking at it which ignores sentimental and intangible effects, but I’m just thinking about the business model here.)

So what this makes me wonder is:

  1. Is there anything that competes against them already? 
  2. Is there any alternative way of providing the same service more cheaply? 
  3. Are there other “goods”  like academic degrees?

That question has been asked much recently, and articles like this one by Taylor Branch (via Andrew Sullivan) are gaining more and more prominence.

The arguments on both sides are all obvious and familiar: Pro: “they are being exploited by the universities, which make millions off their play”, “they are risking injury”, and so on. Con: “they are paid in that they get a free education”, “money would lead to corruption and a betrayal of the idea of ‘amateurism'” etc. The above article goes through all this in detail, particularly focusing on the last argument.

Personally, while I love watching collegiate sports, I do think it is a very bad sign for society that educational institutions are dedicating so many resources to them. And although I think it is true that, as things stand now, players deserve compensation for their efforts purely as a matter of fairness, I also think it is an ominous sign that matters have come so far as that.

I should also say that, if players were paid, then college athletics would be simply a pro sports league that doubled as an academic institution and thus one hampered in competing with professional organizations dedicated entirely to sport.

I would feel much better if major athletes played professionally immediately after leaving high school and bypassed college altogether. Then college athletics would be reduced back to their rightful status as something students do for amusement in their spare time.

I know that some will object that major programs, such as football and basketball, provide revenue for the University to spend on other things related to academic pursuits. I concede that this is true, however, I believe that in this instance the matter of ideals plays a role.

It’s well and good to claim the money will be used for some academic pursuit. But the universities are now using major athletic competitions as to raise funds to enable them to pursue other things. And just as people in an economy such as ours are defined by their income-earning activities, so too are institutions. If a university raises money for itself through football, then by football it is defined. What it does with its money is secondary.

This may not seem terribly important. But in my opinion, it indicates a shift in attitude which may be unhealthy, a focus upon sport at the expense of scholarship. (It is quite an irony that the means by which most of these athletes come to the university is called a “scholarship”.) The focus of the university administrators’ minds, even if not their money, is upon sport.

I repeat: I love sports. But I do not see a need, when highly successful professional sports leagues already exist, for colleges to interfere in the market.

However, this is just my opinion. It may be wrong, and regardless the existing system won’t go away. So, as matters stand now, I favor paying college athletes.

Mike Huckabee will not be running for President. Instead, he is apparently going to devote some of his time to selling videos such as this to educate children about American history:

All I can say is that, when I was a lad, it would have been my natural instinct to rebel against any message conveyed in such an obvious fashion as that. Certainly, every children’s program I watched that had a message made me viscerally want to contradict it. (Most of the messages, incidentally, were what the Conservatives would likely call Politically Correct, Liberal messages.)

In general, I suspect kids aren’t quite as malleable as people think, and more than ready to resist ham-fisted techniques, regardless of the message. I suspect that such efforts as the one you see above will be counterproductive.

But, as the title suggests, these seem like such poor efforts that I almost wonder if it’s a joke…