Saturday, November 07, 2009

All men are not equal

One of the most difficult things, for opinionated people such as myself, is to own up to past mistakes and admit that we've been wrong; especially when it comes to long-held beliefs.

The reality is, it sometimes happens, and one has to show intellectual honesty and admit when one is wrong.

I own up, and admit I was wrong: not all men (and women) are born equal.

That is, when it comes to intelligence and common sense: my own change of heart, and realisation of past mistake, has come thanks to Prof. Cipolla's essay (cited below).  In there, he clearly ascribes to the theory that intelligence, far from being a meta-characteristic of human behaviour, is instead a congenital personal trait, very much like hair colour, or height.

It is worth re-stating here, that this is by no means a regression to Lombardism or a statement of some social, or, God forbid, racist, class superiority: I totally side with the late Prof. Cipolla's statement that "stupidity is an indiscriminate privilege of all human groups and is uniformly distributed according to a constant proportion."

Although having read it for the first time many years ago, on this specific point I always remained sceptical, mostly believing he'd made it in jest, as it added a dimension of fatality and finality to the stupid man's affliction.

In fact, for many years, I've clung to the evidence of men and women demonstrating great intelligence and achieving great things, and yet coming from deprived backgrounds, as evidence that, given an opportunity, our innate intelligence will shine through: I meekly realise now that I was commiting the same mistake I was berating against earlier (inverse causation, see my earlier post) and that this was, in fact, a blatant demonstration of the truths first espoused by Prof. Cipolla.

My personal epyphany came about this morning whilst reading in The Economist about another chapter in the saga of British banks' rescue by this hapless Government, and I was hit by the sheer stupidity and incompetence that drove Mr Brown to push for Lloyds' takeover of HBOS: in The Economist's words, "Gordon Brown’s desperate government, however, chose to waive the rules."

The end result? "[t]hat attempt was futile and the joint concern swiftly ended up a ward of the state, reliant on taxpayer support."

Now, I hear you asking, what's all this got to do with stupidity being a congenital trait, as opposed to an acquired via (the old nature v. nurture debate)?

Well, if you think about it, this was an act of sheer stupidity and, although, some may like to cling on to conspiracy theories as to why a supposedly "economic mind giant" such as Mr. Brown had allowed, indeed, schemed behind the scenes, for this to happen, I do prefer to subscribe to Hanlon's Razor ("Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity.")

So, there you have it: many people in the Government and Treasury (chief among them Mr. Brown and Mr. Darling the puppet-Chancellor) all presumably from privileged background, all having received expensive (most likely, private) education, attended elite universities, etc. and yet all behaving incredibly stupidly.

I cannot think of any better proof of intelligence being a congenital trait, one which, alas, this Government is sadly almost totally bereft of.

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Friday, November 06, 2009

Never forget the Third (Golden) Law

Figure 1

After posting the last entry, I found myself reading Prof. Cipolla's delightful essay on the Laws of Stupidity.
It seems clear to me that the episode I described below can be fully explained by the Third law.

No matter how many times I read it, it never fails to hit me with Prof. Cipolla's wisdom, God rest him in peace.

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Daft stats

I have stated in the past that incompetence does not confine itself to the Public Sector; it lives happily in private companies, particularly large ones; and it would appear that HR is a preferred abode of it.

Please allow me to explain.

Most organisations recruit people because of specialist skills: mine, for example, prides itself in recruiting "the best and brightest" in the field of software development and ruthlessly select on entry. 
Subsequently, employees progress in their career (or not) on the basis of their skills and abilities that, increasingly these days, means an ability to effectively deal with information and data, and typically (certainly in our company) in very large volumes.

This means that, on average, our staff is highly numerate, with a computer or scientific background and a keen grasp of statistics; and we are not talking the sort that helps you figure your chances of drawing an ace from a deck of cards, we're talking multi-variate statistics, clustering and inference.

Not so HR -- after all, they need to possess so-called "soft" skills, "people management" abilities; the sort, you understand, that cannot really be assessed by asking a question of the sort that has a "right"/"wrong" answer; and, similarly, their career progression cannot be assessed really by whether what they did crashed the data center, or achieved massive economies of scale.

The result is that you end up with, for the most part, with Humanities graduates, who have, at best, a very basic understanding of primary-school level arithmetic, usually rather pretty girls with more legs than brain (if the above, or the following, sounds sexist and is offensive to you, then I'm pleased: it is meant to).

Take for example, a recent decision to terminate a sabbatical program that entitled workers with a few years' tenure to take a couple of months' unpaid leave, without losing access to benefits and options vesting: nothing earth-shattering, a nice little perk that was meant to allow people to "recharge batteries" before coming back for a new sprint.

Now, in these days of mass redundancies, foreclosures and people taking their lives because of stress at work (granted, they're French: they find stressful working more than 35 hours and not having Bordeaux to wash their two-hour lunch) complaining about that perk being taken away sound at best insensitive, and at worst churlish.

However, I found rather hilarious the rationale that was given for the decision: they looked at the data, analysed it, and spent a great deal of time debating it; then decided to terminate the programme, because they found that "more than 50% of those who were taking the sabbatical, would subsequently leave the company."

Which, to me, is the perfect example of inverse-causation: in other words, having forgotten that you are analysing data for a biased sample, you reverse the cause with the effect.

I considered suggesting in jest that, based on my "detailed statistical analys of a random sample of leavers," I'd discovered that 100% of them were observed taking a monthly paycheck, so they ought to take that one perk away too.
But then I thought of those leggy HR colleagues, and desisted: one never knows, they may actually think it's great advice based on solid statistical analysis.

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Sunday, November 01, 2009

Shoot the Messenger

You must love this Government....

So, they realised that to give themselves some sort of credibility, when dealing with matters of which the politicians know close to nothing (which is to say, 99% of reality) they need "scientific advisors."

The approach would also be rather agreeable: politicians decide on general policy approach, based on the real or perceived mandate they have received from voters, supposedly on the basis of their election manifesto(*), and scientists provide expert advice to support those decisions and, ideally avoid bad ones.

Sadly, Labour does not quite like scientific advice (and reality, in general) when it conflicts with their grand ideals and principles.

Take drugs, for example.

I have never taken drugs, so I will admit I am not best placed to judge, and I have never smoked either: I do drink, but only moderately, so can't really say I'm well place to judge on the relative merits or ills of any of those endeavours: however, I've seen plenty of my friends smoking pot in the good old days of college, and not one of them came even close to what you routinely see outside pubs and bars at weekends.

And, I do remember what my dad's healt looked like before he quit smoking (more than 30 years ago: today a springly 70-year-old, he's easier to find on a tennis court thrashing youngsters, than reclining and wheezing on a chair...).

So, on the basis of very limited observations, I would say that cannabis and other similarly 'light' drugs are not worse, and possibly better, than "booze and fags," the daily diet of our working classes.

Still, I would rather abstain from making judgments, and would turn to the "experts" to see which is worse, possibly on the based on "double-blind" studies, mass epidemiological and clinical data and whatever else the scientific community can come up with.

Not Labour.

Here's how it works in Brown's La-la-land: drugs are Evil, booze is not so good, but still Ok (he's a Scot, after all...) and fags, lest we forget, bring a neat dollop of cash to the Treasury these days.... so:

  1. ask for Scientific Advice;
  2. receive Scientific Advice - decide you don't quite like it (reality intrudes on your good story);
  3. decide that phony, unreliable Scientific Advice (cannabis produces depression and schizophrenia) is more to your liking (I'd argue that, if one does make use of cannabis, he's got already some "issues" to deal with; so, at best, the sample is biased and research is tainted, but let's not start splitting hair);
  4. reject the Scientific Advice you don't like (but that you did ask for in the first place) and instead publish a policy that punches common sense right on the nose (cannabis is now as dangerous as heroin) to the obvious dismay of all those (very few, I'd say) who still do value common sense (but to the obvious delight of drug traffickers, who see their profits leap up all of a sudden);
  5. when the Scientific Advisor (who turns out to be a good guy, and nowhere near as bent and ready to be your puppet as you'd have reasonably expected him to be) dares to vent his frustration at this "rape of common sense", sack him: who needs scientists, when we have our morals and religion to guide us?
There you are: PM Brown at his finest.

(*) the fact that Election Manifestos are not worth even the (glossy) paper they're written onto has finally been made plain by Labour: who can forget that two pillars of Labour's election pledge where (a) a Referendum on the Lisbon Treaty and (b) not to raise taxes.
There you go...

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