Articles to 2020-06-11

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Every time the wise, omniscient psychologists find us ordinary common folks acting paradoxically and try to help us mend our uneducated ways, a great deal of skepticism is in order. Bai et al. find a small decrease in the strength of racial and ethnical preconceptions with rising exposure, explaining of small fraction of the observed variation, and consider that paradoxical.

In the medical sciences tiny correlations with, considering the wide variety among patients, essentially no predictive value are published as important results if only statistically significant. Prejudices have long been shown to be grounded in fact if highly overblown. Austrian regions generally parodied as utterly stupid have shown a slightly lower average intelligence among army recruits than others. If you have to decide on anything, then lacking any other, more reliable data acting in accordance to prejudice will give you a tiny advantage over chance. Casinos thrive by staying a tiny fraction above even. (In Roulette they win by paying out 36 times the stake not every 36th bit every 37th time.) An employer with 100 applicants for a single job has no alternative but to discriminate against 99 of them by not giving it to them. If there is just a single blonde among them, then following an unfair heuristic will not hurt him much. If however half the applicants are blondes with, of necessity, huge internal variety and possibly a brilliant candidate among them, he will certainly lose by dismissing them out of hand. And just this is what Bai et al. found and I fail to see any paradox whatsoever.

But mostly the investigators turn out to be extremely one-eyed and prejudiced themselves. They begin their study by correctly reiterating most of what is known about in-groups and out-groups and their social dynamic. They then proceed by being unable to conceive of more than just one single way of defining an in-group. The house I've recently moved to is ethnically very diverse but each and every one of us here is a homeowner, which, in Germany, is quite rare. I contend that in all aspects that count, we are far more homogenous than for example the group of all ethnically Germans in this city. A southern Chinese school class will all have the same hair colour and any child with another will stand out. In most European and North American classes, even the most segregated ones, hair colour and physiognomies will vary widely. Does that make them any less homogenous and less prone to strict in-group preconceptions? Ask silly questions based on utterly untenable assumptions and you will get meaningless results. This study is a case in point.


Baumann et al. is another variation on the same theme. First let's accept the undisputable facts. A) people did not decide optimally in the circumstances given and b) people were told all the facts and, in principle and assuming sufficient mathematical training, could have sat down, worked out the optimal strategy, and followed that. There were no unexpected surprises here. So people are stupid and consistently make the wrong decisions, right? They do here.

Now let's take a closer look at the main features of this highly artificial laboratory setup. A) there is a fixed number of choices known beforehand and b) the last choice in the sequence has to be accepted regardless. Compared to real life situations both are obvious nonsense. The number of eligible women a man meets in his lifetime prepared to marry him varies wildly and starting out at sixteen or thereabouts none of us knows it beforehand. On average a slight underestimation and early choice will do less damage than an overestimation and losing out, so the “less than optimal” cutoff is fully explained. Secondly, do you really have to accept the last choice? A significant number of old bachelors, many work-years ending without all due vacation days having been taken, and people leaving a car park without having chosen a slot and either starting over or giving up and going home, prove the opposite. Now I'm not claiming here, that those old bachelors have made the best decision and would not possibly be better off having accepted or made one of the offers, I'm only saying the setup is unrealistic and does not represent real life. One can decide not to go to a concert after all, if one doesn't get a ticket for less than the maximum one is prepared to pay.

So, given artificial and unrealistic setups, that nature has not optimally equipped them for through millenia of adaptation, humans do make – for that situation – wrong and less than optimal choices and could do better. So yes, the psychologists are right after all,[1] we are stupid, and I was wrong to criticise them. Right?


The study by Garland et al. was very well received by German circles of political correctness, Bildblog and Netzpolitik . All it really shows is, that shouting down dissent by large numbers of organized sycophants works. There may well be more to it and the authors claim there is, but if so they failed to demonstrate it.


Moamen M. Elmassry looks at something I've frequently written about here – co-authorship – from another point of view. “I had no idea that a manuscript had even been submitted to a journal—but I answered his questions. Later, though, I got up the courage to drop by his office and find out whether I was listed as a co-author.” So he didn't know the manuscript even existed, much less its content, but still wanted to be listed as an author? What if its main arguments later turned out to be fraudulent? Would he be prepared to accept full responsibility as an author? Yes, he absolutely should have been acknowledged, that's what acknowledgements are for, but if he becomes an author for routine, if labourious, work he's specialised in, what about the laboratory assistant?

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If the authors' goal was to correctly model and predict the actual human decision precess, they were quite successful and do offer new and valuable insight. But this is not how their results are presented.     Zurück