Quantifying blame

You have probably heard the phrase “We are all to blame”.

I want now to argue that whoever says this is committing a fallacy, and for this, I have to build some argumentative infrastructure.

Some explanations first. I was motivated to write this piece after some politician has said somwhere online that “we are all to blame for [some unfortunate situation which is not really relevant to this piece]”. This has pressed my berserk buttons (all of them), and I had to think why I am so displeased with these words coming from this person. So, enjoy the results of my thoughts.

In today’s moral consensus (and my personal view), blame (and its less offensive sibling, responsibility) is a function of power. If you can change the situation, you are to blame. If you cannot, you are not. So far, so simple, and up to now, there is no contradiction to everyone being to blame for anything. However, the statement misses several issues.

First, what is the consequence? Usually, “we are all to blame” results in “you should pay and atone”, or just a deep-sounding “we should all atone”. However, other than sounding deep, these words do not really mean something material by themselves.

Second, what is the measure? The implied connotation is that everyone is equally to blame. And in the discussed cases, this is as much true as following “real possibility” from “nonzero probability”. In our world, the share of responsibility for any outcome is not equal. A politician has more power to change enviromental policies than a nurse, and a doctor has more power over a patient than a schoolchild 50 kilometers away, even taking into account that the schoolchild has the theoretical option to study medicine. But if no measure is supplied, the implied meaning is that everyone is equally responsible, by which no one is actually responsible.

What do we have in the end? I propose a heuristic: Everyone saying “We are all to blame” implies “we are all equally responsible” and tries hereby to scatter her share of responsibility. In the best case, this is a fallacy. In the worst case, this is an insult to reason and an attempt to evade judgment.

Lessons learned

I have been TAing the lectures “Computer Networks and Distributed Systems” and “Mathematics for CS students” for a term each and now I have gathered some experience with the exams. This is overall a very mixed experience.

Zeroth, most people do actually have some kind of understanding about the topics. But there is a long way from intuition towards understanding what is actually happening in the lecture and why it is happening the way it is happening. (Actually, this is a verification procedure for learning: If you know exactly what problems the lecture is solving and by what means, then you are most probably doing it right.)

First, some of the kids are pretty bad at reading and understanding. If the question is “What are the pros and cons of various methods of achieving X”, then the wrong approach is to tell me that a major downside is to implement X. Seriously? Let’s draw an analogy: A major disadvantage of owning a car is that you have to buy a car, and a major disadvantage of public transport is that you have to buy a ticket. Yeah, I’m not very impressed by this involved comparison, either.

Second, numbers and computation are a serious issue. This was evident in the networks exam, this is even more evident in the calculus exam, even if the students somehow managed to pass the initial “solve 50% of homework” filter. Integration seems to be like magic — sometimes it works, sometimes it does not, and most people seem to have no idea why. My hint “Solve 20 integrals and then you’ll know how” was not appreciated. In the networks exam, it was even worse, people failed at division of large numbers. (And it was awful to look at.)

Third, complex concepts are not easy to understand. (Captain Obvious reporting!) “This function is continuous and not continuous at the same time”, yeah, right. Sure, university lectures are not meant to be easy per se, but they are also not meant to be mandatory for everyone. And this is freshman material, not formal semantics from outer space. But this continues in the computer networks lecture, where some of the students write stuff like “Alice sends her private key to Bob”. If I were a columnist, I would write an awfully long lecture on how Facebook makes us disrespect privacy, but luckily I think that using “us” in the “us sinners” sense is a dirty rhetorical move, so I’ll just facepalm (or facedesk) one more time.

On the other hand, most people do seem to pass the exams, so it’s not all bad. But the aftertaste is pretty bitter.