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.


I had twice an opportunity to talk about responsibility and thigs related to it, and probably I should sum up not only my but also others’ thoughts on the topic.

The first, and foremost, requirement for responsibility is the possibility to consciously decide on an action. Not deciding is also a decision, but being unable to decide has nothing to do with responsibility. Hence, learning responsible beahvior cannot be done by passively observing other people, the actions of other people, or the results of actions of other people. This does not mean that you don’t have to observe; this means that you cannot be called a responsible person kust because you have visited a (generalized) museum, read some books, and know some more or less relevant facts.

It’s a little like math:  Responsibility is an ability. You are not a math graduate just because you can cite the Banach-Tarski result on cocktail parties. Instead, you are a math graduate because you know how to apply your knowledge to new problems. Applying the same reasoning to responsible behavior, we get that being responsible means having an idea what the results of your actions will be, making a choice that will benefit te people you care about, and not denying accountability.

One can see that in this reasoning, the group of beneficiaries is not clearly defined. Moral or economic imperatives may alter the definition of benefit. The core, however, stays the same: You have several options, you choose the Right Thing™, you accept the outcome.

To sum up, “let’s look at others’ experiences to learn responsible behavior” misses the point completely.

One decade of not learning

Today is a remarkable anniversary.

On October 9, 2006, a seismic event originating somewhere in the Korean peninsula exposed a lot of interesting facts about political, economical, and military experts. The event itself was quickly characterized as an explosion, and several explanations were proposed.

  • North Korea has tested a nuclear device
  • North Korea has ignited a large bomb
  • North Korea has tested a nuclear device yet it failed to ignite

The second two were by far the most popular, as it seemed to be unimaginable how these hungry, backwards, Juche-hailing and ideologically incompetent people could ever design such a technical masterpiece. Ten days later, United States have confirmed that the event originated from a 0.8-kiloton nuclear explosion. Ten years later, the public perception of North Korea is by and large still where it was back in 2006, one even films epic movies about that.

Now saying “confirmation bias” would be just saying a spell and hoping that this magically explains everything. I think this effect has more components to it.

First, it seems that historic scale is not very easy to get an accurate intuition for. For example, all the cool technical advances in air and space travel are not that recent: The first flight of the Concorde is closer to Wright brothers’ plane as to 2016. The first satellite has flown 60(!) years ago. From this point of view, it is not entirely unintuitive that even with a 40-year technological handicap, one should be capable of creating rockets and nuclear weapons. (Just to remind you, 1966 corresponds to Saturn V, XB-70 and SR-73) This makes possible developments to a matter of resources and engineering capabilities.

Second, there is a question of ideology and existing stereotypes. Clearly, North Korea is not a nice place to live in. Clearly, the state exerts a lot of pressure and control on an individual, far more than anyone would deem acceptable. But even if this has an influence on the competence of North Korean engineers (it obviously does), it remains somewhat questionable to flatly deny them engineering capabilities from 1960s. People get surprisingly agnostic when it comes to weapons.

Thirdly, there arises a question about the results. So, ten years have passed, and did the perception of North Korea change? Does not seem so. One can still make funny jokes about Dear Leader, failures in their space program, yet this does not change the facts. And the facts are that the guys are pretty close to intercontinental ballistic missiles. Probably now would be a good moment to take them seriously.

Fighting fire with metaphors

Today, I have seen yet another article about the Brave Individuals™ who fight the Islamic State, now, with videos on YouTube. I thought I have a problem with this, so let’s find out what the problem is. Finding out what disturbs you is done best by thinking loudly, and the modern era equivalent of this procedure is writing blog posts. Welcome again to “Dimitri ranting about newspapers”.

My first issue with this is the problem of audience. There is obviously a difference between a guy or gal who would think that it is a good idea to join the jihad and someone who would think that “Moderate or not – Allah will find his own” is a good joke. This is actually the general problem with politics, hurting people with different world views (which is not necessarily bad in itself) is a very different objective from actually making them think what you think, for the same reasons.

My second issue is the inadequacy of means. No matter how hard you fight effects (with propaganda, water, electricity, e-mail advertisements), you only can do so much with persuading people not joining some strange guys. If the aforementioned strange guys have money and obvious, measurable success, then they will attract people in any case (because there always are some strange people who are into that kind of entertainment). So solving a problem of a large, organized group of people successfully spreading violence and attracting more people is best solved by dismantling the organization with all the nice tools the last two centuries have to offer, including, but not limited to, intelligence, investigations, and, in some cases, violence. And this is, as the last two centuries teach us, only doable with another large organizations. (Which brings me to the lack of a comprehensive theory of organizations.) The times of individuals, singular actions, and the one weird trick are not the times we live in. Even the sniper, the modern army hero guy, is a very specific tool whom a lot of people have worked hard to educate, deploy, and extract.

The core of my problem seems to be that, again, people seem to think that memes can help you in all situations, and that really existing things magically fade away when you have convinced yourself they do not matter anymore. In lots of cases, this is true, but in an equal or larger lot of cases, it isn’t. It is especially and most dramatically not true when the thing in question is a person with a gun.

On Brexit

I started to think about current events, and, as it sometimes happens, I had more thoughts than I initially thought I have.
First and foremost, I am surprised. Very surprised. I went to sleep on Wednesday with a feeling that UK will vote “Remain” (not by a large margin). Last year, I was nearly brave enough to bet a bottle of whisky on it. (Hey, I would have made the same bet on Sunday!). I was wrong. However, as I do not have any responsibility (I’m not a famous expert, I have no obligations, my predictions have little, if any, influence), the sorrow of me being wrong is limited and I consider this an opportunity to update my mental model and ask questions.
Why did this happen? Obviously, more people were motivated by fear of THE IMMIGRANTS (double fun in a country with a rich colonial history) than those motivated by fear of losing economic ties. This alone tells us something about the vote, it was a vote against something, not for something. If a society votes out of fear for the lesser evil, this already is a rather unhealthy sign [CITATION NEEDED]. Even worse, this is something a political party can make advantage of by yelling “Vote or lose” without having to do anything.
Who motivated the “Leave” voters? There was a “Leave” campaign, led by non-marginal political elites. This indicates a controversy in the political class; even more, this indicates a lack of consensus on foreign policy, which is something that happened only rarely in the last 70+ years between the iron curtain and the Atlantic Ocean. It would be interesting to know the motives why a significant part of the political class decided that leaving the EU is more profitable; it would be even more iteresting to know what they know.
What has Cameron done? As I perceive that, Cameron (and his political surroundings) played the game of bluff with Brussels, and threatened to exit. As Brussels was not as prone to bluff as Cameron thought it was, he announced a referendum and suddenly other forces hijacked the issue. In football, this is something called an own goal.
Is democracy to blame? This is probably the most polarizing question, and some Germans are currently taking pride in the constitutional impossibility of referenda in Germany. As this is also a question that begs simple answers and mantras, I will try to highlight the sides of the issue as I see them. The good side of referenda is that you have direct influence on a decision. The bad side is that issues can be complicated and it is often hard to obtain information required to make a qualified decision. Especially if political campaigns work with memes instead of actual reasons (and they do). This means that we probably should do the scientific thing and consider previous work on the topic and empirical data. Empirical data suggests that referenda can be a working mode of operation if your country is at least well-connected. (Hello, Switzerland!) Empirical data does not suggest that it does not work in other conditions, although there are some indicators that not all issues should be decided by popular vote, such as death penalty (Gemany has had a popular majority for death penalty). This does not mean that popular votes are bad or that the voter is dumb; this just means that the public benefit is not the sum of individual benefits. IMO this also means that the questions decided by popular vote should be asked in a clear, understandable manner, and readiness of all political elites to take the decision as is and perform it; a referendum should not be the place of political fight.

Political movements suck

(Forgive me for lots of political posts, I am currently re-formulating my world view and this way, you are suffering the least. There are, however, emotionally demanding alternatives.)

For some time in the past, I had a grudge against political movements, but I could not pinpoint the reasons. As this state (“I don’t like it, but I have no idea, why”) did not really satisfy me, I tried to find reasons for this emotional condition.

The first reason is buzzwords. Buzzwords are words or phrases that provoke an intuitive response without actual meaning. As examples, you can look at the party names (Christian Democratic Union, doesn’t this sound nice? No goals, but this warm fuzzy feeling of being in the good old days), stuff any “political scientist” says, and even sometimes in whitepapers (will a double-blind test distinguish between Net platform neutrality and Ultra-Hardcore?). Buzzwords are bad, m-kay? No clear goals means no clear proposals means no clear requirements means no responsibility.

The second reason is something I call topic clustering. Since I don’t want it to become yet another buzzword, I’ll define it: topic clustering means that a voter chooses not between individual problems he’d like to have solved in a preferred order (with given solution methods), but between clusters of problems, represented by political movements or candidates. This profits the political movements, but not the individual voter. In the extreme case, the society will shape itself after the political spectrum with predefined thought patterns for the individual (What political cocktail do you prefer? Wait, do you want to mix it itself? That’s not available, sorry). For example, suppose you like (completely at random) science and technology, social progress (as in, worker rights, equality and stuff), and, let’s say, nuclear power since you are strongly convinced that this is a consistent, non-contradictory set of beliefs. It turns out that there is no party with completely the same goals, which is not a problem in itself, but makes you choose what goals you prefer. Fractional voting is not a thing, hence, you have to decide what part of that cocktail is really important and what is not.

Topic clustering leads also to the third unfavorable phenomenon, which I dislike most. Political movements are groups of people. Groups of people tend to work on a friend-or-foe basis, which is sometimes okay, except when it isn’t. I have had a feeling (and it becomes stronger and forms a suspicion) that as a member of a social circle you are somewhat pressured to subscribe to the complete cluster of topics formed by some movement, as political groups are, by definition, the subjects that also define the ideological agenda. This pressure is not a bad thing in itself, but it forms patterns of thought that lead to pigeonholing people. And pigeonholing leads you to believe that there are only finitely many (fingers-on-one-hand many) types of people, which mostly reduces to two kinds: the nice, smart, ones that share 99% of your ideas and the ugly, dumb ones. Which is, at least, insulting to the variety of experiences. However, the real problem is the pressure to run with the party line, which happens whenever the cluster of goals turns out to be not entirely conflict-free. In that case, some goal is decided to be the politically nicer one, which is an arbitrary, political decision that is done to attract popular support. I won’t give you extremely recent, wild examples, but consider the Alan Turing trial. Then, a political decision has been made to persecute Turing, because at that point, it was the status quo that a homosexual person was a liability to the state, disregarding any previous accomplishments, which were pretty recent back then. A more recent example involves the civil war in Lybia, where several political entities pursued the noble goal of supporting their side and immediately forgetting about the consequences instead of the less symbol-laden policy of decreasing entropy. Now, Lybia is a clusterfuck. Systems have failed, people have died and will die, but as this does not happen in the press, the situation seems not to be something to worry about; otherwise, one would defend the wrong side. This kind of thinking makes me actually cringe and think that if the people/political culture actually endorsing this way of thought will medially lose to cat gifs, I won’t exactly mourn.

See also [1], [2].

Identities and stuff

I have recently thought and talked about the concept of identity (or identities), and, while what I’m going to write is probably neither new nor unexpected, I’d like to write it down to at least laugh about it in a year or so.

So, basically, by “identity” or “identifying” with a group people mean that somebody belongs to a certain group. But how do you decide this? As with nearly everything, it seems that there are two (mainstream) radical opinions on this matter and one is compelled to align somewhere in the (suggested) spectrum. Continue reading “Identities and stuff”

On the correct usage of pronouns

There is one pronoun I dislike. It is “we”. For reasons, consider the following text snippet.

“We live in an era of technocrats. The more we know, the less we understand. Cold numbers replaced emotions, we struggle to keep what defines us as human in our hearts, for the future seems to optimize the humanity and our core values away.”

This text sounds Very Deep, and might have come from the quill of a famous philosopher, except that I have just written it down, being inspired by some more or less anonymous thinkers. So, what is wrong with this text?

The text is talking about “us”, which makes the author sound like he has Awakened from his fairy tale dream he has been sharing with everyone else, so, the “we” he is talking about seems to include just about everyone. This sounds and looks great, except for the fact that it is almost surely wrong. The usage of “us” presented here is actually an accusation, and, if the author was honest, he would replace it with a “you”. Because he is the Enlightened One. He has managed to understand the great self-deception (insert concrete instance of self-deception here) the society has lured itself into and he wants everyone else to withdraw the veil of ignorance. In the end, the text boils down to this: You are dumb. I was dumb too, but I am no more dumb. So, believe me, for I am Enlightened. But since social interaction does not work this way, the core message has to be covered under tons of fake self-humiliation.

The other problem with the text is that it is based on the false assumption that all people in a given society think sufficiently similar to buy into the stated premise. While this may be true for some very basic opinions (like, that being healthy is better than otherwise), the society allows for all kinds of thoughts running in the heads of its members, and generalizations over the contents of people’s heads are rather dangerous. They are even more dangerous if the target audience is non-homogenous by design, and someone might actually have the presence of mind to say “Well, that might apply to you, but not to me, I know more and am less confused than anytime before” and end this rhetoric insult.