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.

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].

The links of August

Like every blogger, I probably should start collecting links to interesting stuff. Posting them on FB is nice, but FB has a rather short half-life of content.

Science and semi-science

Financial Crisis of 2015: written in 2011.

Predictability of Android lock patterns: Not as secure as you’d imagine.

Sex and cognition: It’s complicated. Very, very complicated. Seems like jumping to any conclusion whatsoever would be wrong.


Sabaton – Poltava

“I love you” – “Shiny”: Princess Leia x Mal Reynolds

Random things

Tesla automated car charger: another toy for rich kids. (All other comments by me would reference a certain kind of animation.)

Antifragility: Nassim Taleb furiously promoting buzzwords.

Military spending is like Christmas: An interesting detail to the Silicon Valley story.

Your next gate of Hell

This post is motivated by a not very recent discovery of people who are propagating the cause of oppressed social groups. [0] I have stumbled upon some very dramatic (and in my opinion exaggerated) posts that have hit me in the general area of empathy and could be very roughly generalized as “everything is very bad”. Since my empathy actually exists, it was (and still is) somewhat emotionally straining to read all that. And the question that rises in my head is, then, what can I do? Because watching people suffer is worse if you have no idea how to stop that suffering.

At this point, I have installed in my mind a Great Divide [1], a non-Maxwellian demon, that tries to filter texts from the “everything is very bad” department into two categories: the ones that disclose what the authors actually want and everything else. To make clear what I say, let me provide an example. Suppose someone laments about lack of medical supplies in a given area. Then it is actually possible to say something like “Hey, I happen to have a car and some logistic capacities.” and actually do something. For contrast, suppose someone laments about how the evil NSA is spying on you and is manipulating your local politicians, hence DOOM DOOM SURVEILLANCE GRAVEYARD. Then it is actually impossible to ask anything. Obviously, the person does not want DOOM DOOM SURVEILLANCE GRAVEYARD and probably making the NSA go away would be a good beginning, but there is no possibility for this to happen. As you can not possibly solve the problem even in the tiniest way possible (other than ejecting yourself into some safe place where no bad things happen), this realization makes you feel bad.

The reason for the Great Divide is somewhat complex and requires further explanation. The first of the sub-reasons for me is actually very selfish: My personal willingness to deal with things I personally cannot change is limited. My personal willingness to hear lamentations about things that must be “dealt with somehow” is also limited. Most of all, my capacity for dealing with (mine and other people’s) emotions is finite, and currently rather full.

The second sub-reason is rather ad hominem [2]. People who regularly write dramatic posts of the “DOOM DOOM SURVEILLANCE GRAVEYARD” often promote themselves to online authority figures because they write about things that the general audience considers interesting and relevant (because conspiracies, Hidden Complex Plans and similar stuff are always interesting and relevant). This is a system with positive feedback; thus, the author who writes dramatic posts feels compelled to write more dramatic posts to gather more audience. Finally, this leads to induced stress on the side of the audience (which is an unforgivable sin already) and something my 4chan part of the brain would call “attention whoring”. My non-4chan part of the brain tend to call this “clickbait” or “commentbait”. Either way, if someone’s goals are more and more skewed towards gathering more attention, then, probably, this is a less trustworthy source of anything.

The third sub-reason is also a little ad hominem. Multiple lamentations on how something is very bad and how we are all going to die reveal that the author has no willingness to get rid of this something. Even more, since this kind of “socio-humanitarian thinking” comes at zero cost (plus or minus some efforts for rationalization), it is a reason to suspect that this certain someone is actually either rooting for the “other side” or generally unwilling to put any effort to change the current state of affairs, which is from the result-oriented point of view indistinguishable. Either way, this person has lost her personal conflict. Raising awareness by hysteria does not count; even if you are willing to protect your cause by lethal force, even then it is best to keep calm. And do whatever you consider right, actually protect your cause and not whine about it.

Hence, my rising suspicion against people who regularly write hysterical posts about every kind of conflict.

[0] If you think that I am talking about “social justice” and evading the term, then you might be surprised, there are more causes than social justice. I describe very general patterns; this is applicable also to some of the so-called “patriotic bloggers” and all conspiracy theorists without exception 😉

[1] I notice that I am inventing terms. Please tell me if you have a problem with that. Please notify me immediately if I start furiously promoting my freshly-invented terms.

[2] Ad hominems are, however, not all bad. Sources of information may be more or less trustworthy. A non-trustworthy source with strange objectives is cognitively not more useful than white noise.

Public discussions on the Internet

I generally try to avoid public discussions. There are some reasons (partly emotional), but there is one thing in public discussions that puts me off and makes me uncomfortable. In general, the point of a discussion should be, funny enough, to make a point, ideally in such a way that you both agree on some conclusion. In the best-effort case, which is the best you can hope for in most situations, at least the audience shall have the chance to understand the topic, its complexity and come to a conclusion (which may be “I am not qualified”, “Not enough data”, “X is the right way to do”).

However, in most public discussions this contradicts the goals of the participating parties. On the Internet, nobody knows you are a cat the audience is virtually infinite and this is something that makes discussions harder as they devolve into virtual dominance competitions, because the parties at some point (the bigger the audience, the sooner) decide that losing would mean actually taking reputation damage and losing face. No matter how often you say “This is not about dominance”, the results seem to be the same.

I fear, this is an inherent problem. Though, there are spaces where these effects are not observable, and in general, they are characterized with

  • limited number of benevolent participants
  • a more or less strict intolerance towards any kind of superiority attitudes

Is this the final solution of the shitstorm question? I don’t know.

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”

You are a monster

I have noticed a pattern in the media and I’d like to share it. Earlier, the simplest way to get an audience and sell your story was a sensation or a scandal. In the worst case, one could invent those. Now, it seems that we have arrived at a point where reader attention can be generated by a new kind of scandal: your own enragement about anything.

How does this work? First, you have to know that humans have no or little sense of scale. And negative things tend to influence humans more than positive. So, you find a cause that seems very important (say, THE CHILDREN) and find people who do (or can do) some atrocity that demeans THE CHILDREN. This obviously makes you rage (no, RAGE!!!111). But there is a problem: there are not that many people who terrorize children. So you’ll have to invent a story why this new car (and everyone who is driving it) is an enemy of THE CHILDREN. No problem with that: the car can be too noisy, too silent (the poor guy/gal won’t hear it coming), too big (POLLUTION!!11), too small (no kids can fit) etc. So, well, we should probably get rid of all drivers of this certain car model before they get rid of children.