The Elementary School Entrance Exam

* note: this is a longer version of the published article in Here Dongguan

China is obsessed with grueling entrance exams. They are promoted as a path to meritocracy by providing a level playing field, where everyone has the same opportunity. Exams can be taken too far, however, and a recent incident has created outrage, even for China. The most notorious one is the gaokao, or the college entrance exam. Before that, there is one to enter high school, and another one to get into middle school. The offending incident did not happen in any of these. It happened in an exam to get from kindergarten to elementary school, something intrinsically ridiculous yet sadly, is the least absurd part of the story.

The Chinese government officially forbids “written or academic exams” to enter elementary school. Unsurprisingly, that has never stopped schools from cleverly circumventing the rules. In early May, a few private elementary schools held entrance “interviews” for prospective students. It not only involved face-to-face interviews but also oral quizzes on Chinese, English, math, a talent demonstration, and a bewilderingly difficult test on a computer, which, technically, is not a “written” exam.

If one were to accept the very notion of an entrance exam for elementary school, which many Chinese parents begrudgingly do, then these are simply logical extremes of that concept, and not offensive in and of itself. What caused the outrage was not that the schools skirted the rules by de facto testing the kids, but by making an extraordinarily controversial move:

They tested the parents.

There gave parents logical puzzles like these to solve:

There were questionnaires asking not only about the education and socioeconomic background of the parents, but also the paternal and maternal grandparents:

A certain school asked the parents to write an 800-word essay on the spot about education, which is extreme but might be defendable. One school went overboard and reportedly didn’t accept the kids if the parents were fat, a practice with ugly implications:

These actions strongly suggest that they would base their acceptance not only on the child’s own ability, but also the predicted intellectual capacity, using the parents as a proxy. Most people, including many of you reading this, feel disgusted and outraged about this practice. There is something deeply unsettling about this, yet the exact reason is harder to articulate.

The most common objection is that it is unfair to judge anyone based on circumstances out of their control. This is ironic because consciously or not, we have no problem judging beggars, criminals, poorly behaved children, celebrities, potential mates, and others all day long, based on limited information and a simplistic narrative. We talk the talk unabashedly, yet few of us actually walk the walk.

All but the most naïve of us realize that given the same qualifications, people with certain traits will be favored. Right or wrong, it’s reality. Interviews serve more than to understand the person; it also serves to confirm and strengthen our biases, whether we care to admit it or not. Yet when someone else discriminates, we pretend to be shocked. Disagree?

Allow me to ask a simple question then: Even if these schools did not openly test the parents, does anybody honestly believe that they would not discriminate behind closed doors? It seems that their crime is quantifying what is socially taboo, and discriminating openly instead of covertly. It is not fair, but not substantially different than anything else in life. Cynical? Yes, but largely accurate.

I think the reason we feel such swift and intense disgust is far more complicated and subtle. We all have skeletons in our closets, and deep down we all feel inferior and insecure in one way or another. It’s part of the human condition. The reason we are offended is that by testing the parents and asking unsavory questions, the schools are exposing our skeletons, laying bare the insecurities that we hold dear and close to our hearts.

Growing up we are taught that we can be the next Michael Jordan or Stephen Hawking, if only we worked hard enough. As we approach adulthood, we realize that simply isn’t the case. Given sufficient effort we can achieve competence, proficiency, and maybe expertise – but rarely greatness. You can’t will yourself to be 6’8”, no matter how hard you try. We mentally file it away with Santa Claus, and keep this depressing thought private, because it’s socially unacceptable to point out that the Emperor is naked. Ironically, we tell our kids the very same lie that once inspired us. And there it is – we are offended because the school is exposing our lie, brutally imposing the unsavory realities of adulthood onto kindergartners, and stripping them of whatever innocence remains.

It tells the rejected children that they are not only not good enough, but that they do not even have the capacity to be good enough. It finds them wanting instead of wanted, and implies that they are not merely incompatible, but defective. It is both humiliating and devastating, similar to what a heartbroken lover experiences – the agonizing realization that one can never be good enough. We resent that this undoubtedly adult emotion is unnecessarily and prematurely forced upon a child; but more than that, because it is ruthlessly honest, and even we, as grownups, are not adult enough to handle that kind of honesty, much less our children.

Aside from being ethically questionable, there are more rational reasons to reject this practice, even if it is legally permissible (they are for-profit private schools after all). The utility of an exam is only as good as its predictive value of future success, and it remains highly debatable if these exams are useful in that sense. Whatever limited insight one might glean from looking at parents’ traits, if any, seems far outweighed by the divisive and bigoted attitude it promotes. The message it sends to our children is reductionist and Darwinian, and is antithetical to the very purpose of education.

In Asia, schools are ranked solely by their graduating students’ test scores. However, as school ranking becomes the ultimate end of education rather than preparing students for life in the real world, choosing students become like picking race horses; the student is neither the customer nor the product, but a substrate – breathing meat that deliver scores. Our increasingly global and diverse society requires a far more nuanced approach to education, rather than this demeaning and myopic treatment of our kids – the very kids who will shape our world to come, guided by the values we instill in them. If we start with dehumanization and bigotry, then it’s unreasonable to expect a diverse and compassionate world to come. We may not deserve it, but we owe it to the next generation to do better. After all, providing them with opportunities we may not have been afforded is what advances humanity as a whole, and if you look around, there is still a long way to go.

Baby Dialogue

There is an article floating around the internet, clearly meant to be a dialogue between theists and non-theists. Normally I don’t bother with such laughably low hanging fruit, but I’m in the mood today so what the heck. Here it is:

In a mother’s womb were two babies. One asked the other: “Do you believe in life after delivery?” The other replied, “Why, of course. There has to be something after delivery. Maybe we are here to prepare ourselves for what we will be later.” “Nonsense” said the first. “There is no life after delivery. What kind of life would that be?” The second said, “I don’t know, but there will be more light than here. Maybe we will walk with our legs and eat from our mouths. Maybe we will have other senses that we can’t understand now.”

The first replied, “That is absurd. Walking is impossible. And eating with our mouths? Ridiculous! The umbilical cord supplies nutrition and everything we need. But the umbilical cord is so short. Life after delivery is to be logically excluded.”

The second insisted, “Well I think there is something and maybe it’s different than it is here. Maybe we won’t need this physical cord anymore.”

The first replied, “Nonsense. And moreover if there is life, then why has no one has ever come back from there? Delivery is the end of life, and in the after-delivery there is nothing but darkness and silence and oblivion. It takes us nowhere.”

“Well, I don’t know,” said the second, “but certainly we will meet Mother and she will take care of us.”

The first replied “Mother? You actually believe in Mother? That’s laughable. If Mother exists then where is She now?”

The second said, “She is all around us. We are surrounded by her. We are of Her. It is in Her that we live. Without Her this world would not and could not exist.”

Said the first: “Well I don’t see Her, so it is only logical that She doesn’t exist.”

To which the second replied, “Sometimes, when you’re in silence and you focus and you really listen, you can perceive Her presence, and you can hear Her loving voice, calling down from above.”

– Útmutató a Léleknek

First of all, let’s examine the premises. The use of “babies” and “Mother” (capitalized nonetheless), is already committing the logical fallacy of “begging the question”. This is similar to asking “have you stopped beating your wife?” in court; a telltale sign of intellectual dishonesty, incompetence, or both. Instead of ruling it inadmissible (as we should), let’s see if any other arguments are presented worth examining.

Assume for the purpose of our discussion, that the “babies” have sensory input, can reason, and communicate. The first baby purportedly says that walking and eating is impossible, and the umbilical cord is the only means of sustenance, without elaborating why. This is clearly a “Strawman” fallacy, stating a position that no reasonable person believes in, simply so it can be struck down.

In reality, this reflects that the author has not made any attempt to understand the other side’s actual positions and arguments. For example, a reasonable response would be, “We clearly have underdeveloped legs and mouths. They could conceivably develop into something that benefit us in ways we do not currently understand. Although we are currently fed only through an umbilical cord, there is no reason to believe that there are no alternative methods of receiving nutrition, despite not having seen one.” Of course that is more difficult to argue against; the other version is much better to mentally fap to.

The following lines of non-sequitur reasoning really made me laugh:

“But the umbilical cord is so short. Life after delivery is to be logically excluded.”

“Well I don’t see Her, so it is only logical that She doesn’t exist.”

Really? I don’t see a lot of things, but I don’t logically exclude them from existence. Neither does any reasonably intelligent person, theist or not. The inability to imagine something, such as alternative ways to eat, does not “logically exclude” those possibilities. Rather than make a valid point, it showcases the author’s comically naïve, binary thinking and lack of basic logic skills.

The first replied, “Nonsense. And moreover if there is life, then why has no one has ever come back from there? Delivery is the end of life, and in the after-delivery there is nothing but darkness and silence and oblivion. It takes us nowhere.”

More nonsense on display.  Imagine people in a prison cell. Some leave and never return.  Maybe they were all shot and killed.  Maybe they all lived happily ever after.  Maybe some shot and killed the others, and lived happily ever after.  Who knows. Yet following the author’s logic, it is the “end of life” simply because “no one has ever come back”.

It’s comical and tragic at the same time.  It’s like being given the deck to stack in your favor, giving yourself the best cards and your opponents the worst, playing the cards for your opponents, and still losing the game.

See, arguing is easy when you can frame the debate, make sloppy arguments, dream up crazy positions to knock down, be intellectually dishonest, and not care about making sense.

Pope Endorsing Violence?

First, I agree with Pope Francis on many things he says and does (unlike his predecessor), and the direction in which he is taking the church. However, he has expressed an opinion that I strongly disagree with, and think is inappropriate for someone in his position. According to this report:

Gesturing towards Alberto Gasparri, a Vatican official who was next to him on board the plane, he said: “If my good friend Dr Gasparri says a curse word against my mother, he can expect a punch on the nose”.

Throwing a pretend punch, the Pope said: “It’s normal. You cannot provoke. You cannot insult the faith of others.

Really?

To a layperson, it seems that he is saying that if Face-Punch-4e0e4c3b2acd1_hiressomeone insulted his mother, he would punch him in the nose. That sounds like the Pope is endorsing violence against one who is not violent, simply because his feelings were hurt. Perhaps recognizing this misstep, the Vatican spokesman tried to do damage control:

Obviously he wasn’t justifying violence. He spoke about a spontaneous reaction that you can have when you feel profoundly offended. In this sense, your right to be respected has been put in question.

Ah, the good old “figurative”, “that’s not what he meant despite what he said” defense.

And Rev. Robert Gahl tries to further weasel out by saying,

Francis didn’t say that HE would have punched his friend for insulting his mother. He said his friend could expect to be punched, given that he should know that he had crossed a moral line in lobbing the insult and should be more careful and courteous in not causing offense.

Let’s see if this makes any sense by taking the holiness out. Imagine a drug lord telling an associate, “if dat punk ever *expletive, present participle* comes into mah territory again, he can expect a bullet through his *expletive, present participle* head”, while simultaneously making a gun gesture with his hand, pressing it against someone’s forehead, and fake-pulling the trigger. The intention of the drug lord – violence – seems more than clear, and the method – perforation of bone and thinking organ with metal pellet – is not ambiguous. Whether he does it personally or not, one can reasonably conclude: the drug lord does not merely passively condone, but actively endorses the threat of violence, and is ready to act if needed.

The example clearly shows that the Vatican spokesman was correct. The Pope obviously wasn’t justifying violence. He was ENDORSING violence. Ideas should be judged on merit alone; the person who expresses them should be irrelevant. Even if you are the Pope.

The line of argument taken by the Vatican spokesman and Rev. Gahl reminds me of the former President Clinton and Ms. Lewinsky case. Mr. Clinton narrowly avoided successful impeachment and perjury, by exploiting the incompetence of the prosecutor and creative but tortuous logic. He questioned the meaning of “is”, and came to the conclusion that even though Ms. Lewinsky was fellating him, she had sexual relations with him, but not vice versa! According to the declaratory definition, maybe. That’s getting off on a technicality, a distinction without a difference. For non-lawyers, think about how absurd that is for a moment. If one is getting serviced orally and concludes that he is not in a sexual relation, then what, exactly, is the nature of the act? For hygiene? For the taste?

Rev. Gahl argued that the Pope never said that HE would personally commit violence, despite the Pope himself gesturing with a flying fist to the victims nose. Technically he is correct. One is left to ponder, if not by the Pope himself, then by whom exactly? The Holy Secret Service? A Papal hitman? The Holy Mafia? None of these scenarios are any better than the Pope taking a swing himself. FacePunchOne often overlooked but exciting possibility is, perhaps the Pope’s mother, unhappy at being offended, flies from Argentina to find the person whom she likely does not know, and punches him in the face for an insult she did not hear. This would make the Pope merely unable to stop violence from happening, however if that is what the Pope meant, he needs to work on his communication. In any case, we are talking about a technicality. When others are trying to get you out of trouble, and the best they can do is rely on a technicality, you are on thin ice indeed. Especially if you are the Pope.

Contrary to what one might think, and as Dr. Pinker has shown in his highly recommended book, violence has greatly declined. Violence should rarely, if ever, be the response to non-violence in a civilized society. We have been moving in the right direction. We teach our children to “use words”, instead of fists, when they disagree. In a fight, we punish the one who threw the first punch. Disappointingly, this could be the Pope.

Freedom of speech is a basic human right, under Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the UN. Unless the speech present a “clear and present danger”, all forms of expression should be protected, as unsavory or hateful as they may be. The problem is not with expression itself. It is with those who resort to violence when confronted with ideas they find offending; and to a lesser extent, those who feel that this type of violence is justified.

 

Update: The Pope, perhaps realizing the problematic situation he has created, backtracked somewhat.

Fake Eggs

I rarely talk about anything personal on this blog; this will be an exception since I feel it is better told from a first person point of view. It combines poor storytelling with worse writing skills while diminishing neither.

I have lived in southern China since 2002. As a long time listener of the Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe, I was pleasantly surprised when Dr. Novella did a “Science or Fiction” on China. One of the unused questions was about the existence of a fake chicken egg industry in China, something I had heard countless reports about and taken for granted to be true.

In a later episode, I heard that Rebecca Watson was invited to Hong Kong and Dongguan by David Young to speak at Skeptics in the Pub.  Of all places, I thought, Dongguan, the manufacturing capital of the world – a place best described as “If they wanted to give the world an enema, this is where they would stick the tube”.  As a surprise, I decided to get some fake eggs and bring them to the Dongguan event.  I mean, where else would it be made?

I sent different people to various local markets to get fake eggs. Knowing that these are supposedly sold alongside or mixed in with real eggs, and not expecting truthful labeling, I asked them to buy the cheapest eggs possible, if all attempts fail.

In the end I was given a bag of eggs that were very cheap, and was told that they were “questionable” and “probably fake”. I examined them very carefully, and could not immediately tell which one/ones were fake. Well, when in doubt, Google (actually in China, Baidu). Bingo! Lots of search results showing how to distinguish fake eggs from real ones. They all say roughly the same:

  1. The fake shell is shinier, but not by much. (yeah, thanks a lot)
  2. The fake shell is slightly rougher. (uh huh)
  3. Noticeable sounds when shaken due to water seeping from coagulant. (testable!)
  4. A real egg will have a faint smell/stink. (subjective but testable!)
  5. A fake egg will have a duller sound when tapped lightly. (uh huh)
  6. The white and yolk of a fake egg will quickly mix together once cracked open, since they are made of the same material. (testable, but unsure why it wouldn’t mix in the shell)
  7. When pan-frying a fake egg, the yolk will break by itself because the artificial sac membrane can’t withstand the heat. (kinda testable)
  8. A fake egg has a rubbery mouthfeel when cooked. (subjective but testable)
  9. A real egg will have crack-like patterns when opened which disappear when cooked. (testable)
  10. A real egg’s yolk will be powdery when cooked, a fake egg’s will be rubbery (testable)
  11. A real egg will start to coagulate around 45 degrees Celsius, a fake egg will not when steamed. (questionable but testable)

Putting the eggs to the test without cooking, nothing was obviously wrong except for a few that had a noticeable sound when shaken. The shells did not feel, smell, or sound any different when tapped.

I decided to look at how fake eggs are made, and perhaps that would offer some insight on how to tell them apart. Thankfully there was no shortage of material online, such as this, this, and this. Apparently the yolk and white are made of the same material, with the yolk dyed. Strangely enough, no one shows how to make a seamless shell, which to me, seems like the most difficult part of the process.  I deal with molds on a daily basis, and making a shell without a parting line is not only difficult but expensive. I had always wondered how it was made, and this was disappointing.

I looked more closely at the material on hand, and it didn’t add up. Why would the white and yolk have different properties when cooked, if they are made of the same material? Why would the yolk and white mix when opened and not in the shell? Why does nobody show how the shell is made? And then it hit me. I had been searching for “how to tell a fake egg from a real one” and “how to make a fake egg”. Is it possible, that I had been begging the question all along?

Surely enough, after some further digging, it turns out that truth is stranger than fiction. The real scam, ironically, is that scam schools are scamming prospective scammers, by promising to teach them how to make something that can’t be done.  As I realized that, my eyes rolled back so far I saw my own amygdalae.  The entire fake egg story is nothing but a “Keyser Soze”, a myth sold on fear, a meme that fits the narrative. It exists right on the edge of plausibility, seemingly tangible but just out of reach. The existence of the scam schools further embellishes and lends credence to the story, even if those schools were simply exploiting the situation opportunistically.

There is a report of a government employee (ZHU, Bao Li) who wrote to then Premier Wen in 2008 about the fake eggs and receiving an official reply 5 months later, stating that an extensive investigation in Hunan, Shandong, and Guangdong provinces uncovered no fake eggs on the market. He subsequently posted an open reward of 1000 RMB for a verifiable fake egg in the local newspaper, which has gone unclaimed since April 2009. However, it should be taken into account that no reference links were provided despite the specific claims, and I was unable to find archived material. Anecdotally, I have not been able to find anyone in China, expat or local, who has personally seen and examined a fake chicken egg.

Many have pointed to abnormal/malformed eggs as proof of fake eggs. In fact, I had personally bitten into a strange yolk, and immediately jumped to that same conclusion. This article explains the different egg abnormalities, with links to actual scientific papers.

I had always told my friends about fake eggs in China, and made the observation that it probably originated as a dare or a challenge, since a lot of ingenuity is required to make a fake egg, not to mention profitably. After all, eggs are unbranded and generic, not exactly a favorite to be counterfeited. The local counterfeit industry typically targets:

  1. Name brand items with high added value, such as luxury watches, designer bags, and footwear.
  2. Unbranded items with high market value, such as gold plated lead ingots, shark fin, bird’s nest (swiftlet spit), and O. sinensis (fungus on mummified larva).
  3. Items that can be adulterated easily, such as adding melamine to diluted milk, injecting meat with water, mixing waste oil into cooking oil.
  4. Intellectual property, such as music, software, books.

This industry calls for a much higher profit margin, being illegal and all. All of the above involve very large profit margins. Would it make sense to counterfeit (not adulterate) a low value, generic item that is fragile, tricky to make, and difficult to transport? Let’s perform a quick reality check.

Local wholesale egg price is around 5 RMB/500g. A medium sized egg is around 50 g, or about 0.5 RMB/pc (about 8 cents/pc). Let’s disregard the widely quoted figure of 4x profit and use a conservative 2x profit, a dismal return for a slammer-worthy offense. That puts us at 4 cents wholesale, or about 3.5 cents ex-factory, per PIDOOMA estimate method. For a rough comparison, let’s look at prices of some similarly made components, at container-load export quantities, which should be far cheaper than wholesale. An artificially made egg should be close to the price of a jelly (which is what it is) plus a cheap shell, which is like a ping pong ball. A 16.5g jelly candy (5 ton minimum) costs at least 5 cents, and a hollow ball (10k minimum) costs at least 6 cents. This does not take into account the fact that one has to be encased in the other, seamlessly. Even if you take away the jelly packaging and flavoring costs, things do not look good. The component material price alone (11 cents) already exceeds the wholesale price (8 cents). Keep in mind, these prices are for factory level mass production; smaller operations likely lack the production efficiencies and raw material pricing advantages.

Another major cost is labor. Once I looked at the actual alleged production process, it was obvious that the daily production potential per person is optimistic bordering on delusive. The inner and outer sac membranes are tricky to make and labor intensive, taking up to a few minutes to form. Let’s say the scammer can put in 10 solid hours a day, or 600 minutes, with no breaks or mistakes. That’s at most 300 eggs, without any time to make the shell. Let’s assume the scammer is both talented and ambidextrous. That’s 600 eggs per talented ambidextrous scammer per day. Considering that normal, slammer-free work pays at least USD$16-20/day, labor cost per egg could easily constitute 4 cents. That’s before anything else is calculated such as rent, utilities, overhead, transportation, and raw material.

Technical problems notwithstanding, a simple look at the cost could have exposed the myth. However I had blindly accepted it as fact without examination, since it seemed to fit the narrative perfectly. I had wanted it to be true, and that was enough to obscure the warning flags. It is an example of how powerful our own biases can be, and despite wishful thinking, a humbling reminder of my own credulity.

Update (2015/02/25): Getting some heavy traffic from imgur today.  Here is additional information on the raw material cost for those interested:

From a weight perspective, 1,500 eggs would weigh around 90kg.  Let’s say it’s 90% water and 10% bought materials (reports of fake eggs being 99% water is BS; an egg shell easily comes in at 10+% of the weight).  Assuming free water and an impossible 100% manufacturing yield, that’s 9kg of purchased material, which according to the articles, allegedly costs around USD$2.25/kg.  Sodium Alginate itself costs over 3x than that, paraffin wax, calcium carbonate and gypsum powder can be close to that price, for industrial grade (not food grade) raw material, ex-works, in container loads.  i.e., even in factory quantities, the raw material costs far exceed what was stated in the articles.

Counterfeiters cannot be stopped by police; however they can be stopped by a lack of profit.  Given the methods and ingredients described, it is highly unlikely that anyone could produce counterfeit eggs at break-even, let alone at a profit margin enticingly enough to risk jail.

Roko's Basilisk

Warning: this post is laden with jargon.  Start with this story as a soft introduction to the convoluted way of thinking, then read this article to get up to speed.  Read this last.

A strange but fascinating thought experiment has emerged from the site Less Wrong some time ago, called the Roko’s Basilisk. David Auerbach called it the “Most Terrifying Thought Experiment of All Time” in Slate. In essence, it is a secular version of Pascal’s Wager, with a twist of “The Game” mixed in (for those that do not wish to be exposed to a mental virus, do NOT click on the link forThe Game”).

I will not repeat the article here, as David does a great job of explaining the thought experiment, along with some introductory concepts on Timeless Decision Theory and acausal trade (in narrative form here).  Apparently some Less Wrong users suffered enough mental anguish that it was banned outright by the site founder Elizier Yudkowsky, calling it an “infohazard”, an action he later regretted because of the Streisand Effect.

The main problem with Roko’s Basilisk, is that it seems to be specifically tailored for those who have adopted (and applied blindly) certain thinking tools. The foundation for these tools to work is built on layers upon layers of speculative, conjunctive reasoning. Jumping out of the system (JOOTSing per Dennet) and examining the premises, it becomes obvious that it is a shaky house of cards. Ironically, the inability to grasp the miniscule probability of these interdependent, chained assumptions, is an example of the scope insensitivity that Less Wrong strives to address, and is similar to Pascal’s Mugging. I prefer Alexander Kruel’s analysis (archived) to the one on Rationalwiki.

Kruel describes it quite nicely as follows (archived article is here):

A textbook example of what is wrong with New Rationalism is Roko’s basilisk. It relies on several speculative ideas, each of which is itself speculative. Below is an incomplete breakdown.

Initial hypothesis 1 (Level 1): The human brain can be efficiently emulated on a digital computer.

Initial hypothesis 2 (Level 1): There exists, or will exist, a superhuman intelligence.

Initial hypothesis 3 (Level 1): The expected utility hypothesis is correct. Humans either are, or should become expected utility maximizers. And it is practically feasible for humans to maximize expected utility.

Initial hypothesis 4 (Level 1): Humans should care about what happens to copies of them, even if it occurs in a time or universe totally disconnected from this one.

Dependent hypothesis 1 (Level 2): At least one superhuman intelligence will deduce and adopt timeless decision theory, or a similar decision theory.

Dependent hypothesis 2 (Level 3): Agents who are causally separated can cooperate by simulating each other (Acausal trade).

Dependent hypothesis 3 (Level 4): A human being can meaningfully model a superintelligence in their brain.

Dependent hypothesis 4 (Level 5): At least one superhuman intelligence will want to acausally trade with human beings.

Dependent hypothesis 5 (Level 6): At least one superhuman intelligence will be able to obtain a copy of you that is good enough to draw action relevant conclusions about acausal deals.

Dependent hypothesis 6 (Level 7): People will build an evil god-emperor because the evil god-emperor will punish anyone who doesn’t help build it, but only if they read this sentence (Roko’s basilisk).

Final hypothesis (Level 8): The expected disutility of level 8 is large enough that it is rational to avoid learning about Roko’s basilisk.

Note how all of the initial hypotheses, although accepted by New Rationalists, are somewhat speculative and not established facts. The initial hypotheses are however all valid. The problem starts when they begin making dependent hypotheses that rely on a number of unestablished initial hypotheses. The problem gets worse when the dependencies become even more fragile when further conclusions are drawn based on hypotheses that are already N levels removed from established facts. But the biggest problem is that eventually action relevant conclusions are drawn and acted upon.

The problem is that logical implications can reach out indefinitely. The problem is that humans are spectacularly bad at making such inferences. Which is why the amount of empirical evidence required to accept a belief should be proportional to its distance from established facts.

It is much more probable that we’re going make everything worse, or waste our time, than that we’re actually maximizing expected utility when trying to act based on conjunctive, non-evidence-backed speculations. Since such speculations are not only improbable, but very likely based on fallacious reasoning.

As computationally bounded agents we are forced to restrict ourselves to empirical evidence and falsifiable hypotheses. We need to discount certain obscure low probability hypotheses. Otherwise we will fall prey to our own shortcomings and inability to discern fantasy from reality.

Less Wrong seems to attract an audience who likely possess above average intelligence and reasoning abilities, as reflected in the comments on the site. It is a reminder of how intelligence does not preclude one from falling victim to mental traps, and the toughest trap to escape from is of the self-dug variety. And although more nuanced and subtle, the God like nature of the thought experiment suggests that the vestigial superstition can rear its ugly head, even in groups one would least expect.

Strangely enough, even though Roko’s Basilisk is expressly forbidden at Less Wrong, a similar version of this thought experiment popped up and was discussed extensively here. Suppose that someone developed extremely advanced artificial intelligence, and it is “locked in a box”, with you as the “gatekeeper” (details and protocol here). The AI and you converse through a text terminal only, and you can decide on your own free will, whether to let the AI out of the box and into the wild – the equivalent of opening Pandora’s Box. I admit that the AI makes a very compelling argument, if it ever comes to that point. It sounds like a solution in search of a problem, or a dilemma constructed for dilemma’s sake. I consider it the futurist’s version of the philosophical Giant Robot with a Swampman twist (Dennet, Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking); philosophically interesting but of limited use in real life.

Thinking tools and thought experiments are useful, but can go awry and taken too far if not applied carefully.  Knowing folk psychology (ToM) does not mean that it is a good idea to go full meta and negotiate with yourself.  Some common sense can often keep oneself from burrowing into a philosophical existential depression.  After all, our brains and cognitive capacity are limited (Bounded Rationality), and the mere ability to imagine something does not make it any closer to reality than science fiction.

Let's Break Homeostasis!

A common view on health, especially in Asian cultures, is that the root cause of maladies and diseases, especially cancer, is from an “acidic” body type, and that the key to good health and longevity is to achieve an “alkaline” body type through diet. This is often shared and spread on social media without second thought.

There are entire industries devoted to making products, such as alkaline water, based on this concept, along with countless internet memes and articles.

This view has been popularized by a Japanese doctor, who allegedly tested 100 cancer patients and found their blood to be acidic. The details are not known, however this sounds like a small retrospective cohort observational study. It is unclear if this study has been published in a peer-reviewed journal, or replicated independently, as I could not find it. Supposedly from this he infers causation and declares that an acidic body type is the root of all evil. Really? Assuming that his findings are true (doubtful for reasons to follow), an observational study by definition shows at most correlation. It cannot prove causation.

For example, say you look at a bunch of bad golfers, and you find that they share some common traits, such as poorly fitted, beginner clubs and a towel stuck in their back pockets. You look at the pro golfers and they all have pro clubs and no towels. It would be foolish to conclude that one is a poor golfer because of cheap clubs and tastelessly hanging towels, instead of other more plausible explanations such as luck, caddie, conspiracy, and minor details such as practice/skill level and hand-eye coordination.

OK, say the 100 known cancer patients all had acidic blood, and for some unknown reason were still alive. Since they were known cancer patients, most likely they were undergoing treatment (chemotherapy, radiation, etc.). It is possible that the acidic blood is a side effect from the therapy. It is also possible that the acidic blood was caused by the cancer, and not the other way around. Perhaps the instrumentation lacked calibration, or the author’s intentions were misaligned.

Let’s turn to an article oft attributed to and allegedly written by Dr. Kuo at the Veteran’s General Hospital in Taiwan. The claims are outlandish, but since it was reported by state run TV, it is likely that he actually did write this article. The claims are not automatically true because he is a medical doctor (argument from authority); nor are they automatically false because they do not fit my worldview. Each claim deserves to be looked at carefully and critically.

First the author commits the same logical fallacy about correlation and causation. Since this is the entire premise of the article, it should be dismissed. It’s like discussing the best strategy for surviving the zombie apocalypse.

The author claims specifically:

1. Acidic blood is the root of most diseases, based on information of unknown veracity and logical fallacy;

2. Clinical manifestations of acidic blood, without citation;

3. Four causes of acidic blood, without citation or reasoning;

4. Four categories of diseases causes by acidic blood, with no citation;

5. Six causes of acidic blood despite previously listing four;

6. Blood pH can be effectively influenced by food intake, with no citation;

7. People should attempt to increase blood pH level by eating specific foods;

8. Six categories of food from highly acidic to highly alkaline, without quantification;

9. Four types of people who are at higher risk;

10. Twenty three criteria to check if your blood is acidic (!) other than a pH test.

Let’s use the standard, universal definition of acidic being pH < 7.0 and alkaline being pH > 7.0. The central claim, of course, is that acidic blood is not healthy. Regular blood pH is between 7.38-7.42. Below 7.35, acidosis occurs, above 7.45, alkalosis occurs. To have acidic blood (pH <7.0) for an extended amount of time, would mean that your whole body acid-base buffer, i.e., homeostasis, is broken. It is technically true, however meaningless, that acidic blood is not healthy, since a termination event would likely occur quickly.

The truth is, everyone already has alkaline blood.

The clinical manifestations of acidic blood that the author states: “An acidic body type manifests itself in the following ways: dull complexion; athlete’s foot; lethargy; poor cardiovascular shape; obesity” are likely moot, as a dull complexion or fungal feet seem less important, especially when you are in a coma or dead.

To break acid-base homeostasis, it turns out, is not an easy task. One would think that bad things can happen if blood pH wanders outside of this very tight range; anybody that has taken chemistry knows that it doesn’t take much to alter pH levels. Wouldn’t it logically be easier to kill someone by injecting acid instead of, say, cyanide then? Actually, someone tried that. Enter Van Slyke and Cullen, who for some sadistic reason, injected a ridiculous amount of sulfuric acid directly into the bloodstream of a poor dog. The dog not only lived, but its blood pH level did not change by much. Presumably emboldened by this experiment, many others have proceeded to test the body’s acid-base buffer with a variety of acids and alkali, not only in dogs and cats, but in humans as well. All this happened in the early to mid 1900s, presumably before the time of IRB ethics reviews.  The body is really, really good at regulating blood pH levels.

It turns out, the easiest way to make your blood pH level higher, at least temporarily, is by hyperventilating. It is certainly more effective than the foods that the author claims, which are both inconsistent and have no prior plausibility. Whether you can keep hyperventilating constantly is a different story.

Out of curiosity, let’s look at some of the other claims.

Foods that are highly or moderately acidic: Egg yolk, cheese, white sugar, bread, tuna, chicken, cream, horse meat(!). I have strong doubts that these foods are in any way acidic, except for horse meat which I have not consumed, at least not knowingly. Even if you use the special pleading logical fallacy and say that these foods break down into something strongly acidic, it makes no sense because in order to do so, something strongly alkaline must be formed at the same time. It’s like pushing on the steering wheel to make the car go faster; it cancels out.

Foods that are highly or moderately alkaline: wine, grapes, egg whites, strawberry, carrots, lemons(!!!). Lemons are alkaline, so the author claims. Maybe that’s why I see all the heartburn sufferers instinctively reach for the lemon instead of the Tums at a frequency of well, exactly never. Perhaps the author really meant lemon-colored Tums; otherwise the thought that a scientifically trained medical doctor working in a top government hospital could believe that a lemon is alkaline would make me very, very depressed. And wary.

It is never made clear as to how these foods, when ingested in normal amounts can influence pH value of blood, after passing through your stomach, which is more acidic than Coke (pH 1.5~3), and then passing through your intestines, which is alkaline. Food is mostly digested and absorbed in the intestines, an alkaline environment.

How about some other claims. “Excessive intake of acidic foods result in acidic blood, which makes the blood sticky, causing poor circulation, cold hands and feet, stiff shoulder, and insomnia”. In other words, food affecting blood pH (not established with low prior plausibility) is further stretched to also increase viscosity of blood. Asserted as fact without citation or evidence, I did a quick search on the literature, and surprisingly did find a study from 2002 supporting the viscosity claim, but not the symptoms. No studies validated the premise of normal food intake having hemorheologic effects.

Let’s look at the 6 asserted reasons behind acidic blood:

1. Improper balance between acidic and alkaline foods.

2. Lack of exercise.

3. Psychological stress.

4. Acidic habits such as smoking and drinking.

5. Irregular daily routine.

6. Environmental pollution, especially water and air.

Let’s see….wine was touted as a highly alkaline food, but here it suddenly becomes acidic. I’m confused. Environmental pollution is a head scratcher, as the amount of ingested water necessary to influence homeostasis would probably be deadly on its own. And unless you’re living next to an active volcano, air affecting homeostasis is probably the least of your concern.

I am not saying that whatever the author is recommended is invalid. On the contrary, a lot of it is good, reasonable, common-sense advice on a healthy lifestyle. However, the pity is that a lot of this sound advice is given under the pretense of nonsensical, magical thinking. Sound advice should stand on its own, with evidence to back it up.

It is unnecessary to package it with misleading and factually incorrect medical conditions. An analogy can be made with say, murder. One should not murder, simply because it is morally unacceptable. Some claim that murder is unacceptable because a book from the bronze/iron age threatens that murderers will be tortured for an infinite duration, in a location with uncomfortably high temperature after death.  Convoluted, and simply unnecessary.

Professor and the Student

I’m sure many have seen the following article posted and reposted.

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Professor : You are a Christian, aren’t you, son ?
Student : Yes, sir.
Professor: So, you believe in GOD ?

Student : Absolutely, sir.
Professor : Is GOD good ?
Student : Sure.
Professor: Is GOD all powerful ?
Student : Yes.
Professor: My brother died of cancer even though he prayed to GOD to heal him. Most of us would attempt to help others who are ill. But GOD didn’t. How is this GOD good then? Hmm?
(Student was silent.)
Professor: You can’t answer, can you ? Let’s start again, young fella. Is GOD good?
Student : Yes.
Professor: Is satan good ?
Student : No.
Professor: Where does satan come from ?
Student : From … GOD …
Professor: That’s right. Tell me son, is there evil in this world?
Student : Yes.
Professor: Evil is everywhere, isn’t it ? And GOD did make everything. Correct?
Student : Yes.
Professor: So who created evil ?
(Student did not answer.)
Professor: Is there sickness? Immorality? Hatred? Ugliness? All these terrible things exist in the world, don’t they?
Student : Yes, sir.
Professor: So, who created them ?
(Student had no answer.)
Professor: Science says you have 5 Senses you use to identify and observe the world around you. Tell me, son, have you ever seen GOD?
Student : No, sir.
Professor: Tell us if you have ever heard your GOD?
Student : No , sir.
Professor: Have you ever felt your GOD, tasted your GOD, smelt your GOD? Have you ever had any sensory perception of GOD for that matter?
Student : No, sir. I’m afraid I haven’t.
Professor: Yet you still believe in Him?
Student : Yes.
Professor : According to Empirical, Testable, Demonstrable Protocol, Science says your GOD doesn’t exist. What do you say to that, son?
Student : Nothing. I only have my faith.
Professor: Yes, faith. And that is the problem Science has.
Student : Professor, is there such a thing as heat?
Professor: Yes.
Student : And is there such a thing as cold?
Professor: Yes.
Student : No, sir. There isn’t.
(The lecture theater became very quiet with this turn of events.)
Student : Sir, you can have lots of heat, even more heat, superheat, mega heat, white heat, a little heat or no heat. But we don’t have anything called cold. We can hit 458 degrees below zero which is no heat, but we can’t go any further after that. There is no such thing as cold. Cold is only a word we use to describe the absence of heat. We cannot measure cold. Heat is energy. Cold is not the opposite of heat, sir, just the absence of it.
(There was pin-drop silence in the lecture theater.)
Student : What about darkness, Professor? Is there such a thing as darkness?
Professor: Yes. What is night if there isn’t darkness?
Student : You’re wrong again, sir. Darkness is the absence of something. You can have low light, normal light, bright light, flashing light. But if you have no light constantly, you have nothing and its called darkness, isn’t it? In reality, darkness isn’t. If it is, well you would be able to make darkness darker, wouldn’t you?
Professor: So what is the point you are making, young man ?
Student : Sir, my point is your philosophical premise is flawed.
Professor: Flawed ? Can you explain how?
Student : Sir, you are working on the premise of duality. You argue there is life and then there is death, a good GOD and a bad GOD. You are viewing the concept of GOD as something finite, something we can measure. Sir, Science can’t even explain a thought. It uses electricity and magnetism, but has never seen, much less fully understood either one. To view death as the opposite of life is to be ignorant of the fact that death cannot exist as a substantive thing.
Death is not the opposite of life: just the absence of it. Now tell me, Professor, do you teach your students that they evolved from a monkey?
Professor: If you are referring to the natural evolutionary process, yes, of course, I do.
Student : Have you ever observed evolution with your own eyes, sir?
(The Professor shook his head with a smile, beginning to realize where the argument was going.)
Student : Since no one has ever observed the process of evolution at work and cannot even prove that this process is an on-going endeavor. Are you not teaching your opinion, sir? Are you not a scientist but a preacher?
(The class was in uproar.)
Student : Is there anyone in the class who has ever seen the Professor’s brain?
(The class broke out into laughter. )
Student : Is there anyone here who has ever heard the Professor’s brain, felt it, touched or smelt it? No one appears to have done so. So, according to the established Rules of Empirical, Stable, Demonstrable Protocol, Science says that you have no brain, sir. With all due respect, sir, how do we then trust your lectures, sir?
(The room was silent. The Professor stared at the student, his face unfathomable.)
Professor: I guess you’ll have to take them on faith, son.
Student : That is it sir … Exactly ! The link between man & GOD is FAITH. That is all that keeps things alive and moving.
P.S.
I believe you have enjoyed the conversation. And if so, you’ll probably want your friends / colleagues to enjoy the same, won’t you?
Forward this to increase their knowledge … or FAITH.
By the way, that student was EINSTEIN.
I hope you LEARN get additional KNOWLEDGE upon reading this STORY.
THANK YOU
LIKE & SHARE
REPOSTED by:
Creator: Prince Akhiro Sangukho

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First of all, this article is using a psychological trick called the framing effect.  The accompanying picture shows a roomful of young students with one raising his hand, against a background of a huge blackboard full of information, with a man standing in front of it, supposedly the teacher or professor.  The reader is primed to see the professor as an authoritative and presumably intellectually superior figure, with the student being the underdog.  The two sides are already on an unequal footing, which makes for a good story (David vs. Goliath) but is intellectually dishonest and misleading.  Ideas should stand and fall on their own merit – who or how it is delivered should not make a difference.

Specifically:

Professor: Science says you have 5 Senses you use to identify and observe the world around you.

The truth is that our senses only give us an approximation of reality, and is biased to what has evolutionarily been relevant to us.  Our brain constructs a scenario based upon biased input from the senses, often ignoring conflicting or dissonant information.  Relevant examples include optical illusions, inattentional blindness, etc.  Science actually tells us that our senses are fallible and unreliable, and the scientific method can minimize or eliminate observer’s bias.  The implication of the author is that science relies solely only on the 5 senses (untrue).  So, the statement implies that religion does not rely on the 5 senses alone.  And what would religion rely upon?  Superstition?  Telepathy?  Magic?  Literature from the Bronze Age?

Professor : According to Empirical, Testable, Demonstrable Protocol, Science says your GOD doesn’t exist. What do you say to that, son?

Science does not say that something does not exist simply because it is not empirical, testable, or demonstrable.  For example, as of today, we do not know that there is life outside of earth.  No evidence has emerged so far.  Yet no self respecting scientist will say that life outside of earth does not exist.  The default position of science is “we don’t know”.  To say that life exists outside of earth simply because there is no disproving evidence, is violating the null hypothesis, and a clear logical fallacy (ad ignorantiam).  Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof.  Absence of proof is not proof of absence; and certainly much less proof of existence.

Student : Since no one has ever observed the process of evolution at work and cannot even prove that this process is an on-going endeavor. Are you not teaching your opinion, sir? Are you not a scientist but a preacher?


An opinion carries far less weight when it is not supported by evidence.  Evolution is not an personal opinion, but a well-formed and widely accepted theory, which in particular does not require immediate direct personal observation.  The usefulness of a scientific theory lies in its usefulness in not only explaining past occurrences, but more importantly, generating testable and falsifiable predictions.  If the prediction turns out to be false, then the theory must be revisited and possibly rejected.  There is ample evidence of evolution from fossil records and DNA analysis, and the theory generates predictions such as the existence of intermediate fossils that can and have been found.  Intelligent Design is, to the extent of my knowledge, not falsifiable, adds no knowledge or understanding, produces no useful prediction, and thus does not qualify as a theory, much less a valid competing theory.

Contrary to what the story says, electricity and magnetism are well studied and understood.  But for a moment let’s suspend reality and say that scientists do not understand the ultimate nature of electricity or magnetism.  Through observation and experimentation, they still devise the laws and equations of the behavior, and formulate a theory and use this as the basis to make electrical circuits and motors successfully.  The theory still produces demonstrably useful results, as evidenced in the medium in which I am posting and you are reading.  A theory is useful because it explains how things work and predicts how things will work.  It is not necessary to know how an electron originated for the theory to be useful.  Not knowing the origin does not diminish its usefulness nor does it invalidate the theory, much less turn into an opinion that can be dismissed.  Not knowing everything is not the same as not knowing anything.  That is a false dichotomy.

Student : Is there anyone here who has ever heard the Professor’s brain, felt it, touched or smelt it? No one appears to have done so. So, according to the established Rules of Empirical, Stable, Demonstrable Protocol, Science says that you have no brain, sir. With all due respect, sir, how do we then trust your lectures, sir?


The premise is that something has to be tangible to the senses to exist.  It is true that it is possible that by some freak of nature that the professor has no brain.  However any sensible person would consider that as highly unlikely, since so far every professor that has existed has been shown to have a brain, post mortem or otherwise.  Additional evidence can be obtained from X-rays, CAT scans, or a variety of other methods.  Absence of immediate, tangible evidence is not proof of absolute absence of evidence.  For example, not having $10,000 in my pocket right now could be because that I do not have that much money, or that I have it but simply not in immediate possession.  It proves neither scenario.

The point about not trusting the lectures is spot on, but for the wrong reasons.  It is always healthy to question authority, be it a professor or other authority figure.  An argument should always stand on its own, not because someone simply says so, it is popular, or because it is “ancient wisdom” (argument from authority/ad populum/antiquity).

Professor: I guess you’ll have to take them on faith, son.
This sounds more like something said by a pastor, not a person of science.  It is rather unusual for a professor to call out a student for his religious beliefs, and even more unusual that he would address the student as “son”.

By the way, that student was EINSTEIN.

This has been shown to be false (see link).  First of all, Einstein, being Jewish, was not a Christian.  Secondly, this line of thinking is not consistent with Spinozism, the philosophy Einstein seemingly favors in his writings.

“Never let facts get in the way of a good story”.  If only it were a good story.

Politically incorrect

This post is very much politically incorrect, read at your own risk.  You were warned.

Four time gold medalist Michael Johnson is not afraid to speak his mind, with him being one of the few in the unique position to do so.  He is the self-proclaimed, unintended beneficiary of a past wrong.

He makes a hypothesis about slavery inadvertently creating better atheletes through selective pressure, which is a politically sensitive and polarizing statement to say the least.  There is some level of plausibility and evidence for the argument, such as:

  • Disproportionate ratio of African-American/Caribbean descendants at the top level of the game
  • Initial selective pressure prior to transportation
  • Ongoing selective pressure during enslavement
  • Alleged eugenics

There is also plenty of confounding factors and arguments against it (politically incorrect translation in parentheses):

  • Better overall training environment (Nikes on indoor, air conditioned PU track easier on the feet than running barefoot over egg sized gravel hot enough to fry  lizards)
  • Better participation and awareness (Going for the gold on an obstacle course actually means dodging bullets to steal gold from Kony)
  • Initial selective pressure not significant (Well they chose the better ones from the batch, but the really fast ones got away)
  • Ongoing selective pressure not significant nor long enough (Couple of hundred years is nothing)
  • Unusual specificity (What makes Caribbean/North American slaves better than Brazilian slaves?)

Just to list a few.

I predict that no one will touch this subject with a 10 foot pole.  Even if someone did spend the effort to seriously research this out of intellectual curiosity (which often is good enough), what would it accomplish?  If his views are found correct, it is not like we can start enslaving people of any race or subgroup again.  Either way it goes, there is little you can say to not offend.  “No pain, no gain” is an equally bad conclusion as “No harm done”.

Ilana Yurkiewicz has an eloquent blog post in a somewhat similar situation, regarding a controversial social study by Mark Regnerus.

Sometimes, it’s best to keep your mouth shut.  Just like in marriage.

Sob Stories

I recently came across a shared link on facebook.  It was one of those sob stories about redemption and forgiveness:

Chinese Link

http://www.facebook.com/note.php?note_id=164650366896247&id=160464047312677

English Link

http://novitakaseger.blogspot.com/2009/11/sang-pemerkosa-dan-pendonor-sumsum.html

Touching story complete with moral dilemmas, racial prejudices, rape, forgiveness, redemption, and emotional struggles.  There are dates, names, and even a picture.

The problem is, it never happened.  It’s completely dreamed up.

You see, for weathered, hardened, cynical, and skeptical souls like myself, bullshit detection is already deeply ingrained within.

There is no town called Wayeli in Italy.  In fact, there is no newspaper named “Italian Daily Post” that the ad was supposed to appear in.

In reality, it is unlikely that an employer, in Italy in 1993, instead of firing, would force an black employee to eat shards of a broken dish; that said employee would, instead of going to an ER for internal bleeding (and a lawyer), choose to participate in involuntary sexual activities that results in pregnancy; that said employee would intrinsically have Jean Valjean-like character and be willing to give up a good life and be condemned; that a hospital could discharge a bone marrow transplant patient in one week instead of the 4-8 weeks it normally takes.  The list goes on and on and on.

These are glaring errors that stand out like the Pope at a dildo convention.  Not that it matters; since when did reality get in the way of a good story?

Even if the author did do his/her homework and get the details correct, the thought process, behavior, and rationale described are so deviant from normal humans, that one can only conclude this happened in a parallel universe.

Emotional sob stories are like mental porn; a bit now and then is healthy but too much might make you lose touch with reality, because that’s not how real people act in the real world.  It’s like walking  into a school and expecting to start an orgy with a bunch of teen sluts because that was the title of the film last night.

I have nothing against stories, good or bad, real or fiction.  I do however, have a cow when fiction, especially insultingly bad fiction, is being advertised as true.  That’s as offensive as picking up a cow pie with a twig and telling me it’s a lollipop.