The Elementary School Entrance Exam

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

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 biggest one is the gaokao, or the college entrance exam. Before that, there is an exam to get into high school from middle school, and another one to get into middle school from elementary school. The offending incident did not happen in any of these, however. It happened in an exam to get from kindergarten to elementary school, something intrinsically ridiculous yet sadly, the least absurd part of the story.

To curtail the madness, the Chinese government officially forbids “written or academic exams” to enter elementary schools. 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? Let me 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. One day 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 brutally 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, we resent it because it is ruthlessly honest, and we, as grownups, are not adult enough to handle that kind of honesty, much less our children.

Having said that, I think that 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.

Our increasingly global and diverse society requires a far more nuanced approach to education. For the school, if the ultimate end is to boast about high test scores, then choosing students become like picking race horses; the student is neither the customer nor the product, but more like a substrate – breathing meat that helps deliver scores. There may be real market incentives for the school to do so, however this is myopic and demeaning to our kids. These very kids will shape our world to come, and they will be 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.

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.

Zipper Around the World

I make zippers for a living. Every few months we produce enough zipper to go around the world, which is 40,075.16 kilometers at the equator. Here is an interesting thought experiment.

One day I’m bored. I haul out 40,075,160 meters of zipper (over 700 tons) from the warehouse, and make a perfect, tight wrap around the equator. With a smile on my face, I inspect my earth-hugging masterpiece. To my dismay, I find that the zipper is on the ground and on the surface of the ocean, getting dirty and wet, which is obviously unacceptable. Being the fickle person I am, I decide to haul in more zipper from the warehouse, and magically raise the entire zipper loop one meter above ground level (and sea level). I call on you, the warehouse manager, to get more zipper to do it.

Here is the question: Based on your intuition, roughly how much more zipper will I need?  How many trucks will you need?

 

To help out, here is a quick guide:

1%: 400 kilometers (1 big truck)

10%: 4,000 kilometers (four 40′ shipping containers)

100%: 40,000 kilometers (uh, call for quote)

 

You have 10 seconds to make a guess. Ready?

The answer, surprisingly, is 6.28 meters, or 0.000016%. The additional zipper needed is proportional to the diameter increase (1 meter off the ground = 2 meter diameter increase). Specifically, you will need 2m * pi = 6.28 meters. As the warehouse manager, all you need is to reach in your pocket and pull out some extra zipper, no need for a truck after all.

The Mirror Illusion

The brain is a wonderful organ. It provides us with a mostly accurate representation of the world around us, by making approximations based on sensory input and past experience. This has been mostly sufficient for our ancestors and their environment in which our brains have evolved. There are many examples of how the brain can be fooled, ranging from optical illusions, stereoscopy, to multi-sensory illusions such as virtual hands, phantom acupuncture, and the famous McGurk ba-ga experiment. What I will discuss here is something fundamentally different, which is how your brain can fool you by how it constructs the reality you perceive; and in particular, how difficult it can be to perceive it differently, even if you know the bias.

Look inside a mirror. You will see an image of yourself with a lateral but not vertical inversion, i.e., the left/right seems swapped but not up/down. A watch on your left hand shows up on the image’s right hand, but a shoe does not show up on the image’s head.

Think about it for a minute. That makes absolutely no sense, as the mirror is a piece of reflective glass, and should not discriminate between left/right and up/down. Most people have not thought through this apparent paradox. If you have not, I encourage you to take some time to think about it, and you will find that all of the obvious explanations that come to mind are in fact, incorrect. When first presented with the problem, I found myself experimenting with a mirror, closing one eye, in various orientations, and imagining different scenarios without gravity, to no avail.

What makes this problem so difficult? Simply put, we are looking in the wrong places. We look in the wrong places because what the brain constructs (and what we perceive) feels so real, we take for granted that it is real, and automatically exclude it from closer examination.

The first, and rather difficult step, is to realize that the mirror doesn’t care about direction.  You care about direction, and it is your brain that comes up with the representation, not the mirror. To illustrate this, point to the right, and the image will point in the same direction. Point up, same thing. However, point towards the mirror, and the images points back at you, in the opposite direction. The key observation is that the mirror inverts not in the left/right or up/down, but the front/back direction.

The second step, is to realize what you are actually seeing in the mirror. Imagine a cone pointed towards a wall. As you push the cone into the wall, imagine a cone growing on the other side of the wall, growing as you push, in the opposite direction. You end up with a cone, pointing towards you, on the other side of the wall. Put a red dot on the left side of the cone and a blue dot on the right side of the cone, and do the same thing. An inverted cone emerges on the other side of the wall, with a red dot and a blue dot, on the same corresponding side. Now, imagine a human face being pushed through the wall nose first, just like the cone, with the colored dots as eyes. You end up with an image of a face on the other side, inverted. The left eye is still the left eye, just flipped inside out. Although convoluted and highly counterintuitive, it is the correct interpretation of the image in the mirror.

Still having problems visualizing it? Take a latex glove and put it on your right hand. Now, take off the glove by inverting it, so it is inside out. The inverted right-hand glove is the analog of the image in the mirror, even though it looks like a left-hand glove.

The question now becomes, why do we so instinctively see a person swapped in the left/right direction, to the point where you cannot help but see it that way? The reason, simply put, is that it requires the least work from the brain. The correct interpretation (inverting), requires an incredible amount of work, as evidenced by the effort it takes simply to imagine it. There is no existing brain circuitry to do an inversion, because there was no need to do so when the brain evolved. It is far easier for the brain to represent the image as “someone” facing you rather than an inverted meaningless image. The agent detection circuitry in your brain is where the problem is, not the mirror.

Once the brain treats it as a “person”, it needs to orient the “person” in space to make sense of it. There are two main ways to mentally turn objects around in space; around a vertical axis (turning around), or around a horizontal axis (think foosball). Technically speaking, both ways are equally valid (as are any diagonal axes). Our brain will use the existing evolved circuitry, which is to turn around the vertical axis and spin the “person” around to face you, for that is what it encounters day-to-day. Interestingly enough, if one were to mentally flip around the horizontal axis, foosball-style, one would see the image as up/down inverted but not left/right inverted, further proving that the mirror does not discriminate, and the problem arises from a hardwired preference in your brain.

This example shows that something seemingly so real and right, is no more than an erroneous representation concocted by the brain. The explanation is counterintuitive, but readily verifiable, and probably enough to change your mind. Of course, this is a trivial question with a not so trivial answer, with no vested interest or emotional investment.

It makes me wonder though. I feel quite confident and passionate about many issues, far more complicated and nuanced than a piece of reflective glass. How many of those could I be completely wrong about, simply because it “feels” right? How many wrong trees could I be barking up, blissfully ignorant of the squirrel squarely perched on my back?

I wonder.

 

Yearning for a Hero

Judgments are clouded by emotion, and nothing brings out emotion like a highly charged event:

On Feb 4, 2015, TransAsia flight 235 ran into trouble shortly after takeoff and plunged into a river, clipping a taxi and bridge in the process. 43 people perished and 15 survived.

In the immediate aftermath of a catastrophe, when emotions are in overdrive, it is human nature to look for anything to lessen the pain, to divert attention, to ameliorate the situation. And what could be better that the ultimate silver lining……a hero. After all, it changes the narrative from an outright tragedy into a tale of a hero fighting to the end.

With reckless abandon, the notoriously salacious Taiwan media pushed the hero angle. In the days following this tragedy, the media and general public praised the pilot for flying along the river, avoiding populated areas, and making it less tragic than it could have been. cuterIn news reports and social media, he was elevated to a saint, a hero, a god. The general public, eager to shift their focus, gobbled the narrative, hook, line, and sinker. Anyone even remotely questioning that status quickly experienced the viciousness that only online anonymity can engender.

Did the pilot really deserve to be called a hero? Let’s take a closer look.

The first point to examine is whether the pilot was at fault to any degree. If pilot error caused the flying tube to inadvertently engage a lakebed, it would take a Stockholm Syndrome-type of twisted logic to call the pilot a hero. It would be like calling a quarterback a hero because he recovered the ball that he fumbled, and caused his team to lose by 10 points instead of 14. By declaring the pilot a hero, however, Taiwan’s media practically precluded the possibility that he was at fault. Evidently, their favorite sport is jumping to conclusions.

The final investigation report is not published yet, but preliminary reports seem to indicate that the pilot might have turned off the wrong engine (apply palm to face). This two engine plane can fly on one engine, but definitely not with none. This is eerily reminiscent of the surgeon who amputated the wrong leg.

For argument’s sake, let’s assume the pilot had no fault whatsoever. The question is, were his actions so extraordinarily courageous and altruistic to qualify him as a hero? Did he go above and beyond what is normally expected or required, and significantly risking personal welfare for the benefit of others?

The pilot seems to have maintained composure in the face of mechanical problems, and flew the plane along a river to minimize collateral damage. Some argue, that alone qualifies him as a hero, as a normal person would not be able to. This is fallacious, as a pilot should not be compared to a layperson. By that logic, a doctor would be a hero for not fainting when he is elbow deep in a patient. And a similar logic applies to prostitutes.

Pilots are trained specifically to handle emergencies; to stay calm first, then aviate, navigate, and communicate. The bar is set high, and we rightfully expect our pilots to meet that standard. Choosing to fly along an open, flat area with emergency landing potential, for example a river, is also a basic part of pilot’s emergency training (see page 2 of this FAA emergency procedure manual). This is a no-brainer; any sane person would choose an open river over a highly populated concrete jungle, with or without pilot training. Calling the pilot a hero simply for not committing mass murder by purposely plunging into buildings, is like calling a bus driver a hero for pulling over rather than intentionally plowing into the opposing lane. It cheapens the word and renders it meaningless.

The last reason is a bit more subtle. In the “trolley problem” moral thought experiment, you see a runaway trolley barreling down the tracks. Tied to the end of the tracks are 5 people, certain to die if no action is taken. There is a lever that can cause the trolley to go down an alternate track, at the end of which lies one person. The moral dilemma is a difficult choice between causing 1 to die through action or 5 to die through inaction.

In this case, the pilot is the decision maker, but in a sad twist, also sitting in the metaphorical trolley. His own life is on the line, which muddies the line between self-preservation and altruism; he is not risking anything more than he already has. In poker, it would be called a freeroll, with everything to gain and nothing additional to lose. I suspect that every reasonable person would do the same out of altruism, if not self-preservation, with few notable exceptions.

To summarize, the pilot cannot be called a hero because:

  1. He was doing his job (nothing extraordinary)
  2. His life was on the line (self-preservation)
  3. He very possibly was significantly at fault (shut off wrong engine)

The love for heroes seems to be universal, as it appears in every culture, and can be explained by evolutionary psychology. Naturally, we yearn for heroes, often with grossly misguided approaches. Genuine altruism touches upon our innermost sense of morality, telling a narrative of fellow beings who voluntarily risk life and limb for others; that perhaps one day, under the right circumstances, we ourselves might be inspired enough to be someone’s hero. It is a compelling narrative indeed.

We would not be human beings if we did not have emotions, and those emotions can be manipulated to affect judgment, sometimes by other parties, sometimes even by ourselves. False narratives provide that very emotional comfort zone, somewhere we can retreat and feel good. Everybody needs a bit of mental masturbation now and then. Just like the real thing, as long as it’s kept private, things won’t get awkward.

I am not trying to minimize the suffering of the victims in this tragedy, which is very real indeed. Looking for a silver lining that isn’t there is like looking for an excuse that doesn’t fit. Both are emotionally appealing but serve no real purpose, because in the end, a false hero provides no comfort, and explanation does not equal exculpation.

Appropriate Truths

Warning. This post is most assuredly not politically correct.

In “Origin of the Specious”, the late Irving Kristol quipped:

There are different kinds of truths for different kinds of people,….there are truths appropriate for children; truths that are appropriate for students; truths that are appropriate for educated adults; and truths that are appropriate for highly educated adults, and the notion that there should be one set of truths available to everyone is a modern democratic fallacy. It doesn’t work.

Cynical, patronizing, and arguably elitist, but not necessarily unreasonable.

We encounter different truths growing up, ranging from the tooth fairy and Santa Claus, to anthropocentrism, mind-body dualism, an eternal soul, a personal god. As our understanding of the world increases, some truths are readily discarded, some are replaced by more sophisticated versions, and some persist (of course, the “truths” discussed here are not literal).

Some truths, such as Santa Claus, seem to be discarded as one gains basic understanding of the world. Or is it so? I think that most trivial ideas are rejected not due to critical thought, but because their peers reject it. For children, the peer group is typically their classmates or friends, a group within which ideas spread and proliferate, and exerts immense influence. After all, migrant children tend to speak the language and identify with the culture of their peers, not their parents; and kids attending international school tend to come out not with their parent’s accent but a mixed accent of their peers. I posit that most children reject ideas like Santa Claus primarily because their peers reject it, with the rationalization coming later and secondary. For adults, although the peer groups may differ based on the subject, most people still follow the prevailing position of each in-group, treat the opinions or arguments presented by the in-group as more meritorious than they deserve, and ignore or discount disconfirming evidence.

Independent thinkers (relatively speaking of course), far fewer in numbers, may possess the thinking tools, but lack the knowledge, capacity, or even willingness to examine an idea properly and critically.

For example, to debunk Santa Claus, one does not need to understand mammalian aerodynamics or solve the Traveling Salesman Problem; simple, intuitive (Bayesian) probability will do. Reindeer have not been known to fly, and elves have not been known to exist. The prior probability of either is negligible (let alone both), therefore the idea can be safely rejected. Unfortunately, many “truths” or ideas, especially those involving ideology and theology, are not as easily revised or dismissed, and usually require scientific literacy, advanced logic and thinking tools, philosophical constructs, an understanding of psychology and cognitive biases, intellectual capacity (so politically incorrect!), honesty and curiosity. A few examples include intelligent design vs. evolution, global warming, alternative medicine, mind-body dualism, tabula rasa, and rational choice.

On important issues, people are often adamantly aligned with what they feel is right, apparently in itself a reason enough. It is often useful to see what a collectively disinterested group of experts think about a subject, without appealing to authority, . For example, consider this poll conducted by Pew Research (full report). It is unreasonable to expect a layperson, such as myself, to be experts on these important issues; however I believe that one should have the basic humility to at least seriously consider the views of expert scientists, who are collectively far more intelligent, and understand the issues and nuances more thoroughly. Being politically incorrect, I believe that scientific (not philosophical) issues should not be a democracy; they should be guided by relevant experts rather than popular vote. Could the experts be wrong? Could scientists fall victim to groupthink? That is a valid question, as no one person (or group) is right all the time. A more relevant question would be, who is more likely to be right? The gap of understanding between scientists and the general public is great. Case in point: when the scientists are asked “how much of a problem that the public does not know much about science”, 98 out of 99 answered as a major or minor problem, only 1 answered “not a problem”. As Adam Savage would say, “well, there’s your problem”. One the one hand, you have a consensus reached by the smartest people who dedicate their lives studying it; on the other, a gut feeling.  Assuming they differ, which one would you bet on?

Could the approach to a higher “truth” be like mountain climbing, requiring specialized tools and skills? Perhaps, like Andrew Wiles’ proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem, requiring a deep understanding of disparate fields of mathematics, with few having the wherewithal to even understand the proof given? For a rigorous examination of certain issues it may be true (some philosophical problems for example).  However I suspect that even though many issues are complex and often intentionally confusing (example), given the right tools, most people can reasonably reach higher levels of “truths”.

One of those tools is a basic understanding of how the brain works (or fails to work). The ever growing list of cognitive biases discovered by science does not paint a pretty picture. The brain is but a delusion generator, constructing a version of reality from various input signals, eloquently explained in How the Mind Works. One needs to look no further than split brain research to realize this. A recent salient example is Dressgate, which made people question the veridicality of what they see with their own eyes. Evolutionary psychology shows that this constructed version has little to do with reality, and more to do with what had conferred a survival advantage, with heuristics and approximations often being good enough. To cut through the brain’s deception requires thinking critically and scientifically, in itself an arduous and painful process, as sacred cows are slain and comforting beliefs crumble under closer examination.  As the saying goes, the will to doubt requires far more than the will to believe.

The cynic in me asserts that few would even bother with the process, much less endure the unending cognitive dissonance; the optimist in me asserts that, well, false hope is still hope.

I believe that most can attain a higher “truth”, subject to our practical limitations (bounded rationality). It is probably beneficial to most people individually and collectively as a society; however, whether it is always beneficial to everyone is a question I cannot answer. After all, the curse of knowledge is a real phenomenon – look no further than at my jargon-filled, needlessly abstracted, diabolical writing style, unintelligible to most, often including myself.  Deeper understanding does not necessarily result in greater happiness.

Bertrand Russell once said “The fundamental cause of trouble in the world today is that the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt”.  The intelligent may have a better understanding, but the curse is that they lose the perspective of those less informed.  It is as easy to unthink a solution as unseeing a hidden message, or unfinding Waldo.  Sadly, in the current climate, it is politically correct to “give equal representation” to the fervent and passionate Waldo deniers, metaphorically speaking.  After all, the cocksure are loud, but more importantly, they can vote.

Interesting Problem

Here is an interesting problem that doesn’t require crazy math skills:

I participate in a daily lottery by choosing a number from 1-100 and hope it hits. The odds of winning is 1%.

I bought a ticket, got lucky, and won today. I decide to keep playing one ticket every day until I win again, and then stop playing for good. What day am I most likely to end up stop playing (by winning the lottery that day, of course)?

  1. Tomorrow
  2. The day after tomorrow
  3. 50 days from today
  4. 100 days from today
  5. There is no difference, every day is equally as likely

This is not a trick question (assume unlimited funds, standard lottery, etc.), no need to consider the unusual; you just need to understand the question.

If you chose 3) or 4), you would be incorrect. If you chose 5), congratulations, you have good statistical sense, and are probably quite sure of your answer, but you are nonetheless wrong – just less wrong. The correct answer is 1), tomorrow.

Counterintuitive? Here’s why.

Yes, every day is equally likely to hit the lottery as another, namely, a 1% chance. Let’s say today is Sunday. Tomorrow (Monday) I have a 1% chance to win and stop playing. The day after tomorrow (Tuesday) also carries a 1% chance to win. However for me to stop playing on Tuesday, two things have to happen: I must win on Tuesday (1%), and on top of that, I must NOT have won on Monday (99%). So while the chance I win on Tuesday is 1%, the chance that I stop on Tuesday is not 1% but 0.99%, because I must not have already won on Monday. Each day after that, the chance that I stop on that particular day decreases accordingly, not because I’m less likely to win on that day, but because I cannot have already won any day before then. Therefore, the most likely day that I will end up stop playing is tomorrow, which carries a 1% chance. Every day after that carries a chance of less than 1%.

This is a good example of how our intuitions fail us. I stated clearly that it is not a trick question, but “you just need to understand the question”, and for good reason. The question asked was “what day am I most likely to stop playing?”, which most people immediately substituted for a much easier question, “what day am I most likely to win?”. There is a subtle but important difference, which is the hard-to-spot implied condition of previous losses. To stop playing on a day does not just mean you win that day, but more importantly it implies an exact sequence of lose-lose-…-lose-WIN!

The last option “There is no difference, every day is equally as likely” is so appealing because it is a true statement.  The statement just happens to be irrelevant to the question.  It’s a powerful technique, a mental sleight of hand, widely used by marketers, politicians, and spouses.

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.

Thought Experiment – Honest Deception

I had this idea about a decade ago, and actually seriously considered it for a while. Even though I’ve long abandoned it, it is quite interesting as a thought experiment as it exists in a moral grey space.

Background

I have been fascinated with placebos. It is explicitly designed to be ineffectual for the condition in question, yet it often induces an effect psychologically. Although the “Placebo Effect” is likely really due to the medical intervention and interaction, “Intervention Effect” just doesn’t sound as good. It is by nature deceptive, which is usually acceptable in a controlled trial; but in a real life doctor-patient relationship, it is difficult to get informed consent without sounding like a quack (except perhaps in this weird study).

I will share an anecdote about an ENT physician I know well. He owns and operates a clinic in a relatively rural area in East Asia. The clinic is extremely popular, with 300+ patients per day during cold and flu “high season”. As your incredulity sets in, the clinic record is over 500 patients/day (yes, for a single physician). This was decades ago, when clinics had their own pharmacies. There were several keys to success. One was managing expectations. For patients that came in after other doctors “failed” to rid them of their cold, he would tell them they would get better in a few days, and sure enough they would (duh). If the person just caught the cold, he would say it was more serious and wouldn’t be over for 10-14 days. The important part is that he would always give the patients a good dose of pills and capsules, which turn out to be mostly vitamins. According to his “market research”, the locals perceived the efficacy of the pills based on size (larger is better), color (more colorful the better, bonus points for two-toned capsules), shape (round is boring), and quantity. The pharmacy would already have cartons of individual combo packages of many large, colorful, shaped pills, which would be conveniently prescribed as “A” or “B” to save time. Not all placebos are created equal; back in those days, placebo discrimination was rampant.

Nowadays it is ethically questionable for placebos to enter a doctor-patient relationship, for obvious reasons.

Thought Experiment

Here is the thought experiment. It is difficult for a physician to take advantage of the placebo effect. Is it possible for a company to ethically sell placebos to the general public?

Currently there are already companies that sell pills with no active ingredients, but those pills are actually marketed as medicine. I consider those to be double placebos, with the giver and taker of the pill both receiving the placebo effect.

Imagine a company Obecalp Inc. It makes its pills and capsules, which contain no active ingredients, at FDA-approved GMP facilities. Aside from providing the medical field with placebos, it also has a consumer arm that sells to the general public. The consumer market is mainly for relatives of terminally or chronically ill patients with subjective symptoms such as pain.

The company provides full disclosure on its ingredients (or lack thereof). It also provides relevant literature and a summary of the latest research. Customers are explicitly told to expect that the pill will likely do nothing, and the placebo effect, if any, are likely to be for subjective symptoms only.  They are told that it may be detrimental to relationships since deception is involved, and should be used in addition to, and never replacing, proven treatments. In short, it requires informed consent.

The customers, not the doctors, would provide these placebo pills to their terminally or chronically ill relatives. This address several problems. It takes away the deception between the doctor and patient, and the accompanying financial dilemma (placebos must be charged the same as regular pills to deceive properly, even though they cost significantly less). It is by definition compatible with the principle of non-maleficence (“Do No Harm”), and may offer subjective improvements even without objective changes in the underlying condition.

Although arguably unnecessary, the company can address ethical issues about the price of the placebo by operating on a voluntary pricing model. That is, the company provides the placebos free of charge initially, and rely on the customer to pay whatever they think it is worth based on the outcome, perhaps with a suggested amount and a maximum cap (personal anecdote: I once used a voluntary pricing model at a garage sale, and people were confused without a suggested price).

I read somewhere that for controlled studies, placebo composition is not regulated nor is disclosure required; some are simply sugar pills, while others are designed to have the same appearance and even mimic possible side effects. For the consumer market this is obviously unnecessary. However, the company is free to provide a wide range of completely inert placebos in different shapes, sizes, and colors. The consumer can be confident that the pills are safe. It would be considered a “dietary supplement”, of which government approval is not required. Even the standard disclaimer “This statement has not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease” seems redundant but wouldn’t hurt.

What do you think? Could this Obecalp company ethically sell placebos to the general public?