There are two main things that can be wrong with an argument or idea – one is when the aim itself (or informing understanding) is wrong. We see the other when an idea is put-together badly, and thus makes little or no ‘actionable’ sense (even if it retains the ability to inspire passion).
About ninety percent of the arguments we hear nowadays are constructed in such a way as to make them feel emotionally sympathetic to one group or another – but their structure and practical utility are almost always lousy.
Please note – I’m not just trying to be grumpy here – nor am I claiming some rare powers of discernment, which aren’t easily available to everyone. We can all check the strength of our own ideas, and those which are designed by others to excite us (for or against) – and it’s often great fun to do it!
So far, my favourite twenty-first century word is “Externality” – which refers to that part of a process which is “off the books” as far as accounting, planning and considerations of responsibility are concerned.
Environmentalists use it to point out that many corporate processes rely on things like destroying huge amounts of fresh water or good land, as part of their business model – and the damage doesn’t ever cost the corporation – but instead the environment at large, and every one of us living in it.
But I think the usefulness of the idea of externality goes much further – because so many of the passion-points we admire, rely on similar externalities (the downside you won’t talk about) or deliberate stupidity.
The use of statistics to imply things about any giant and vague class of people, is especially often half-blind and nonsensical. The simple truth is – most people don’t have a clue how statistics work!
If you don’t begin from clear distinctions between mean, mode and median – every blessed time you quote one – then you’re stat-illiterate too – but I can help you see the edges of the problem clearly, in just a few lines.
The word ‘average’ has three completely different meanings – mean, mode and median. Anyone who says, “on average,” but can’t say which of those three kinds of average, with certainty, simply hasn’t got any information to offer.
Take this example: In a tiny town with only ten people, one guy has a million dollars minus nine, and nine other people have one dollar each.
To get the mean-average, we add all the dollars and divide by the number of people. So we split the full million dollars between all ten citizens, and say that the average person in that town has a hundred thousand dollars.
The median-average is even less informative. It judges average to be a point halfway between the lowest and the highest amount. So according to the median, the average person in that town has a half a million dollars.
Only the mode-average, which describes the most commonly-registered reading of all the samples, says the truth of this situation clearly. Most of the people in this town only have one (stinking) dollar!
And let’s note – one time in ten, that best answer is still wrong – not a little – but by a factor of almost a million.
So why don’t we use the mode-average every time we say average? Because for other sorts of measurement, mean and median really are more informative. The trick is that you have to know the case, and know how the math is being applied. If you don’t, you can’t even guess at what the so-called average you heard about, was really describing.
And that ignorant, referenceless and thus fully meaningless mode – let’s be honest and admit – is the ONLY way statistics are ever commonly used.
Those who insist corporate accounting is dangerously irresponsible and incomplete until it also includes all environmental externalities, have an absolutely rational point. A lake of poison is not at all the same as a lake of drinking water – and pretending to see no difference (as legislation too often does), is a form of madness.
Social costs are also externalities – and were even seen as such by some companies, until a landmark court-case in the thirties, where a group of shareholders sued Ford, for spending money on improving the community, when he didn’t absolutely have to (and thus interfering with the shareholders greatest possible rate of profit).
That the corporation was fighting hard for the right to do general community good without restraint by the shareholders, will surprise many – the fact that they lost, ushering in an era of heartlessness-by-policy since, won’t.
The way so many celebrated “disruptors” keep smiling gleefully from spot-lit podia as they foreclose on the careers of legions, is perhaps the most glaringly shameless externalizing psychopathy of this day (though this is the age for it – so they have plenty of competition).
The direct modern equivalent of Marie Antoinette’s “Let them eat cake” – and we instinctively hope they find very similar desserts on their own near-term itinerary. Do lean-in, please.
But the corporate world is not the only sphere which thrives on knowingly lying to itself – and the weird lies told by many who think themselves ‘rebels’ are particularly harmful to the prospects of achieving genuine social change.
I was recently heartbroken (and yet in no way surprised) to watch a whole room full of committed progressives smile and nod and believe an excited fellow who declared that thermodynamics no longer applied – and free unlimited energy and cures for cancer and all other diseases required only what he reverently recited as a magical recipe for so-many turns of copper wire, and I instantly recognized as a crude, mundane (and in no way supernatural) electrical step-up transformer. Albeit, a filthy one (pixie dust, of course).
Even when he started describing the spiritual side of this wonder in scientific terms (inverting his opening absurdity) he casually violated every principle which I know with certainty applies in that domain – also.
His naive enthusiasm was cute – but the fact that a whole room full of smart and ‘educated’ people ate it up, is the exact sort of deep current of irrationality that makes many people think leftists are delusional idiots – definitely not to be trusted with the books, or the practical logistics side of things. Costs so many incredibly important votes from the middle, every single round of electoral play.
What is truly guesswork, remains an open and fun to play-with question – but those matters that have been well-tested and proven, really can be built upon reliably – as FACT (Thermodynamics goes right at the top of this pile – keystone stuff, ask any working engineer).
One part of our duty, in caring about the environment and the social climate, is to make sure that we keep working on our intellect and our humility continuously – so we don’t ever get so much more passionate than informed, that we end up accidentally cheerleading for the other team! (as being loud and obviously ignorant, quite reliably does).
I frequently mention to the students I sit for as a model, that there is nothing you can study, which won’t add something interesting to your understanding of the world, and ultimately show up as more richness in your art.
But the same is true a hundred-fold for politics – a thousand for philosophy – and at least a million, for just being a good friend, a wacky human being and having some non-corporate original self-made fun on this crazy moldy humid space-rock we all (begrudgingly, and yet ever so fortunately) share!
Of course, at least eighty-seven percent of all writers of books and makers of art would say a silly thing like that – wouldn’t they?