Please argue with me


in Daily updates, Internet matters, Writing

Most of the time, a blog post arises from some random idea of mine, half processed into something that seems sufficiently coherent to discuss. The objective is to prompt discussion, not to decree from on high. As such, I am likely to frequently go somewhat beyond the position that can be rigorously defended, or not quite reach it.

I really encourage readers to leave a comment when they see a problem with an argument, know of evidence to the contrary, or can otherwise contribute to the collective understanding of myself and all the other readers. Of course, you can also comment with supporting arguments and evidence.

Almost all of the time, there is no editor or scrutineer on the short path from my brain to the web. As such, you should also feel free to point out things like grammatical errors, poor analogies, or anything else in my writing or thinking that strikes you as worthy of comment.


P.S. There is, of course, a flip side to putting out unfinished thoughts for scrutiny and discussion. Ultimately, I think such a process leads to a stronger overall understanding, and a better theoretical grounding from which to try to make progress on both academic issues and the development of responses to pressing current matters like climate change. As such, it is fair to consider posts on topics that have been long discussed to be reflective of my considered position on the issue at hand (considered well or poorly, you decide).

{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

Astley Henry January 15, 2011 at 2:05 am

I like that fact that you post on such a diverse range of things and that the posts are not over processed. They would not be as stimulating and provide as much scope for comment.

Take the post on whether the Ph.D. is worth it or not. There was statistics, personal opinion and I relay from a friend of mine that mandatory retirement for Ontario (or is it all Canadian?) profs was ended off a few years ago. Potentially making the job market worse.

oleh January 15, 2011 at 11:37 am

I agree that the diversity of topics is appealing. I struggle a bit with the request for leaving comments when one sees a problem with an argument or grammatical discussion. I have generally found that less interesting and more of a competition than a natural discussion.

Milan January 16, 2011 at 9:42 pm

I consider good proofreading to be a sign of respect for readers, so I definitely appreciate it when people point out my mistakes. It’s not a matter of competition, but rather of quality control.

Matt March 7, 2011 at 7:25 pm

I couldn’t find your post about corrections, so I’m posting here. At the top of your website at the spot regarding looking for work it says:

“I am looking a climate-related job.”

Two possible things have occured:
1) You forgot the word “for”
2) You have a poor grasp of the internet meme “I accidentally 93 MB of .rar files”

Excuse the [sort of] faulty parallelism.

Milan March 7, 2011 at 7:48 pm

I have fixed it. Thanks a lot for pointing it out.

dot April 19, 2011 at 2:38 pm

It’s embarrassing to be wrong in English; it’s pretentious and embarrassing to be wrong in French.

. June 22, 2011 at 9:16 pm

Social media, texting and e-mail all make it much easier to communicate, gather and impart information, but they also present some dangers. By removing any real human engagement, they enable us to cultivate our narcissism without the risk of disapproval or criticism. To use a theatrical metaphor, these new forms of communication provide a stage on which we can each create our own characters, hidden behind a fourth wall of tweets and status updates, of texts and pings. This illusory state of detachment can become addictive as we isolate ourselves a safe distance from the cruelty of our fleshly lives, where we are flawed, powerless and inconsequential. In essence, we have been provided not only the means to be more free, but also to become new, to create and project a more perfect self to the world. As we become more reliant on these tools, they become more a part of our daily routine, and so we become more entrenched in this illusion. As Jean Baudrillard might have put it, this alternative world is “more real than the real.”

. July 26, 2011 at 11:43 am

“The mark of a free man is the ever-gnawing inner uncertainty as to whether or not he is right.”

-Justice Learned Hand

. September 21, 2011 at 9:05 pm

The democratic ideal has lately found its way to the Arab world from another direction, by way of the Arab spring. In so far as this marks a repudiation of al-Qaeda’s doctrine, it should eventually be good for the West as well as for the Arabs—provided the jihadists do not hijack the democratic spring when autumn sets in. But the West cannot claim the credit for this awakening. It was certainly not inspired by the invasion of Iraq (which this newspaper, wrongly certain that Saddam possessed weapons of mass destruction, strongly supported). Most Arabs opposed the invasion, dismissed Iraq’s new government as a puppet and resented George Bush’s “freedom agenda”. People’s power did not stir in Tunisia, Egypt and the wider Arab world until almost a decade later, and then it was because of the eruption of long-simmering local frustrations, not because of America’s display of “shock and awe” in Mesopotamia.

. January 29, 2012 at 9:29 am

“Free discussion requires an atmosphere unembarrassed by any suggestion of authority or even respect. If a subordinate always agrees with his superior he is a useless part of the organization. In this connection there is a story of Admiral Sims when he was on duty in London in World War I. He called a conscientious hard-working officer in to him to explain why he was dissatisfied with the officer’s work. The officer blushed and stammered when Sims pointed out that in all the time they had been working together the officer had never once disagreed with Sims.”

-Hyman Rickover

oleh January 29, 2012 at 11:11 am

A key to the promotion of questioning is the attitude and the response of the person being questioned, inn particular if that person is a “superior” within the institutional hierchy. The military chain of command probably has a cooling effect on questioning.

I have been in a business partnership about 20 years. For a number of years our managing partner tended to respond negatively to questioning. This had a chilling effect on questioning, even among people (lawyers) who in their professional lives are questioners.

. January 29, 2012 at 9:03 pm

“Every fact of science was once damned. Every invention was considered impossible. Every discovery was a nervous shock to some orthodoxy. Every artistic innovation was denounced as fraud and folly. The entire web of culture and ‘progress,’ everything on earth that is man-made and not given to us by nature, is the concrete manifestation of some man’s refusal to bow to Authority. We would own no more, know no more, and be no more than the first apelike hominids if it were not for the rebellious, the recalcitrant, and the intransigent. As Oscar Wilde truly said, ‘Disobedience was man’s Original Virtue.”

― Robert Anton Wilson

. January 29, 2012 at 9:05 pm

I say that’s also important in giving certain types of government advice. Supposing a senator asked you for advice about whether drilling a hole should be done in his state; and you decide it would be better in some other state. If you don’t publish such a result, it seems to me you’re not giving scientific advice. You’re being used. If your answer happens to come out in the direction the government or the politicians like, they can use it as an argument in their favor; if it comes out the other way, they don’t publish it at all. That’s not giving scientific advice.

So I have just one wish for you — the good luck to be somewhere where you are free to maintain the kind of integrity I have described, and where you do not feel forced by a need to maintain your position in the organization, or financial support, or so on, to lose your integrity. May you have that freedom.

-Richard Feynman

. March 18, 2012 at 9:24 am

“Conflict is the essential core of a free and open society. If one were to project the democratic way of life in the form of a musical score, its major theme would be the harmony of dissonance.”

Saul Alinsky, “Rules for Radicals.” Vintage Books Edition, October 1989. p.62

Anonymous April 4, 2012 at 11:28 am

In order for a discussion to be productive from an intellectual perspective, it is essential that the participants be able to disagree in a granular way. The fact that we disagree with one another about some things doesn’t mean we can afford to stop talking to one another.

That’s as true of discussions of public policy as it is true between the members of a romantic partnership.

oleh April 5, 2012 at 2:07 am

One area of non-productive dialogue is Parliament and in particular Question Period. It seems basically that the Government opposes any idea of the Opposition and the Opposition opposes any idea of the Government. Is that a recipe for better solutions through dialogue?

. May 9, 2012 at 8:01 pm


-The Credible Hulk

. June 17, 2012 at 5:42 pm

Perhaps our most dangerous bias is that we naturally assume that everyone else is more susceptible to thinking errors, a tendency known as the “bias blind spot.” This “meta-bias” is rooted in our ability to spot systematic mistakes in the decisions of others—we excel at noticing the flaws of friends—and inability to spot those same mistakes in ourselves. Although the bias blind spot itself isn’t a new concept, West’s latest paper demonstrates that it applies to every single bias under consideration, from anchoring to so-called “framing effects.” In each instance, we readily forgive our own minds but look harshly upon the minds of other people.

And here’s the upsetting punch line: intelligence seems to make things worse. The scientists gave the students four measures of “cognitive sophistication.” As they report in the paper, all four of the measures showed positive correlations, “indicating that more cognitively sophisticated participants showed larger bias blind spots.” This trend held for many of the specific biases, indicating that smarter people (at least as measured by S.A.T. scores) and those more likely to engage in deliberation were slightly more vulnerable to common mental mistakes. Education also isn’t a savior; as Kahneman and Shane Frederick first noted many years ago, more than fifty per cent of students at Harvard, Princeton, and M.I.T. gave the incorrect answer to the bat-and-ball question.

What explains this result? One provocative hypothesis is that the bias blind spot arises because of a mismatch between how we evaluate others and how we evaluate ourselves. When considering the irrational choices of a stranger, for instance, we are forced to rely on behavioral information; we see their biases from the outside, which allows us to glimpse their systematic thinking errors. However, when assessing our own bad choices, we tend to engage in elaborate introspection. We scrutinize our motivations and search for relevant reasons; we lament our mistakes to therapists and ruminate on the beliefs that led us astray.

The problem with this introspective approach is that the driving forces behind biases—the root causes of our irrationality—are largely unconscious, which means they remain invisible to self-analysis and impermeable to intelligence. In fact, introspection can actually compound the error, blinding us to those primal processes responsible for many of our everyday failings. We spin eloquent stories, but these stories miss the point. The more we attempt to know ourselves, the less we actually understand.

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