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Saturday 9 March 2019

If It Weren't For Those Pesky Kids...

There are some really silly ideas in the world.

While it's doubtful that this will come as any surprise to anybody who's been here more than once, or who's visited a library or other source of information about reality voluntarily, it appears to be a sticking point for some.

That's not even the worst of it, of course. Idiots come in all shapes and sizes, and so do their ideas.

I should be clear here, and stipulate a definition of 'idiot' suitably declawed so as not to cause offence - all too easy these days, and not entirely without warrant - or turn a new reader away before they discover what this little corner of the interwebs is about.

For my purposes here, an idiot is one who uncritically accepts information without properly checking whether it has any basis in reality.

The point I was moving toward is that it's really difficult to spot an idiot. You cannot, just by looking at somebody, ascertain whether or not they're an idiot. No matter what physical characteristic you might pick up on, you can glean no hints about the evidential standards somebody might hold. You might think you can, but you can't.

Today's outing concerns a rudimentary logical fallacy that's so easy to commit that even those well-versed in the fundamentals of critical thought routinely commit it.

Our fallacy du jour is the genetic fallacy, of course. I've talked about it at length in various contexts hereabouts, including poisoning the well, appeal to authority and others (cf links), but here I want to talk about a more common and insidious commission, because it's one that pervades our society in a really quite pernicious manner. I have a favoured tale from the history of science that's a perfect exposition of this fallacy.

This tale involves a teacher who was having a bit of a lazy day. He wanted to have a nap at his desk, so he devised a task to fill up the lesson time so that he could rest. It was an extremely simple mathematical series problem but, he thought, sufficiently time-consuming that it would present him an opportunity for a good skive. 

He asked the class to add up all the numbers from 1 to 100. Before he'd even closed his eyes, so the story goes, one boy approached with his answer: 5050.

The teacher suspected a cheat, but it wasn't. The student, a seven year-old boy, had spotted a shortcut to the solution. So how did he do it?

His solution was simple and elegant. 


Where \(n\) is our highest number and \(\sum\) is the sum. This is a general solution to mathematical series and works for any series of numbers starting at 1. In the case of this particular problem, it looks like this:


Breaking it down using the BODMAS rules we learned in In On the Secret, we start with the brackets and sum 100+1, giving 101. Then we do the division by 2, giving us (50)(101). Finally, we multiply those together. 50 multiplied by 101 equals 5050.

Now it may well be that this story is apocryphal, and there are many variations on it, but what isn't in any doubt is that the student involved was a prodigious mathematical talent, even at a very early age. 

The student's name was Carl Friedrich Gauss, and he went on to be one of the greatest mathematicians of any age, making huge contributions to mathematics and science, including many while he was still a teenager. 

This should be telling us something important about how we associate competence with age, and it's a perfect illustration of why the genetic fallacy is the worst sort of shoddy thinking.

Recall from previous outings that the genetic fallacy is committed whenever we accept or reject a conclusion based only on some perceived characteristic of the source of the argument rather than the argument's content. All our prejudices have this fallacy lurking in them somewhere. Racism, sexism, homophobia and any other means by which we 'otherise' people is rooted in this fallacy, meaning that it isn't just shoddy reasoning, it's a fallacy that has real and negative consequences out in the world.

What's really disheartening to me at times is the ease with which we think like this. Even in instances in which we're ostensibly offering support to those we perceive to have been otherised in some way, we can fall into such modes of thinking.

A really good example of this occurred in the aftermath of the horrific events at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School a little over a year ago. In the days following and since, some of those who survived it decided that it was time to take matters into their own hands, and organised the March for our Lives. 

The gun lobby and NRA fought back with attempts to troll the students and their supporters, but their fightback was flaccid, and showed just how out of touch they really are. It would have been funny to watch these idiots attempting to out-internet a generation that had grown up with the internet, were the stakes not so high. 

Still, what fascinates me about it is the fact that we're even a little bit surprised that people have an experience that leads to them taking some action to raise awareness of the issues. Why should this be any different for young people? It's almost like age isn't as important as experience, or something...

How many of us are routinely surprised that people can sing, for example? No?

How about when a young person walks out on stage on Britain's Got Talent and turns out to be able to carry a tune? 

Why does this surprise us? 

Because we're mired in our presuppositions. Our presuppositions are the lenses through which we view the world, including everything and everybody in it. We bring them into every situation we encounter, and they colour every interaction.

Other examples of remarkable humans that happen to be young abound. There's a young woman from Sweden currently making waves about our inaction on climate change. 
Greta Thunberg began her 'School Strike for Climate' in August 2018, citing the organisers of March for our Lives as inspiration. After wildfires ripped through Sweden and much of Europe during the summer, she determined to stop attending school until after the Swedish general election. She spent her school days protesting outside the Riksdag - the Swedish legislature - demanding a reduction in carbon emissions in line with the UNFCCC's Paris agreement. Since the election, she's restricted herself to striking only on Fridays, but has gained worldwide attention with her actions. 

She's spoken powerfully about the failure of our adult leaders to make significant inroads into reducing our impact on the current upward trend of average global temperature, taking the UN and other global bodies to task for their inaction. 

She's come under considerable fire, with most of that fire coming from people suggesting that she shouldn't be wasting her school years in such activism. She has, of course, shut them down with eloquence and poise:
Why should I be studying for a future that soon may be no more, when no one is doing anything to save that future? And what is the point of learning facts when the most important facts clearly means nothing to our society?
Since garnering international attention, the School Strike for Climate has burgeoned. At the time of this writing, there have been school strikes in almost 300 cities involving more than 20,000 students.

One item of interest in recent news about our attitudes to young people as a society is the supposedly embarrassing news that one of the newly-elected representatives to the US congress used to be young! 

Yes, you read that right. The rethuglican party, in a bold move to discredit the firecracker that so clearly terrifies the old guard, dug out a video of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez dancing while in college! I mean, how dare she once have been young?!!

What's been of most interest to me is the common supposed compliment about all the young people talked about here, namely that they're the 'leaders of tomorrow'. Meanwhile, we have incompetent, aged idiots in two of the highest offices in the world, between 1600 and Number 10, who are supposed to be our leaders. 

These young people aren't the leaders of tomorrow. If you think that, you haven't been paying attention:

They're leading NOW!

Further reading:

Don't Drink That! - poisoning the well and other iterations of the genetic fallacy.
Argumentum ad Verecundiam and the Genetic Fallacy - The genetic fallacy and appeal to authority

On Whose Authority? - a broader treatment of the genetic fallacy
Where do You Draw the Line? - an odd example of the genetic fallacy, that of dismissing expertise

1 comment:

  1. Of course (and I know you know), youth have always led the edge of change. It's sad that so many of these old morons likely once felt very much how the "kids" of today feel. I think some even remember, but they're unable to see beyond their own pompous, entitled self-righteousness to appreciate what our brilliant, strong young people are accomplishing. And, perhaps not a small amount of fear as well. Surely, even they can see the long fall that awaits them, even if they lack the awareness to comprehend just how richly they deserve it.


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