Thoughts and questions for the stray American reader considering to vote for Donald Trump

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Seagull swimming before Liberty Island, NYC. (I thought an image of the statue would be to cliché to include here.)

Let me start off by saying this: I would not normally write a blog post like the following. I am, after all, a German who does not live in the US, nor have I been to very many places there, nor am I the greatest expert on American policy. It can be incredibly patronizing for a person like me to lecture people in another country on how they should vote, and I am afraid that no matter how many disclaimers I put here, this might be exactly how I come across to some. Moreover, I have never put in the effort to build much of a readership for this (to me, so far largely recreational) blog, and so it is even unclear if any of the titular “Americans considering to vote for Donald Trump” will ever read this post.

Nevertheless, I am among those who, after observing Trump closely, have come to very negative conclusions about his personal ethics and general sense of responsibility. (For starters, he has proposed war crimes as the way to fight international terrorism, and then there are the reports of how he repeatedly tried to push people out of their homes.) This is why I find the possibility of him leading the most important economic and nuclear power of the Western world to be worrying. And therefore, if there is even a small chance that a single Trump voter might find his or her way to this blog and rethink his or her choice, I want to take it.

Of course, this is not going to be easy – I am a random person on the internet, and I am up against one of the shrewdest salespeople in the world, an expert at deceiving not only his followers, but also his opponents into thinking he is something that he is not.

For example, not only “The Donald”‘s supporters, but even some rather smart detractors (like this guy) see him as some sort of champion against the excesses of “political correctness” in modern Western societies and their threat to the free expression of ideas. This is why when you listen to a certain kind of internet “free speech advocate”, the US election seems less about either the candidates’ fitness for office or their policies, and more about winning a cultural war. But I believe there is an incident which shows that these people are very, very wrong about their preferred candidate and his true convictions:

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Does “our fixation with maths” add up?

(An almost “classic” 2011 parody video that was created in response to the actual question, “Should evolution be taught in schools?”, being asked in that year’s “Miss USA” competition. )

Does mathematics play an overly large role in school curriculae? At least for the country of Britain, this question was recently answered in the affirmative by journalist Simon Jenkins, who is apparently somewhat famous, in an article for “The Guardian”. After all, there is very little mathematics that the average person actually has to use in their lives, or even remembers. So why waste pupil’s time with linear equations and calculus, when that time could be used to instill in them “a knowledge of their history and geography, their environment, the working of their bodies, the upbringing of children, law, money, the economy and civil rights”, all of which seem more critically important?

Now, I studied maths, so I may be slightly biased. On the other hand, if Mr Jenkins’ proposals were widely implemented, it would significantly increase my own market value, so I hope you will indulge me when I explain why I think it’s his arguments that don’t add up.

One may immediately sense a slight contradiction in the inclusion of history on the above list of “important” skills – when was the last time you actually needed to apply your knowledge of the fall of the Roman Empire to the real world? And yet, I, too, have heard this point raised since I went to middle school in Germany: Classmates who rarely ever made such complaints about reading Goethe or Lessing (substitute two famous writers from your country if you like) asked, “What would I ever even need this for?”, right after getting a bad grade in a mathematical exam. But the immediate practical applicability of poetry or literature (and many or most other things taught in schools) seems actually much less clear than the one of math education.Read More »

On Christmas Gifts, Or: Why Books Are The Best

The holidays are here, and in the last weeks, all over the world – the parts of it that celebrate Christmas, anyway – you could see people hurrying through the material streets of their towns or the virtual streets of the internet, desperate to find suitable gifts for their friends and loved ones. The simplest option would, of course, simply be to present them with cash, and that’s precisely why some people consider this practice to be thoughtless. And yet, not only do statistics frequently show money to be the most common seasonal present, some people also defend this as a superior practice to other ways of present giving, as seen in this CollegeHumor video:

This is a parody, for sure, but here you can read about two actual professors of economics raising the same point in full seriousness. One of them, Steven Landsburg, says he is “not sure” why people don’t switch to cash gifts. He is aware of the common explanation that people appreciate the time spent in order to pick and buy a gift for them, “but we could accomplish the same thing by giving the cash value of our shopping time, showing that we took the time to earn the money.” The other one, Joel Waldfogel, wrote a paper in 1993 estimating the “deadweight loss”, a measure for loss of economic welfare that society suffers due to the fact that people choose to spend their money on a gift for someone while that person herself might have preferred to buy something else for the same amount.

Now, I don’t think cash gifts are necessarily a bad thing. I have received some myself and was very happy to spend them on hookers and fine wine. Still, I’m not sure if the question why many people prefer to give or receive old-fashioned non-cash presents is equally mystifying to anyone who hasn’t got an economics degree. But just in case, let’s go back to a brillant fictional physicist’s take on the related matter of birthday gifts:

The entire institution of gift-giving makes no sense. Let’s say that I go out and I spend 50 dollars on you. It’s a laborious activity, because I have to imagine what you need, whereas you know what you need. I could simplify things, just give you the 50 dollars directly, you could give me 50 dollars on my birthday, and so on, until one of us dies, leaving the other one old and 50 dollars richer.

In other words, if we accept the premises behind the “superiority of cash presents” party line, the next logical step is to abolish the practice of gift giving altogether. OK, maybe you could then still give presents in some cases, but only if the relationship is one-sided, i.e. only one party receives gifts from the other. That may not even happen that infrequently (e.g., but not only, in childhood), but the standard relationship one imagines between gift giver and receiver is clearly one of reciprocity, i.e. when one gets the other something for Christmas, or birthday, that person will return the favour. And if both would choose to give each other cash only, the practice seems senseless, whether both of them give the exact same amount or one significantly more than the other and the relationship skews in the latter’s favour.Read More »

5 Remarks on Religion, Violence and Extremism

After last week’s coordinated terror attacks in Paris, people were quick (too quick for my taste) to debate the implications for how “the West” should view a) Islam and b) Muslim immigrants. Some regard it as self-evident that a religion used to justify the murder of innocents must face intense criticism and scrutiny. Others believe it to be obvious that the attackers abused a faith that millions of people practice peacefully to justify their own morally depraved agenda. Again others go one step further and draw consequences for migration policies, particularly those concerning the current Syrian/Middle East refugee crisis. Here are some thoughts on the matter:

1. There are problems with managing a huge influx of refugees, but if you are looking for a reason to advocate restrictive asylum policies, the Paris attacks don’t seem to be a particularly good one: Yes, one of the people involved had a fake Syrian passport and entered Europe via Greece as a refugee. But most others did not, and a huge organization (ISIS) was apparently behind the terror attack. It seems implausible (which in this context should be taken as a polite expression for: “bugfuckingly insane”) to argue that it depended on one single person whether or not the attack would have happened or not. If you object that letting in a large number of Muslims is going to increase your country’s risk of domestic terrorism nevertheless, I refer you here for a response (tailored to the US situation, but a lot of it applies to other nations, too). My point in this post is that I don’t think recent events should significantly influence your view of the issue: On rational grounds, you should assess the risk of more terrorism due to acceptance of refugees the same way you did one day before the Paris attacks. (Sadly, for some who exploit the tragedy for political gain, that may actually already be the case.)

2. There is a human tendency to identify with groups one belongs to to the point that one sees attacks on that groups basic characteristics or philosophy as attacks on oneself – and then reflexively dismisses every criticism of it, even if it is justified. If you think about all “tribes” you are a member of (nationality, gender, ethnicity, political affiliation, profession, social class, religion, subculture…), I am sure you can find at least one to which you have a strong enough allegiance to react in that manner. Moreover, many, many people are attacking the Islamic religion only to hide a thinly-veiled contempt for people from Muslim or Middle-Eastern countries. For these reasons, it is completely understandable if many Muslims resent people who want to “make this about Islam”, or express worries about Islamist rejection of, say, religious freedom, homsexuality, legal equality for women etc., and that many well-meaning non-Muslims join them in claiming these are just abuses or perversions of their religion.

3. On the other hand, it is conceivable that some features of contemporary Islam have a negative impact on our society, just as medieval Christianity might have had a negative impact on the society of that time, or communism on Soviet Russia. I don’t see a good solution to the problem that honest discussion of such matters will inadvertently contribute to some ethnicities’ experience of discrimination and prejudice, and that some actual racist propagandists will manage to ride on its coattails. (I admit that I myself have lost track of the necessary distinction here at times in the past, and defended people I probably shouldn’t have defended.) The only thing that can be done about it is to acknowledge the difficulty.

(I should also clarify that in commenting on how harmful some religions might or might not be, I am of course not demonstrating that they are not true, so if you are a follower of any of them, I don’t expect such an argument to convince you that you should abandon them.)

4. Many of the usual well-meaning, well-educated, liberal-minded suspects are currently circulating a 2014 video of American Muslim sociologist and religious scholar Reza Aslan where he purportedly sets straight those who believe there is a connection between his religion and repressive practices, extremism or violence. He makes some good points, but also several very, very dubious ones. While I am not qualified to comment on many of the details of what he says (I refer you here for a dissection of his factual claims instead), I think this quote is a good summary of how many people defend Islam – and religion in general – against the charge of inciting violence:Read More »

Rants About Stuff Other People Have Written – Political Edition

Here is my take on some recent articles that, in the broadest sense of the word, are about political matters. You may notice the absence of a topic that is currently far more important than anything discussed here: The European refugee crisis. However, during the writing of this post alone, so many rapid developments changed the whole situation so quickly that anything I would have written at one point would have been outdated at the next. So all I will say here is that, regardless where you stand on the issue, I will remind you of the existence of charities you can donate to to alleviate the plight of people in war-torn regions, however little you may have needed that reminder and whatever it is worth to you.

Now, enjoy (or hate me for) my foolish opinions:

1. Electing political outsiders

Scott Alexander of Slate Star Codex tries to explain the current success of populist politicians such as Jeremy Corbyn in the UK and Donald Trump in the US. Essentially, he believes that the political spectrum has gotten so divided (at least in these two countries) that it’s no longer really possible for candidates to find a sweet spot between appealing to hardcore ideologues and appealing to more moderate positions. Once they get elected, however, they have to deal with reality, and that means that they have to betray their base in a very transparent way. Which, in turn, fosters an increasing hatred for the political establishment, so the fact that centrist politicians disdain and actively speak out against a demagogic candidate starts to work in their favour:

The most salient feature of Trump – I would say the only salient feature of Trump – is that the establishment hates him. Reince Priebus goes to sleep at night and has nightmares about Trump. The liberal media has important-looking people coming on in suits saying it’s a national embarrassment that anyone could vote for Trump. But in signaling terms, what they’re unintentionally saying is “Moderates hate this guy! He’s too politically incorrect to win over Democrats! Only vote for him if you’re a real Republican.” And Republicans are eating it up. It doesn’t even matter that he’s not that conservative in real life, the media has conducted his campaign for him. Every bad thing the media and the establishment say about him will just make him more popular.

To me, who lives on the other side of the Atlantic/the English channel, that seems like a very persuasive analysis. The only things I have to add are these:Read More »

Does studying in Germany suck balls?

That is what one might glean from a widely read article by Finnish student Juuso Nisula (JN in the following) which appeared this week on the website of German newspaper “Die Zeit” (original text published on his blog). There is also a German version, but regrettably, the parts containing the more juicy formulations, such as the one quoted in this post’s title, have been cut from that. JN does, however, state very clearly and very quickly that his remarks are actually based on personal experience at the Faculty of Finance at the University of Cologne and do not automatically apply elsewhere. I have very little doubt that the problems he cites are not exclusive to this specific department at this specific university, but that doesn’t mean they are always universal in Germany, at least to the extent he describes. So I thought as a service to casual readers who are considering to study abroad, I offer some comments on his “eight reasons not to study in Germany” from my perspective. During my studies, which ended in the not-too-distant past, I also spent some time at the University of Cologne as well as (much more, and more recently) at the University of Bonn, and they were in mathematics rather than some economic subject.

I will mostly focus on the degree to which I did or did not encounter the same problems as JN during that time, although I will occasionally stray into comments on the situation in other fields of study. It is hopefully clear that I don’t want to contradict the facts of the JN account in any way: I completely believe him that the situation at the university and faculty he chooses to focus on is largely as he describes. The main goal here is to provide a limited, but hopefully interesting, view on the degree to which the points from the “Zeit” piece are generalizable. My short answer is: Some are, others are not. Personally, these things did not bother me enough to hate my whole time at the university, but I agree that some of them are important issues worth addressing. So, this is intended less to be a response or refutation, but more a “compare and contrast”. Nevertheless, I also don’t quite always agree with the author’s opinions, and will hopefully make clear at which points that is the case.

Let’s start:

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On Trusting Facts, Arguments, Experts

For one reason or another, the year 2014 saw the series of tubes known as “the internet” confront me with numerous articles questioning the efficacy of persuading people by facts and rational arguments. For example, a left-wing columnist for a major German online publication claimed (based on personal experience, without empirical evidence) that “perhaps two percent of humanity can recognize the limits of their own mental capacities” and thus be convinced by somebody else’s points to change their mind on something. And blogger David Friedman linked to a paper that asserted (with empirical evidence) that if you separate people on the basis of political (or religious) views, people whose political (or religious) views predispose them to believe in a scientific claim will be more likely to do so the more scientifically educated they are. At the same time, people whose views predispose them to disbelieve that claim will be more likely to reject it the more knowledgable they are. Regardless of where you stand on some specific debate (the examples given are creationism and global warming), the most obvious – and depressing – explanation would be that people do not use their increased knowledge of a subject to find out the truth, but rather to come up with better justifications for what they wanted to be true in the first place. My third example is a widely reported study that “anti-vaxxers”, wo spread the (false) claim that vaccines cause autism in children and seek “natural” alternatives, can become more convinced of their position after being confronted with evidence to the contrary.

This would seem to imply that it is a waste of time to try and argue a point to people who are already convinced of the opposite. Instead, like a savvy politician, someone who wants to convince others of his or her ideas should exclusively appeal to undecideds and their own “base”. Some people may also take it to confirm their longstanding suspicion that their opponents are fools and fanatics, while, of course, their side of an argument is so hard to convince because they are, in fact, right. The consequence that might lead some of them (or judging by the current state of the internet: a great many of them) to is to abandon rational discourse entirely and see public debate as a struggle for power, where discrediting opponents and generating outrage are the winning strategies. This would also mean that if a majority of society are wrong about something, and perhaps deeply convinced of that wrong something, it is close to impossible for them to recognize it.

While that kind of cynicism is certainly true to a degree, I still don’t quite buy it. My beliefs (which I currently hold without empirical evidence, so I am just mouthing of wild conjectures here) are that a) the people who are reluctant to engage with facts contradicting their views (i.e., most of us) may be irrational, but not quite as irrational as it seems, b) rational argument may not be able to convince someone of the wrongness of their entire worldview within a week, but it may reach more modest goals, provided it addresses the reasons people are so unwilling to change their minds. Let me work through both of these points in turn:Read More »