Pop-psychology “smart” aphorisms that are actually BS (or IMO annoying)

My blog is adjacent to some “mental models” blogs. Some of the mental models they discuss are elementary concepts (what confirmation bias is, what first principles are, what tribalism is, what a reductio ad absurdum is). My blog assumes you already know those.

Some of the mental models they discuss are, in my opinion, wrong. The following is a list of “smart person” memes that refuse to die. It’s in the style of another humorousish post, 16 things I can’t relate to.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs

I’m sure the creator thought they were so smart when they designed it (and I don’t begrudge Maslow). It doesn’t mean we have to use it unquestioningly for all time. Is there any actual reason to believe this pyramid is correct? It’s something everyone just ran with.

My problem with it? Human needs don’t fit neatly into a pyramid. They are intimately connected. Suppose you are a baby. Your self-actualization (being a baby) is closely related to your physiological needs (your parents provide you with food/water/ everything). You don’t distinguish these needs, you just cry when you don’t get what you want.

Or, suppose you are someone in a primitive tribe. your security is closely bound to your place in the tribe (prestige). It’s only the contrivances of our modern environment that allow us to divide our “needs” into neat “categories.”

The dunning kruger affect

This is a good takedown. But long before reading that takedown, the Dunning-Kruger affect had always smelled like BS to me.

It might be true that incompetent people are also incompetent at assessing their own incompetence. But I’ve met a lot of incompetent people who were also self-aware, so I don’t know. Even if that was true, that is much more simple that the Dunning-Kruger affect, which has been imbibed with a whole mythos.

The only pure example of the Dunning Kruger affect I’ve seen is people’s confidence in the affect. People who have just learned about dunning-kruger are the ones most confident that it is a thing. (They will come across like snobs trying to sound smart).

The 80-20 rule

I want to make something absolutely clear: a variant of this (the power law) is absolutely true, and significantly more important than people realize. The only thing I question is the numbers.

80-20 rule? I like how it brings attention to the power law, but why do we have to use made up numbers? Most “examples” are actually more like 74-26, or 89-11, or otherwise don’t fit the pattern enough to justify worship of those numbers.

People who worship “80-20” seem to think that those numbers have magic properties. But why should we expect that that a natural phenomenon always neatly obeys round numbers (under a base-10 number system)? Its proponents are also often quite limited in their thinking about it, failing to grasp the more general importance of the power law curve.

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic

This one truly makes me cringe. It’s the most pretentious aphorism that exists. Every time I hear this, my opinion of the person saying it plummets to zero.

The subtext is, “aren’t I smart for repeating a bunch of moderately-complicated words arranged in a contrived way to make something self-evidently wrong technically true?”

No. Proof by counterexample: my iphone. Is my iphone “sufficiently advanced?” If not, I don’t know what is (and the aphorism is pointless). Is my iphone “distinguishable from magic?” Yes, I know that it is not magic. My phone is technology. Technology is not magic. Magic is magic. My phone is not magic.

More contrived language

I’m going to go on a tangent. I remember a high school history class where we were discussing Spivak and the “Subaltern.” Spivak says, “the subaltern cannot speak.” To check whether this was true, I asked the definition of subaltern, and I was told, “those who cannot speak.” I pointed out that that’s circular reasoning, but a more accurate statement is that it’s an axiom. What’s wrong with that? Well, it fails to actually say anything. It’s just defining our terms. It’s not using those terms to communicate. The history teacher said, “well, isn’t that’s all anyone does when they talk: define their terms.” But I don’t think that’s correct. Words and categories should be non-contrived, so that sentences actually mean something.

Stanford prison experiment

In case you didn’t know, it is BS.

I blame ethics boards for disallowing scientists from falsifying this. If not for the damn ethics boards, researchers would just try and fail to replicate it, and maybe the myth would have a chance of dying.

Why is the myth so persistent? Maybe because it has such a badass name, “Stanford Prison Experiment.” Isn’t that the most badass name you’ve ever heard?

7 Stages of grief

I’m just going to link another SMBC comic and not spend any more time on this one.

Slippery slope fallacy

No, the slippery slope fallacy is not a fallacy. It’s just Modus Ponens, the foundation of logic. If not for modus ponens, we wouldn’t have logic.

A implies B, A is true, therefore B.

The so-called “slippery slope” simply replaces “A implies B” with “A causes B.” Not a fallacy.

I’m sure there’s a fallacious version of the slippery slope: you state A causes B when it doesn’t. But that’s a case of people saying wrong things, and should be corrected the same way you correct anyone making an incorrect statement. It’s the use of a bad premise, not any other sort of “logical fallacy.”

Fortunately, the slippery slope term has stopped being used to refer to the so-called fallacy, and instead become used to refer to correct inferences. It should stay that way.

The idea that the “appeal to authority” fallacy is only wrong if the authority is a bad authority

Yeah, this one is not so neat to title. It’s hard to explain it, so I’ll give you an example and another.

Let me settle this once and for all. The above statement is true if you are using inductive logic, but not if you are using deductive logic. Informally, inductive logic is mass collection of evidence, whereas deductive logic is proof from first principles.