Height advantage in hiking

For an outdoorsy, not-so-tall girl, it’s not uncommon to wind up at the back of a pack of significantly taller, male hiking companions. Sweaty and panting, I watch their backpacks recede further away up the trail, and even the sweep guy might abandon his role to bolt around me. In an endurance situation, mental fatigue sends the foggy brain into rhythmic, ineffectual loops. Unable to do mental arithmetic while moving, one can only see that the negative space triangle formed by others’ legs is larger for taller people, and imagine that this reflects some advantage… but how much advantage?

Later, off the trail, pen and paper in hand, one can focus on calculating the magnitude of how much this height advantage adds up to, in terms of explaining how a physically fit person might lag so far behind:

Height of the taller person inches
Walking cadence steps per minute
Stride angle (angle between legs at full extension point) degrees
Height of the shorter person inches
The taller of the two hikers, being inches tall, has an assumed leg length (measured from hip joint pivot point) of inches. Given his stride angle of degrees, he takes steps that are inches long. At his walking cadence of steps per minute, he thus hikes at the rate of miles per hour.

Meanwhile, the shorter person has an assumed leg length of inches. Despite using the same stride angle and walking cadence as her companion (i.e., putting in the same amount of effort), each of her steps is smaller and she therefore covers ground more slowly...merely due to being shorter!

In order to keep up, the shorter person must work harder, by either:
(a) making her small steps more rapidly, at a faster cadence of steps per minute; or
(b) matching her companion's same walking cadence, but making each step longer by using a wider stride angle of degrees. (As efficiency-conscious runners well know, increasing step length beyond what is optimal for one's height has a dramatic effect on tiredness.)

Alternatively, if the shorter person exerts only the same effort as her taller companion, she will fall behind miles per hour of hiking. In such case, the taller person will have to wait (and get to rest!) minutes every hour, while waiting for the shorter person to catch up.

[Note: We’ve made the simplifying assumption of leg length as a fixed proportion (45%) of overall height – a reasonable constant, given that average ratios of leg length to height, and step length to leg length (a function of stride angle, which correlates positively with speed) enable trackers to infer height from footprints.]

Other factors driving differential physical effort between two companions are undoubtedly afoot during a hike: aerobic fitness, anaerobic endurance, strength-to-weight ratio, movement/form efficiency, backpack contents, stomach contents, sufficiency of recent sleep, injuries, performance of clothing/gear, and who’s chatting more than listening. Still, the point here is that leg length alone has a substantial impact on rate of travel. Regardless of which physical issues contribute to the exertion asymmetry, the optimal solution for both hikers (assuming they value fairness and social interaction) is to “put Herbie in front” — i.e., have the disadvantaged hiker set the pace.

Eli Goldratt’s 1984 classic The Goal vividly illustrates this principle of operational efficiency with….a hiking example! Herbie (the fat kid in the book; in our case, the short hiker) is the bottleneck. When the fast kids hike at their own pace with Herbie in the back of the single-file line of boy scouts, Herbie falls behind. They impatiently wait for him at trail intersections, but only to immediately take off hiking again as soon as he catches up and before he catches his breath. Herbie gets more and more tired, and thus even more physically disadvantaged, since fatigue initiates a negative feedback loop in terms of physical performance. Meanwhile, the fast kids get periodic rest, and so the effort differential increases from both directions. Putting Herbie in the front of the line — combined with distributing his backpack load among the fast kids — ensures that the hikers stay together and evenly spaced, and that the physical effort difference is somewhat lessened. (The effort saved by fast kids hiking slower than their capabilities is less than the effort saved by Herbie avoiding being in chronic, desperate catch-up mode.)

Posted in Interactive calculators, Main, Math is everywhere!, [All posts]

Progressives v. Conservatives: It’s all about fear of Type I or Type II errors

25 min read

Chatting with a libertarian friend over at a wine bar before the recent election, I was reminded how fear motivates conservatives to advocate against social welfare programs.  My friend, for example, is so fearful of welfare fraud and voter fraud that he says he’d prefer to eliminate social programs in order to avoid the possibility of abuse.  Strong emotion blinds him to the fundamental trade-off implicit in his policy position.  A more constructive conversation focuses explicitly on the trade-off calculation and its consequences.

How fine is your sieve?

Political leaning boils down to what kind of evaluation “sieve” you prefer.  Are you more worried about “letting in” someone “undeserving”, or “keeping out” someone “deserving”?   Conservatives worry more about the former and progressives worry more about the latter. 

For policies of inclusion or assistance, conservatives fear false positives and progressives fear false negatives.  Conversely, when it comes to policies of exclusion or punishment (e.g., criminal justice), the concern is inverted: conservatives fear false negatives and progressives fear false positives.

My libertarian friend’s evaluation sieve has an extremely fine mesh:  He is willing to refuse help to needy people, in the hopes of ensuring that no non-needy people ever pass through the sieve to receive public assistance.  Similarly, he believes that disenfranchising eligible voters is an acceptable trade-off to prevent any cases of voter fraud from slipping through. 

My sieve is more liberal, with a coarser mesh:  I am more focused on the ethics of refusing help to needy people than I am with a few low-income people improperly slipping through.  I am willing to accept that some people will undeservedly pass through a coarse sieve to receive non-needed welfare benefits – but I put far more weight on ensuring we don’t fail to serve the truly needy.  Similarly, I know that if we make it easy for all eligible voters to vote, we might correspondingly see a few more voter irregularities – but I view that trade-off as socially and ethically beneficial. 

  • My friend the conservative is afraid that a soft, “gullible” system will make a mistake of over-inclusion and cost him too much money.
  • I the progressive want to prevent a cold, “blind” system from being so overly-exclusive that we miss opportunities and fail to meet ethical obligations.

sieve

In contrast to this particular libertarian friend, when I do the trade-off arithmetic, I consider the actual rate of the undeserving passing through the sieve our system currently uses:  Actual incidence voter fraud in US federal elections is documented to affect approximately 0.00001% of ballots.  Reducing an error rate from 0.00001% to 0.000000% is prohibitively expensive and practically impossible.

Type I and Type II errors

How would my libertarian buddy and I decide which individuals need our taxpayer-funded help?  We administer an evidence-based test (i.e., use a decision-making sieve) and make an inferential assessment.  That assessment might correctly describe the true situation… or it might be a wrong conclusion.  The combination of our inferential conclusion (help or no help offered) and unknown true situation (help or no help needed) leads to four possible outcomes:

  Reality
  Null hypothesis is false Null hypothesis is true
Assessment Null hypothesis is false True positive
“Eureka!”
Type I error
False positive
Alpha error
“Gullibility”
Wrong assertion
Null hypothesis is true Type II error
False negative
Beta error
“Blindness”
Missed opportunity
True negative
“nothing to report”

Coming to a wrong conclusion is always a bad thing.  Depending on the situation and one’s value system, either a Type 1 (false positive) or Type II (false negative) error is comparatively worse.

  • Type I error = Incorrect rejection of the going-in assumption (null hypothesis). Seeing something that isn’t there.
  • Type II error = Incorrect acceptance of the null hypothesis. Failing to see something that is there.

Type I and II error rates are dictated by the test’s confidence level, the data sample size, the effect size being measured, and the background prevalence of the phenomenon being measured.  Administering a test with a high confidence level means that it takes a lot of evidence/effort to reject the null hypothesis.  Thus, we’re less likely to have Type I errors — but instead we are, by definition, more likely to have Type II errors.  Conversely, selecting a low confidence level generates more Type I errors in exchange for reducing Type II errors.  

Test design involves an inescapable trade-off between two types of error.  You MUST choose which one matters more in each situation.  In other words: Would you rather be gullible or blind? 

Confidence vs power

Welfare program eligibility

Null hypothesis:  People generally don’t need public assistance. (It’s a safety net, not an automatic benefit.)
Burden of proof:  Applicant must provide extensive documentation to prove eligibility

  Reality
  FALSE TRUE
Assessment FALSE Help many people who really need it Accidentally help a few less-deserving people
TRUE Fail to help some people in dire need Turn away those who don’t qualify for help

Social welfare was the first example in my wine-fueled libertarian-vs-progressive debate.  In this system, we are selecting for inclusion – evaluating applicants to determine who deserves assistance.  This evaluation “sieve” presumes that public assistance is not an automatic benefit, but rather a “safety net” for when structural economic conditions cause exceptional individual suffering.  In statistics terms, the null hypothesis is that an applicant doesn’t qualify for help.  The burden is on the applicant to provide evidence that they meet the government’s qualifying threshold.

Like all modern nations, the United States offers various “welfare” programs because of both (a) the moral imperative and (b) the economy-wide benefit of limiting desperation among the poorest.  For example, giving cash to poor single mothers of infants correlates to their children having higher IQ, lower lifetime medical costs, and less criminality.  Our society as a whole reaps long-term economic benefit from government spending money on welfare programs.

The progressive leaning is to worry most about the sin of failing to help the needy.  Turning away a desperate, impoverished human being means that the decision process was too skeptical — we used too high of a confidence level for the evidentiary test.  As a result, that test wasn’t powerful enough to include enough of the people we hoped to help.  The “sieve” was too fine.

Conservative rhetoric often claims that there are untold numbers of well-to-do or lazy people free-riding on the welfare system.  (Usually, as in my wine bar friend’s case, such passion is based on extrapolation from one or two anecdotes, rather than on data.)  Their illogical argument in an appeal to the emotion of fear, suggesting that we’re being tricked and letting our tax money be frivolously deployed.

The progressive counterpoint is to consider data about who those “undeserving” Type I error beneficiaries actually are as individuals and families.  Arguably, the inevitable Type I mistakes aren’t such clear-cut mistakes — nobody enduring the shame of welfare and living off its parsimony has anything close to an easy life.  It should perhaps give the conservatives some solace to consider that false positive welfare recipients are still poor, and so there’s thus undoubtedly still some multiplier effect creating a secondary benefit to society.

Re-framing the policy debate as a less-emotional discussion about the relative costs of Type I and Type II errors enables mutual understanding – and perhaps a path to compromise:  What is the false positive and false negative rate of our current system?  What are the financial and social costs of each type of error?  What trade-off are we willing to accept between accidentally excluding the needy and accidentally including the less-needy?

Criminal justice

Null hypothesis:  Accused person is innocent
Burden of proof:  Prosecutor must prove guilt, beyond a reasonable doubt

  Reality
  FALSE TRUE
Assessment FALSE Acquit innocent person Convict innocent person (4%)
TRUE Acquit guilty person Convict guilty person

In the criminal justice system, we are selecting for exclusion – evaluating the accused to determine who deserves punishment.  The threshold of reasonable doubt intentionally makes it difficult to reject the null hypothesis of innocence.  Our system recognizes that convicting an innocent person (Type I error) is morally much worse than acquitting a guilty person (Type II error).  That trade-off is made even more morally obvious because convicting an innocent person almost always means that a guilty person has remained unpunished for the crime in question.

The progressive viewpoint is to worry most about convicting the innocent.  A false conviction means that the jury wasn’t skeptical enough of evidence – it used too low of a confidence level for the evidentiary test.  In the past few decades, America has been shocked awake about the staggeringly high false conviction rates in our criminal justice system.  One in 25 death sentence convictions have subsequently been proven false.  That’s a 4% Type I error rate… where the moral consequences of every single uncorrected error are astronomical.

Conservatives traditionally use rhetoric grounded in fear of acquitting guilty people.  Indeed, sometimes the null hypothesis is implicitly characterized as guilt, challenging the accused to prove innocence.  The problem with this inversion of the US constitution is not the oft-repeated idea that establishing certainty about the non-existence of something (guilt, god, bigfoot) is challenging.  (Establishing absolute certainty about the existence of those same things is also challenging.)  Rather, presumption of innocence is a universal human rights standard because society has agreed that false convictions are worse than false acquittals.  Placing the burden of proof on the accuser is intended to limit Type I errors (and to ensure that accused innocents are treated well all the way through the process until they are, hopefully, acquitted).  

Stop-and-frisk practices 

New York City’s police department infamously accepts a very high Type I error rate (frisking innocent people) in hopes of lowering their Type II error rate (failing to prevent crime, by not frisking gun-toting troublemakers).  The practice trampled the right of hundreds of thousands of innocent young black and Latino men to walk around in their own neighborhoods… and has failed to significantly lower crime rates.  The very fear used to justify the practice is left unquelled by the practice’s abysmal results in crime prevention.

This poorly-designed stop-and-frisk “test” yields an astonishingly high Type I error rate of 98.2% (% of stops where no gun is found) and thus only a 1.8% positive predictive value (% of stops where a gun is found).  

Re-stating the debate as a difference in relative concern about Type I versus Type II errors is useful.  We can perhaps nudge conservatives and progressives out of the deadlock of conflicting value systems and into dialogue:  How can stop-and-frisk advocates explain why abrogating rights of 49 people to find 1 gun is an ethically defensible trade-off?  Could we create alternate “tests” for guns that have a higher predictive value, and thus a less egregious civil rights cost?  If we continue this practice with such a high false “conviction” rate, how can we soften the real person harm of all those false positives?

Hiring and promoting women

Anti-woman bias in the workplace equates to a high false negative rate in hiring and promotion.  Systematically failing to acknowledge and reward women for their valuable capabilities and contributions constitutes a Type II error of omission (blind/dismissive).  Overvaluing men who aren’t actually better performers is a Type I error of inclusion (credulous/gullible).  The deeply-biased “test” for hiring begins with a skeptical null hypothesis that discriminatorily burdens women with proactively proving our worth.  It’s like a warped judicial system wherein the accused must prove their own innocence. 

Again, fear is the culprit:  fear of working with someone different than oneself (gender, race, age, religion, etc), fear the comfortable status quo culture will change.  Ironically, fear of making a mistake leads directly to the very costly mistake of over-exclusion. 

Slowly, some progressive companies have begun to realize the high cost of Type II hiring errors relative to Type I hiring errors.  Failing to recruit from half the population means that a company is, by definition, reaching deeper down into the barrel of male talent – which ultimately costs the company in productivity, innovation and competitiveness.  Meanwhile, accidentally hiring or promoting the wrong person can be reversed, once observed performance clearly diverges from expectations.  From a rational economic perspective, companies have a much to gain and little to lose by adopting a much coarser hiring sieve to proportionally include women.

[See my related article “The Lost Generation”]

Voter eligibility

Null hypothesis:  Person isn’t eligible to vote
Burden of proof:  Voter must produce eligibility documents at polling location

  Reality
  FALSE TRUE
Assessment FALSE Eligible voter casts ballot Rare cases of voter fraud (0.00001%)
TRUE Disenfranchise eligible voters (4.4%) Ineligible voters not allowed to vote

In the case of voter eligibility, our system is one that selects for inclusion by requiring would-be voters to prove eligibility at the polls (with specific identification requirements varying widely by state).  Therefore, the progressive preference is for a coarse sieve.  We ought to make it relatively easy for people to register, prove their eligibility at the polls, and exercise their constitutional right to vote.  Wrongfully excluding many eligible voters does far greater harm to society than a rare case of counting a fraudulent vote.

Conservatives’ fear-based worldview leads to willful misapprehension of the Type I error rate by multiple orders of magnitude.  In fact, out of 197 million votes cast in federal elections between 2002 and 2005, there were 26 confirmed cases of voter fraud (i.e., ineligible voters being allowed to vote).  Assuming that all fraud instances were caught, that equates to a Type I error rate of less than 1 in 7 million, or 0.00001%.  In other words, we’re currently screening voters at the polls with a 99.99999% confidence level.  (An ultra-high-availability computer system with that level of “seven nines” service guarantee would have just 3 seconds of downtime per year.)

Meanwhile, in states with strict photo identification laws, studies estimate that 11% of eligible voters lack qualifying identification.  If 40% of those voters turn out to vote (per average federal election turnout rates), that means as many as 4.4% of eligible would-be voters are disenfranchised.  A Type I error rate of 0.00001% and Type II error rate of 4.4% means that our system trades off over 300,000 disenfranchised voters for every 1 voided illegitimate ballot.  (Note:  Though strict photo ID laws have been proven in court to disenfranchise voters and suppress turnout, they are not necessarily the direct means by which we catch voter fraud.  The relationship between avoiding fraud and avoiding disenfranchisement is another — more complex — story.)

Economic logic tells us that the marginal cost of reducing an already-minuscule Type I error rate would be an inefficient use of taxpayer money.  Typically, conservatives would eagerly support such an argument.  However, in this case, political power agenda trumps economic principle.  Eligible voters lacking photo identification are disproportionately low-income and left-leaning.  So, the harm done to them helps conservative candidates.  To deflect charges of intentional voter suppression, conservatives focus on obfuscating data about what is, in truth, the vanishingly low base rate incidence of voter fraud.  They incite fear of something that is not, in fact, happening. 

Re-framing this debate can advance an otherwise-stalled dialogue.  We can pose questions that directly address the underlying disagreement:   How does the marginal cost to taxpayers of further reducing a low Type I error rate compare to the marginal cost of reducing a high Type II error rate?  How many disenfranchised voters is one avoided fraudulent vote “worth” to us as a society?  How can we better communicate voter fraud data, to combat the factual ignorance that underpins support for voter suppression laws?

Refugee vetting for asylum

Null hypothesis:  Asylum-seeker deserves refuge
Burden of proof:  Immigration department must identify security threats

  Reality
  FALSE TRUE
Assessment FALSE Turn away refugees who pose a threat Deny help to many innocent people in dire need
TRUE Rare cases of granting visas to dangerous people (0.00009%) Provide refuge, liberty, opportunity to hard-working good people

Progressives further point out that the “false negative” rate of accidentally giving out visas to terrorists is comfortingly low:  Among 3.25 million refugees admitted into the United States 1975-2015, 3 caused a death.  Thus, our current asylum applicant test has a 0.00009% Type II error rate.  That’s a 99.99991% power level (in exchange for what is theoretically a low confidence level – which we can’t calculate because the number of rejected refugees who would have been domestic terrorists is unknowable).

(Note:  If you prefer to conceptualize our current system as selecting for inclusion, just swap all of the vocabulary. The conclusion remains the same if we invert terminology to describe the null hypothesis as “terrorist”, progressives’ concern as avoiding “Type II” errors of wrongful denial of asylum, and “false positives” of over-inclusion as historically low.)

In truth, because the base rate prevalence of terroristic leanings among human beings is very low, it is mathematical corollary that most rejected refugees are harmless.  When prevalence is very low, false positives (i.e., rejecting innocent refugees) are by definition more numerous than true positives (i.e., rejecting terrorists).  Misapprehension of this counter-intuitive truth is the same “base rate fallacy” that reared its xenophobic, bigoted head in the 2016 election cycle’s Skittles-refugee comparisons. 

[See my related article “Skittles vs Refugees: The humanitarian cost of inferential error”]

Conservatives’ attitude on refugee immigration is entirely explicable as a manifestation of a fear-based worldview.  Conservatives put more emphasis on the low risk of admitting one horrifically dangerous person, compared to the high risk of failing to help hundreds of thousands of innocent victims of war.  Fear makes them overstate the low risk of a Type II error, and fear makes them less motivated by the humanitarian failure of large-scale Type I errors. 

Psychology research shows that conservatives’ minds are more sensitive to threats of harm and oriented toward protective separation, whereas progressives’ minds are more sensitive to threats of loss and oriented toward community.  We can imagine how both worldviews would have been useful evolutionary adaptive traits, and how both remain valuable today.  But, because people don’t easily alter their worldview, the policy debate stalls as a clash of worldviews. 

Again, it is more fruitful to re-frame the debate as a less emotional one, based on consideration of real data and statistical trade-offs: 

  • How much higher do we think terrorism prevalence is among Syrian refugees today, compared to the known low rate of 0.00009% among all refugee immigrants over the past 40 years?
  • How could we change our immigrant vetting process to keep us safe (by minimizing false negatives), without violating our nation’s core principles (via high false positive rates)?

Market research

Null hypothesis:  No trends (signals) exist in the data (noise)
Burden of proof:  Researcher seeks to identify all market signals for a business decision-maker

  Reality
  FALSE TRUE
Assessment FALSE Correctly report real market signals Misleading report of random noise as a market signal
TRUE Report nothing, even though there are trends in the market Correctly report an absence of market trends

When we move out of the realm of social policy and into the business world, relative values of Type I and Type II errors shift.  Typically, there are only dollars at stake and no direct humanitarian cost of drawing erroneous conclusions about the world.  Which grade sieve is appropriate is therefore highly situational.

The aim of market research is to identify actionable market trends and customer preferences – to find meaningful “signals” within the “noise” of voluminous data.  Business decision-makers use Bayesian methods to incrementally update prior beliefs based on new research results.  And, those market research results are but one of many information sources considered. 

Decision-makers want to consider numerous possible signals – not just the few that would pass through a super-fine sieve using a high confidence interval:

  • Spurious findings (Type I errors) aren’t harmful because they go through additional post hoc judgment filters and don’t independently drive action.
  • In contrast, incorrectly believing there’s nothing happening in the market (Type II errors) can be quite costly to a business. We are very concerned about missing real phenomena. 

Therefore, market research optimally uses a low confidence level to define statistical significance, allowing more potential signals to surface and be reported as significant findings.  

[See my related article “Intentional gullibility: Slash your statistical confidence level to 80%!”]

Product safety testing

Null hypothesis:  Product has no defect
Burden of proof:  Tester must show a product is defective, to justify pulling it out of the supply chain

  Reality
  FALSE TRUE
Assessment FALSE Destroy defective products Waste money by dumping some non-defective products
TRUE Ship dangerous products to customers Ship safe products

In manufactured product safety testing, there is a humanitarian cost on only one side of the equation.  The trade-off between Type I and Type II errors is a trade-off between money and people

As in the market research example above, everyone is logically more worried about false negatives than false positives – politics doesn’t affect how people value the two error types.  But, in product safety testing, a Type II error is even worse than in market research:  it actually harms customers.  We draw the same conclusion as in market research regarding which error type is most costly, but we may go even further to lower confidence and increase power levels of our test to minimize that error.

As in the immigration example above, everyone is worried about false negatives because they harm people.  (Bad products can be dangerous; immigrants can be dangerous.)  However, in product safety testing, we are trading off only money for people’s safety – whereas the refugee question forces us to trade off some people’s safety for other people’s safety. 

Wasting money on dumping some perfectly good product involves no ethical cost.  On the other hand, harming our customers does.  Just as “refugees aren’t Skittles” (per the famous tweet by Skittles manufacturer Mars, Inc.), so too people aren’t products.  When faced with a money-vs-people tradeoff, politics don’t apply.  Everyone agrees we must focus primarily on minimizing Type II errors and keep bad products off the shelf. 

Depending on the specific harm a defect would cause (inconvenience, discomfort, illness), the monetary value of identifying defects changes.  Additionally, a manufacturer’s self-interest also lies in spending money to minimize Type II errors, due to the reputational ripple effects of shipping bad products.  In this case, both public safety and self-interest are in agreement as to the Type I-Type II error tradeoff.

Scientific research

Null hypothesis:  No effect/link exists
Burden of proof:  Researcher aims to show that there is a link/effect

  Reality
  FALSE TRUE
Assessment FALSE Publish important findings Publish non-replicable results, damage reputation (5%)
TRUE Fail to identify potentially important effect (~30-60%) Uninteresting outcome – nothing to publish

Physical science researchers are extremely concerned about the embarrassment of reporting false positive results.  False positives misdirect further experiments in the wrong direction.  They damage the researcher’s personal reputation and public credibility of the scientific process. 

False negatives, in contrast, aren’t as harmful.  Other research teams will eventually identify and publish the real effect that any one particular experiment fails to uncover.  For individual scientists, lack of publishable results is indeed a disappointing, missed opportunity, but not punitive. 

In contrast to the market research example above, scientific research has good reason to prioritize avoidance of Type I errors over avoidance of Type II errors.  Therefore, a higher confidence level (e.g., 95%) is warranted.  Meta-studies of published scientific papers have shown that the high confidence levels and experimental design (effect size, sample size) commonly yield Type II error rates (1 – power) exceeding 50%.  Science is quite willing to be blind in order to avoid gullibility.

Consider the consequences

Improving the quality and productiveness of policy debates starts with gathering data: 

  1. What is the base rate incidence/prevalence?
  2. What are the Type I and Type II error rates in the current system?  
  3. What are the financial, ethical and social costs of each type of error?

From that factual basis, conservatives and progressives wielding opposing value systems can more rationally clarify their position regarding inescapable trade-offs:  How much are we willing to pay to reduce either error rate towards zero?  How many of mistakes of over-inclusion are acceptable to avoid one instance of over-exclusion?  

Ultimately, to satisfy everyone, a system must include policy responses to the consequences of each inevitable type of errorGiven that we will always have some false criminal convictions, how can we provide adequate remedies?   If we settle on a narrower welfare system, how can we provide a secondary safety net for those in dire need who nonetheless inevitably fall between the cracks?   If we continue with extreme vetting and rejecting refugees, can we appropriate money to create a robust appeal system, or to subsidize their resettlement in more receptive countries? 

The failure mode that many conservatives bring to policy debates is a refusal to consider the consequences.  Even within conservative politics, discussion quality is greatly improved by framing issues as Type I-Type II error trade-offs.  For example:

  • My right-leaning libertarian friend in the wine bar was initially only concerned with keeping the “undeserving” people “out” and government expenditure low – implicitly (and irrationally) at any cost. He hadn’t considered the downstream fate of people wrongly excluded in his idealized-but-inevitably-imperfect system.  Even though the humanitarian argument doesn’t move someone like him, he does care about the long-term net cost to society of the wrongful exclusion (once it’s brought to his attention quantitatively).
  • In contrast, a center-leaning libertarian friend adopts a more holistic perspective from the outset: She too may fervently prefer limited entitlement spending.  But, before simplistically advocating budget cuts, she considers the real financial, social and ethical costs of withdrawing assistance from poor people.  She realizes that reduced spending must be packaged with a concrete plan to mitigate the consequences of errors of over-inclusion and over-exclusion. 

 

 

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Trump is not a “businessman”

<5 min read

Donald Trump is not a businessman.  He’s a real estate developer.  Huuuge difference.

If we had, say, a software company CEO poised to set a new direction for our nation’s diplomacy, trade policy, military actions, law enforcement and healthcare system, we’d rightly be less worried.  Businesses that successfully solve problems (in the form of products and services) for people (individuals or business customers) prioritize sensitivity to human values, needs, and behaviors.  Customer experience (CX) and user experience (UX) are paramount.

Real estate developers have little customer orientation.  They aren’t making products or providing a service to anyone in particular.  They create value primarily by building something quickly, cashing out and moving on to the next project — not by innovating solutions, delighting customers, or understanding real-world consumer psychology. (Financial investing, commodity trading and Romney-style leveraged buyout businesses are also in this camp.)  A developer like Trump must care about macroeconomic trends that affect lending rates and property values — not so much the microeconomics of individual consumer/citizen experiences and decisions.  Trump, Inc. doesn’t have a CXO. 

The real estate development process rewards bullies: intimidating competitors out of the market to prevent overbuilding, strong-arming contractors to reduce construction costs, rationalizing corner-cutting, and berating permitting authorities.  The industry is notorious for graft and heavy-handed lobbying.  Arm-twisting politicians to grease the permitting wheels is not uncommon.  

Real estate is a rare industry where the least possible oversight is unambiguously best for the capital owner.  Delays cost money.  In fact, the biggest swing in a building project’s value at completion is attributable to time.  So, developers axiomatically rail against regulatory requirements to assess environmental impact, offset habitat destruction, consider visual impact, involve community voices, or abide by aesthetic covenants. Whereas raw libertarianism fails in most industries (and lacks adherents among contemporary business leaders and has long been debunked by academic economists), it finds an eager case study in real estate development.  

Most business sectors benefit from some regulation that ensures fair competition, protects customers, and minimizes volatility.  Even the oil and gas industry doesn’t want Trump to lift regulations on fracking, as they are fundamental to the good community relations that make operations smooth.  (Lifting regulations on fracking is in any case almost immaterial to o&g decision-making. Global commodity prices dictate whether its rational to recover a resource.)  Many industries have invested billions over time in accommodating smart regulations about air pollution, efficiency standards, toxin disposal, product labeling and safety practices.  Unwinding rules doesn’t deliver cost savings, because companies are optimized to meet existing requirements.  Imagine the absurdity of a manufacturer deciding to spend money to dismantle a production line, in order to then spend more money to rebuild it to new, lower standards.

The wild west of real estate development breeds a lose-lose, black-and-white mentality in those who make it their life.  It takes little creativity and (for those, like Trump, without resource constraints) little collaboration to provide the predictably ever-urbanizing world with yet another, bigger building.  It is unsurprising to those with exposure to the high-stakes commercial real estate sector that Trump’s oft-criticized “temperament” is one of simplistic, short-attention-span tribalism.  He’s a product a 50-year-long, monothematic career inside this one peculiar corner of “the business world”. 

Contrast the zero-sum real estate game with the complexity of technology product and service market dynamics.  Leading tech companies think creatively about creating new markets (not just wielding influence, to borrow more money, to make more of the same stuff, to match GDP and population growth).  Innovation, not access to capital, is the key to success for such companies.  They task sophisticated strategy brains with finding mutual advantage with competitors, and allocate substantial bandwidth to developing collaborative alliances and channel partnerships.  

~

Back to the thought experiment of a software company CEO as president-elect:  She has likely had to have the humility and foresight to radically pivot the business strategy at some juncture.  And, she’s gained functional expertise in marketing, sales, finance, operations, data analytics and IT over a varied career path.  Success in that realm requires patience (not asset-flipping), thoughtfulness (not impulsiveness), creativity (not force), collaboration (not tone-deaf demagoguery), and flexibility (not intransigence).  

While the idea of a “businessman” politician evidently seems appealing to masses of uncritical voters, that is a meaninglessly broad descriptor (encompassing the 70% of American workers who don’t work in government, military, academia or healthcare delivery).  Not all segments of “business” engender the perspective, experience, habits, and temperament necessary to translate running a business into running a country.  Real estate development should have been the least appropriate candidate.  

 

Posted in <5 min read, Business topics, Social issues, [All posts]

The Lost Generation

20 min read

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by frustration, hungry eager underemployed, driving Uber through the streets at dawn looking for a way to lean in, overeducated businesswomen burning for the promised opportunity to apply their energy to dynamic work in the machinery of the economy…

 

A lost generation of businesswomen is being squeezed between expectations and opportunity – between those before us, who knew they would be screwed, and those after us, for whom the problem will be fixed.

Many of us can’t find work commensurate with our education and years of experience, and we face pervasive sexism during the search and on the job.  Intersectional bias against women of a certain age is more complex than sexism alone.  For example, the gender salary gap for MBAs 10 years after graduation has recently been estimated as 60% — we make less than half of our male b-school classmates, after salaries have had this many years to diverge.

The problem arose when business schools started pumping out women in greater numbers before the business world was ready to accept us.  Top business schools started inching toward 50-50 gender ratios by Y2K (though my graduating class was anomalously only 17% women).  We believed in the vision that equal opportunity to attend school would carry forward as equal opportunity in our careers.  Now, we Generation X businesswomen have hit a wall in our late 30’s and 40’s.

Women older than us didn’t expect a fair shot. They knew they were entering a world where they weren’t welcome.  There were fewer of them to begin with, and even fewer stuck it out to the higher levels before capitulating to being shunted off into human resources, non-profits or family life.  Some succeeded – even spectacularly — despite the upstream swim.  People wishing to counter my argument will enthusiastically enumerate those exceptional women by name… because there are few enough examples such that they can be enumerated individually.

Women younger than us will probably see more opportunity by the time they spend many years in the relatively egalitarian world of junior-level work. Cognitive bias and systemic discrimination is becoming more acknowledged as a problem.  Companies are starting to realize the opportunity cost and ethical error of ignoring or underutilizing half the population.  Change begins with recruiting processes at colleges and business schools.  It seems likely that younger women will make it higher in their careers without being forced by structural sexism to damage their own resumes with job-hopping, part-time/freelance work, and family obligation gaps.

Trump has explained that the proper response to workplace sexual harassment is to quit your job and find a different one.  But when I graduated from business school, I bought into the fantasy that we elite grads were entering a post-sexist business world.  The first time I experienced a boss hitting on me, I didn’t even consider the option of masochistically damaging my career by slinking away to another job.  I tried to address the situation constructively and professionally… and was stunned to be summarily escorted out of the office, then handed some cash and a gag order.  The world didn’t operate the way I was taught to expect it to.

The problem with expectations is that they exacerbate pain and inhibit happiness. Psychologically, humans are more adversely affected by losses that they didn’t anticipate.  If our lost generation had never had our eyes on what we thought was a gender-agnostic corner office, our situation wouldn’t be quite so painful.

 

The Goldilocks conundrum

I personally know of many women facing the Goldilocks conundrum in their career:  Rejected as overqualified for low/mid-level positions, but perceived as an overly-risky choice for senior-level positions.

No matter how much one professes a willingness to take yet another step backwards in responsibility and pay in order to maintain optically-critical continuous employment, it’s nearly impossible to convince a company to over-hire.  I can’t disagree that it creates organizational friction to put someone in a lower-level role than they meritocratically deserve.

Meanwhile, it is still the case today for many corporations that putting a woman in a senior-level position is a groundbreaking decision for them.  The slightest doubt about the woman candidate is often significant enough to knock her out.  Incumbents in power fear a Type I error of over-inclusion (false positive) more than a Type II error of under-inclusion (false negative).  [See my article “Progressives v. Conservatives: It’s all about fear of Type I or Type II errors”]

Companies are generally risk-averse.  Work history “risks” and personal “risks” are far more common among women.  Women disproportionately have to job-hop, accept variable work, take time off work, and wind up with a suspiciously non-linear track record.  It’s well-established that being married and/or having children is deemed a positive feature of male job-seekers and a negative feature for women job-seekers.  In my case, the core problem is the time I spent freelancing in order to take care of my ill husband.

Let me take a moment to review my credentials.  (This is necessary so that the reader can comprehend the validity of the troubling experiences I later describe, without casually dismissing them as due to some imagined lack of qualifications, chutzpah, or tact on my part):

  • Graduated with honors from the #1 ranked business school, where I secured the most coveted Wall Street internship and was in high enough demand to turn down several coveted full-time offers during a recession.
  • Breezed through college, graduating summa cum laude from an Ivy League school, getting the departmental award in my major, and also the departmental award in my minor (a language I had only begun learning two years prior)…all the while also holding down a half-time job.
  • In middle/high school, received departmental awards for both the humanities AND the sciences, was voted both “class brain” AND “most creative”, slayed at both regional math AND regional music competitions, was proud to be the first girl to get the industrial arts award, and tested at >150 IQ.
  • Extroverted and hard-working, a badass kiteboarder and skiier who isn’t afraid to get muddy and is steely enough to, for example, sojourn alone through travel-advisory areas of rural Mexico. Fiercely loyal and resourceful, saved former husband’s life more than once, and resourcefully finagled his release from a Saudi prison when the State Department refused to intervene.
  • Perceived as friendly, approachable and (as Barack described Hillary) “likeable enough”.  Conscious of the unearned privilege of being a white, native English-speaker with an upper-middle-class upbringing.  And (to pre-empt the all-too-familiar ad hominem accusation justifying a woman’s professional failures) not ugly.

Nonetheless, I can’t get a good job.

Astronomers long believed that finding an exo-planet in the Goldilocks zone was only a matter of time and perseverance.  Sure enough, eventually such a planet was found. (Today we know of 8, among theoretically billions across the Milky Way.)  But the analogy breaks down there.  Human beings aren’t astronomical objects.  And, our value depreciates over time, so patience isn’t a reasonable coping strategy.

 

Sexism is still pervasive

Coded language, negative priming, soft-pedaling technical questions, moving interviews to coffee shops so they can ask illegal personal questions, asking illegal personal questions in office interviews anyway, sexualization… this is part of the outrageous inequality that businesswomen job-hunters face daily.

Some selected recent experiences of mine:

  1. Former colleague and mentor of 17 years cut off contact with me because, now that I’m divorced, he fears his wife is jealous.
  2. Male COO interviewer who hasn’t read my resume begins interview by announcing that he doesn’t think I can “hack” their “intense environment”.  (Pointing out my Wall Street experience and extreme sport hobbies doesn’t help – he clearly had made up his mind when he first saw me.)
  3. Married male boss at a Fortune 500 broadband company repeatedly complains that I don’t smile at him or hang out in his office enough. I reluctantly try to comply without being inappropriate, but am not being flirtatious enough.  He blows up at me one day over not replying to his email within the hour (who sends urgent requests via email?), screaming “you’re just a fucking contractor! You need to do what I say!”  After I move on to my next job, I find out that he became notorious for hitting on other women.
  4. Employee of a consultancy I’m interviewing with counsels me that interviewers will infer the above issue, since they are aware that my ex-boss at their client firm is known for such behavior – and I should be prepared to explain myself (for the sin of having been harassed).
  5. Staffing agency that placed me with above company refuses to place me again (punishing me for having been targeted for harassment).
  6. Male networking acquaintance tells me it’s just as well that I lost out on a particular job because someone “like [me]” (i.e., female) wouldn’t want to “work long hours” and “try to fit in to that environment”.  
  7. Retained search firm partner is eager to help me after meeting in person. But, after receiving my resume, emails me that I’m not worth his time because nobody who has spent time freelancing will ever get a job in the area of finance he covers. (Of course, the only reason I was freelancing was because of such rejections – a negative feedback loop.)
  8. Send thank-you email after a networking meeting with someone who plans to make an important referral. Receive a reply from his wife using his email account, telling me to never speak to her husband again.
  9. Interview process involves being asked 6 separate times if I am able to travel, with thinly-veiled probing about whether I have “resources” (husband, live-in nanny) to handle last-minute and overnight trips.  I finally just volunteer the illegally-sought truth that I’m unmarried with no kids. (Presumably, bias goes in my favor for this one. But they continue asking me the question, as if they don’t believe me… or don’t want to.)
  10. In lieu of the case study I was told to prepare for, female interviewer for a consulting job asks me “if you were a dog, what breed of dog would you be?”
  11. A year after the dog-breed case study incident, an internal email surfaces from that firm’s HR director to that interviewer, saying “Make it look like a real interview”.  
  12. Informational conversation at a coffee shop. Guy calls me later to say he didn’t forward my resume internally as discussed, but do I want to meet at night for drinks.
  13. Alum/friend from business school offers to make some important introductions. He knows that I was recently assaulted by a lecherous landlord who then went to jail. But, he will only help me if I assure him that “the assault was physical” and that I “didn’t do anything to provoke it”.
  14. Wealthy alum from business school glibly suggests I apply to a specific company simply because “they need women”.  (Despite the obvious chasm in our economic circumstances, he tells himself that I have an advantage he doesn’t have.)
  15. Flown to Fortune 500 telecom company HQ for 2 days of interviews after 3 weeks of prep, to begin with dinner with CTO and SVP. Waiting at the restaurant where they made a reservation for 3, I get a text from the SVP saying they “forgot I was coming”.  SVP slaps together some pseudo-interviews the next day with people who haven’t seen my resume and don’t know what I’m supposed to be interviewing for. Despite me reaching out several times, I never hear back with an apology, explanation or follow-up from the CTO.
  16. Flown to consulting firm HQ for a full day of interviews. When I arrive, they have only scheduled 2 hours of interviews for the morning, and recommend that I “go shopping” for the rest of the day until my return flight leaves. (I would have been the first-ever senior-level woman at that firm.)
  17. Male interviewer won’t shake hands with me for religious reasons. (Could he really give fair consideration to working side-by-side with me?)
  18. Above interviewer asks if I have children and a husband, saying his company prefers to hire people with “stable home life”.
  19. Interview for highly analytical job involves zero quantitative questions. I express surprise. They say don’t worry about it. Post-rejection feedback via the recruiter is that I “didn’t seem quantitative”.
  20. My resume is littered with references to quantitative analysis, statistical methods, technical expertise, and finance work…. But I am often assumed to be a “marketing person”.
  21. Conversations in coffee shops function as first-round interviews but can be characterized as not-an-interview, thus circumventing strict legal prohibitions against personal questions.  Questions about marital status, age, child status are not uncommon.  
  22. Female interviewer asks me why I want to work, given that I’m married
  23. Male interviewer asks me why I want to work, given that I must have a divorce settlement
  24. Meet with famous venture capitalist who prides himself in being a great connector for newcomer job-hunters in the city. After considering my resume, he has no ideas of any company in the area that would consider hiring me given the combination of my “level” and “background”.
  25. 30-year-old CEO of a growth-stage startup asks me what year I graduated from college and then tells me he doesn’t need “mature resources” at his company.
  26. Male interviewer sits down and tells me to “smile” (just like male strangers creepily do on the street)
  27. Head of career services at my business school counsels me on my career conundrum….She admits my best bet may be to find a husband.  
  28. Twice told by men in networking conversations that I could solve my career problem by becoming an escort.  I’m told I’m “lucky” that I have this option uniquely available to women.
  29. Told by male friend at a software company considering me for a role that I should “just go be a yoga teacher”.
  30. Fortune 500 Internet company hires a less experienced man for a job they’re discussing with me…. but without ever interviewing me. First, meet CFO in coffee shop. He volunteers that he and the Treasurer want to think about creating custom, high-level position for me. Another coffee shop meeting reiterates their strong interest.  Invited to office for interviews, but nobody I speak to has seen my resume, knows why they were asked to speak with me, or asks me a technical question.  At next coffee shop meeting about the position, Treasurer tells me they hired someone else for the position weeks ago.  Asked to fly in on my own nickel to interview with the newly-hired guy, who at last-minute relocates our meeting to…a coffee shop.  New guy turns out to be 10 years less experienced than me, with similar industry background, and far lesser academic credentials.  Over the 2 month process, I was never asked a single technical question, but I’m told I lost out due to not being technical enough. 

A woman has little recourse against the above behaviors, despite most of them being illegal. As a practical matter, involving a lawyer or the EEOC won’t resurrect the job you were passed over for…and it will get you a public record of being litigious.  Even the gentlest of real-time push-back results in being labeled “difficult”, “angry” and “bitchy”.  (e.g., Regarding issue #30 above, the Treasurer consented to debrief with me 5 months later. He’s a fellow alum from the same school, so I would have expected a level of respect and consideration. But he expressed no accountability – much less remorse — for his and his firm’s actions and was indignant that I “seemed upset”.)

In addition to misogyny in the professional sphere, it is also of course rampant in the social sphere.  Like a third of women in their lifetimes, I too have been raped.  I realize from experience that this information isn’t disturbing to most men, and so I too minimize it.  My greater pain is that the world I live in today is one where sexual coercion is commonplace, and the idea of freely-given consent is increasingly muddled (even before “grab ’em by the pussy” was absurdly waived away as “harmless locker room talk”).  Not infrequently, I encounter men who expect me to use my body as currency – in exchange for friendship, for housing, for networking help, for work, for social inclusion.  And, nowadays, women face a dating dynamic that routinely involves vicious verbal attacks (and sometimes worse) when we refuse sex on a first date.  American men increasingly seek the “prostitute experience” instead of the previously-idealized “girlfriend experience”.  This objectifying attitude spills over from the social to the professional world.  

 

The personal meaning of Hillary’s defeat

Yesterday I voted, cautiously optimistic that the election of a woman president would one day trickle down to my personal life – even though, tragically, that hasn’t happened for black people living under a black president.

Today, the unexpected election result reaffirms and re-normalizes systemic male privilege and misogyny.

We elected a fear-mongering, openly racist, xenophobic, anti-science, reckless real estate developer with a flippant ignorance of international affairs, blatant disregard for facts and data and indiscriminate verbal cruelty, who repeatedly belittles women, has unapologetically bragged about sexually assaulting them and currently faces criminal allegations.  Our two past Republican presidents didn’t vote for him.  Many Republican Congresspeople disavowed him.  But half of white women voters, 1 in 5 African-American voters, and 1 in 4 Latino voters chose him.  Less unexpectedly, a strong majority of white men found his unhinged bigotry comforting.  He is the first president in 240 years of American history with zero political or military experience.

Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton spent 20-some years as a practicing lawyer, 18 years as advisor to a Governor and then President, 8 years as a Senator, 4 years as Secretary of State and a lifetime dedicated to public service, non-profit work and advocacy.  Yet, preposterously, I’ve personally heard numerous right- and left-leaning men claim to me that she “doesn’t have any experience”.  These are sometimes the same men who control my access to meaningful work via their evaluation of my experience.  How likely is someone holding that prejudiced viewpoint to see ME as experienced and qualified for a job commensurate with my capabilities?  How could the gendered, counter-factual dismissal of Hillary’s voluminous resume NOT be paralleled in unfair dismissal of my own impressive resume?

Among the men who set aside Trump’s tales of groping women to vote for him, some are the very same men in senior corporate roles who I aim to work for.  How could their tolerance of such behavior by their candidate NOT translate into what they feel is tolerable treatment of me?

Clinton inspires irrationally non-specific, highly-gendered vitriol.  She has been scrutinized to a degree that Trump was not, and her high marks and exonerations have been ignored.  Her accomplishments are minimized because she’s female and because she’s married to an accomplished man.  People criticize the sound of her voice, the fit of her clothes, and the shape of her body – but they don’t criticize those features of Trump.  Trump has “broad shoulders”, a “fiery” voice, and “intensity”.  Clinton has “cankles”, a “shrill” voice, and “lacks stamina”.  Some women even join in the hateful choir, identifying more with Trump’s promised anti-minority crusade than with Clinton embodying a step forward for their own kind.  People whose vote violates their own dignity and self-interest are betting that participating in the nastiness against Clinton protects them from being targeted.  (There was analogous, race-based vitriol against Obama, slandering him as a non-Christian and non-American.  Thankfully, it wasn’t a successful argument at the ballot box.)

Yesterday, hypocritical fundamentalist Christians voted overwhelmingly for a thrice-married, adulterous atheist. Those ~20% of our citizens believe that women should not head a household, head a church or head a government.  They identify more fervently as misogynists than as keepers of their own scriptural commandments. When I encounter those same people in my job search, how likely are they to hire a woman to head a department?  Can we see how they reiterate their presidential vote by prioritizing keeping me in my place, over modeling “Christian” loyalty and sincerity?

Years ago, when I sacrificially sidelined my career to care for my ailing husband, we both liked to joke that I was “his Hillary” – deeply involved in producing work in his name, knowing I wouldn’t get credit for it publicly.  It was once common in America to suggest that, if not for Hillary behind the scenes, Bill Clinton “would have wound up pumping gas.”  I thought for a time that the comparison had lost its punch, since Hillary did get credit for serious, independent accomplishments after her husband left office.  But I learned last night that the comparison remains valid.

 

Deal us in

Over the past year and a half, I’ve met at least once with the CEO, CFO, and/or CTO of the major telecom companies in my city. (All of them. And the advisory firms that principally serve them.  And senior people at the smaller industry players also headquartered here.)  I am grateful that the fancy academic degrees on my resume open doors to get those meetings.  But, unless it translates into work, that is only an illusion of privilege.

Each of those executives has told me how theoretically impressive and appealing and rare I am as a resource… but that one of the other executives in his circle will surely be smart and lucky enough to snap me up.  Just be patient.  (And in the meantime…survive how?)  It’s a seemingly endless cycle of “who’s on first” deflection, and in the meantime I fall endlessly further behind.

group-pointing-with-money

The 1970s-1980s East Asian “economic miracle” was greatly dependent on female workforce mobilization.  Women entered the formal workforce in large numbers (albeit disproportionately relegated to increasingly variable, low-wage work to support the export sector). GDP and GDP per capita increased dramatically, miraculously.

Sadly, the longer story arc of the Asian Tigers includes the fact that many of those women were later ejected back out of the workforce as they aged.  Moreover, the countries that disadvantaged new women workers the most, grew the fastest.  However, the point remains that opening up productive work opportunities to underutilized would-be workers is valuable to society overall.  It seems self-evident that leveraging America’s lost generation of businesswomen would boost our economy. 

“Just hire yourself” is one of the sneering, flippant dismissals I sometimes field when discussing this topic. But, entrepreneurship outside the standard corporate path isn’t accessible to women if we aren’t allowed inside to begin with.  In order to find investors, co-founders, and customers, we need the professional network and resume credibility that comes from gainful employment.  Crucially, we need the financial savings accumulated from years of fair pay, in order to feasibly peel off to start new ventures.

Consider the massive opportunity cost of a whole cohort of businesswomen languishing like me.  We spend what should be the peak years of our professional lives begging to be taken seriously for intellectually-appropriate, career-track jobs, while doing mental gymnastics to rationalize the existential pain of settling for unskilled survival work.

It’s a sad truism of psychology that men and women generally respond negatively to women seeking power.  Hence the irrational protest vote of Obama fans for Trump (per today’s emerging explanation of last night’s electoral upset) and women and minorities against their own self-interest and self-worth.  Female ambition – not even to dream, but merely to survive – feels unnatural to the gatekeepers who could solve my problem.  But, what if I were perceived not as a power-seeking threat, but rather as an opportunity?  The arbitrage value is extraordinary for whomever picks up the economist’s proverbial $100 bill off the sidewalk.  All someone like me wants is to leverage my brain to productively and meaningfully contribute to society.    

— November 9, 2016

Posted in >10 min read, Business topics, Social issues, [All posts]

Quoting the Bible in a technology pitch?

6 min read

Does a Bible quote belong in a TEDx talk pitching a new technology?   Here’s how my opinion evolved from “no” to “yes” and back to “no” today, after being asked for advice from an upcoming speaker.

My friend proposes implementing dry public sanitation systems instead of customary water-based systems.  Composting toilets (such as those familiar to backcountry enthusiasts in North America and Europe) could be deployed to economically-developing regions that currently lack public sanitation altogether, as well as replace the common style of portable toilet in developed regions.  Suspending human poop in water is an unnecessarily costly and environmentally harmful practice borne out of taboo.

The speaker proposed citing a Hebrew Bible passage “…from dust, returning to dust” (which is familiar to the speaker from Genesis, and known to me from Ecclesiastes).

Which passage to quote?

“For you are dust, and to dust you will return” (Genesis 3:19)

“All come from dust, and to dust all return” (Ecclesiastes 3:20)

Both passages in their original language use the Hebrew word “afar”, which was accurately translated into Greek “choos” and ultimately to English “dust”.

Though English translations of the Bible vary enormously across religious traditions and denominations, the wording of these particular passages is simple enough that translation version won’t inhibit recognizability.

Genesis 3 recounts a creation myth from the 10thc BCE Yahwehistic southern Judean tradition, and was likely written around the 8thc BCE.  (In the Bible, it occurs second in sequence after the Elohistic creation story, which borrows from the 18thc BCE Sumerian “Enuma Elish” epic, and was likely redacted in the 6thc BCE.)  The Book of Ecclesiastes was composed anonymously in the 3rd-2ndc BCE under Hellenistic influence, and it’s likely that its wording is an allusion to the then-familiar Genesis passage.

Both passages are philosophically cynical.  Genesis 3 explains God’s postlapsarian punishment on humankind, including endless hard work and eventual death.  Ecclesiastes describes the meaninglessness of life – in this verse specifically noting that humans and animals are alike in the fact of their inevitable death.

So, pick either one!

Argument from emotion or reason?

First, bringing the Bible into an argument about technology and environment could impugn the credibility of the speaker.  This is especially true in the technology community, which is certainly more post-theist/atheist than the general U.S. population.  The kneejerk judgment among the ever-growing number of post-/non-religious Americans is that Bible-quoters lack critical thinking skills.  (e.g., Does he read sacred texts literally and out of context? Did he misread his audience/market here? Does he draw other conclusions about the world from scripture, in lieu of using science and reason?)

The TED organization does specify that all science and health info shared in TED/TEDx talks must be supported by peer-reviewed research.  Obviously, a single Bible quote isn’t a big deal.  Although, the guidance does exist that straying too far from secular methods of reason is not appropriate.

On the other hand, invoking the Bible – the foundational document of Western civilization – is a technique to potentially augment a message’s gravity and heighten its persuasiveness.  It’s an emotional hook.  Emotional content is essential to making an audience remember content better, be more persuaded by an argument, and feel motivated to take action.  Regardless of their current beliefs regarding the supernatural, people who grew up with the Bible are to some extent emotionally triggered by a Bible reference.  Moreover, most people in the English-speaking world who have ever been to a funeral will likely have heard “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” (which, in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, is a mashup allusion to both the Genesis and Ecclesiastes passages in question).

Indeed, grasping the meaning of Biblical references is part of cultural literacy for people of all faiths in the West.  Such allusions have added richness of layered meaning to art and literature, political speech and popular culture for thousands of years.

The trick is to invoke the Bible purely to add pathos to the message, but not as a logical argument.  Appeal to emotion and appeal to authority are serious logical fallacies.  (This applies to appeal to actual authority… and appealing to unrecognized authority is even more problematic.)  Emotion or authority can never be the premise upon which valid logical conclusions are drawn.  Innocently quoting the Bible can look like an appeal to Biblical authority:  arguing that we should dispense with the poop taboo (which is what perpetuates dominance of water-borne sanitation systems) because putting our poop back into the earth is consistent with the human condition (i.e., being made of dust and returning to dust).

  • The Bible is authoritative.
  • The Bible says something about dust.
  • Therefore my dry sanitation idea is good/natural/important.

Emotional content is indeed critical for effective persuasion.  But the credibility risk may not offset the potential gain here.  A better way to wield emotion would be with vivid anecdotes, personal testimony, and more universal examples (to complement the argument from reason which uses evidence and statistics).

Who is the audience?

  1. People in the lecture hall during the talk
  2. Prospective investors in the speaker’s future company
  3. Prospective customers of the speaker’s eventual product
  4. Prospective end users of the product
  5. Other people who view the recorded talk later (e.g., friends, family, associates)
  6. Self (i.e., personal authenticity)

The speaker is best served by designing his message to persuade groups #2 and #3.  The point of doing a TEDx talk about one’s startup idea is to establish a credible personal platform – which hopefully facilitates obtaining investor funding and acquiring initial partners/customers.  The TEDx video will become a useful public relations tool to get traction.  As a practical matter, #6 shouldn’t be the target audience – best to save the self-actualization for another venue.

Note that the Hebrew Bible (a.k.a., Old Testament) has no specific resonance for the ~2/3 of humans not raised in the Judeo-Christian tradition.  And, those are the people (audience groups #3 and #4) to whom the proposed technology will be primarily deployed!

Bible-quoting constitutes a bit of “Global North-splaining” to the Global South – an instance of Western cultural-religious hegemony rearing its supposedly-humbled head.  Three decades ago, for example, our society awoke to the need to gut Western- and Anglo-centric “great books” courses.  A pitch arguing for the universal import of a technology shouldn’t rely on sectarian/regional references.

Now, the Bible may have resonance for some of audience group #2: American private equity firms.  Though a majority of such wealthy, educated Californians are post-theists/atheists who ascribe little import to the Bible, most are nominally/culturally Christian/Jewish and so may have an emotional response to an invocation of the Bible.  (But they could have a negative emotional response!)  Furthermore, the venture capital community notably includes a non-trivial number of Hindus.

Conclusion

  1. “No”, it may damage your credibility.
  2. “Yes”, it may have persuasive emotional resonance for some.
  3. “No”, because: Western hegemony. (Plus, there are more effective sources of pathos anyway.)
Posted in 5-10 min read, Decision quality, Religion, [All posts]

The fallacy of not voting

fallacy-of-not-voting_small

Posted in <5 min read, Social issues, [All posts]

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Posted in Business topics, Math is everywhere!, Telecom, [All posts]