Science vs. Pseudo-Science

There is a quite popular myth which time and again gets propagated on the web – namely, that answers and solutions simply emerge from data all by themselves. This is very cute and also enticing to people who have little understanding about how science works, so there is no dearth of such novice pseudo-scientists who are willing to support the concept.

Nonetheless: It is complete hogwash.

That said, this week I posed a question to my so-called followers on a so-called social media website what they believe of the notion of „learning by doing“. It was mostly a hunch that motivated me to pose this question, but now I think I have been able to figure out some of my thinking behind it – and it seems to be somehow related to the above-mentioned concept of emergence.

Let me try to sketch out the basic of idea of my thinking at the moment.

One of the basic ideas behind so-called “scientific management” is that the basis of successful management (of tasks, projects, entire companies, etc.) is a reliance on what might be referred to as scientific facts – basically: ideas which have stood the test of time and/or “results” from scientifically designed research.

In my question, in contrast, I asked: “What if the indoctrination of such observations, facts, etc. is expensive?” I compared a “learning by doing” hypothetical example in which 10 people jumped into water, 9 learned how to swim, but one drowned with a situation in which 10 people were taught to swim by an instructor. To clarify my point, I also asked: “What if teaching 10 people to swim is more expensive than feeding 100 starving children?”

In a way, the 9 people who emerged from the water in the hypothetical example learned how to swim by not drowning are an example of something very similar to what advocates of emergence seem to be arguing for: We don’t need science, we can just “wing it” instead.

In my additional remark comparing the price of one drowned person with the cost of a hundred starving children, I wanted to underscore the way the opportunity cost of either method is by no means zero.

What is more: We actually “wing it” every day. Taken to the extreme, it should be readily obvious that the world as we experience it today has never existed before. We can assume it is similar, we can try to “control” for this or that assumed variable, but in the end it essentially boils down to Einstein’s famous remark that “God does not play dice”.

Unfortunately, I still have not found an answer to the question I posed that I am happy with.

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Social Sustainability

The concept of „sustainability“ has to do with whether or not a technology can continue to exist for years, decades and centuries to come (and/or whether or not market forces will sustain the technology or not). For example, while the oil-based economy may continue to exist for many years to come, it is not clear when and/or how it will function in one, two, three or more centuries out.

Traditionally, introductory economics textbooks used to simplify economic resources into capital and labor. At that point, energy was not even mentioned as part of the equation (E.F. Schumacher, by the way, treated oil and similar natural resources as „capital“ – he often noted that an „oil based“ economy was unsustainable because we thereby simply do little or nothing more than to destroy the capital).

I noticed several decades ago that information is, in a way, a substitute for energy: You can either do something by applying huge amounts of brute force, or you may be able to achieve the same goal by refining your technique (with the help of information) in order to use less energy. There are many examples of this over history. For example: traveling by bicycle instead of by foot (though note how the establishment of smooth road surfaces also plays a role here), or various newer (and more energy-efficient) technologies have replaced – via market forces – the incandescent light bulb.

Nonetheless: One is very hard-pressed to refer to the 20th Century as anything other than extremely energy-inefficient. On the whole, the 20th Century was, in contrast, quite energy intensive, and increasingly human-resource saving. As a result, because we have witnessed a rather enormous growth in so-called „human resources“ for several centuries now, we now have a very large supply of humans and also very little demand. What is more, advances in information technology have further exacerbated these trends, such that we now face rapidly increasing unemployment for the foreseeable future.

There is great irony in the widespread failure to recognize that more machinery is being used to do more work, and the widespread surprize that ever fewer „employment“ opportunities for humans are seen as a catastrophy (even though there has been widespread propaganda for many decades which push the idea that human labor „ought to“ be replaced by the increased employment of more and more machines).

Yet only a very foolish person would not pay attention to a wider time horizon.

There is no doubt that the consumption non-renewable resources will come to an end at some point in time – this is tautologically true (by definition), so there is no doubt whatsoever. At some point, people will realize that there is an oversupply of human resources and an undersupply of non-renewable resources (compared to the current rates of consumption). Presently, however, the high growth rates of information resources due to the introduction of vastly more efficient information technologies apparently will continue to blind the masses. While the growth of information resources inputs are to some extent a substitute for energy resources, it is quite astonishing to note how little such substitution has taken place over the past several decades.

Indeed: This last observation puzzles me greatly.

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Social Keywords

Some words – usually referred to as „synonyms“ – have essentially the same or at least very similar meanings. While I fee there is no such thing as a perfect synonym (in the sense that the words would mean exactly the same thing), many words are used quite liberally interchangeably by people who seem to not really be completely familiar with their more exact meaning.

This post is not about that.

What I want to address here is that some words seem like they could be used interchangeably – if not for the „minimal difference“ in the „social“ meaning. It appears as though these words could be applied to the same situations, except they say something different about those particular situations.

Let me present you with a couple examples of some such cases which have recently crossed my mind.

Ignore vs. Neglect: I recently wrote about the rationality of ignorance. Ignorance and neglect differ not so much in what the activity is, but rather more with respect to what are the activity’s results (in the eyes of the speaker [or author / writer]). The result of ignorance is that the subject is less well off. With neglect, the object of the verb is less well off.

Change vs. Disrupt: Change is relatively neutral or even positive. In contrast, disrupt is usually considered to be negative to at least someone (or something). If something is negative (shocking, etc.) to many, then one might consider it to be revolutionary.

Hence, many words which mean almost the same thing, differ in a „value judgement“ sort of way – and such value judgements usually rely on something like some kind of social mores, social values, etc.

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The Intention Economy

Several years ago, it became very fashionable to talk about something called the ”attention economy”. I think the analysis was valid, but one-sided. Economics is not about just one single, particular thing – it’s about the way all things in the world are related. Often, it reduces them to statistics before reaching a policy judgement. Only a simpleton would argue that the free market solves everything – I suggest that such simpletons should try out an unregulated market for deciding which side of the road to drive your vehicle: they could take the free market highway to hell, and I would continue to traverse the regulated route in splendid isolation from their chaotic crashes.

Well, so if the attention economy only gives part of the full story, then what explains the rest of it? One thing that is quite central to the economic view is the notion of supply and demand. Where does attention fit in here?

Attention is a little abstract. You can’t really measure it. It’s quite difficult to even come up with an operational definition of what might even pass as ”attention”. Broadly speaking it falls within the scope of what is more generally considered to be communication, in particular: receiving messages (and understanding them – i.e., recognizing them, in the language of pattern recognition). I am therefore inclined to interpret this as ”demand” (for information).

What about the supply side? One friend of mine who has more experience than I do in areas which might be referred to as ”supply” (of information) once explained to me how information sort of means ”bringing stuff in form” – i.e., forming the message in a way that it can be received (well), that it can be understood, etc.

Hence, we are really talking about a market for literacy: about how to create messages (i.e., supply them), and how to interpret them (i.e., how to receive them – the demand side of the equation). If I were to say ”how to encode and decode messages”, some people might think I am referring to secret messages – but in reality we encode and decode the meanings we wish to communicate pretty much all the time, without even thinking about it very much at all.

Several decades ago, Ludwig Wittgenstein formulated one of his most quoted ideas: ”Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muss man schweigen”. In my humble opinion, he was wrong – at least partially. His primary focus was the analysis of language as a set of rules – and indeed: at any particular point in time, language may very well function that way. However: Language does undergo evolution over time. Therefore, if we cannot say something we want to say at one point in time, we change language in order to be able to say it at the next point in time. Shakespeare apparently did this a lot. If we didn’t continue to do it, we wouldn’t be able to talk about speed limits and other traffic regulations, constitutional amendments, space flight or perhaps even about evolution itself.

In other words: Any thought we have, any message we wish to convey, can be formulated (this notion of the ability to convey messages clearly was actually also of central concern to Wittgenstein) – but it may take a while to change the system in order to not only assimilate the idea, but also to accommodate the ”messaging capability” (for more on ”assimilation” and ”accommodation” – two central concepts in Jean Piaget’s work – please refer to the vast literature in  his tradition [and in that vein also to Herbert Simon’s work related to systems and organizations]).

Today, we have – all of a sudden – become able to formulate messages with great ease. What previously required very large investments can today be done at a marginal cost of … very close to zero. Yet while in recent years monumental and revolutionary advances have taken place with respect to the ”external” technology required, very little seems to have changes with respect to the human capabilities required – i.e., the ”internal” technology, which I refer to as literacy.

If you take a moment to consider the historical perspective, then the reason why there is such a huge discrepancy between external and internal capabilities becomes immediately obvious: over the past five centuries, a very large industry named ”publishing” was formed around the idea that publishing messages was very costly, and therefore that great care was required in order to to publish ”fail” messages. Today, both prize-winning eloquence and also sheer stupidity can be published equally at the drop of a hat.

Now, data floods onto websites at rates that far exceed our capability to pay attention to them.

In order to separate the babble from the best, we need to reward intention.

Traditionally, intention has been an internal characteristic – something like a personal and individual motivation. Today, intention can be externalized by mapping internal intentions onto external, linguistic constructs. Using ”language technology”, your intent to buy a car or sell a car becomes blatantly obvious via your use of language strings such as ”car”, ”cars”, ”auto”, ”autos”, etc.

Before I end this post, I want to point out one very important caveat. There was another term which was coined several years ago which seems to play a crucial role in this discussion, namely the notion of ”vendor relationship management” (VRM). The idea was basically a sort of futuristic software application that was supposed to intermediate between the intentions on the part of consumers and the supportive engagement on the part of producers (and/or service providers). Yet such software is actually not abstract at all – vast numbers of people use such software on a daily basis. Just to give you two common examples, one is called “Google”, another is called “Facebook”.

By mentioning these household brand names, you might think I have wasted your time by telling you something you already knew. Yet here is the significant difference: “Google” and “Facebook” are not language – they are brand names (i.e., registered trademarks). Since a brand does not mean anything, it also doesn’t intend anything. They are as empty and meaningless as a blank page, a blank stare, as blank, empty space. They are nothing more than an empty search box with the promise of connecting you to a positive result. They offer you a free lunch, and their target audience are suckers ready to buy that, who they can use to turn a profit, who can be sold down the river to companies ready, willing and able to pay for that.

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The Victory of Machines over Humans

Have you ever seen a business website? A business website is a machine that represents the business. Today, many people – most of all young people – prefer to interact with websites versus interacting with humans. Before you leap to conclusions about what this may mean, please consider the following scenario.

Let’s say you need to buy a household appliance, and you are considering two alternative approaches: Either (1) go to an „IRL“ appliance store and talk with a human salesperson; or (2) go to a website and interact with a machine programmed by „web developers“ * (who are, in essence, also the company’s representatives). In order to make the comparison fair, let’s say that the first thing the IRL appliance store salesperson says is „please give me your address book with all of your contacts’ names and phone numbers“. How would you react? Do you consider the private contact information of family, friends and acquaintances a private matter? Do you think asking for this data is a suitable request for the appliance store salesperson to make? If you answered „No“ then I think we agree – yet this is precisely what happens in many cases in which young people prefer to use their smartphones versus interacting with another human being.

Someone who is naive and quick to jump to conclusions might argue how this is a great victory for „technology“. I, on the other hand, feel it is more like direly lacking literacy on the part of many young humans. Note that I also feel I am giving these humans the benefit of the doubt in this case, because if they were not lacking literacy skills, it would mean that they are not only lacking in social skills, but also that they are so self-centered that they apparently think so little – or indeed nothing – of handing out some of their closest friends’ private information to companies hungry to sell that information to the highest bidders in order to reap a quick and easy profit.

Perhaps there are some who might say „but I don’t want to bother other people with questions that can easily be answered by looking up text documents.“ I agree – yet that is also not the point. The point is that these illiterate people apparently lack the technical expertise (which I refer to as „literacy“) to be able to look up information without violating their own privacy – and also their personal contacts’ private information.

  • Note that „web developers“ is actually a misnomer if the developers are only responsible for the development of the company’s website – if that is in fact the case, then they ought to be called „website developers“.
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For Highly Educated, Highly Skilled, Highly Trained Experts the Curation Myth and the Employment Myth are Two Sides of the Same Coin

If someone is a highly educated, highly skilled, highly trained expert, then they do not really need other people to tell them what to do – they should be able to figure that out themselves. This is especially true in so-called „free market“ economies, where the workings of markets should match up both sides of the business / marketing equation of matching up buyers and sellers.

If you want some boss to decide what other people are supposed to do, then that is not a free market economy at work. It is authoritarianism. It is not much different if you want a curator to figure out what is good vs. what is bad. In the curation scenario, everyone is free to do as they please, then everything gets thrown on the curator’s desk, and the curator decides to throw 99% onto the garbage dump and to put 1% on display at the museum. This is also not a free market economy at work. It’s simply lazy. Nobody besides the curator needs to think about much of anything, and you can get curators fresh out of college for super cheap. This is just like hanging a plaque you found for a song on the wall behind your desk and hoping that no one will notice it doesn’t prove much of anything. The sad result in most cases is that most museums remain empty because people have better things to do than to spend time adoring stuff some museum curator happens to like best.

What would be better than either of these authoritarian systems?

Please note that what I am saying here applies to the case which occurs mostly in the First World – so-called „developed“ economies. One of the basic tenets of economic development – though it is rarely if ever mentioned – has to do with education. If a population is not educated, not skilled, trained or even literate – if the vast majority of a population simply lacks basic literacy skills – then you really do need to tell people what to do. You should not let kindergarden children exit the kindergarden right onto a multi-lane major speedway thoroughfare.

However, if we are talking about a population of college graduates and highly skilled experts – and especially: literate adults – the organizational overhead required to keep such a „developed“ economy running smoothly becomes much smaller. Why? Because people can quickly and easily find solutions to problems, answers to questions and similar task-oriented and market-clearing information with very little cost and no need for dictatorial government or authoritarian, overly hierarchical corporate power.

Ironically, though, in many developed economies today, quite authoritarian governments and hierarchical corporations are trying to force-feed their highly educated stakeholders via propaganda and advertising programs in an attempt to hypnotize very smart people into making choices based rather stupidly on so-called „big data“. The idea is that since machines cost so little to run, it might make more sense to let a machine decide how to run a kindergarden. If „irrational“ children simply run out into the street, can anyone blame the machine for their „irrational“ behavior?

Yes! Machines are technology built by humans. If humans are literate enough to understand the concept „kindergarden“, then they sort of have a social responsibility to engage with this concept. This is not a „corporate social responsibility“ in the sense of being a responsibility that only corporations need to care about. I feel quite the contrary is true: every member of a developed society needs to be held accountable for their share of that economy’s development. If someone were to say „an apple is an orange“, then there is a social responsibility for others to say „no, it isn’t“ – to help correct mistakes and improve the world we live in. If we let randomization dictate our language – which is essentially a type of social capital – then society would crumble into nothing more than a meaningless buzzword.

I would like to end this rather long essay with links to two further resources:

First, please view this great video by a great speaker (Chis Lema) on „How to Avoid Over-Shoot and Lost Profits“ … for an excellent discussion regarding some of the social responsibilities literate experts are expected to shoulder.

Second, for further discussion of what it means to be literate in a highly technologically developed society, please refer to the ongoing series of essays regarding „rational media“ I am currently publishing at remediary.

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Billions and Billions of Clueless People

Imagine Carl Sagan staring into a TV camera in wonder and amazement that there are so many clueless people:

Doesn’t anybody here know who Billie Holiday is?!? How can you say that the Rolling Stones invented the blues? You people are completely clueless!!!

Then he stamps off into the distance, shaking his head and saying he’s giving up on the wisdom of the crowds and will be taking up an astronomy gig offered him by some television production company.

This never aired. For all we know, it could be a fiction that I just invented. It is just as reliable as me saying the Beatles were the best rock group that ever existed. We simply will never know. 😐

Although this may be a sad but true fact, there is an even more important takeaway… and I don’t mean Chinese. 😉

If you let billions and billions of clueless people rate something, then the result is meaningless – completely meaningless!

Therefore, the ratings on are probably meaningless, the ratings on are probably meaningless, the ratings on are probably meaningless, the ratings on are probably meaningless, each and every brand name website’s ratings are probably meaningless, they are probably the result of so-called bots, they are „gamed“, they are a complete waste of time.

Why do I say this?

Because today I made the mistake — well, not the mistake… I had the experience — of calling in when the moderator of a radio program asked people to call in their questions regarding the views of an author he was interviewing. Both the moderator and the author misunderstood the question, but I have a hunch that a sizable portion of the audience understood perfectly fine. You could tell by the questions that followed up on what I had asked about. If you want to know why this is, I have another hunch that Sinclair Lewis’ line about people being able to not understand something according to what their employer says (and their employer may also simply be perceived „market forces“). Luckily, the radio audience apparently wasn’t quite as dumb as the people in the studio thought they might be.

The author was presenting her book about „fair trade“ certifications being bogus. She said something like „we need to reform the entire economic system“. I thought she was wrong. In my humble opinion, the problem is simply about propaganda and advertising… and that I thought it could be quite easily resolved with rational media (such as,, etc – except that I used different examples which were more relevant to the discussion… which might be translated as,, etc.). I could see that what I said passed above the author’s head without leaving the slightest trace of an impression on her mind, because she acted like she disagreed with me, but then went on to underscore how my point was right. Yet what the moderator did was, in a way, even worse… because it seems like he might have understood what I was saying, but then chose to misinterpret it to be about „Bewertungsportale“ (this was a German radio program, and that roughly translates to mean „ratings websites“). He may have simply been mistaken – I don’t know – but the point is anything but trivial.

Allowing billions and billions of clueless people – or robots – to voice an opinion is nothing less than a gargantuan exercise in futility. If I have a toothache, I couldn’t care less what a billion clueless people think. Instead, I would visit a dentist. If my bicycle needs repairs, then I will take it to a bicycle expert. There are very good reasons for paying experts: they are trained and therefore have more understanding of what is the matter than completely clueless people – regardless of how many times you multiply zero, the result remains zero!

If you allow anyone (or anything) with an email address to vote on any topic, the result of that vote – that „rating“ or whatever – will be meaningless, because email addresses are not just a dime a dozen, they are less than a penny per billion.

Each and every meaningless rating on each and every meaningless website is nothing more and nothing less than meaningless.

In contrast, words like „food“, „clothing“, „books“ or „music“ are quite meaningful. People who care about these topics – experts in the fields of food, clothing, books, music or whatever – would do well to voice their expert opinions in such rational media.

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Some Reflections on the Revolution in Literacy

Literacy and rationality are closely related — you need to be able to use language to communicate ideas effectively… to wit: “The Rise of Rational Media

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Network Effect vs. Community Engagement

I have been doing some reading on the so-called network effect, in particular the relatively recently fashionable topic of „two-sided markets“. I have also spoken with some of my friends who have more experience than I do in markets and marketing, and they mostly agree that pretty much all markets are two-sided. It is not a new development, it is not even a new discovery, it is simply a new way of looking at some of the world’s oldest professional topics.

In my opinion, one of the main reasons why the topic has recently become so fashionable has to do with a drastic reduction in transaction costs and in particular the drastic reduction in the price of switching „providers“.

Note that in a networked world, the view is that there are providers / networks, which provide access to some goods or services. The network providers function as marketplaces, bringing together both supply and demand for goods and services. As these marketplaces grow in size, more and more goods and services are exchanged via the very same single market. If you consider ebay or Amazon (and/or even Google and/or Facebook) to be such oversized marketplaces, you should immediately realize that the worlds of Wal-Mart and/or the New York Times as providers of things and/or ideas… – well, that their days are probably more and more numbered, that their demise is approaching ever more closer than their present iconic situation on the world-wide web’s horizon might make you think.

One of my current / new projects involves a somewhat different approach. This project (named „Saarland Plan“ because of its regional / „hyperlocal“ focus) minimizes the role of the network provider, thereby enabling market participants pretty much unfettered access to the markets they wish to engage in. In this situation of „competition on steroids“, supply and demand can meet up and exchange goods, services, ideas and more for large numbers of participants with virtually no barriers to entry whatsoever. There is virtually no monitoring or big data tracking. No lengthy legal documents, no tomes regarding the terms of service, no „ands“, „ifs“ or „buts“. Ideally, this would result in even lower switching costs. This experiment is all about greasing the wheels of the network so much that the network itself becomes negligable.

I recently chatted with an owner of a local slot machine provider (basically, they provide gambling machines – and I guess they have some sort of „split“ with businesses providing locations for such gambling / entertainment to take place). I noted the number of people who seach for such words as „poker“ or „casino“ – and the associated costs involved with having such services show up for a Google search on these topics. Needless to say: the cost is quite significant.

When network providers charge such high prices just to get a foot in the door, you have to wonder why anyone would care to visit the establishment. My hunch is that the days of such overpriced establishments are also numbered. 😉

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One Explanation Why People Still Use Retard Media Websites: They Want a Biased Opinion

On another one of my websites, I have started a new feature called „#Literacy #Quiz #Questions“ – I’ve explained it here: „New Feature: Literacy Quiz Questions“.

Oddly, there seems to be a somewhat rational reasoning behind the rationale people apparently use to justify their use of retard media websites: They want a biased opinion.

„How“ you may ask „can this possibly be a rational justification?!?“

I will try to explain the reasoning:

  1. They lack literacy skills
  2. They realize they lack literacy skills
  3. They do not want to out themselves as being (relatively) illiterate
  4. They want to appear at least as literate as the vast majority (so-called „Bandwagon behavior“)
  5. They therefore choose to use the widely adopted „mainstream“ metric

Let me use a hypothetical example to show how this works.

Imagine you want to buy a machine – let’s say (just for example) a kitchen blender. Let’s say you know virtually nothing about kitchen blenders, how to evaluate them or anything like that. You decide you will „use“ Google, type in „kitchen blender“ and look at some of the „top“ results. You assume that Google’s algorithm is the best measuring stick for finding the best kitchen blender. Indeed, you would also assume that Google’s algorithm is the best measuring stick to find a plumber. Or a gynecologist, an attorney or the latest news. You would assume that Google’s algorithm is the best measuring stick to answer any question you might have because that is what the vast majority of people seem to believe and you don’t want to look stupid (even if you are in fact rather unknowledgeable with respect to any of these questions).

What is the likelihood that one algorithm could pick out the best kitchen blender website, the best plumber website, the best gynecologist website, the best attorney website and also the best website to find out about the latest news? If your answer is anything above nil, then – I am sorry to say it, but – then: you are stupid.

Literacy is far more complex than simply being able to read words.

Literacy involves understanding – for example – that a billboard is different than a street sign. A billboard is an advertisement that is intended to sway your opinion about something. A street sign is a marker to identify the street with a particular name.

Another example: A dictionary is different than a magazine.

A word is different than a brand name.

You might think that most people would learn this kind of stuff in grade school. Why does it appear like that doesn’t actually happen?


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