There are some topics about which one can have some vague impressions that feel correct, but you just can’t organize your thoughts in such a way so that you can communicate those impressions with any coherence. These are just gut instincts that are broadly correct, but lack the details or insider knowledge to pin it all down in a tidy, easy to communicate package.

One of those topics for me is the rise of the fake nerd. Everywhere you look these days, someone is whipping out statistics or studies to make a point. In fact, you cannot make a point without presenting something to back it up. No matter how obvious, no one takes anyone’s word for anything in public discourse. Even if you are the leading expert, you better be armed with a pile of studies and statistics.

Go on a site like Marginal Revolution and state that the sun rises in the East and sets in the West and someone will demand a link to a study backing up the claim. That’s not too much of an exaggeration. When I used to post there, someone once challenged my statement that drug use rates are higher in cities than in the suburbs. They asked for a link, as if this was a new bit of information for them.

My impression, my sense of it, is that otherwise smart people have become incredibly narrow in their understanding of the world. If they cannot find numbers to suggest there is a probability of the sun rising in the East, then they don’t consider it as an item in the realm of the possible. Data driven debate is a blinkered debate, so much so that even the obvious can fall outside their field of vision.

Then there is the inability to speculate. I wonder if this is not tied to the politically correct culture in the academy. Since straying too far from approved dogma can get you exiled, reliance on statistics and the work of others creates a safe space. If you’re not saying anything new, then you you are not saying anything dangerous. Since data is sacred, people can lard up their work with useless statistics and inoculate themselves against heresy charges.

A good example that comes to mind is Nate Silver and his inability to see Trump coming. Audascious Epigone did some posts on this last month. Silver has created a nice racket for himself analyzing and weighting polls. Since there’s nothing but risk in looking outside what conventional wisdom says is possible, he studiously avoids it. Trump was considered an impossibility, so Silver’s model said he could not exist. That was the safe place.

That’s not an indictment of math or the use of statistics. The practical application of mathematics is an essential part of modern life. You cannot appreciate baseball, for example, without understanding the numbers of the game. Even dumb ball players know the math. It’s just that the unknown lives outside the known and can only be discovered by imagining what can lie outside. It is speculation that leads to discovery.

This narrowness does not just lead to a lack of imagination. It leads people into thinking like sociopaths. Immigration is a perfect example. Anytime the topic comes up, there is an attempt to debate whether it is good for the economy, as if that’s all that matters. Since the impact of immigration on the economy can be measured, at least we can pretend to measure it, that’s what the modern “expert” wants to discuss.

The reason for the great divide between the Dirt People and the Cloud People over immigration is that the Dirt People really don’t care if it benefits business. They just don’t want their kids living in a third world country. The Cloud People can’t think beyond the data. You see that in this David Frum piece on immigration data. The only people debating the data are all in favor of open borders.

This is, of course, the old line about a man good with a hammer seeing the world as a nail. All of our smart kids are now in professions that are data driven so they think the only thing that matters is data. Heck, even dumb kids are in professions that claim to be data driven.This sounds like a good thing as higher levels of numeracy should result in a more informed populace. The trouble is the tyranny of nerds is driven by people that had statistics for liberal arts majors. They think they know more than they do.

Entirely useless fields like psychology are now kept alive by mediocre students with an entry level understanding of mathematics. Every other day we have a study turning up in the news claiming a correlation between one thing and another. Since these are never replicated, the effect is an endless stream of stupidity fed into the public bloodstream.

ours is an Oriental meritocracy. The best and the brightest focus on memorizing what is known and finding data to support it. The way up is to flatter the master by quoting his work, which is just the work of another, repackaged by the current master. Having an army of expert economists is not a lot different than an army of great calligraphers. It’s only useful to the experts within the narrow scope of the system.


This leads me to think this is perhaps at the heart of the unforced errors by the people in charge we keep seeing. History is the story of error, but the errors we are seeing today are so ham-handed, they feel deliberate. Merkel inviting a million Muslims into Germany only makes sense if she is surrounded by nerd boys claiming it is good for the economy. No one bothered to speculate about the reaction of the citizenry.

The Trump/Sanders phenomenon is based entirely on the fact both parties looked at their respective data and concluded a Bush-Clinton race was the most probable so they threw in behind that idea. They never considered that maybe the public was simply sick of the bullshit from both parties. There’s no model for that so they remain in a state of disbelief. Big Foot and the Tooth Fairy may as well be leading theses races now, as far as the political class is concerned.

In Back to Methuselah, Shaw has the serpent say, “You see things; and you say, ‘Why?’ But I dream things that never were; and I say, ‘Why not?” Perhaps that’s it. In a world where you are defined by your relationship with your fellows, not by your relationship with a transcendent truth, exile is the new Hell. Asking “why not?” is for heretics and trouble makers. Best to stick with the data and prior studies.

15 thoughts on “Speculation

  1. Good discussion of a very important phenomenon that rarely is even noticed by our pubertic intellectuals. Narrowing every subject down to what can be statistically studied leaves out the emotional, traditional, and spiritual aspects of human life.

    You can “prove” starvation of millions in the Ukraine is good because the statistics of the Five-Year Plan are unarguable. Immigrant invasion is good because some tally purports to show the invaders will “contribute” to the gross national product. Every food fad gets its start in a statistical study (which may be poorly designed) that is never replicated because no glory attaches to the scientists who follow in someone else’s footsteps. Psychological counselors subject clients to Jumping Therapy because one charlatan found that jumping supposedly helped a few disturbed individuals — the numbers are the proof!

    Sure, data have their place. They are not the beginning and end of wisdom.

  2. Facts are not truths, they speak for competing ideas. The facts that speak for truths are usually available on, for example, Google, but they are often buried behind pages of facts and outright lies presented as facts. At the level of Google links somebody is getting paid for spreading fertilizer, but the work must be a labor of love because at Wiki the relentless keepers of uniformity are unpaid. Wiki is the most accurate predictor of what “educated” people will think, followed by the first page of Google. I received blank stares leading to avoidance for ten years over a pet fad, peak oil. When a pet subjects laughably fails they do not express amazement and curiosity though, it’s merely time to reattach to the next fad.

    • Well said. The same thing happened with the “climate change” pet fad — first it was global cooling in the 70s, then global warming in the 80s and 90s, then global climate change, and now I see all the top “climate scientists” are starting to freak out about global cooling again. Same “science,” diametrically opposite results… gee, that’s odd. But it turns out that socialism will fix them all. Who’d a thunk it?

      • Dogma has replaced discussion. That’s bad enough, but what is worse is that liberal dogma gets jammed down the country’s throat, while conservative dogma is rendered meaningless by the cupidity of allegedly “conservative” politicians.

  3. The soft science dudes have never been that threatening to me. I’ve gotten gotten near them, but it’s always been more like a pride of lions and a pack of hyenas running into each other on the savanna: some growling and posturing from a distance with neither side willing to cross the line into full on warfare.

    The guys who really bother me are neuro-biologists/geneticists/whatever. For the most part, they deny the existence of free will and are busily creating the tools to make sure that their prejudices become reality.

    Who would want to live at any other time in history!

  4. ours is an Oriental meritocracy

    Absolutely true, and well stated. And ironic, since Confucius’ core principle was the rectification of names — unless you know precisely what you’re talking about in every situation, you’re bound to fall into error. Modern political discourse works on exactly the opposite principle — as soon as you start defining terms, you start realizing how batshit insane they all are. As you say, “immigration” doesn’t mean “a cell filled on a spreadsheet;” it means living next door to someone who thinks nothing of keeping chickens in the yard and shitting into an open hole and beating his sack-covered wife for the hell of it. Every single item on the agenda of both parties would collapse to dust in an instant if they were ever forced to define their terms.

  5. Really cogent observation about the conflicts within our culture nowadays. As I was reading your essay here Mr. Zman it reminded me of my own lives experience as a welder. Been a welder for 43 years now, when I entered the trade as a 15 year old kid, you would go to a job shop, there was a foreman, he was the first and last word on everything, he hired you, set your pay rate, established the rules and requirements of your job, and had an eye for everything, nothing slipped past these guys, as they came from the same place you did, starting at dirt level. It was never a popularity contest or a matter of who sucked up best. The buck started and stopped with these guys. It was a great setup if you worked hard, showed up every day, never left yourself idle, and asked for more to do or what needed doing before you finished your current work. They would give you the respect you had earned, quietly and without obvious reward or praise. If you where a wiseass, lazy in the slightest, a slacker or swinging dick who thought he new it all, well you got what you deserved. It was all in all a self regulating working environment, there was pride of place and a sense of quiet very basic professionalism within the trades and skilled craftsman and manufacturing crafts. Then society started to consider you a dirtbag if you didn’t go to college, you where nothing. As a welder if you whereunto “educated” that began to work against you and your experience and productivity began to take a back seat to having some form of sheepskin. Let me tell you, it was insulting to the bone to have be interviewed by a woman who didn’t know the difference between a wrench and a tig torch. Along with this subtle but bigoted transformation of class structure, you began to see these wiz kids displacing the venerable foreman’s who worked up through the ranks, punks really, who didn’t even have an inkling of what they didn’t now, but where so book smart you where considered a mouth breathing knuckle dragger who had to be tolerated. I’m not kidding or being hateful. They literally had no idea of what it took in time, or effort, and aspiration to become an accomplished metal fabricator, or an experienced welder, a guy who had that intuitive and natural talent for doing things the only way that mattered, the right way. And passed those things and knowledge onto the next guy. Kind of a nebulous guild system. The advent of these papered knowitalls from colleges where the death nell of all that industrial and manufacturing power, all that tribal and cultural knowledge, they broke the chain of craftsmanship.
    You could tell these guys flat out you can’t make this part this way, or we have been making that part without any difficulty for as long as it has come through this shop after a total fail of having to do it a “new” way, and you would be met with this incredulous response disbelief. Or lord forbid you came up with a process or trick that eliminated a cost or a process that would increase productivity or profit. That a guy like me with a lifetimes experience could even suggest such a thing in itself was impossible. It was like being stuck in a bad dream where you could not find a way out. Very disheartening. I worked at an aerospace company, we literally made rocket parts. One very costly problem we faced was damage on conical seat sealy surfaces, from pressure testing and using fixtures to fabricate and inspect components. The scratches on the sealing surfaces required very costly hand work to remove. I had worked at PanAms engine shop down to JFK in NY at one time, they used what is called a seat saver, a small thin conical section of aluminum bronze fit between the mating sections so the sealing surfaces would not be damaged from repeated tear downs and rebuilds on engine assembly’s. A known, FAA tested and certified component and technique. Something that requires months of testing and verified traceability. I suggested, and wrote a workup on the use of aluminum bronze in place of the various steel alloys we employed at our shop, to eliminate the sealing surface damage we encountered on literally every component we fabricate. It took 4 years to get to the point where an okay was given just to try this idea on one test part. 4 years. What the hurdle was basically, involved “Not Invented Here”. At every turn, at every level of management I encountered, sought any reason that could be imagined why it would not work. I had even on my own time machined up test fixtures using the concept of FAA established use and practice of seat savers, documented the parts I worked on, to enable verification on the in house tracibilty process papers, so I could present actual physical documented proof this process worked, and still, it was met with total disbelief and rejection as a viable idea. It was a mind blowing experience. I have a 7th grade formal education. My academic skills are self taught and gained from experience. over 40 years of working in the metal trades, and not a single member of management that I was aware of in one instance ever voiced a consideration that those attributes I posses counted towards cause for credibility that an idea could be even successful never mind tried. After all, what was there to loose in trying, there was everything to gain. To this day I still marvel at the resistance and obstruction put up by these college educated men and woman to such a common sense and practical process, that was already established by the FAA, which as an FAA Aerospace certified shop, which had to adhere to every FAA standard in rocket and jet engine manufacturing standards, including my own certifications as an Aerospace metal joiner, inspector, tester, and weld instructor, all because I lacked a certificate or degree from a college or higher school of education. I knew nothing. I was told repeatedly I knew nothing because I was just a welder. It was a real eye opener into another culture. It is not unlike the political class running things today. So that term “The Dirt People” really strikes a cord in my heart Mr. Zman.
    What we are missing out on, what wealth and riches, happiness and prosperity that is denied by this culture of omnipotence I see running things, has no idea of the greatness and capability of free men who want only to not be inhibited from being free to be the best, to make the best, to create and be creative, unencumbered by illusions of grandeur by the unproductive who strive to bring everyone down to their crummy level of incompetence and hate.
    Tell you something else, this ruling class crap aint going to wash much longer. Something is going to break. You can’t keep good people down, and the longer it goes on, the greater the pushback. Till one day that desire for prosperity and happiness eclipses everything in the most violent manner imaginable.

    • Doug, you have just described the difference between “educated” and “credentialed”; the latter concept being tfar too much in current favor. Much of it has to do, unfortunately, with the feminization of our culture. The fems don’t want dirty things which might actually work and real world experience to count as much as paper certificates, because women abhor getting dirty and tackling real problems, but they certainly love those paper wall decorations!

      • It sure is some stupid useless bullcrap whatever it is. Its more like watching a human extinction movement at work. And now they are brainwashing the next generation with common core. Whatever they been teaching people in those colleges, they should take every professor and education administrator in existence and give them a lobotomy. For starters.
        Having a useful trade or a craft that produces something is like having land, it is liberty my friend, it is self sufficiency and self determination. It is what makes the world work. Everything else in this world we live in is possible because of those things.

        • Doug, your observations and comments are spot-on. A friend of mine accepted an offer to teach welding at a local high school and told me of two boys coming by to frequently chat with him. He asked them why they weren’t taking his welding classes to which they responded sheepishly “they told us we were good students and couldn’t take welding!” That attitude is wrecking havoc in this country.

          Years ago I had completed my engineering degree and went to work at a factory. I spent the first month digging a hole for myself by making sure the “hourly” guys knew how smart I was. I spent the next two months climbing back out of the hole. In the process I learned a great deal about what I didn’t know, and how to function with real humans. I became a trusted guy in their eyes. One guy had a great little widget he had made to make product sampling easier. It saved a bunch of downtime which translated into money for the company. He was entitled to a bonus but didn’t want to do the work of submitting a write-up. His verbal/writing skills weren’t great and just wanted to make his job easier. We collaborated on that to try to get him recognition.

          • I agree with both of you. I have the mechanical/practical aptitude of a school desk. Putting together furniture from IKEA is at the outer limits of my abilities! I have always had great respect for people who “work for a living” . Most of my college educated boomer cohort treat them as if they were the servant class.

          • I really believe it begins with each of us, and takes all of us working together to make a better world. Why it is difficult to appreciate that and place class position over essential quality of life in general is something I have never understood. I understand what it is but why people choose hubris over grace, it sometimes is beyond definition.
            You look at this great country of ours. So many want to destroy it or do not believe in it. And further yet, act and behave to deny the fruits and prosperity of it to others. This is become the a great dividing dynamic on our Republic. It is so very destructive and counter productive. Our political class has devolved into merchants of deceit and corruption of everything good and noble about us as a people and culture.
            Me, I believe in this great idea called America. As people we got a lot going for us, those who hate it notwithstanding, good folks prevail.

          • That is a really nice story. I’ll be the first to say there is nothing like an engineer who has the notions to work hands on with production staff. It is of such a help it is priceless in every respect. I have had the great honor of getting to work with a few, let me tell you, I learned so much and became better at my job in ways I would not have accomplished otherwise. I see engineers as having an entirely different perspective and skill set, and when all involved work together it is so complimentary nothing can be of higher value or benefit. One time a physicist/engineer came up from Pratt Florida at Kennedy space center, we had been selected to produce a bootleg kit for the RL-10 rocket engine. Wonderful fellow. His job was to work with us to build and test a prototype. The guy was like a total genius, and just the happiest guy you could meet. Everything was an adventure. He had this mesmerizing way of explaining things, about how rocket engines where designed, the physics of engineering something that had to be totally reliable in both gravity and atmosphere, and vacuum and at hundreds of Gee’s gravity. About the history of various launch systems, how they came up with solutions to problems, it was a wonderful experience. One time, we had to pressure test a monocoque fabricated/welded Y block, test took place in this water tank with explosion resistant lexan view ports. I had welded three test samples, and the intention was to see what the burst strength limit in PSI was. This fellow asks us if we want to take bets on hat PSI the component lets go at. The main objective was to see where the welds would fail, as they where the weak link in the design. None of us had anything but uneducated guesses, so he gets out a notebook and starts to write out equations, about 5 minutes he has his estimate. Said the welds will hold its the sheet metal section that will let go first. And sure enough within 100 lbs pressure of his estimate the sheet metal ruptures. This guy was so gracious and respectful to make everything like that a cooperative venture. Engineers and other creative people like this guy change the world. It is a marvel to me. How western culture has this inherent propensity to discover and create and produce. That changed the world.

  6. But is it a problem inherent in looking at data or is it about a crappy paradigm?
    After all, it’s been obvious for a long time that mass Muslim immigration is economically detrimental to the West and still we hear that it’s good for the economy. As I recall, the BBC had a headline stating ‘immigration is good for the economy’ but had 2 graphs, one of them actually showing that immigration from outside the European Union is bad for the economy. And even that graph understates the problem, because it includes immigration from western countries outside the EU.
    So their argument is wrong not because the data isn’t available and not because the data is wrong but because they’re dogmatic.

    • The arrows probably point both ways. The narrow focus on statistical models benefits the dogmatic, which creates a culture that rewards the dogmatic. A boiling off impure thinkers means what is increasingly narrow and ideological.

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