An Encounter with Discrimination

The conversation with the headhunter was going well.  She liked the qualifications and experience on my resume, but she wanted a piece of information that wasn’t on it.  “What year”, she asked, “did you graduate from college?”.  I answered the year, indicating that the event was 24 years past.  Immediately, she responded “Excuse me, I just got a call on the other line.  Can I call you back?”.  Click.  She never called back.

It was the second time that had happened in a week — with two different headhunters.  I was clearly being discriminated against.

Was it unfair?  It certainly was not in my interest, I was being done an injury in the form of getting fewer job interviews.  These headhunters, evidently, judged that I was over the hill.  Would it have been “unfair” if they had discriminated in my favor on account of my lengthy experience?

Was it irrational?  I can certainly see a reason why employers might not want to waste time interviewing a middle-aged engineer for a non-management slot, when they have younger talent available.  Most employers, when they hire someone, are hoping the person turns out to be a superstar who rises quickly through the ranks.  Someone who hasn’t made it to management in 24 years is far less likely to do that than someone who hasn’t been in the industry long enough to have had a chance.  So there were sound reasons to discriminate against me.

It was definitely illegal.  Our society has decided that it is unfair to discriminate against non-minors on the basis of age when evaluating job candidates.

However, the law in this case is so difficult to enforce that it’s hardly worth the paper it’s printed on.  Since we have decided that we don’t want people discriminating on the basis of age, perhaps there might be some means of achieving that end other than legal.

One approach might be to arbitrarily declare that people don’t lose their cognitive edge as they get older.  If enough people, especially society’s intellectual leadership, were to go out of their way to promote such a view, and to punish anyone who dissents from it by calling them names, such as “bigot”, perhaps we can brainwash people into believing us, and they will voluntarily choose to forgo discrimination.

But there are costs to such an approach.  Calling people names makes enemies.  And people who are very old are obviously in decline; would a claim that this decline doesn’t begin until after the Social Security retirement age be very credible?

Furthermore, there is something I find highly obscene about a society that punishes people who refuse to believe lies.  Such a society will persecute its most honest people, and will find itself growing increasingly cynical.

Brainwashing people to believe lies is not the proper response to discrimination; we should just tell people that it’s wrong to do certain kinds of discrimination, but leave them free to believe as they please.

My First Job

When I was a kid in elementary school, I was given an allowance.  It was not very much, maybe enough to buy, perhaps, 3 or 4 candy bars per week.  I do, however, remember the first job i had where I earned money.

In the United States, when it snows, there is a tradition where kids go door to door, offering to shovel sidewalks for money.  I lived in Germany (as an American ex-pat).  Germans had no such tradition, so the American kids had the market cornered.

In Germany, you could start ringing doorbells quite early, like 8:00 or 8:30am on a weekend.  Germans are very disciplined and get up early.  In the US, with lazier people and no gun control, a kid who tried that would never survive to adulthood.

We had to explain to each house what the deal was — what service we were offering, etc.  I remember one lady said “What a great idea!”.

Then we had to negotiate a price, since there was no precedent, no going rate.  I remember I was squeamish about that at first, somehow finding the whole process distasteful, and would offer a very low price, with an attitude of “I’m a cute little kid, you’ll pay me more than I ask for.”.  Then I offerred to shovel this lady’s huge driveway for 5 Marks (about $1.25 at the time).  It took me a long time, I could easily have shoveled 15 Marks worth of other driveways in the time it took me to do that one, and when I was done she just paid me my 5 Marks and sent me on my way.  It was a valuable lesson: negotiate what you’re worth.

I remember this one woman said “I want you to take all the snow over here and put it over there.”.  My German wasn’t fluent, and I found words like “to”, “from”, “around”, “under” and “through” confusing — they don’t have a strict 1-1 correspondence with their English counterparts, and they get mixed up in idioms, so they’re difficult.  She went inside, and I shoveled the snow, and when she came out it turned out that I had gotten “to” and “from” mixed up.  I had to shovel twice as much snow in the opposite direction before I could collect my money.

In high school, they were showing movies and plays in the auditorium during the weekends, and I operated a business selling candy, soft drinks, and champagne there.  I was 15.  I made about 100 Marks a month.  The exchange rate by that time was such that that was about $40.  It seemed like a lot of money to me.

A lot of American kids in the US have jobs while they’re in high school.  They put in a lot more hours, and make a lot more money, than I did.  I think this is probably a bad thing, because I can’t see how all those hours can help but interfere with the hours they are putting into their education.  Also, I think that working for yourself, where you have to negotiate prices and you have costs to meet, is much more educational than working for a wage, where there isn’t much negotiation — when you work at McDonald’s, they offer you a wage and you either take it or leave it.

“Critical Thinking” — A Let-Down

“Critical thinking” is a philosophy course that I did not take in college.  A college professor recently told me that it is a course in basic logic and skepticism, and I thought it sounded terrific.  I asked him to recommend a book on it, and he recommended “A Short Course in Intellectual Self-Defense”, by Normand Baillargeon.

I found most of this book to be OK.  I’ve been in Skeptics societies for over 20 years, and am a subscriber to “Skeptic” magazine, so most of what was in book was not new to me, though I felt it was good stuff.

But in Chapter 5 “The Media” Baillargeon goes completely off the rails.  Firstly he says the whole news media is owned by only a few entities.  To back this up, he gives a chart copied from Mother Jones that is too zoomed out to read (at least on my iPad) and leaves it at that.  I can believe that the major newspapers and TV news channels are owned by a few entities, but there are so many magazines, small newspapers, and especially websites and blogs, that I have trouble believing that they are centrally controlled.  More evidence to back this up is needed.

Throughout this chapter, Baillargeon complains exclusively about conservative bias in the media.  The perception of liberal bias in the mainstream media long preceded the founding of Fox News, and indeed Fox News was a reaction to that perception.  Baillargeon does not refute this claim, he never even acknowledges that anyone makes such a claim.  It is well known that most people employed in the field of journalism are more liberal than the population at large.

Baillargeon talks about “5 filters” on the media.  Regarding the 5th filter, he says “Herman and Chomsky call the fifth and final filter anticommunism.  In fact it refers more broadly to the media’s hostility to any perspective that is left, socialist, progressive, etc.”.

I’m not sure what he means by such a claim.  When he says “left”, my question is “How left does he mean?”.  I think of moderate liberal views as “left”, and “progressive”, and I perceive the mainstream media (for example The New York Times, Newsweek, CNN, or CBS) to be extremely friendly to such views.  While I think such media are hostile to leftist extremists, leftist extremists are hostile to most of society, so that’s not surprising.  Furthermore, tens of millions of innocent people were murdered through execution or agricultural incompetence during peacetime under the extreme leftist governments of Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot, so it’s no more unreasonable for anyone to be hostile to extreme leftists than it is for them to be hostile to Nazis.  Hostility to the extreme left can be defended as a matter of learning from history rather than as a form of “bias” or a “filter on the media”.

To support the idea that certain viewpoints are “censored” from the media, he gives the example of the head of a congressional committee that I had not heard of, who had a financial conflict of interest with his participation in the committee.  If I had seen the committee talked about on the front page of the papers many times, I might be surprised not to hear of that conflict of interest, but it wasn’t that important a committee.  Furthermore, the press never tired of talking about Dick Cheney’s connection with Haliburton, or Hank Paulson’s connection with Goldman-Sachs, or in the old days, Charles Shultz’s connection with Bechtel.

He goes on to list a website called “Project Censored” that lists stories that the authors of the website feel didn’t get adequate press attention.  Again, I didn’t find these stories that earth-shaking.

Baillargeon goes on to give a lot of advice about how to deal with the media in a “critically-thinking” fashion, but he never in the whole chapter gives a crucial piece of advice (probably one he does not follow): make sure you read from sources across the political spectrum, including sources with which you disagree.

He finishes the chapter with a list of recommended news sources.  For one thing, if the whole media are controlled by an evil conspiracy, doesn’t that also go for these recommended sources?  For another thing, while he mentions a few purely skeptical publications, pretty much all of the political publications he mentions are left-leaning.

Overall, I would recommend against this book as an introduction to critical thinking, since the author demonstrates such an appalling lack of critical thinking when we get to the final chapter.

I am reminded of the one philosophy course I took in college.  We read Descartes, Locke, and Hume, during which the professor treated the authors with healthy skepticism and the class was interesting.  Then, the last author we read was Marx, and suddenly all the healthy skepticism completely disappeared, replaced by extreme reverence.  I was really disappointed in that teacher.

Technology in the Core Curriculum?

The Problem

Proponents of the liberal arts education make a lot of lofty promises about what they teach. “Critical thinking” is one such claim. Actually, “critical thinking” is a specific course in philosophy where one learns specific logical fallacies and pitfalls. But I feel it’s very dubious to claim that one learns critical thinking by taking classes where you read Shakespeare. In literature classes, the teachers can put any spin on the subject they want, and it’s very hard to disagree with them and do well.

At the school I went to, there was a special core of the humanities curriculum, of which we were required to take one year, whose stated goal was to make sure we knew how to write a decent essay. Another feature is they make sure you can read at least a certain quantity of material in a given time. These are laudable goals.

But what about technological literacy? Most of the population finishes their education without ever having been taught any technology (as distinct from math and science). A lot of universities have a science core that everybody must take, but these don’t teach how anything works.

I had a friend who got a degree in mechanical engineering from the University of California, and she hadn’t been taught how an internal combustion engine works. I taught her myself. The university taught her heat transfer and fluid dynamics, and lots and lots of math. But her professors assumed that, given her major, she would have picked up the fun stuff on her own. Even within engineering degrees, too much of the effort can be on science and math, and too little on how things work.

Our educational system is failing to prepare people to live in a society that must become, if our standard of living is to be maintained and improved without catastrophic environmental harm, increasingly technological.

Most people, when they discuss technical education, think that the purpose of technical education is to produce teachers, scientists, mathematicians, and engineers. This is wrong. We are in a society where everybody gets to vote, everybody makes daily decisions as a consumer, many people make important technical decisions as investors, and most people aren’t well informed enough to make good decisions in these spheres.

Most people deal with technology by delegating decisions to specialists. But by law they have the right to ignore the specialists.

  • Some people, when told that western medicine offers them a dire diagnosis, will opt for flaky alternatives. Steve Jobs is an example of this, and it probably cost him his life.
  • Global warming is a critical issue: according to some, a failure to address it will have catastrophic consequences. According to others, it is absolutely nothing to worry about. Right now, most people decide on that issue along strictly political, rather than technical, lines.
  • There is a major movement in the US (and many other countries) to retard the teaching of high school biology to make it more consistent with religious scripture. This movement hasn’t won any court cases in the US (yet), but it has succeeded in harassing and intimidating a lot of teachers, not to mention getting the teaching of evolution in biology textbooks watered down. We can’t expect the courts to hold out against an ignorant public indefinitely – we are, ultimately, a democracy, and people will ultimately elect representatives who will appoint judges sympathetic to their sentiments.

A lot of academics feel that whoever has the most advanced and relevant degree should be the party that decides the issue, and the rest of society should just follow their lead without question. Expecting people to accept anything without question is a lot to ask, not to mention completely in conflict with the ideals of democracy and a free society.

Furthermore, there is always disagreement among experts. Even when there is overwhelming consensus on an issue among the scientific community, there is always some tenured goofball in a university somewhere who will disagree, giving the illusion of an absence of consensus, thus empowering the uninformed to take any position they fancy.

Nature of the Existing Educational System

I am an engineer, and the educational system suited my interests well. But I could see how it was turning off most people.

Technical education in elementary school consisted mostly of arithmetic. Not math, arithmetic. It was boring and repetitive and lifeless and dull. It only got fun when we started having competitions at it around 4th grade and I found out I was good at it. I didn’t get good at it because I liked it, I got to like it because I was good at it. Where does this leave the 50% of the students who were below average?

There wasn’t a lot of science in elementary school. There was some, but not much. I think the feeling was that that would have to wait until we had the math for it.

Science really came in full force in high school. For the most part, engineering did not. They now have computer classes in high school, which weren’t there when I was around, so I can’t comment on them.

This was fine for me, because I was an honors student. I spent a tremendous amount of my spare time reading books on science, books on technology, and science fiction when I was growing up. I was also building flying model planes and flying model rockets and all sorts of contraptions. Furthermore, it was clear from a very young age that I wanted to be a technical person. On top of that, my father was an engineer and would talk to me about what he did.

But when I look at this education and ask myself, what would it have done for me without all this supplemental activity of mine on the side, and had I not been planning for a technical future? Would I have seen any relevance in the math I was learning? Or the science for that matter? The answer is plainly no. And that is the answer I see reflected in the faces of most of the population when someone talks about technology.

Teaching Technology

The pervasive idea is that you have to know arithmetic to be able to handle math, you have to know math to be able to handle science, and you have to know science to be able to handle technology. And this idea is false. Yes, to do groundbreaking research in technology you need to be good and science and math, but most people can learn a lot about technology with neither, just using common sense.

And for someone who has no plans to do groundbreaking research of any kind, that is, most of the population, learning how things work is, unlike pure math or science, let alone arithmetic, potentially quite interesting.

Imagine if we taught gym the way we teach technical subjects. In K-12, students would do nothing but the basic movements, as calisthenics. Nothing would be done as coordinated teams and there would be no sports, on the belief that you weren’t ready for sports until you had all the basic movements down. The focus of the system would be on producing a few professional athletes. Everyone else would be made to feel they had failed out of gym. I would predict that with such a program, most students would hate gym, and in fact hardly anyone would watch professional sports as adults. And that’s what our current technical education program is doing to most people.

So we come to the million dollar puzzle: I think most people would be interested to know how the technology around them works, it is in society’s overwhelming interest to have voters, consumers, and investors who know how things work, so why isn’t K-12 teaching it to everybody, instead of nobody?

A Technical Minor

Another thing that wasn’t present in either of the universities I was at was the concept of a technical minor. It might be perfectly appropriate for someone majoring in, say, business or economics or law to want to get a minor in some technical discipline, or even in technology in general. This might already be done at teaching colleges (both the schools I went to were research institutions).

A Technical Core

Looking at the core curriculum of Harvard, and the non-humanities core classes they have to take are “Quantitative Reasoning”, “Science A”, and “Science B”. (There are a bunch of “Science A” classes and “Science B” classes, so I guess you just have to take one of each). Science is all very well and good, but wouldn’t technology be better and more relevant? Furthermore, while students are required to take 8 humanities core classes, they have to take only these 3 non-humanities core classes. Is that really an appropriate balance?

The educational system, both in K-12 and at the bachelor level, needs to be changed to provide more of a focus on engineering, both to prepare students for citizenhood, and to help motivate learning in math and science.