Mencken’s Law at Work in Science
The intuitive solution to a problem can be actually more harmful than the problem itself.
H. L. Mencken said of explanations, “there is always a well-known solution to every human problem — neat, plausible, and wrong.” Here are a couple of examples.
The mixed effects of online diversity training (PNAS). Many dread having to undergo “diversity training” at work. Such training, common in corporations and academia, assume that human beings need their attitudes fixed, because politically-incorrect biases have been inherited from the parents or from childhood. What better solution than to hold classes that can teach the offenders to accept “diversity and inclusion” attitudes from leftist elitists who just want to “help” people? Chang et al believe in the value of such training, but they were perplexed to find that results were mixed. In their study of 3,016 people who had undergone the training, a lot of people did not change their attitudes:
Although diversity training is commonplace in organizations, the relative scarcity of field experiments testing its effectiveness leaves ambiguity about whether diversity training improves attitudes and behaviors toward women and racial minorities. We present the results of a large field experiment with an international organization testing whether a short online diversity training can affect attitudes and workplace behaviors. Although we find evidence of attitude change and some limited behavior change as a result of our training, our results suggest that the one-off diversity trainings that are commonplace in organizations are not panaceas for remedying bias in the workplace.
In particular, the researchers found that such training had “limited efficacy among those groups whose behaviors policymakers are most eager to influence.” The diversity police may just have to resort to old-fashioned methods: electroshock, drugs and lobotomy.
Banning exotic leather in fashion hurts snakes and crocodiles in the long run (Natusch, Webb and Shine, The Conversation). There ought to be a law! The knee-jerk reaction of politicians rushes to the obvious solution: when a resource is threatened, ban all exploitation of it. It’s a big issue in conservation these days when endangered species teeter on the brink of extinction. Is it possible that such actions do more harm than good? Consider this case: ban all exotic leather! Crocodiles are threatened!
We are all familiar with the concept of “fake news”: stories that are factually incorrect, but succeed because their message fits well with the recipient’s prior beliefs.
We and our colleagues in conservation science warn that a form of this misinformation – so-called “feelgood conservation” – is threatening approaches for wild animal management that have been developed by decades of research.
The issue came to a head in February when major UK-based retailer Selfridges announced it would no longer sell “exotic” skins – those of reptile species such as crocodiles, lizards and snakes – in order to protect wild populations from over-exploitation.
But this decision is not supported by evidence.
As they explain, “feelgood conservation” can backfire, by harming those with an interest in preserving the animals – the local people who sell the skins! Honest sellers (not the poachers who rush in to another country and kill elephants for their ivory or rhinos for their horns and leave) depend for their livelihood on being able to sell crocodile hides for profit. They are not going to deplete their resources. They often work hard to ensure plenty of crocodiles and snakes survive, so that a steady supply can sustain their business.
How can this be? Isn’t conserving animals better than killing them for products? What do these guys mean that stopping trade in exotic skins will be a disaster for the animals themselves? Isn’t this a sleazy business? Think like a businessman here:
Actually, no. You have to look past the fate of the individual animal and consider the future of the species. Commercial harvesting gives local people – often very poor people – a direct financial incentive to conserve reptile populations and the habitats upon which they depend.
If lizards, snakes and (especially) crocodiles aren’t worth money to you, why would you want to keep them around, or to protect the forests and swamps that house them?
The three conservationists end by saying the proposed cure is worse than the disease: “The ban announced by Selfridges is a disastrous move that could imperil some of the world’s most spectacular wild animals and alienate the people living with them.”
The lesson is that critical thinking means opening one’s mind to think beyond the solutions that look clear, simple, and wrong
I remember a “diversity training” quiz that everyone at NASA/JPL had to take after the lab opened a “Diversity and Inclusion” department. The quiz was dressed up in cutesy cartoons, explaining things like why you shouldn’t call your holiday party a “Christmas Party” because it might offend somebody. Most people I spoke with thought the exercise was stupid. It was demeaning and insulted their intelligence. And since each quiz item only allowed one right answer, it smelled elitist, not allowing any rational discussion about any of the multiple-choice questions, but demanding conformity of thought. Who were these do-gooders over in another building telling us how to behave, as if we didn’t already know? And what happens if we answer correctly? Do we get put on a suspicion list? One can see multiple ways that this “feelgood” exercise could have aroused more strife than inclusion.
Exercise: Apply this lesson to current worries of today: climate change, fossil fuels, renewable energy, endangered species, national monuments, foreign aid, etc. Just as critical thinking must not jump to the simple solution, it must not also leap to the opposite conclusion. People and their politicians must learn to think past the “feelgood” response and consider the long-term effects of their choices. Sometimes the poorest people suffer the most.