Chad Perrin: SOB

6 March 2008

confusing correlations

Filed under: Cognition,Geek — Tags: , , , — apotheon @ 03:42

Three trends I’ve noticed:

  1. A lot of people seem to think policies like “universal healthcare” are a good idea.

  2. A lot of people seem to think that calculus is such an important part of a computer science curriculum that CS students should take 18 credits of calculus and calc-prep courses, despite the fact that in a Bachelor’s degree program this edges out a lot of other useful education.

  3. I’ve noticed a strong correlation between the two amongst CS grads.

Now . . . don’t get me wrong: in and of itself — in a vacuum, in other words — “universal healthcare” sounds great, and it would be wonderful for everyone to know everything about calculus (especially if they’re going to do a lot of programming, computational theory, and so on). There are some pretty severe problems with each, however:

  1. “Universal healthcare” has to happen in the real world. The resources have to come from somewhere, and introducing “free” services skew markets significantly, changing the way resources are used in those markets, et cetera.

  2. 18 units of calc and calc-prep classes — well, that’s a heck of a lot of time and effort. It detracts from other, probably far more valuable instruction. Some more focus in matters of practical statistics, linear algebra, formal logic, and other paths of (often mathematical) subjects that are more directly applicable to computer science tend to lose out to varying degrees depending on the specific school.

I’m not really interested in building a strong case for either at this point. Either you agree with me or you don’t. My point here is in the correlation between the two misconceptions — not whether you agree they’re misconceptions.

See, here’s the thing — amongst programmers with computer science degrees, there seems for some reason to be a strong correlation between those who believe all that calculus is only right and good as part of a computer science degree and those who believe that advocacy of “universal healthcare” is a good reason to vote for a given candidate in a Presidential election.

One would think that those who favor the mathematical education they received would have done well at it (thus some of the reason for their bias), and would thus be able to do some simple mathematical guesstimation with a reasonable level of accuracy. That is, after all, what calculus is — the fine art of formal mathematical guesstimation. So, assuming they have such skills, one wonders why these people seem fundamentally incapable of applying them meaningfully to matters of economics.

Of course, I have a vague sort of theory on the matter. Maybe it has something to do with the fact I’m what some people call a “synthesist” by nature — aka “a systems thinker”. That also ties in with the whole “INTJ” thing (and how that works is, at the moment, left as an exercise for the reader). See, these concepts seem to be somewhat self-evident, given certain basic assumptions, to me. The problem I have with these correlations is that it’s difficult for me to grasp, on a visceral level, how someone could fit into both categories of misconception at the same time. The fact I’m a synthesist by nature is surely part of the reason I see things as almost self-evident that others simply don’t grok at all, no matter how much they’re made aware of the relevant evidence and principles.

One of the benefits to being a synthesist, I have discovered, is that I tend to be pretty good at sorting out underlying principles and applying them across domains. Considering the fundamental disconnect between “good at math” and “bad at basic economics” in some people, I can only imagine that they’re really atrocious at applying principles across disparate domains. This might also explain why people who think 18 credits of calc and calc-prep is critical to a career based on a CS degree don’t grasp the fact that many of the relevant skills they get from calc are not specific to calculus, and could more easily be learned in other subjects. It might further explain why a lot of the time their arguments boil down to some kind of assertion that the ability to get through a calculus class is in and of itself valuable enough to warrant squeezing out other subjects, regardless of any actual skills learned (which should be easily recognizable to any bystander as an absurd notion).

. . . but it seems entirely too easy to just assume that the reason people can, in such large numbers, subscribe to both misconceptions is that they’re somehow deficient. Okay, not really “deficient” per se — just differently talented — but the form of the argument is pretty much the same as saying “so and so is just stupid”. It seems, as I said, too easy. It feels like a cop-out rather than a probable explanation.

Any alternative theories (other than “I disagree with your assertion about one or the other of the ‘misconceptions’ — or even both of them!” since I’m not interested in having that argument right now) are welcome.

If you want to discuss your disagreement about these correlated misconceptions’ accuracy, I might separate the two subjects into two (or more) individual SOB entries in the future.


I have created the first of those two possible venues for discussion of the two “misconceptions” already. It addresses the matter of “universal healthcare” and its (lack of) desired efficacy. If you subscribe to the misconception that “universal healthcare” in the real world, as it exists in the here and now where energy and other resources are not magically infinite, and think that it’s me who has the misconception, that’s the place to prove your case — not here.

All original content Copyright Chad Perrin: Distributed under the terms of the Open Works License