Open Thread, September 25th, 2010

By Razib Khan | September 25, 2010 12:11 am

Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error is in my “stack,” though I don’t know when I’ll get to it. A few things I’ve been wrong about in the last 10 years:

– I was more optimistic about reproducible I.Q. QTLs in 2000 than I should have been. Here’s a 1998 article on Robert Plomin’s “discovery” of an I.Q. gene, and now his recent finds.

– I was too credulous about lots of things before the Iraq War. This was egregious, but unfortunately the moronic company here are legion. Here’s Joshua Micah Marshall in June of 2002: “In other words, to give the go-ahead to war with Iraq, you’d have to decide that the experienced hands are all wrong, and throw in your lot with a bunch of hot-headed ideologues. Oh, and one other thing: The last few times, the ideologues have turned out to be right.”

– I thought minarchist libertarianism was a viable model of governance. I do not believe this to be so now, in large part because of my current understanding of how the modal mind works.

– I accepted the inevitability of secularization cross-culturally. I think the story is more complex now, for coarse sociological and historical reasons, as well as fine-grained psychological ones. I think atheism is definitely a minority disposition rooted in peculiarities of neurology.

– I thought Muslims behaved in a crazy manner because they accepted the validity of a crazy book (Koran) and traditions (Hadith). I think the reality is much more complex now.

– I totally accepted G. C. Williams line on the overwhelming dominance of individual level selection. I am more of an agnostic now, though I still believe individual level selection is the best null.

– I accepted the historical consensus that in recent times change in culture occurred overwhelmingly through the flow of memes, not genes, excluding obvious exceptional cases such as the New World. I think the reality is more complex now.

– I used to think that the Right was more intellectually vibrant than the Left. I now am generally skeptical that intellectual life within ideological movements can ever be “vibrant.”

– I thought George W. Bush would pursue a “humble” foreign policy, and feared Al Gore’s association with the “hawkish” wing of the Democratic party. Wrong-headed.

– I accepted the argument of economists about the Great Moderation. I think they were wrong, and I was wrong to accept their authority.

– I thought open source relational databases would cannibalize Oracle’s core product lines. I was wrong, Oracle swallowed the open source flavors whole and their firm is still robust.

– I thought Facebook would peak in 2008. I was wrong.

– I thought twitter would be a fad which came and went. Wrong. I’m on twitter, and see its utility.

– I thought I’d be fatter in 2010 than I was in 2000. I was wrong.

– I thought talk therapy was ridiculous and that prescription antidepressants were far superior in efficacy. I believe I was wrong.

– I thought the Netherlands or Sweden would become Muslim names in the near future. I was wrong. More precisely, I had a lot of dumb ideas in my head and combined them in a dumber fashion.

– I thought Thomas Malthus was a fool. I think I was wrong. He was wrong, but he was a sophisticated thinker.

– I thought we broke out of the Malthusian trap because of innovation. Wrong, only half of the puzzle. The demographic transition occurred, and productivity gains were not swallowed up by population increase.

Were you wrong within the last 10 years? About what?

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Comments (36)

  1. bioIgnoramus

    On Iraq and on the Great Moderation: “What all the wise men promised has not happened, and what all the damn fools said would happen has come to pass.” (Lord Melbourne).

    If you’re like me, as you age you’ll tend more and more to distrust the “wise men” and side with the damn fools. That’s mainly because I’ve come to realise that the wise men are damn fools too, but with added pretentions.

  2. Sandgroper

    I think another thing that happens as you get older is you realize a lot of things are more complex than you thought.

    I was certain that modern humans had no genetic inheritance from Neanderthals.

  3. You could have ended each bullet with the refrain “But I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.”

  4. ChH

    Thomas Malthus had an interesting idea that was plausible given the available data at the time. The fools are the ones who still think he’s right with the data available to us now.

  5. Katharine

    A more mundane thing I was wrong about, since that’s what I’ve been grousing about lately:

    I thought most of my classmates in my second-semester organic chemistry lab would be at least somewhat prepared, able to study, and intelligent since they’d gotten through three semesters of chemistry previously. (This on top of my misanthropy, which is apparently now well-known on this site.)

    I was wrong, their actions f*cked up my lab report and now I’m hoping it doesn’t screw up my grade, which has been near-perfect so far.

    Ever since I started working alone, I’ve gotten the best results out of everyone.

  6. Sandgroper

    Katharine, I don’t believe you are misanthropic, you just have to suffer the constant irritation and provocation that comes from being more intelligent and sensitive than your peers.

    I’m not being sarcastic. My daughter says very similar things about her lab partners – they’re all either aggressive hostile misogynists, racists, a combination of misogynist and racist, or total airheads who don’t want to do anything, and they screw up her lab reports. She’s come to the same conclusion – she’s better off working alone.

    If you would quit parroting dumb things about engineers, I think I could almost like you. You are certainly smart enough to understand that all gross generalisations are stupid, and that the world is a complicated place.

  7. Katharine

    Actually, Sandgroper, for what it’s worth I actually respect most engineers.

    The Salem hypothesis is a reference to what probably constitutes a tiny minority, and I’m not saying most of them don’t grasp science – I do think they do – but if I know what you’re referring to, I’m saying the curriculum they’re taught is less focused on scientific thought than science curricula, and this is why pretty much every creobot who claims to be a scientist usually turns out to be an engineer.

  8. Katharine

    My lab partners THREW OUT the product when I was taking a nip to the little biologist’s room, before we had a chance to ANALYZE it.

    Also, one of them didn’t know what a separatory funnel was, and the other kept making what at least I perceived as underhanded snipes at me half the time that were totally not based in fact, which I think accused ME of being unprepared when I was the only person able to do the entire procedure without having to look at the textbook because I had written it down THOROUGHLY.

    Also, my LAST lab partners (we’re allowed to switch lab partners if we find the other ones irritating) kept talking in a language I didn’t speak or remotely understand (I was the only person who didn’t understand it), and as much as I am very much supportive of multiculturalism and diversity, it is immeasurably RUDE to do that, since I don’t know if they’re doing something crass such as insulting me, and given my knowledge of people I wouldn’t be surprised if they did that.

  9. benj

    Funny some of the things you think you were wrong – I think you were right. Twitter for example: it is not so popular. I don’t know almost anybody using it. Having a twitter account – loads of people ; using it – almost nobody. I don;t think it has any utility for non-bloggers / non-geeks / non-celebs – meaning 99% of the people.

  10. Katharine

    I used to think that the Right was more intellectually vibrant than the Left. I now am generally skeptical that intellectual life within ideological movements can ever be “vibrant.”

    Agreed on the latter. I vote Democrat because their ideals line up with mine much better than the other viable alternative, not because of any desire to do the whole lock-step thing (which I don’t have), and because my tendency is to place more emphasis on social political issues than economic political issues – the economy and its needs can fluctuate (I’m economically leftist-to-moderate), but civil rights should be unalienable (I’m very far to the left on those).

    I’m not sure I understand your statements about your beliefs regarding Malthus’s ideas – could you expound a little more on those?

  11. Katharine

    I accepted the inevitability of secularization cross-culturally. I think the story is more complex now, for coarse sociological and historical reasons, as well as fine-grained psychological ones. I think atheism is definitely a minority disposition rooted in peculiarities of neurology.

    Also, expound more on these. I find it odd that it seems almost as if you’re saying that the neural and psychological tendency for most human beings is an attitude (religiosity) that does not reflect empirical information, and that atheism, which I would say is the more adaptive choice since it reflects reality and thus, I think, would enhance adaptation, is atypical.

    I do think secularization is thankfully inevitable, but will take a longer time to happen than perhaps you thought.

  12. I’m not sure I understand your statements about your beliefs regarding Malthus’s ideas – could you expound a little more on those?

    malthus’ model described all of human history before the 19th century accurately. he was wrong, but so were the utopians. his wrongness was grounded in what had come before. a secondary issue is that it isn’t just the technological change which has resulted in wealth and health, but reduced fertility, which was totally unpredicted.

    which I would say is the more adaptive choice since it reflects reality and thus

    i don’t necessarily think that the more realistic model is more adaptive. think of it in terms of diminishing returns. imagine that

    y = increment of reality
    x = increment of cost

    assume that the rate of expenditure of cost keeps increasing, but the rate of increasing fidelity to reality keeps decreasing on the margin.

    in any case, i’ve never seen a society where the irreligious have more offspring than the religious. so it isn’t just theory.

  13. Brian

    I’m not so sure Oracle’s acquisition of Sun means FOSS RDBMSs won’t eventually prevail. After all, there is Postgres (which some would argue is and was superior to MySQL in the first place). It’s also interesting to watch Drizzle (a fork of MySQL), lesser-knowns such Firebird, and the plethora of “NoSQL” databases (however over-hyped they may be).

  14. Katharine

    In addition, since this IS an open thread, I would like to note that for some reason, I crap out during exercise earlier than my folks, who are more than twice my age. I was mowing the lawn once and got light-headed and met my lunch about five minutes after I started; Dad did it for a good half-hour without stopping. Mopping the floor today made me a little light-headed.

    I’m still young; I have no clue why my heart seems to be worse than my parents’, despite having normal blood pressure.

  15. (which some would argue is and was superior to MySQL in the first place

    well, for ‘mission critical’ stuff and scalable apps that was true, right?

    why do you think it’s your heart? i thought people’s metabolisms made a big diff. re: exercise.

  16. Katharine

    why do you think it’s your heart? i thought people’s metabolisms made a big diff. re: exercise.

    Well, my parents are in overall worse health than I am, and in addition lightheadedness generally gives me an indication that the problem is some weird arrhythmia or a weak heart or something.

  17. Tanya McPositron

    I’ve often thought that I might be wrong; but–almost invariably–this thought turns out to be a mistake. Gladwell seems to be onto something with the whole trust-your-gut thing, no?

  18. bioIgnoramus

    I’m still reeling with astonishment at the idea of “lab partners” in a chem lab. The whole point of chem lab in my day was that you did it yourself. You had to learn to do organic syntheses, you had to learn qualititative and quantitative analysis, and so forth; you worked on your own and were examined on your own. “Big kit” lab – in physics, say, or engineering – was different. But in glassware lab, it was you versus intractable reality. They’ve got one hell of a nerve to charge the amount they do for an education, and then short-change you like this. Shameful!

  19. Laura

    I thought that psychodynamic therapy was silly and Freudian, and other forms of therapy (e.g., cognitive) were much more effective. Now I think it is more likely that the Dodo bird verdict is correct; all must have prizes.

    I thought economics was boring.

    I thought I was going to become a behavioral geneticist (see item #1 for my actual career).

    I believed in voting and in the democratic system. Boy, was I deluded. See Bryan Caplan’s “The Myth of the Rational Voter” for further information about how wrong I was.

    I was a positivist. Now I waffle between postpositivism and postmodernism, depending on the subject area.

  20. Sandgroper

    Katharine, Salem’s ‘hypothesis’ has so little behind it that it has been deleted from Wikipedia. It’s actually pretty funny that a couple of scientists, including Myers, are kicking along a trivial hypothesis for which they have nothing but a bit of subjective anecdotal evidence. Myers as much as admits he did it to be a troll. There’s a word for trolling your own blog, but I forget what it is.

    As for “Engineers for Jihad”, which I think I recall Razib blogged about some time back, the authors of that paper were told by terrorist organisations that they actively target their recruitment at engineers for their technical ability, but the authors blithely waved that aside on spurious grounds, probably because it didn’t suit their thesis. People even point to William Shockley as an example of an engineer who was capable of extremism in order to lend support to their arguments about engineers, overlooking the fact that Shockley was not an engineer at all, he was a physicist.

    I’m not disagreeing with you on curriculum – any engineer who has not trained as a scientist but claims to be a scientist to try to give himself credibility in an argument is behaving unethically. But the kind of mentality that allows someone to be a creationist or advocate of intelligent design is probably capable of that sort of self-delusion. You know, “I apply science to solve problems, so I must understand science better than scientists”. I’m familiar with that among engineers, generally not very good ones. And very few engineers learn any biology at all, so it’s a totally irrelevant claim.

    As for your health problem, just not being fit enough for an activity and then overdoing it can easily make you dizzy and nauseous, or can even make you black out. You might think your parents are not as healthy as you are, but they could still have more stamina for physical activity because they are accustomed to it. A lot of students don’t get much physical exercise because they are just too busy. By the time I left university I was very unfit – too many years hunched over books, computers and lab benches, and no time spent doing aerobic exercise and resistance training on any kind of regular basis. Then I dived straight into doing some strenuous circuit training, and very nearly blacked out – very dizzy and nauseous. And there was nothing wrong with my heart at all, my fitness level was just way below what it needed to be to attempt what I did. I played rugby at school, and the sight of healthy teenaged rugby players throwing up at training was very familiar to me.

    If you are really concerned that you have a heart problem, you should get your doc to send you for a stress ECG or whatever (I’m not going to pretend I understand medicine better than doctors, but I have had a couple of stress ECGs), but I would sincerely suggest that first you look objectively at your physical fitness – if you have been doing no kind of regular training and you dive into pushing a mower around, that could easily be enough to make you lose your lunch, even though you are young and have no apparent health issues. You need to work up to it gradually and gently.

  21. diana

    I used to think that political anti-Semitism was dead. I was wrong.

    For a while I thought the creation of a Jewish state in the Middle East was a mistake. I was wrong.

    I thought that voting mattere and could really change things. I’ve learned that voting means is a forced “yes” or “no”. You say “no” to the party in power. Then the next cycle you do the same thing.

    I used to think that political parties meant something. They mean nothing: in the US, all politics is regional.

    I thought that we’d have a Democratic majority for a generation. I was wrong. (Not that it matters.)

    I thought that you could never go wrong betting against the US economy. In the long run I might be right but a lot of people will be swept away before the economy can improve.

    I thought that Europe would solve its immigration problem peacefully. I was wrong. But maybe I’m wrong there. I hope so.

  22. Sandgroper

    K – sorry, I don’t get pissed too often, but when I do I’m like a terrier with a dead rat. I’m not pissed at you, and I’m certainly not an apologist for all engineers everywhere. That would be moronic. I’m pissed at people who think it’s OK to spread defamatory bullshit about my profession.

    You’ll note that Rosenau jumped on the Salem bandwagon in 2007, at least until Bruce Salem himself showed up in the comments. Rosenau was already in the process of being made to look foolish by a commenter calling himself Joseph Dunphy, but Salem really screwed it for him by saying this:

    “When I proposed the so-called Salem Hypothesis, it was to address the claims of a particular Christian fundamentalist who was an EE at TeKtronix in Beaverton Or, that his engineering training gave him enough expertise to weigh in on the creation-evolution debate on an equal footing with someone like myself who actually had training in geology and biology. This was in 1988.”

    In other words, his hypothesis rested on an anecdotal sample of one electrical engineer.

    But then Salem really screws himself by saying this:

    ” What the discussion above suggests is that the personality traits that engineers can possess, along with incomplete training, can lead to errors in judgement that lead to scientifically untenable beliefs. I have experienced this many times. There is no better example of this than the beliefs about race and innate learning ability of Blacks expressed by William Shockley in the 1970’s. Shockley invented the transister, won a Nobel Prize for that but was probably mistaken in his views about intelligence and race. The traits of engineers that get them into the most trouble, and it is why a high percentage of them are Libertarians, is that they approach stress in “fix-it” mode and go off half-cocked.”

    Incomplete training? So Salem is setting himself up as an expert in engineering education?

    Not only is that a prejudiced and lamentably uninformed comment, but he also shoots himself in the foot because, as I mentioned earlier, Shockley was not an engineer, he was a physicist.

    So Salem turns out to be an ignorant and unethical bigot who can’t even be bothered to check the truth of his own claims. Either that or he doesn’t understand the difference between a physicist and an engineer.

    I know quite a bit about explosives, by the way, and what Dunphy said in his comment to Rosenau about bomb-making is correct.

  23. Vivi Andersen

    What a lovely cat !

    Is he/she a Maine Coon ?

    ( Great blog!)

  24. Brian

    > well, for ‘mission critical’ stuff and scalable apps that was true [of Postgres], right?

    AFAIK, the general idea was (and to many, still is) that Postgres was more consistent and standards-compliant whereas MySQL was more performant and easier to use.

    As for scalability, MySQL was generally said to be more horizontally scalable (i.e., scalable by deploying to multiple machines) whereas Postgres was said to be more scalable over increased processor cores (i.e., scalable by deploying to a beefier server).

    My understanding is that as of recent stable and in-development version, the gap between the two is closing in most respects except for the standards compliance and consistency aspect, regarding which Postres is still clearly superior (MySQL AB is in a similar position as Microsoft with Windows: to become “better,” many would argue, it must break backwards-compatibility, but that would kill one of the primary reasons for their product’s continued use).

    Disclaimer: I am not a DBA, just a geek.

  25. I was also pleased by talk of a “humble foreign policy”, though I didn’t really associate Gore with hawkishness. I can’t remember many other beliefs from back then. I believed in God, or at least believed I believed in him. Perhaps earlier than that I thought non-fiction was boring, now it’s all I read, but that could also be changing personal taste.

    How do the deficiencies of the modal human make any other form of government better? I’ve drifted further towards anarchism, but don’t see it as a stable equilibrium.

  26. Chris T

    The number of views I’ve changed or recalibrated is huge and I’m only 25. Like Razib, I’ve realized how much more complex the world really is. I get into a lot fewer political debates than I used to precisely because laying out my views and the reasons I believe them would take way too long.

    Was more left in college and have moved more towards libertarian, but would not describe myself as such. I find a lot of liberal views to be hopelessly simplistic now (and a lot of conservative ones).

  27. Tom Bri

    Katharine, getting a good diet? By which I mean one with plenty of fat and protein and modest carbs? Made an immediate difference in my running endurance to drop most of the carbs for fat. (Sorry, my personal annoying trait is pushing my dietary preferences.)

    I’m 49. Most of my beliefs are pretty stable. I am less libertarian now, was almost an anarchist 15 years ago. Decided that most people LIKE the dominance rat-race too much to give up government.

  28. ChH

    Tom Bri – does that mean you don’t think libertarian minimalist government would work well, or that you don’t think it is achievable?

  29. Tom Bri


    I believe it is achievable and would work well for a while. I just believe that either it would grow like a cancer, as the US government has done, or, that some other power structure would grow to replace the missing power games structure.

    That might be a religion, a quasi-religion like environmentalism or socialism, or it could be business cabals, or something different. Humans just love to play dominance games. We’ll give them up about when we give up sex.

    I was very libertarian until I came to the realization that it just doesn’t fit most peoples’ psychology. True anarchists, who neither seek to dominate nor want to be dominated, are too small a percent of the population. I’d guess under 20%, maybe well under.

    Consider the commentors on Razib’s blog. A great group of people and a big reason I read here most days. But they love to win arguments.

  30. I thought the blue collar folks I was raised among were dullards and shallow and that I was going to transcend my upbringing and them by going to Grad school where I’d be accepted among the bright and cultured. I was wrong. When I came back humbled, they welcomed me home despite all the thinly veiled disdain I had ladled at them and all the “friends” I had made at the university gave me the brush-off. The exception to that, oddly enough, were the folks I met in computer science classes. I’m still tight with them, despite not seeing them for over a decade and having no real interest in information technology for about a decade as well. I thought I would lose contact with them first.

    I thought teaching and studying was what I’d be happiest doing as a profession. Turns out I far prefer doing manual labor, in particular landscaping and groundskeeping.

    I thought I had no particular musical talent. Turns out I wasted my best cognitive years playing video games as past-time instead of playing an instrument. That, however was youthful pigheadedness against genetic legacy at it’s best. When your father is a professional musician and your grandmother was a music teacher, avoiding music like the plague is probably the worst thing you can do to yourself. When I finally picked up an instrument and played it and sang, it felt *right* in a way I have difficulty explaining in words. It’s just now in my thirties, I can only do it as hobby instead of professionally. Better now than never, thankfully.

  31. ChH

    Tom Bri – I completely agree with your “God wants us to live as anarchists, but we can’t”…

    I’m libertarian in the sense that we definitely need government to protect us from each other (NOT from ourselves). I’m formulating a pithy way to say this – maybe “The role of government should be to force people to live as anarchists.”

  32. Sandgroper

    #29 – You’re full of shit. Exercise and a balanced diet will beat your particular brand of personal bullshit every time.

  33. Sandgroper

    diana – I miss you.

    But more to the point, can you explain your comment “I thought that you could never go wrong betting against the US economy.” Did you mean you could never go wrong betting WITH the US economy, or what?

    Humour me, you know I’m dumb.

  34. I thought I could determine which things in the past I was wrong about.

    I was wrong.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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