“Just As Bad”

One of the worst and widespread arguments these days is the “just as bad” argument. It happens when one criticizes some (often extreme) position, and the response is simply that the alternative (often neutral) position is “just as bad,” at which point the discussion is basically terminated, because the accuser will use no means other than repeating “just as bad.”

The most prominent case today is that of religion, particularly of Islam vs some other religion, or sometimes religion vs atheism.

Earlier in the year we had the Boston marathon bombings, committed by Islamic fundamentalists. This is not to mention bigger events such as 9/11 or 7/7. And yet, the West is afraid to call out Islam, afraid not of the Islamic world itself, but afraid of being viewed by other Westerners as racist or intolerant. (Neither of these labels is sensible, as Islam is not a race, and intolerance of intolerance is not the same as intolerance.)

In fact, many liberals defend Islam indirectly by saying “fundamentalist Christians are just as bad,” and they are smug about saying this, as if just to show off their “tolerance” of other people. Now, if the assertion were true, it would be a good argument. However, it could not be much further from the truth.

One person in a debate (I shall leave the name anonymous) tried to use Timothy McVeigh as an example. McVeigh killed 168 people and wounded many more via an explosion in Oklahoma City in 1995. He was also a Christian. However, his motives for the event was not strongly based on Christianity. He was not trying to protect Christianity, or trying to conquer in the name of it. His quarrel was with the government. Almost all Christians rightfully condemned the attack.

On the other hand, the marathon bombers spoke strongly about Allah, justifying it based on Islam. And while there are not yet any poll numbers for the marathon, we can extrapolate from Muslim world’s reaction to 9/11 and 7/7 that there was NOT universal condemnation of the attack. For example, from the poll linked previously, 20% of British Muslims sympathize with 7/7 bombers. Sure, 20% is still a minority, but not the “tiny” minority that politicians and politically correct liberals make it seem to be. I’m sure the percentage of Christians supporting McVeigh’s actions is under 0.001%.

From the Oatmeal comic:

oatmeal_extremists_3An important idea to keep in mind is that there are different degrees. This is the famous Isaac Asimov quote about it:

“When people thought the earth was flat, they were wrong. When people thought the earth was spherical, they were wrong. But if you think that thinking the earth is spherical is just as wrong as thinking the earth is flat, then your view is wronger than both of them put together.”

Islamic fundamentalism:


Christian fundamentalism:


At least Westboro doesn’t kill or bomb people. And stalling the advancement of society is better than actively moving it backwards.

“Atheist fundamentalism”:

Richard Dawkins

Of course, I put the phrase in quotes because there aren’t any holy pillars or dogmas that atheists must adhere to.

Overall, the “just as bad” argument is an intellectual cop-out move. Of course, there exist cases where “just as bad” is actually valid (stealing something on a Monday is just as bad as stealing something on a Tuesday). However, for most of the cases it is used, the person making the argument has no other argument than to equate two unequal things without justification. What worries me the most is that I know otherwise very smart people who are religious, and when I ask them about their views, they almost all have nothing more than fancy statements of this argument (circular reasoning being the other main argument).

Along with “just as bad,” we have the “just as extreme,” which is intrinsically not a bad argument since extremes are normally to be avoided. However, just as it is wrong to equate different levels of wrongness, it is very wrong to equate extremes.

(Unsure of the source for the following table, but it’s pretty funny to read and then think about how both sides are just as bad.)


In addition, many otherwise logical people are drawn to this type of argument because it makes them look tolerant and politically correct. However, if you ask them whether it is worse to wear clothes mixed fabrics or to murder someone, they will always respond using proper reason, even if these two sinful acts have the same Biblical punishment.

A while back I wrote a post called “On Giving Too Much Legitimacy to the Inferior Position,” which also condemned blanket statements of two things being equal when they are not. I think these two posts are two different perspectives on the same issue. The other criticizes “just as good,” whereas this one criticizes “just as bad.” More broadly, it is wrong to equate two things without any justification.

To summarize, the “just as bad” argument has many real-world issues:

  • It draws otherwise smart people due to its political correctness.
  • It draws people who have otherwise no argument.
  • Smart people don’t realize they are using it.
  • It sounds at first like a legitimate argument.
  • It is much easier (and takes far less time) to use this argument than to criticize it it.
  • It makes people afraid to condemn destructive issues in Islam or religion in general, because they will be mocked by the statement that their own worldview is just as bad.
  • It helps to inhibit social progress, as those who advocate it are just as bad as those who are holding it back.

Watch the first comment be, “You’re just as bad as the people you’re criticizing!”

More on Pride in Race, and Social Revolutions

US Capitol

This is a followup to my earlier post “Pride in Things Out of Your Control“. In that article, I argued that it does not make sense to be proud of anything that is purely random, such as your race. An even more important argument is that race should not a factor when judging anyone, since no one chose their own race. More strongly, and perhaps, race should not be a factor when making laws.

For the same reason as before, namely that no one actually chose their own race, it is strange for laws to target certain racial groups. Is that not the very definition of racial discrimination, or shall I say, racism? Now, from a utilitarian perspective, it is possible to justify temporary measures that target specific race groups in order to increase the total social utility, namely affirmative action. However, the real difference to bridge in these cases is usually not so much race as it is socioeconomic conditions. Affirmative action is defined in terms of race rather than socioeconomic status because it is easier for the common person to understand and easier to enforce.

With affirmative action aside, even though its true motivation is only indirectly related to race, there are very few possible justifications for using race in law. And while the Zimmerman case should not have been related to race, the public perception of it certainly seemed like it. The law argued in court and the racism argued outside of it were out of sync.

Yes, in my last post, I wrote about how little this case mattered, but the more time that time goes by, the more I see people talking about it, and often with completely wrong accounts.

The question is, who has failed? Are the people so ignorant of the court system and brainwashed by the media that they have no clue what the trial was actually about? Or is the court system so disconnected from reality that it failed to serve justice?

A Historical Tangent: Changing the Mindset of Other Groups

It is important to keep in mind that when groups do agitate for rights, their practical purpose is to convince whomever is in charge to give them rights. Just looking at American history, we see that every time there is a major social revolution granting rights to a previously discriminated group, the government itself contained extremely few, if any, members of that group.

Abraham Lincoln was white, and so was the rest of the US government when the Civil War occurred. When Congress granted women the right to vote, there were no women in Congress. And when the LGBT community first agitated for rights, no member of Congress of such an orientation had openly declared it.

While this is not directly related to the main topic, I wished to remind you of what protests are actually for. A discriminated group MUST convince fellow citizens who are not of that discriminated group that something must be changed. This in turn will, after a number of years, cause a change in public sentiment which will be reflected in the election, and in turn into law.

In this respect the LGBT movement is sort of a model modern movement, in that it successfully convinced a majority of straight people to accept LGBT people as equal.

So to the public who thinks that the result of the Zimmerman trial was unjust and that racism or the self-defense law should be changed, you must try to convince people who disagree with you of your position. The reason I point this out, when it seems completely obvious, is that it is not easy to do in the current world.

Yes you can announce your ideas to hundreds if not thousands of people with social media, but social media is also highly self-clustering, in that on a given social issue, discussion between the two groups is far more rare than among one group. That is, you may think that you champion good causes on Facebook, but your good intent may be useless because the only people listening are the ones who already agree with you anyway. This is especially true if you are not highly aggressive or confrontational in your posts. Unless you explicitly provoke the other side, your posts and resulting discussions will be nothing more than friendly groupthink, and which will only increase confirmation bias. An argument between people who disagree is far more useful than an argument between people who agree.

So go ahead and discuss, debate, and disagree.

The Media

So all I’ve been hearing from the media in the last few days is the Zimmerman trial. Perhaps there might be some situation in which I would have actually followed it. But frankly, there was no reason for me to even care the slightest about the event.

Here are some recent events I actually care about:

  • The turmoil in Egypt.
  • The fate of Edward Snowden.
  • The highest ever close of the S&P 500 index (2 days in a row).

The first two could alter international relations and the third is a positive indicator for the economy. I fail to see how the Zimmerman case comes close to any of these, let alone deserves to be news. I could have seen the verdict being important to report, but not the whole trial leading up to it. It is just one case that determines one person’s guilt. Sure, it will provoke thought and debate indirectly on some larger issues, but if those bigger issues really are so important, why aren’t we already debating them?

Blogging, Chess, and the Sunk Cost Fallacy

Since the summer began, I have again fallen into an inconsistent posting schedule, one of the things I was trying hardest to avoid. One of the reasons is that I still have retained a perfectionist attitude, that to write something, it needs somehow to be interesting or insightful, and in addition, written well. Otherwise, I thought, someone else would have just written something that is strictly better.

But as a result, I end up scrapping many of my drafts and never following up on them, and I rarely actually publish anything. Of course, this relates to other areas of life as well. I often try very hard to avoid situations where I could make mistakes, rather than just making mistakes and learning from them.

This summer I have been getting back into chess, and a few weeks ago I noticed something that I had never noticed before. It was in a game of blitz chess, or speed chess, where the clock is as much the enemy as the person seated across is. In general I played moves fast, but the moment I made an error, I froze up and wasted a lot of time. Quite fittingly, we had earlier in the day a lecture about illusions and cognitive biases, including the sunk cost fallacy. The rational thing would have been to keep playing fast, reasonable moves to keep a time advantage. However, after making the blunder, which was losing a Knight if I recall correctly, I kept thinking about how to recover the piece instead of just playing reasonable moves. My teammate, who was also the person who gave the talk, rightfully yelled at me to keep playing quickly when I froze up.

This story is a lesson in thinking rationally even in unfamiliar or just downright messy situations. In general I catch my mistakes quickly, thus it is rarely an issue in everyday activity or even in an interview. But in chess (and in trading), there is no taking back a mistake, only continuing on making good moves even with a bad position.

Perfectionism, while sometimes useful, is something I am trying to shake off. I will post on a regular schedule (it really is like the fifth time I’ve said that), perhaps put up a few chess games, and try to make some mistakes. A weekly posting schedule, namely every Sunday, seemed to work well for a while, so I am bringing that back online. Enjoy!

(Edit: Don’t worry math people, I’ll try to resurrect the math blog too.)

Pride in Things Out of Your Control

The topic for today is: Can you be proud of something that is out of your control?

I started thinking about this last week, when someone claimed to be proud of belonging to a particular house at Harvard University. This seemed quite reasonable, and perhaps rational, until he admitted the following caveat: the house assignments were entirely random.

In any normal situation I would let this go, but in our internship there is a strong emphasis on thinking rationally, and I was chatting with people I consider to be highly rational. So I raised the issue and we discussed it briefly, but it was not really resolved. I am continuing my thoughts on it here.

Pride in Luck

Imagine a game where you roll a fair 6-sided die. If it lands on a 6, you gain $10; otherwise, you lose $10. The expected value of this game is negative (on average you lose $6 per game), so one would be a fool to play it. But suppose you did play the game once, and it landed a 6, netting you $10.

Can you be proud of rolling a 6?

I would argue that you cannot be proud of rolling the 6, as there is nothing you did that affected the chance of rolling it. (Even further, I would argue that you cannot even be proud of choosing to play the game, as it has negative expectancy with a significant chance of loss.) It is irrational to be proud of something that happened by chance.

Biological and Geographical Luck

Similarly, can you really be proud to be a member of whatever race you belong to? Personally, I would answer no: I happen to be Chinese, but I have never felt proud of being Chinese, simply because I had no choice whatsoever in being born Chinese. In fact, I would far more strongly identify as “American” rather than “Chinese,” since there are some things I actually can make decisions between, e.g. Eastern vs. Western philosophy, cultural values, and freedom of speech; and in each case I agree more with the American side.

The key difference is that nationality is something I could theoretically change. Had I the inclination, I could feasibly move to some other country than the US. Yet no matter how much I might want to be of some other race, I can’t revoke being Chinese. Thus I cannot be proud of being Chinese in race, but I can be proud of being American in nationality.

Because of this way of thought, I have never understood the point of racial clubs and organizations. I won’t speak out about other racial groups in America due to lack of knowledge, but I will say that Chinese organizations I have encountered in the US seem useless, cultish, and indoctrinating, to the point of being as bad as religious organizations. Every Sunday for a while, I had to go to a completely useless, mind-numbingly boring, tradition-ladden “school” which, of course, cost my parents quite some money. But I’ll save that rant for another day.

Elsewhere in geography, many people are proud of football or basketball teams—of the city in which they grew up or are currently living. Unless you specifically moved to some city for the sole purpose of being with its sports team(s), it is irrational to be proud of a local sports team just because you happen to share, by luck, some geographical vicinity.

In a similar way to geographical luck, biological luck defines us all more than it should. Survived some disease? Good for you, you happened to have had certain beneficial genetic mutations and proper health care. Tall? Again, a matching assortment of genes and nutrition. Hair or eye color? Genes. Male or female? Just a difference between XY and XX. It is just nonsensical for someone to be proud of being these.

Pride in History?

American Flag

So now, having established that I am proud to be an American, the question remains as to whether I can be proud of something that happened earlier in its history. After all, I have no control over the events of the American Revolution, just as I have no control over the roll of dice. However, the difference is that the American Revolution and its leaders were not an accident—they were forged from the values of the Enlightenment.

Then what makes it rational to be proud of the Enlightenment? I think the reasons listed above, for why it is justified for me to be proud of being American but not of being Chinese, provide the answer: one can and should be proud of philosophical and cultural values (though not necessarily of the culture in which one was born). Even now, the path of independence and freedom from tyranny is a slow and hard-fought process. Events like the American Revolution, even though they are long into the past, are then indeed something to be proud of. Happy Independence Day!

Edit (7/21/13): I wrote a follow-up.