Diversity II: Diverse choices

April 6, 2017

This post continues my previous post on the topic of diversity, in which I discussed the first part of the sentence “Women still earn less and are slower to be promoted” (lifted from an article in De Volkskrant). In the present post, I delve into the second part. Is it true that women are slower to be promoted, and if so, is that (as is often suggested) the result of gender discrimination?

What I assume the author is referring to with the second part of their statement is the fact that the representation of women in higher positions in companies and organizations is considerably less than the representation of men. In the academic world in the Netherlands, for instance, only 18% of full professorships are held by women.

There is no debate about the fact that women are underrepresented in higher positions. What is up for debate is whether this is the result of gender discrimination. Despite the often-expressed but seldom-substantiated notion of some sort of “glass ceiling” that keeps women down, I would argue that the state of affairs is mostly the result of personal choices.

In The Netherlands, almost every job can be done part-time. In practice, we find that men usually take full-time jobs, while women predominantly choose to work part-time. According to the Dutch Central Bureau for Statistics (CBS), in The Netherlands in 2017, only 33% of working men held a part-time job, compared to 78% of working women. The ministry of OCW (Education, Culture, and Science) reports that, on average, women have a work-week of 25 hours, while men have a work-week of 36 hours, i.e., on average women work 1.5 days less per week than men. It also reports that only 71% of women between 20 and 65 years of age have a job, as opposed to over 82% of men.

Referring to statements of professor Derks in the interview I mentioned above, working part-time has a big influence on career opportunities — thus, if you are interested in having a career, you should realize that working full-time is more or less a necessity. The detrimental effects of working part-time are two-fold:

First, when working part-time you simply accomplish less in your career in the same number of years than someone with the same abilities who works full-time. This leads to a lower status among peers, and a less impressive CV.

Second, professing the desire to work part-time shows a lack of ambition and motivation, which consequently leads to a reduced willingness of an employer to hand out a promotion.

The second effect is in line with differences between the average man and the average woman in how they view work (see, for instance, the report from Monsterboard). Typically, men are more driven by status than women: men far more than women seek a higher salary, possibilities for personal growth and development, independence, and responsibility; women far more than men seek possibilities to work part-time, possibilities to work from home, and a nice balance between work and home life. You may translate that as “on average, women are less invested in their work than men.” That cannot help in having a career. The employer who says: “What I really want from my personnel is that they focus on their home life” has not been born yet.

Note that by no means I am saying that all women lack the motivational drive, the capacity, the experience, and the willingness to have a career. Obviously a considerable number possess these attributes, which is why we see such women in higher positions. They made the choice to invest in their work rather than their personal life, just like many men do.

It is a great benefit of our society that one can actually choose how to balance work and home life. But when someone chooses to be less invested in work, he or she should expect having a hard time getting into higher positions. That holds for women as well as for men. Since, in general, women tend to be much less invested in work than men, it is not surprising that in higher positions, the number of women dwindles. Whether or not the prevalence of women in part-time jobs fully explains the low number of women in higher positions is unknown. Saying that it is the result of gender discrimination, however, is unwarranted.

The only extensive scientific research on the topic that I could find is an article by Williams and Ceci of Cornell University in PNAS, who found that for tenured assistant-professor positions in biology, engineering, economics, and psychology in the US, if you compare female candidates with male candidates of equal quality and matching lifestyles, the chance for female candidates to be hired is twice as high as the chance for male candidates. The conclusion is that gender discrimination is at work here, but it is to the considerable advantage of women.

I wish to finalize this discussion with a simple calculation. Knowing that 82% of men have a job against 71% of women, and that 67% of working men have a full-time job against 22% of women, if we assume that there are about the same number of men and women between the ages of 20 and 65, that means that 78% of the people who work full-time are men, against only 22% women. If we compare that 22% with the 18% of women with full professorships in The Netherlands, it strikes me that these numbers are pretty close. So, while 18% sounds low, it is actually close to what you can expect if you take into account the generally accepted assumption that working full-time is a requirement for getting a high-end job.

In summary, there is no reason to assume that the underrepresentation of women in higher positions in companies and organizations is the result of gender discrimination. Still, there are political forces at work that try to enforce placing more women in higher positions. These forces are particularly strong in the academic world, where universities are ordered by ruling politicians to appoint more women as full professors. What I think about those forces I will discuss in a follow-up post.


Diversity I: Diverse wages

April 1, 2017

The term “diversity” refers to the uniqueness of individuals. In policy making, the theme of “diversity” refers to the inclusion of underrepresented groups of people in particular functions or domains.

In recent years, the theme of “diversity” has infiltrated many aspects of society, and now has serious impact on policies in governmental matters and professional life. I am quite wary about the effects of the diversity discussions. It is such a complex theme, however, that it is hard to formulate statements on it, without running serious risks of finding oneself under a bombardment of accusations of being some kind of –ist or –phobe, which then puts an end to any chance of getting into a civil parlay.

I think that the discussions around this theme, now they are widely politicalized, will only intensify in the coming years. As a scientist, I have the responsibility to deal with these matters as objectively as possible. As I am increasingly involved in policy making and providing advice in matters of policy, it is important to me to be able to express opinions in this domain that are as close as possible to the truth, without letting emotions and political pressure get in the way.

Today’s ranting is instigated by an interview in the Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant with Belle Derks, professor of Social and Organizational Psychology at Utrecht University, specialized in “gender equality.” I had many thoughts while reading this interview, and I might get back to it in the coming days. For now, I want to zoom in to the second sentence of the main text of the article, which is “Vrouwen verdienen nog altijd minder en klimmen minder snel op naar hogere functies” (“Women still earn less [than men] and are slower to be promoted”). For clarity, I wish to point out that this is not a statement of professor Derks as far as I can see, but part of the introduction of the journalists.

The quoted sentence is factually correct, but it suggests something that is factually wrong, namely that women get discriminated as far as their wages and promotion opportunities are concerned. With respect to wages, one only needs to read the report of the CBS (the Dutch Central Bureau for Statistics, a governmental organization that prepares reports on all aspects of Dutch social and economic life) on this matter, which is available from their website. This report investigates specifically gender differences in salaries in The Netherlands, and is updated up to the year 2014. In this report one can read the following:

For jobs in companies, the hourly salary of women is about 20% less than that for men. For government jobs, the difference is 10%. However, these numbers are not corrected for differences in actual work, i.e., it just averages the hourly wages of all women that have a job, and all men that have a job, regardless of position, education, or responsibilities. If you correct the differences for about 20 factors, which include age, experience, and position, then the percentages drop to 7% and 5%, respectively.

Does that mean that gender is the explanation for the remaining salary differences? The CBS report states that there is no reason to suppose that gender discrimination is at work here, as there are quite a few factors that can explain the remaining differences, which they were unable to take into account for lack of detailed information. These are, among others, motivation, job level, and secondary employment conditions such as exchanging salary for extra vacation days. As the report states that women are far more likely than men to work part-time, one might expect that in particular women would take the opportunity to sacrifice some salary for extra spare time, though the report does not delve into that.

As there are plenty factors available that may explain the remaining small differences in average wages between men and women, the CBS found no indication that gender discrimination is an explanation for these wage differences. I think that settles the matter.

What I found particularly interesting is that the report also made clear that up to 36 years of age, women actually earn a higher salary than men for doing the same work. However, again this has nothing to do with gender, but with the fact that among younger people, women have, on average, a higher education than men. Between 36 and 45 years of age, there are no significant differences in salaries between men and women. Over 45 years of age, men tend to earn more than women, for which an easy explanation is that in those age groups, men tend to have a higher education and more job experience than women.

How these trends will be extrapolated to the future is hard to say. If many women between 30 and 40 years of age are losing interest in work and accept lower salaries for, for instance, a more extensive home life, the picture might remain as it is now. If women keep focusing just as much as men on their careers and earnings, clearly in about 30 years, women will on average earn more than men in all age groups.

The discussion above has contextualized the first part of the sentence “Women still earn less and are slower to be promoted,” and refutes the suggestion that women earn less than men because of gender discrimination. The second part needs another discussion, which I will get to later.

For now, the conclusion is that in The Netherlands a small gender wage gap exists, but that there is no reason to think that the explanation for it has to do with gender discrimination.

The Witness

December 25, 2016

The Witness (2016) is a game made by Jonathan Blow.

I hesitated when I wrote that first sentence, because I have a feeling that calling The Witness a “game” is not doing it justice. However, I don’t think we have a better name for what it is, so let’s call it a “game” from now on, realizing that the term “game” is expansive and that The Witness is located somewhere at the boundaries of that expanse.

On the surface, The Witness is a collection of line puzzles sprinkled over a nice-looking 3D environment, namely an island with several different biomes, such as a mountain, a desert, an orchard, a jungle, and a village. Some of the puzzles are placed in obvious series. By solving seven of these series of puzzles, you open up a final area where some difficult puzzles are found, which you solve to end the game.

Some people stated that without the 3D environment, The Witness could be a smartphone game, and they are right, up to a point. You can play The Witness as a collection of puzzles, and when you are done with those, finish the game. If that is what you are looking for, and you are not enticed to look beyond those line puzzles, then the game has little more to offer you than the average smartphone puzzle game.

Most of the puzzles are actually obnoxiously simple, and you solve them in mere seconds time. The ones that have you stuck for a while longer are almost always those that unexpectedly introduce a new element, or puzzles that are placed in the world by themselves, or puzzles in the island’s village. The puzzles that introduce a new element are rather clever in the sense that when you see a new element, you are probably not going to solve the puzzle at all, as you have no idea what the new element means. However, you also quickly realize that somewhere on the island there is a series of puzzles that explain this new element. And the wonderful thing about these “explanation puzzles” is that they do the explanation purely intuitively. There are no help texts in this game. The puzzles have been carefully constructed in such a way that almost everybody will intuitively grasp what they have to do to solve them, and thus add to their knowledge of the game.

For the few puzzles that provide a tough challenge: you actually do not have to solve any of them to be able to finish the game. If you say: “screw these difficult puzzles, I just want to see the ending” and you rush through the puzzles that are easy enough, you will get access to the final series of puzzles (you only need to solve about 50% of the puzzles to get there). Those final puzzles can get pretty difficult, but you can find solutions online, so you enter those solutions and then experience the final ending — which will be a huge disappointment. The ending just makes the camera traverse the island, out of your control, after which you get dumped at the start of the game, with all the puzzles reset. That’s it. That’s why you went through all that trouble. I can imagine someone writing a review that states “Some of the puzzles were fun, but they got quite tedious after a while. The puzzles near the end were more interesting and challenging, but probably too hard for the average player. The ending is stupid, and a slap in the face of all who went through the trouble of solving all these puzzles. 2 stars out of 5.” (I have seen reviews like this.)

But here is the thing: The Witness is not about the puzzles. The puzzles are just a mechanism. They provide something for you to do to get a sense of progression. But they are not the core of the game. There is so much more to experience in the world. There are so many ideas placed in this game, most of them “hidden in plain sight.” You may miss these ideas, but once you catch some of them, you start seeing more. Fortunately, the game has ways built in to intuitively point out the most obvious of these ideas to you. But they are just the start.

I can’t say more about this, as you have to experience these elements of The Witness for yourself. The whole point of the game is to allow you to discover them. The Witness is one of the few games of which I say: “Make sure that you do not read anything about it before you play it, this game is best played without foreknowledge, and should only be discussed with others after you finished it.”

Let me just say that the game contains a lot of clever tricks. Many of these appear to be no more than just “clever,” and I expect that some of them indeed are nothing more. But others have layers of depth to them. They raise questions, which the game sometimes — but not often — provides an answer for. To give you an idea, without spoiling anything, here are some of the questions that you may ask:

  • Why does the sun not move?
  • Why is there a single rain cloud in the sky?
  • Why does the player have a shadow but no hands?
  • What happened to the occupants of the village?
  • Why is the game called “The Witness”?

These questions are all directly related to what you see in the game. But they lead to deeper, philosophical questions, which the game shares viewpoints (not answers) on if you are willing to look for them. However, besides these deeper layers, there are also game elements that are just there to screw with the player. In some cases I got the feeling that Jonathan Blow included specific features just to raise a middle finger to a particular kind of game player. In this sense, The Witness not only contains a game, but also a meta-game, a meta-meta-game, and probably even a meta-meta-meta-game.

I realized that the experience that The Witness provided me with, in many ways resembled my first reading of Douglas Hofstadter’s masterpiece Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. This book is quite good at making you understand intuitively the complex ideas that it discusses before bringing up the actual ideas themselves. It also has so many layers of depth, that when you are sensitive to these things, you make new discoveries every few pages, sometimes thinking “that’s clever,” other times thinking “that’s deep,” and yet other times thinking “what am I supposed to think about that?” The point is that you feel that Hofstadter placed each and every word in that book deliberately, and that you are always missing elements just because you glanced over them — even though you get the overall intentions of the book.

The difference between The Witness and Gödel, Escher, Bach is that Hofstadter makes the overall purpose of the book explicit in the final chapters, while Jonathan Blow never states in clear terms what he means with the game. In that sense, Gödel, Escher, Bach is a scientific work, while The Witness is more a spiritual work — even though it radiates the feeling that Jonathan Blow heavily prefers science to spirituality.

I can’t say more about The Witness without running the risk of spoiling anything. Let me just say that I think it is a game that should be played by everybody — even though not everybody will get out of it what I got out of it, it manages to use the medium “game” as a way to let the player discover new ideas, which is a rare thing indeed. Moreover, it has a highly accessible interface, so that young and old can play it, even if you have very little previous experience with games.

I stated before that games can be an art form, though they seldom rise to the level that you expect of high art. The Witness, however, does.


ADDITIONAL (January 1, 2017): I got into a brief discussion on The Witness on VideoGameGeek. I gave a fairly lengthy interpretation of the game, including my personal answers to the questions stated above. In it, I refer to the excellent video made on the game by Joseph Anderson. For those who are interested in my comments, you can find them here. Note that my comments and the video mentioned both contain very heavy spoilers, and I urge you not to consult them unless you have already finished the game. I know this warning is given by many for almost any review/discussion, but it is really serious this time, as what the game offers you is the discovery of perspectives, and you cannot experience that discovery if you just listen to or read about someone else’s discoveries.

I couldn’t fail to disagree with this less

November 28, 2016

Some people think that brutal murder may be justified in certain situations. Do you think this applies to the following circumstances? (multiple answers possible)

  • Career advancement
  • Defense of family members
  • Drug-induced rage
  • Honor killing
  • Jihad
  • Entertainment
  • Bad parenting
  • None of these

Would you check one or more of the ones apart from “none of these”?

Personally, I would ask the interviewer what he means with “this”. It seems that with “this”, he is referring to the fact that “some people think that brutal murder may be justified in certain circumstances” — grammatically, that is what “this” means in this case. But maybe, just maybe, he is referring to “brutal murder being justified in certain circumstances.” If he means the first, I would definitely check at least two of the options. If he means the second, of course I would check only “none of these”.

So what if you ask this question to 10,000 people, and 100 of them simply refuse to answer the question, while 2,500 check one or more of the suspicious options? Is the interviewer then allowed to conclude that:

  1. only 100 people had problems with this question;
  2. 9,900 people interpreted the question as “Do you personally think that brutal murder is justified in certain circumstances?”; and
  3. therefore 25% of all people would condone brutal murder.

If you, like me, think that the interviewer did a bad job, you might ask him: “If you really wanted to know whether people condone brutal murder in certain circumstances, why did you not ask them that? Why ask such an ambiguous question?”

The interviewer then answers: “If I would ask people directly whether they condone brutal murder, everybody would say ‘no’. So I could not ask that. I added “none of these” to clarify the question.”

To which I would say: “If you know that nobody would check any of the possibilities if you would ask them directly whether they condone brutal murder, doesn’t that mean that you already know that almost nobody condones brutal murder? And if you think that the question needs clarification, don’t you yourself agree that it is badly formulated? Moreover, why do you think that adding “none of these” as an option is clarifying anything?”

Of course, this interviewer seems to believe that quite a few people actually do condone brutal murder, and are just not willing to admit that. So he feels he needs to trick them into admitting what they actually think (according to him) by asking a question that can be interpreted in multiple ways, whereby people interpret it in one way while he can claim that it was meant another way.

Questionnaire-based sociological research is always a bit flaky, and therefore needs to use questionnaires that are as unambiguous as possible in order to draw any conclusions at all. Questionnaire-based research that uses vague and misleading questions is worthless. A sociologist should not try to play the television lawyer who asks questions in a roundabout way and then, when the accused accidentally seems to admit being guilty, shouts out “A-ha! He fell for my little trick!”

Yet the European Commission has published a report that is based on such a vague and misleading questionnaire. This report is on “Gender-based violence” and draws the conclusion that 25% of European citizens condone “sexual intercourse without consent” (i.e., rape). It posed the following question to the respondents:

“Some people think that sexual intercourse without consent may be justified in certain situations. Do you think this applies to the following circumstances? (multiple answers possible).” I.e., the exact same question as I pose above, with “sexual intercourse without consent” substituted for “brutal murder”.

Since for this question 27% of the respondents checked one or more of the options besides “none of these”, the report concludes that “more than one quarter of respondents (27%) [is] of the opinion that there are situations where sexual intercourse without consent is justified”. Not that “27% of respondents think that there are situations where some people (not necessarily they themselves) believe that sexual intercourse without consent is justified”.

When confronted with the ambiguity of this question, the primary investigator who had formulated it, responded like I wrote above: that this was the only way to get people to answer anything else than “of course rape is never justified”, and that they should be able to understand the actual intent of the question, regardless how convoluted its formulation was, because he added the “clarification” of having an option “none of these.”

Is it likely that this question was interpreted differently by different respondents? Yes, it is very likely. All of the questions that come before it are clearly asking the personal opinion of the respondent, in forms such as “Do you agree that…” This particular question, which comes at the very end, is the only one that is suddenly talking about the opinions of other people. The fact alone that this question was not formulated as “Do you think that sexual intercourse without consent is justified in certain circumstances” while all the other questions follow a formulation like that, clearly indicates that this question should not be interpreted as the respondent being asked to give their own opinion.

The Belgian newspaper “De Morgen” noted that the Dutch translation of the questionnaire differed for the Flemish (the Belgian Dutch speakers) and the Dutch. In the Belgian version, “Do you think…” was translated with “Denkt u…”, which is more or less a literal translation. For the Dutch, it was translated as “Vindt u…”, which means “Are you of the opinion…”, which suggests a bit more that the sentence could mean “do you personally agree…” (still very vague, though). The net result was that significantly more Belgians checked one of the suspicious options than the Dutch did. Considering that there is very little difference in morals between Belgians and Dutch citizens, this demonstrates once more that this question tends to be interpreted by different people in different ways.

So what can be concluded from the questionnaire? The Dutch paper “De Volkskrant” argued that formulating questions in such a roundabout way is a common method in sociology to ask about unpopular opinions. And that while the report can be criticized, in light of the other findings of the report the numbers were not unbelievable. They state: “if you ask in the correct way, many people are shown to have pretty nasty ideas about applying sexual force.”

This conclusion is hogwash. If questions on a questionnaire are dubious, nothing can be concluded from them. The fact that the resulting numbers, when viewed in the light of your own beliefs, seem to support those beliefs, doesn’t change the fact that the numbers are meaningless.

I checked the complete report, and contrary to the statements of “De Volkskrant”, the other numbers are actually not supporting the findings for the last question at all. For instance, the question that asks whether the respondent finds domestic violence (which includes rape of a partner) acceptable, is answered by 96% of the respondents with “unacceptable in any circumstances” (that is, against women — evidently only 94% find it unacceptable against men). Raping of a spouse is a form of domestic violence; this means that if you do not condone domestic violence, you do not condone raping a spouse. How can we rhyme the fact that less than 4% of respondents condones rape of a spouse, with the proposition that 27% of the respondents condones rape in general? Is raping a spouse for 23% of the respondents worse than raping a stranger?

The final statement of “De Volkskrant”, that starts with “if you ask in the correct way…” makes me wonder what they think the word “correct” means. For me, the only “correct” way to ask questions on a questionnaire is making sure that the questions are unambiguous.

In software engineering, we use the term GIGO: “Garbage in, garbage out”. I assume this applies to sociological questionnaires too.

Lack of progress

November 19, 2016

In recent weeks in the media it seems new terminology has been introduced to refer to “making big strides forward” in a certain area (such a battling traffic jams or dealing with climate change). They call it “making a quantum leap forward”. When I first saw this term, considering that when we talk about the “quantum scale” we mean the scale at which quantum effects start to play a role (less than 100 nanometers), I thought the people using it were sarcastically trying to express that no measurable results had been achieved. However, in layman’s terms, it seems that “quantum” now stands for “huge”. I am no physicist, but I find this painful.

Religieuze beperkingen

July 26, 2016

In de Volkskrant van 25 juli 2016 schrijft Reinout Wibier, hoogleraar Privaatrecht aan dezelfde universiteit als waar ik werk, een opiniestuk getiteld “Atheïsten zijn beperkte mensen.” In dit artikel dicht hij religie een charitatieve, inspirerende en troostende rol toe, die (domme) atheïsten niet wensen te zien. Bovendien beweert hij dat atheïsten niet begrijpen dat alle argumenten die je tegen religie kunt aanvoeren net zo goed gebruikt kunnen worden tegen de door atheïsten zo verheerlijkte wetenschap.

Wat mij behoorlijk tegen de haren instrijkt wat betreft de inhoud van dit artikel, is dat het atheïsten argumenten in de mond legt die ikzelf nooit zou gebruiken om mijn atheïstische overtuiging te verdedigen. Het artikel begint als volgt:

“In sommige kringen is het een teken van beschaving en ontwikkeling om praktiserend atheïst te zijn. Religie is een achterhaald concept en de bron van onnodig geweld en leed, zo is de gedachte.”

Al bij de tweede zin slaat de heer Wibier de plank mis. Men is geen atheïst omdat religie zoveel kwaad in de wereld plaatst. Wie zich afkeert van georganiseerde religie vanwege het kwaad dat verricht wordt, kan nog steeds een niet-religieus gelovige zijn. Een atheïst gelooft niet in god enkel en alleen omdat er geen objectieve reden is om aan te nemen dat er een god bestaat.

Dat religie vaak gebruikt wordt om kwaad te verrichten, wat de heer Wibier ruimhartig toegeeft, doet niet ter zake. Evenmin is het voor het betoog van belang dat er ook goede daden verricht worden in de naam van religie, noch dat wetenschap voor goed en kwaad kan worden ingezet. Niks van dit alles heeft te maken met of men wel of niet in een god gelooft.

Feitelijk kan ik hier met mijn weerwoord tegen Wibiers artikel stoppen, want het grootste deel ervan gaat om het illustreren van deze tweede zin en vervolgens het deels ontkrachten ervan. Over atheïsme zegt dat echter niks. Maar omdat tussen de regels door Wibier suggereert dat religie meer bijdraagt dan dat het wegneemt, en dat atheïsme, of liever gezegd de wetenschap die hij op een hoop wenst te gooien met atheïsme, het niet beter doet dan religie, wil ik toch nog iets dieper op zijn argumenten ingaan.

Dat atheïsten soms meewarig neerkijken op “domme gelovigen” die blind een religieus leider volgen zal ik niet ontkennen. Als Wibiers betoog meer gericht is op de zelfingenomenheid van sommige mensen die zich atheïst noemen en die daarvoor gebrekkige argumenten in de strijd werpen, dan geef ik hem geen ongelijk, hoewel ik zijn eigen verhaal dan tegen hem moet keren en erop wijzen dat dit soort arrogantie juist bij religieuzen de norm is, zelfs al prediken ze nederigheid.

Ik ontken ook niet dat geloof mensen van steun kan zijn in moeilijke omstandigheden — doch ik wil vraagtekens stellen bij het idee dat dat een terrein is waar religie een soort alleenrecht heeft. Een nog groter vraagteken zet ik bij Wibiers opmerkingen omtrent religieus geïnspireerde goede doelen — alsof religie een noodzakelijk gegeven is om mensen “goed” te laten doen.

Net als Wibier heb ik in principe geen probleem met het al dan niet gelovig zijn van mensen. Geloof is een subjectieve keuze, en zolang het dat blijft, behoort het wat mij betreft tot de onaantastbare individuele vrijheden die een mens heeft.

Ik heb persoonlijk wel moeite met mensen die “goed doen” puur en alleen omdat hun religie dat voorschrijft. Dan ligt mijn sympathie veeleer bij de humanist, die zijn idee over hoe hij moet omgaan met zijn medemensen laat afhangen van zijn eigen moreel besef. Mensen die hun morele inzichten laten bepalen door een religie, meestal vertegenwoordigd door een religieus leider, zouden kennelijk net zo lief kwaad doen als hun religie dat opdraagt. Immers, religie vertegenwoordigt een “waarheid” die niet in twijfel getrokken kan of mag worden.

De essentie van wetenschap is dat er geen ultieme waarheid is, en dat alle stellingen, alle theorieën en alle bevindingen door iedereen betwijfeld kunnen, mogen, en moeten worden. Bij alles wat gesteld wordt, is men geacht te vragen “Is dat wel zo? Hoe weet je dat? Hoe is het getest? Welke voorspellingen kun je ermee doen die, als ze niet uitkomen, het gestelde ontkrachten?” Daaraan dankt de wetenschap haar kracht, en daardoor heeft de wetenschap geleid tot een technologische, geestelijke, maatschappelijke, en ethische vooruitgang waarbij de duizenden jaren stilstand in de tijd dat de religie het voor het zeggen had maar schril afsteken.

Georganiseerde religie kan het goede in mensen naar boven halen, maar ook het kwade. Of het nu een imam is die oproept tot vrede of tot het plegen van aanslagen, of de paus die naastenliefde of homohaat predikt, of een politicus die oproept om vrijwilligerswerk te doen of om immigranten een lesje te leren: eenieder die doet wat een al dan niet religieus leider opdraagt puur en alleen omdat die leider het zegt, is een gevaarlijk en verwerpelijk mens. Het kwalijke van religieuze instellingen is dat dit soort blinde mensen gezien wordt als de meest waardevolle leden van de gemeenschap, terwijl de wetenschap juist de vrijdenkers omarmt.

Wibier besluit met te zeggen:

“Maar wie religie categorisch afwijst als achterhaald of slecht is net zo oppervlakkig, beperkt, en misschien zelfs wel onverdraagzaam als diegenen die wetenschap afdoen als de bron van alle kwaad.”

Welnu, collega Wibier: ik wijs religie categorisch af — althans in de vorm dat het van mensen eist dat zij hun denken en moreel besef overdragen aan een instantie, waarvan de leiders uitmaken hoe de mensen moeten handelen. Dat religie een hoop mooie en goede dingen heeft opgeleverd weegt niet op tegen het inherente verlangen van alle religieuze instanties om mensen te bombarderen tot willoze schapen die gedachtenloos de herder volgen. Niet voor niks wordt in de RK Kerk constant gerefereerd aan “de kudde” als men het over de gelovigen heeft.

Ik denk echter dat het “blind achter een leider aanlopen” gelukkig iets is wat niet veel mensen in deze karikaturale vorm doen — althans niet in onze Westerse maatschappij — of ze nu gelovig zijn of niet. Of, met een iets meer cynische blik: ik denk dat blinde volgers van gevaarlijke leiders net zo vaak gevonden worden in de religieuze als in de niet-religieuze hoek.

De verlichte vorm van religie, waarin gelovigen het eigenlijk ook niet allemaal zeker weten, en waarbij ze enigszins lacherig doen over het idee dat er een onfeilbare religieuze leider is die namens god spreekt, is een onschuldige vorm van vermaak die een steunende rol kan vervullen voor hen die er, wellicht wat naïef, gevoelig voor zijn. Maar mijn respect leg ik toch sneller bij bewuste atheïsten, die de argumenten voor het bestaan van god gewogen en te licht bevonden hebben, en die dus met geen mogelijkheid uitkomen onder het nemen van eigen verantwoordelijkheid voor hun daden.

Hoe dit in enig opzicht gezien kan worden als een reden om atheïsten ervan te betichten beperkte mensen te zijn, gaat mijn pet te boven.

Python boek nu verkrijgbaar

July 18, 2016

Ik heb een Nederlandstalig boek over programmeren in Python voor beginnelingen gratis beschikbaar gemaakt via de website die ik voor dit boek gelanceerd heb.

De titel van het boek is “De Programmeursleerling.” Er is ook een Engelstalige versie beschikbaar die “The Coder’s Apprentice” heet.

Het boek is gericht op middelbare scholieren en studenten, en met name bedoeld voor degenen die nog niet eerder een programmeertaal geleerd hebben. Je kunt het gebruiken als een Python 3 zelfstudie cursus. Ik heb de afgelopen jaren Python programmeren gedoceerd aan honderden studenten voor wie programmeren iets nieuws (en soms zelfs iets engs) is, en de ervaring die ik hierbij heb opgedaan heb ik in dit boek ondergebracht. Ik heb het boek gebaseerd op een cursus die ik vorig jaar ontwikkeld heb, en die ik met groot succes heb gebruikt.

Mijn belangrijkste drijfveer om dit boek te schrijven is het feit dat ik stellig geloof dat het in de nabije toekomst voor vrijwel iedere studie en vrijwel ieder beroep een noodzaak zal zijn om creatief om te kunnen gaan met computationele technologie. Daarom vind ik het belangrijk dat mensen al jong leren programma’s te schrijven; niet omdat ze programmeur moeten worden, maar omdat leren programmeren ze kennis en een denkwijze verschaft die ze heel hard nodig gaan hebben.

Python is een uitstekende computertaal om te leren programmeren. Er zijn voldoende Engelstalige boeken beschikbaar die leren programmeren in Python, maar in het Nederlands was er eigenlijk nog niets. Aangezien zeker voor veel scholieren het Engels nog een iets te groot obstakel is, zag ik een grote behoefte aan een Nederlandstalig boek over Python. Vandaar dat ik het nu beschikbaar heb gemaakt.

Mijn hoop is dat het boek door velen gebruikt gaat worden.

Python book released

July 18, 2016

I have released my Python book, aimed at beginning programmers. It is freely available as a PDF from the website I created for the book.

I know that there are already many Python books available for beginners, but the main reason I created this one is because there is, as yet, no Python book in Dutch. I wanted to make a Dutch one available. As I already had created an extensive Python course in English, which I have been using with my students to great success, it took me only two weeks to convert that one into a book. I then translated this book into Dutch, which took a period of about two months. But now I have two versions of the book: an English one and a Dutch one. Both you can download for free.

Their titles are, respectively, “The Coder’s Apprentice” and “De Programmeursleerling”.

No way back

July 12, 2016

New British Prime Minister Theresa May says that she will make the BrExit a success, and that the majority has spoken so there is no way back. This is one of the most silly things that a Prime Minister can say, and one seriously wonders whether she herself believes what she is saying.

First of all, is it really true that the majority has spoken? You can put serious doubts next to that statement. The votes were close, already many voters for a BrExit have shown regret in their vote, and it has been found that many voters actually had no idea about what the consequences of a BrExit would be. And perhaps worst of all: a rather high percentage of BrExit voters said they did so solely because the BrExiteers promised that if they won, they would spend the 350 million pounds that the UK pays the EU weekly on the National Health Service — which the BrExiteers, after they won, admitted had been a blatant lie, and that people who voted for the BrExit for this reason had made a big mistake. If instead of voting between “yes” and “no” for a BrExit, two more options had been added, namely “if 350 million more will go to the NHS weekly after a BrExit, then yes, otherwise no,” and “if we will send all the immigrants home after a BrExit then yes, otherwise no,” then clearly the “no” camp would have had an overwhelming majority as the two extra choices would have been picked a lot and would amount to “no,” as the condition for the “yes” could never be reached.

But even if the majority actually thinks it is a good idea to leave the EU, does that mean that the government has to follow that advice? The answer is a definite “no.” The government of a democracy is appointed to protect the interests of the country, and not follow the mob rule that allows the oppression of any minority as long as there is a majority that wants to do that. It is the responsibility of the government to act in the best interests of the citizens it governs. From the perspective of the UK citizens, is it a good idea to leave the EU? Considering that the EU is for the most part a trade agreement that functions well and that benefits the UK enormously, it is highly likely that staying in the EU is in the best interests of any of the UK citizens.

So there is a way back: if the government believes that it hurts the people to take a particular decision, not only does the government have the power not to take that decision — according to its responsibilities it actually is obliged not to take that decision.

But maybe Theresa May believes that leaving the EU is a good idea? The answer is “no.” Theresa May was actually a strong proponent of staying in the EU. That means that by invoking article 50 she not only does something that is bad for the UK — she actually does something that she personally believes is bad for the UK. It means that she is relaying her responsibilities to the mob rule.

An elected Prime Minister is appointed because the majority of the country believes that he or she will guard the interests of the country to the best of his or her abilities. The PM is not supposed to blindly follow everything that the majority says — if that would be done, the majority would pay no taxes, the majority would retire at 45, the majority would get free health care, and the country would be bankrupt within a year. The point of a democracy is not to let the majority decide on everything, but to let the majority decide who would protect the interests of the country the best.

Theresa May may argue that she is not the elected Prime Minister, that she is appointed because David Cameron retired from office and that she is holding the post only until the next elections. If that is the case, then she should definitely not invoke article 50, as she should know that deferring responsibility to the result of the BrExit votes is not what the office she holds is supposed to do.

I am pretty sure that if the invocation of article 50 is postponed until after a new British government has been elected, it will never take place. Because the only parties who have a chance of being elected are those that will make it part of their program to ignore the BrExit votes. Because if there is anything that a majority wants, it is for the UK citizens to live in peace and prosperity, and staying in the EU provides the best means to accomplish that.

If Theresa May, as she claims, really wants to “make a better Britain,” she should not start by making it worse.

Welcome to the barbarians

June 21, 2016

So there was this little village that was run over by barbarians every year. The barbarians stole the cattle and burned down the harvest, bringing the village to the brink of destruction. And because resources were scarce, even when the barbarians skipped a year, the villagers were still fighting among themselves. Poorer inhabitants stole from the richer ones. People viewed each other with suspicion. Life was harsh and not much happiness was found.

At some point the elders of all the village’s families came together, and decided that they needed to cooperate to keep the barbarians out. They decided to all pitch in and raise a fence. All the families contributed to a common resource pool, from which they supported armed soldiers that from then on guarded the surroundings of the village.

The barbarians tried to attack several more years, but the village was now well defended and managed to keep them at bay. The barbarians, no longer having the village as an easy source of sustenance, went to seek their luck elsewhere.

The village prospered. Now the problems with the barbarians were solved, the villagers were able to make life a lot better for themselves. They started trading, and created a welfare system that helped everybody to have better and more secure lives. The elders decided that each family should contribute to the good of everybody, the stronger and richer ones contributing a bit more than the weaker and poorer ones. Maybe the contributions were a bit unbalanced in that sense, but in the end everybody was better off by this organized cooperation.

The years went by and many villagers forgot why they had come together in the first place. Few remembered how things were before they banded up. Some of the richer families started to grumble: why were they supposed to contribute so much for those lazy, poor, third-rate families? And what about that council of elders? Were they really needed? Sitting on their lazy behinds, making rules that were obstructing freedoms, and getting fed for doing that and not much else. Who needs them?

One day, one of the richer families decided to drop out. They had taken a vote amongst their family members, and the majority had decided that they no longer were going to contribute to the village. They did not need the others. They had plenty of stuff for themselves, and they could collaborate with whomever wanted. And why not drop out? The village was safe, the fence was up, the guards were parading, and it was not as if that all would end if they decided no longer to be involved with the rest of the village.

“Basically,” they reasoned: “cooperation is a good thing, so it is great that the others are cooperating, but we gain much more if we do not contribute to the cooperation, as we will still reap almost all the benefits of the cooperation of the others, while bearing none of the costs!”

Of course, you can guess what happened. After the first family withdrew from contributing to the village, and evidently did not seem to suffer much from it, the next family which considered itself a net contributor dropped out as well. Quickly followed by the next, and the next, and the next. Trade became a hassle, the poorer families started to steal from the richer ones, nobody paid for the guards anymore, and the fence fell into disrepair. The barbarians, who were still in the neighborhood, took up their old habits, and plundering started all over again.

And sitting in the ruins of their village, which only recently had been prospering, the remaining villagers wondered why they had not bothered to ask themselves whether they had been better or worse off before they started cooperating.