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Tribalist Medical Journal Editors

The Art of Problem Solving: Accompanied by Ackoff's Fables (1978):


Early in the war against cancer the medical profession's battle against smoking began. Numerous studies were published showing that smoking and lung cancer were positively associated. This could not be contradicted, but the inference drawn from such studies—that smoking causes cancer—could be. Again, smoking may be a cause of lung cancer, but their correlation is not an adequate basis for asserting that it is.

One study published in a prominent medical journal showed a strong positive correlation between per capita consumption of tobacco and the incidence of lung cancer over a number of countries. A causal connection was incorrectly inferred. To show that this was the case, Aesop used the same data on per capita consumption of tobacco for the same countries but substituted the incidence rate of cholera. He obtained a negative correlation that was stronger than the positive correlation revealed in the article. Using the same logic as that which appeared in the original article, Aesop prepared another article almost identical to the original except for the conclusion; he concluded that smoking prevents cholera. He submitted this article to the same medical journal in which the original article had appeared. It was rejected because, according to the referees, it was facetious. Aesop wrote to the editor admitting that he had been facetious, but then, was this not true of the original article? Why, he asked, had it been published? He received no reply.

Ackoff wrote some good stuff about how correlation and causation are different, but people keep mixing them up. This is one of the stories he shared about it.

The journal’s unwillingness to correct errors or discuss anything – and publication bias for correlation-based conclusions they agree with – is really worrying. It shows how irrational academic journals are. They sure don’t have Paths Forward or other reasonable error correction mechanisms, transparency mechanisms, critical debate mechanisms, etc.

I contacted a journal about DD misquoting Turing. They wouldn’t fix it. But I’m just a random guy who emailed them. Ackoff has high status. He’s a prestigious author, a successful professor and consultant, etc. He gets access to lots of status-gated opportunities.

Despite Ackoff’s status, the journal wouldn’t engage with him. High status is often ignored when people don’t like what you’re doing/saying. Also, low status is sometimes ignored when people like what you’re doing/saying. So how important is status, really? How much is it just an excuse people use? It’s not really an excuse because they generally don’t say it, and it’s pretty common to deny deciding by status.

Is status a tiebreaker among people with the right conclusions, but in-group/out-group type stuff takes precedence? They choose between acceptable people by status, but high status out-group members are treated differently. Is tribalism just more important than status? They do give Putin some special treatment due to his status despite him being out-group – too much, actually. I think that’s partly because they actually see him as kinda in-group – a fellow politician. They don’t want to assassinate Putin because he’s in the same category as them – world leader – and they don’t want world leaders like themselves to be assassinated. They’d rather 100,000 citizens die in war than raise the risk that they get assassinated.

Ackoff is in-group for many purposes but when he questioned their anti-smoking propaganda he was out-group. Even though I don’t think he’s actually pro-smoking, just pro-logic/reason/correctness. I read Ackoff as wanting high standards for scholarship and truth-seeking, and being anti-bias. And that is in fact not what the journal editors are like. It’s what they lie that they’re like. But you’re supposed to use those things as tactics to show you’re superior to actual out-groups like churches/pastors, win debates, push for the elite agenda, etc. You’re not supposed to challenge the rationality of other people in the group. They’re a bunch of fakers who don’t like being exposed.

So anyway, the simple explanation I came up with that seems plausible is that tribalism trumps status. Status is primarily for ranking people within the same tribe. It applies much less, and somewhat differently, for cross-tribe comparisons.

Disclaimer: This is just a quick, initial theory. I’m thinking out loud. This is not something I’m confident about. Criticism and alternatives are welcome.

Ayn Rand

Ayn Rand wrote some relevant stuff, e.g. in The Virtue of Selfishness:

One cannot offer a literary masterpiece, “when one has become rich and famous,” to a following one has acquired by writing trash.

The status you gained with your fans doesn’t transfer well if you change who/what you are. They liked you for one thing but won’t automatically like you for something else. Status can be pretty specific and non-transferable. You can’t just gain status with a group then say/do stuff that challenges that group – then you’re acting like the out-group (and, worse, a traitor – someone who left the in-group for the out-group instead of being born and raised into the out-group).

Similarly, if a physicist comes up with weird ideas about polyamory, their status as a smart physics person will not get many people to listen. People will just say they’re good at one thing but bad at something else. Specialization is common. Even smart people have weaknesses and can be cranks or conspiracy theorists about something else. (Imagine how fast people will turn on you if you say UFOs are real or the Earth is flat. It’s really hard to even get a hearing for that, and get any debate about it, even if you’re already very high status. Especially if you say it in public. If you say it to one person individually, they’ll know your public status is still high, and you could hurt their status, and you could deny having said it, so they’re still under pressure to get along with you, so they might try to say non-committal stuff and the kind of person who actually debates stuff might engage in some debate.)

There’s a bunch of stuff related to status in The Fountainhead including about second-handedness as well as salons, drawing rooms and dinner parties. And there are the pretzel comments:

The battle lasted for weeks. Everybody had his say, except Roark. Lansing told him: “It’s all right. Lay off. Don’t do anything. Let me do the talking. There’s nothing you can do. When facing society, the man most concerned, the man who is to do the most and contribute the most, has the least say. It’s taken for granted that he has no voice and the reasons he could offer are rejected in advance as prejudiced—since no speech is ever considered, but only the speaker. It’s so much easier to pass judgment on a man than on an idea. Though how in hell one passes judgment on a man without considering the content of his brain is more than I’ll ever understand. However, that’s how it’s done. You see, reasons require scales to weigh them. And scales are not made of cotton. And cotton is what the human spirit is made of—you know, the stuff that keeps no shape and offers no resistance and can be twisted forward and backward and into a pretzel. You could tell them why they should hire you so very much better than I could. But they won’t listen to you and they’ll listen to me. Because I’m the middleman. The shortest distance between two points is not a straight line—it’s a middleman. And the more middlemen, the shorter. Such is the psychology of a pretzel.”

And that comes up again later:

Kent Lansing said, one evening: “Heller did a grand job. Do you remember, Howard, what I told you once about the psychology of a pretzel? Don’t despise the middleman. He’s necessary. Someone had to tell them. It takes two to make every great career: the man who is great, and the man—almost rarer—who is great enough to see greatness and say so.”

Another quote:

“We have to have the Palmers,” she said, “so that we can get the commission for their new store building. We have to get that commission so that we can entertain the Eddingtons for dinner on Saturday. The Eddingtons have no commissions to give, but they’re in the Social Register. The Palmers bore you and the Eddingtons snub you. But you have to flatter people whom you despise in order to impress other people who despise you.”


He had forgotten his first building, and the fear and doubt of its birth. He had learned that it was so simple. His clients would accept anything, so long as he gave them an imposing façade, a majestic entrance and a regal drawing room, with which to astound their guests. It worked out to everyone’s satisfaction: Keating did not care so long as his clients were impressed, the clients did not care so long as their guests were impressed, and the guests did not care anyway.

Journal editors seem to care more about an imposing façade, majestic entrance and regal drawing room to impress the public than about integrity, science or truth.

Elliot Temple on July 27, 2022


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