Category: psychology

Grice versus Trump

Somebody surely must have written this already – so apologies to whoever I’m unknowingly following.

Paul Grice was a philosopher of language and meaning He’s famous for looking at how conversations work as not just an exchange of meaning but a cooperative interchange of meaning with its own rules and principles.Central to this is what became known as the Cooperative Principle:

And following that Grice suggested four maxims which normal conversation attempts to follow. I’ll quote in full from Wikipedia:

Maxim of qualityEdit


  • Try to make your contribution one that is true.


  1. Do not say what you believe to be false.
  2. Do not say that for which you lack adequate evidence.

Maxim of quantityEdit

  1. Make your contribution as informative as is required (for the current purposes of the exchange).
  2. Do not make your contribution more informative than is required.

Maxim of relationEdit

  • Be relevant.

With respect to this maxim, Grice writes, “Though the maxim itself is terse, its formulation conceals a number of problems that exercise me a good deal: questions about what different kinds and focuses of relevance there may be, how these shift in the course of a talk exchange, how to allow for the fact that subjects of conversations are legitimately changed, and so on. I find the treatment of such questions exceedingly difficult, and I hope to revert to them in later work.”[1]

Maxim of mannerEdit


  • Be perspicuous.


  1. Avoid obscurity of expression.
  2. Avoid ambiguity.
  3. Be brief (avoid unnecessary prolixity).
  4. Be orderly.

Ok, an exercise for the unwary. Pick anyone of those. Now watch Trump.
Did the maxim hold? [Spoiler: it probably didn’t]

Trump is a non-gricean speaker. The maxims don’t hold – at least not in public. Now that is a little unfair – political speakers and press conferences aren’t normal conversations and even the most affable of politicians is trying to manage what they are saying in a way a normal person simply doesn’t have to.

Yet Trump isn’t doing what a politician normally tries to do. He isn’t trying to navigate round these maxims while appearing to be following them. Instead, he is ignoring them and when he hits one it appears more like accident than design. Ironically that makes him seem more truthful instead of less, precisely because he doesn’t sound evasive or hesitant.

In addition, notice how he often violates a surprising submaxim: “Do not make your contribution more informative than is required.” Trump overshares at times – revealing inner thoughts or perhaps comments/argument made by others..

This fluency with incoherence is why I imagine he possibly doesn’t follow Grice-like patterns in his normal speech to the same extent as others. By not following such maxims you spend less effort considering another person’s perspective on what you are saying. That makes it a lot easier to string words together! It’s just that those words don’t make as much sense as part of a conversation.

Is It OK to Thump People?



I’ve watched several times a video of a guy thumping another guy recently. There is, naturally several sides to consider here:

  • Whether the violent act undermines free speech.
  • Whether, even if provoked by the objectionable views of the person punched, the act lowers discourse in general.
  • Whether violence is ever a justified reaction to a dialogue even with somebody obnoxious.

Having said that I think most people agree that the person doing the thumping was justified. Here is the video again (you’ve probably seen it already).

Yes, naturally I am talking about that time Buzz Aldrin hit lunar-landing denier Bart Sibrel in the face after Sibrel harassed and insulted Buzz and called him a coward and a liar. After multiple provocations, Buzz then, wack, thumps Sibrel in the face. What can one say? It is OK to both deplore violence AND accept that people have actual emotions and that when repeatedly provoked will react accordingly. Buzz doesn’t beat the guy up, he thumps him once.

The LA County District Attorney did not lay any charges on Buzz Aldrin and, according to Wikipedia, Sibrel (the man punched) later apologised to Aldrin.

So there you go. Yeah, maybe sometimes it is OK to thump people – you know if you are provoked enough it would be weird if people DIDN’T react that way. You know, like in the example above in which Buzz Aldrin is repeatedly harassed and called a liar by a guy whose ideas are based on stupidly elaborate conspiracy theories. Just don’t make a habit of it.



Oh, and apparently alt-right pro-genocide shit Richard Spencer was thumped the other day also. Whereas Sibrel was just a rude guy with an omnifallacious theory that in itself harms nobody, Spencer is a guy who promotes race hate and genocide. As far as I can tell the major ethical issue people have with this is that it wasn’t Buzz Aldrin who hit him.

@voxday declares me beneath his consideration, again

“Considering that neither paper addresses the USA at all, it would be absolutely remarkable if either of them had.”

Sorry Vox but the first paper does discuss the USA – it is the second paper that doesn’t. Lynn & Dutton discuss the US saying “However, there remains the problem that phenotypic intelligence has continued to increase in recent years in the United States (Flynn, 2012, Table A11i, p.238), despite evidence for dysgenic fertility reviewed in Lynn (2011) and confirmed by Meisenberg (2014). This inconsistency remains one of a number of un- resolved problems.” and cite the gains in WISC-III and WISC-IV scores in table 1 (IQ gains in USA and Britain).

So, where the researchers find a decline it isn’t attributable to immigration because of the relatively small impact immigration could have and where immigration could have a larger impact the ‘declines’ are more ambiguous (or possibly rises).

Meanwhile, the brilliant counter-argument from Vox is him posting an estimate of his vocabulary size from a free internet quiz. 🙂




@voxday gets it wrong on IQ (again)

As a headline that is a bit ‘cat licks its own bum’ level of non-news but on we must go…

The other day Vox was disparaging about the value of scientific evidence. I’m not entirely sure if he is clear himself about what he means but when it comes to IQ he is happy to post anything that he feels supports his case.

This time, it is a pair of studies that point to a 4 point decline in IQ in France in a 9-10 year period. Vox quotes a second study that was an analysis of the first. This second study was an attempt to discern the cause of the decline by looking at the magnitude of the changes at a subtest level. This second paper concluded that the decline ‘likely has a primarily biological cause’. Vox declares it was due to immigration.

This is a very good example of studies that, while not necessarily wrong, aren’t really saying much at all. To see why you have to track back from Vox’s claim (immigrants somehow making whole countries less intelligent), to what the actual paper he quoted said, to the original paper that the second paper analysed and from there to what the actual original study was.

The paper Vox quoted was  “In France, are secular IQ losses biologically caused? A comment on Dutton and Lynn (2015)” by Michael A. Woodley and Curtis S. Dunkel ( . Note that they didn’t collect any data but are commenting on an earlier paper. That earlier paper was  “A negative Flynn Effect in France, 1999 to 2008–9” Edward Dutton and Richard Lynn ( Now they also didn’t collect any data either.

In fact, the actual data collected was by test publishers – specifically the producers of the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale. That test is updated on a regular basis and for a given country & language a new version of the test need calibrating against the population it is being used for. In this case version IV of the test (WAIS IV) was being standardised in France in 2008/9 from the previous version WAIS III that had been standardised in 1999. While the WAIS IV was being standardised using a sample of 876 people, they also had a smaller sample take the earlier version as well (i.e. some people sat both WAIS III and WAIS IV) so the test producer could compare any differences.

They key question then is how many people were in this smaller sample. The answer is SEVENTY-NINE. Put another way ‘not a lot’. The Lynn & Dutton paper is fairly open about this:

It might behoove us to be more cautious in reaching conclusions based on these results than based on the other studies cited for two reasons: the sample (N = 79) is a relatively small and the WAIS IV manual does not tell us the degree to which it is representative of the French population in terms of variables such as education or geographic region. Clearly, it cuts out those who are under the age of 30 years or over the age of 63 years, but its average age (45 years) is approximately similar to the median age of the French population, which is 42.4 years as of 2014 (Central Intelligence Agency, 2015). In addition, the Full Scale IQ on the WAIS IV sample of 79 subjects was calculated based on a comparison with the WAIS IV sample of 876 subjects, which was representative of the French population on key variables such as education and region. The scores of this sample of 876 subjects were set at 100 and a comparison made with the sample of 79 subjects. As can be seen in Table 4, on this basis the IQ of the sample of 79 subjects was 101.1 with an SD of 14.7, where the French norm would be 100 and the SD 15. As such, the smaller sample can be regarded as representative of the French population in terms of intelligence.

The issue is the sample size is a limit on how representative a sample can be. With 79 people spread around the mean, there can only be a few people outside of one standard deviation of the mean (about 25 altogether or roughly12/13 each for people below or above 1 SD). Likewise, the sample is unlikely to have many immigrants or people from ethnicities other than the majority.

Nor was this decline consistent across all the subtest. The WAIS tests estimate IQ by a series of different subtests which present quite different styles of tasks.

Secondly, the results for France, for the subtests given in Table 3, show substantial differences in the rates of the decline of different abilities. The largest declines were in Vocabulary (.43d), Comprehension (.32d) and Information (.34d) and the results in Table 4 confirm these by showing the largest decline of 4 IQ points in the Verbal Comprehension Index. Table 3 also shows that Symbol Search was the only subtest that did not show a decline but registered a small increase (.05d). In the Symbol Search test the examinee visually scans two groups of symbols, a target group (composed of two symbols) and a search group (com- posed of five symbols), and indicates whether any of the target symbols match any of the symbols in the search group. The score is the number of correct responses obtained in 2 min.
Thirdly, the results show no change in the Digit Span subtest. This confirms the conclusion of Gignac (2015) that there was no change in forward or backward digit span in the United States over the 85 years from 1923 to 2008. The present results also show that there was no change in the Working Memory Index of which digit span is a component.

So the Lynn & Dutton study already needs a hefty chunk of caveats and note that this is a study from researchers inclined to see IQ as a measure of intelligence, and to see IQ as having a genetic component and to see the notion of national comparisons of IQ as meaningful. In other words about as sympathetic to Vox’s take on IQ without being so nutty as to be incapable of getting published.

Even so in a broader discussion Lynn & Dutton are dismissive of immigration being an explanation for findings of IQ decline more generally:

These immigrants are likely to have had some impact on reducing the average IQ of the populations, but it is doubtful whether the increase in the number of immigrants with lower IQs has been sufficiently great to have had a major effect. For instance, in Norway it was shown by Sundet, Barlaug, and Torjussen (2004) that immigrants comprised approximately 2–3% of their conscript samples and that these would have reduced the IQ by only around 0.1–0.2 IQ points (correspondence with Sundet, quoted in Dutton, 2014). In addition, Dutton and Lynn (2013) have observed a decline in IQ scores among Finnish military conscripts from 1997, despite a negligible number of non-Europeans in Finland of the appropriate age at that time. Furthermore, increasing numbers of immigrants with lower IQs than the host population has apparently had no effect in reversing the Flynn Effect in the United States

In other words, even assuming the dubious premise, immigration just isn’t big enough to cause the observed effect. This is reiterated in the second paper by Woodley and Dunkel:

Replacement migration in France involving populations exhibiting lower means of IQ and higher rates of total fertility, such as Algerians, Moroccans, Tunisians and Roma (Čvorić, 2014; Lynn & Vanhanen, 2012) may be increasing the rate of secular losses at the level of g, consistent with speculations advanced in Dutton and Lynn (2015), however the additional loss in g due to this process is anticipated to be very small.

Again, researcher’s sympathetic to biological and national explanations of IQ and IQ changes find that immigration is not sufficient to explain the finding.

So even granting all of these…

  • The overall dubious premise of IQ as a measure of innate intelligence.
  • The additionally dubious premise of national IQs and comparison of national IQs.
  • The inconsistent ‘decline’ in different mental skills tested.
  • The small sample size.
  • The lack of any details about the sample itself (to either the readers or the writers of either paper).
  • That the sample and the testing done wasn’t devised for the purpose it was then used (i.e. the researchers have to assume that the data makes sense for the analysis they performed, that the sample was appropriate etc etc)
  • That the methods used by either set of researchers were sound (I assume so but remember that Vox is hyper-sceptical of peer review and I doubt he is acquainted with the technique used in the paper he quoted).

…neither paper ends up agreeing with Vox’s conclusion.

What is frightening about this decline in French IQ is how rapidly it has taken place…Immigration isn’t just bad for a nation’s economy, it is horrifically damaging to a nation’s prospects for the future.

Nope. What is frightening about this research is how it is so easily exploited by the far right to demonise immigration, even when researchers draw quite a different conclusion.

Vox Day – Probably not a psycho/sociopath

Is Rabid Puppy leader, Vox day a psychopath/sociopath? This is a stupid question because there isn’t anyway of telling, it is hard even if you are a psychologist experienced in this area actually interviewing people, so making any kind of judgement based on a person’s web presence is stupid.

However, he does keep returning to the questions as a topic.

Friday, April 17, 2009
Not psychopathic but appears to score high on the Hare checklist

“And I don’t believe that either Bane or I can be reasonably described as pyschopathic even though both of us might superficially appear to score higher than the average on the Hare checklist.”

Friday, February 11, 2011
Not a psychopath but tends towards narcissism

“So, I took an online version of the psychopathy test to see if the results on the Hare’s Psychopathy Checklist-Revised were in harmony with my admittedly biased observations. As with all tests of this sort, it is transparently easy to direct the results, but I gave honest answers that my friends and family would generally be able to confirm. The result was as follows: Narcissus: You scored 12 on Emotional Detachment and 9 on Chaotic Lifestyle. You are not quite a psycho, but you have problems in one of the aspects of psychopathy: emotional detachment.”

Sunday, July 05, 2015
A sociopath but a good one

“This is why I find the Clueless of the SF world to be so mind-bogglingly stupid. While they correctly recognize me as a Sociopath who is dangerous to the system, they don’t understand that I am the proverbial Good Sociopath. And because they are so Clueless, they completely fail to recognize the Evil Sociopaths already well-ensconced within their midst.”

Monday, November 30, 2015
Not a sociopath again.

“I should point out that I am NOT a sociopath. While I am narcissistic and machiavellian, I score unusually high in empathy, so I am actually more anti-sociopathic than the average individual”

However, given that most people aren’t psychopaths/sociopaths and given we don’t really have any evidence to the contrary, I think the odds point to him not being a sociopath/psychopath.

For a version of an online psychopathy/dark-triad test there is one here:

Moravec’s Paradox

Hans Moravec is a roboticist and futurist and as is common in such field expects big things of robots in the future.

Moravec’s paradox though is an interesting observation which implies some fundamental difficulties about building effective and autonomous machines. The reasoning is this. The kinds of mental activity we regard as ‘intelligence’, the conscious, ‘higher order’ thinking we regard as being distinctly human developed relatively quickly in evolutionary terms. Even our smartest and closest relatives don’t have anything like our capacity for complex language for example. Step further away from the great apes and our relatives just aren’t that smart in terms of conscious abstract reasoning.

However all animals are quite smart in the sense of making sense of their environment and choosing actions and basically looking after themselves. A dog may struggle to make sense of what you are pointing at but they can cope with a wide range of sensory information, they can hunt, socialize with other dogs etc.

This suggests that evolutionary process took a long time fine tuning the capacity of animals to deal with what we might regard as relatively low-level use of a brain but actually very little time developing complex language skills and abstract thought. Which suggests that our usual wy of thinking about these two things is upside down.

i.e. abstract high-level ‘intelligence’ is relatively easy but the base on which that sits is very, very hard.

Here is a quote from Moravec’s 1988 book Mind Children via Wikipedia:

Encoded in the large, highly evolved sensory and motor portions of the human brain is a billion years of experience about the nature of the world and how to survive in it. The deliberate process we call reasoning is, I believe, the thinnest veneer of human thought, effective only because it is supported by this much older and much more powerful, though usually unconscious, sensorimotor knowledge. We are all prodigious olympians in perceptual and motor areas, so good that we make the difficult look easy. Abstract thought, though, is a new trick, perhaps less than 100 thousand years old. We have not yet mastered it. It is not all that intrinsically difficult; it just seems so when we do it

Weird Internet Ideas: Inheriting IQ

I don’t think IQ tests are rubbish. They are a useful tool that can help identify specific learning difficulties and do appear to measure something we can call general cognitive ability. I’m not going to do a full treatment of the ins and outs of IQ here but rather just focus on one idea that is misunderstood – the heritability of IQ.

By looking at monozygotic twins and by other means, researchers can examine which traits are primarily due to genetic factors or to environmental factors. Actually even the way I just described that is misleading – everything is a bit of both. Our genes express shape our development in the context of environment but we can still look at particular situations and see the extent to which genes or environment influence particular characteristics.

One of those characteristics is IQ and in Western developed nations the degree to which IQ is inherited has been estimated as high as 0.8 (on a scale of 0 to 1) in adult twins. Oddly the estimate is much lower when looking at children (0.45). However, some people see this as confirming all sorts of odd ideas about race or society.

So why is this a weird internet idea? Primarily because it isn’t showing what people may think it is showing. Genetics may well play a role in intelligence – indeed it must play some role because our genes affect all parts of our bodies including our brain – but what the heritability studies are looking at is the extent to which heritability accounts for the variation in IQ between people. Most of this data has been gathered in WEIRD societies, that is: Western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic. Why does this matter? If society and our general cognitive environment have an impact on IQ then a whole set of factors will add up to a ‘rising tide that lifts all boats’ – factors such as most people having sufficient food, some access to modern medical care, free compulsory education for children, access to television, high levels of literacy or even exposure to urban environments that may help improve the cognitive skills that IQ tests focus on (but not necessarily the cognitive skills IQ tests might not focus on). As everybody in a modern urbanized wealthy Western democracy gets some exposure to these factors, a great deal of a person’s IQ may be accounted for by those factors but almost none of the VARIATION between people.

What would we see if this was the case? Well what we would expect to see is overall IQ scores improving across the board in Western societies up to some point of diminishing returns. And that is exactly what we do see.