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Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Being Wrong -- Adventures in the Margin of Error

The title of this post is the title of Kathryn's Schulz's book, which I am currently reading (i.e. listening to).

Nice title for a book.

From the book's website:

Bill Clinton calls it "a brilliant book with a sweeping grasp of philosophy and physics and all points in between." Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust chose it as the book she wishes all Harvard freshman would read. Amazon and Publishers Weekly both named it one of the Ten Best Nonfiction Books of 2010. It was shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Prize

The other reviews lead me to think that Schulz is a profound thinker and witty guide on topics ranging from neuroscience to philosophy to Shakespeare to Alan Greenspan.

I'm listening to this on my mp3 player.  I've finished Chapter 1 so far, so it's too early to tell.  But I have a bad feeling that I won't like this book and that I will finish it with the impression that it was badly over-hyped.   That doesn't mean that I will conclude that nobody could possibly like this book.  Most of the reviewers on Amazon like it (although of course, most of the positive Amazon reviews are fake or motivated by considerations other than a desire to be absolutely honest).  So know that my views seem to be in the very tiny minority.  It's very hard to find anything but lavish praise for this book and the author anywhere other than in the 1-3 star reviews on Amazon.  Say what you will about the corruption of that system (and I just did), you can almost always be sure that the majority of low-star reviews are someone's honest opinion.

But I just haven't got anything much out of the first chapter.  I haven't laughed out loud, as some of the reviewers have done.  I haven't yet been impressed by any particular instance of "lucid prose with perfect comic timing," and it's too early in the book for me to conclude that "Schulz is not just a quotable writer; she is also a canny and original observer, ­adept at pointing out things that we should have known, but didn’t."  The last two quotes come from Daniel Gilbert (who has his own books on the equally mostly-self-evident topic of "happiness" to sell), and the last one can serve as a jumping off point.  I HATE IT WHEN AUTHORS REFER TO THEMSELVES AND THEIR AUDIENCE AS "WE."  I just find it extremely annoying and condescending, especially when "we" (as in Gilbert's quote) really refers to people who seem to be almost willfully unobservant of the world around them.  I have to admit, there probably is no easy authorial choice here.  "People" or "most people" would get old in a hurry.  And neither "I" nor "You" would work out.  But I cringe every time I hear "we", which, with this book is almost every sentence.

But of course, that's why I keep reading (i.e. listening to) the book.  It engages me, because I am constantly evaluating whether or not I fit into her "we."

I'm sure I do sometimes -- I'm human.  And I don't have any particular examples at hand.  But the basic theme of the book seems to be "we" think we are right most of the time, even when we aren't, and then when we come to see the error in our ways, we often simply forget that we were wrong in the first place.  And of course she litters the book with numerous conflicting examples -- e.g. the friend of hers who claimed he was wrong all the time but then couldn't come up with a single instance, as well as her own long-term recollection of having mispronounced "Goethe" when she first encountered the name.  In other words, sometimes we are mortified that we were wrong and remember it forever even after others have long forgotten it, and sometimes we "forget" that we were ever wrong in the first place.

At a certain point in the writing process, she apparently came to realize that there were many serious students of "wrongness" out there -- there's a whole field called "wrongology," or maybe "error studies" that is primarily devoted to cataloging errors and figuring out how to avoid them.  Given that she has been preempted, she hastens to assure us that her goal is not to help us avoid errors (i.e. it's not a self-help book), but instead to explore how we think about errors and wrongness.  That's not all that interesting to me, because I have a feeling that I've thought about errors and wrongness more than most people, with the possible exception of the author (she has been able to do it nonstop for several years).  Unfortunately, from what I've heard so far, I don't think I'm going to learn much new from the author.  But I could be wrong.

So far, the only "thinking" about wrongness she has been able to convey to me is that we should embrace it.  Wrongness is responsible for all kinds of wonderful things.  I can't remember what her examples were, probably because they were so obvious.  But that's my point.  Her whole theme is extremely well known.  In fact, it's the theme of the Magic School Bus cartoon series for kids:  "Take chances, make mistakes, and get messy!"

Maybe I'm a bit jealous because I didn't write the book.  I once kept a notebook in which I only wrote down the errors that I had made in my life.  I wonder where it is now?

Part of why "we" is so annoying here is because I have known a lot of people who simply can't admit they are wrong, even when they plainly are.  It's worth noting that these are often managerial types -- it takes a certain kind of self-confidence and ability to self-promote (as well as a blindness to one's weaknesses) to get those positions.  And then simply having a position like that (where you are often surrounded by a high percentage of yes-men and yes-women) only reinforces the self-delusion.  So even if I fit your "we" some of the time, please don't group me with those other a-holes.

I always admired something I read in Robert Rubin's (somewhat premature) first autobiography.  In it, he explains that he doesn't understand how some people can be so sure about everything.  I think he says something like some people are more sure about everything than he is about anything.  And he explains how he is a "probabilistic thinker"; certain about nothing, but willing to give everything a probability, which can shift as more data comes in, and to act in accordance with those probabilities.  That's what I have always aspired to.  I've also aspired to make a lot of money the same way he did -- push for laws to be passed for the multi-billion dollar benefit of a company like Citigroup, and then be rewarded with a 100 million dollar a year do-nothing job for the same company.  And I think I heard somewhere that he honestly believes that he was worth that $100 million a year, even as Citigroup began its trajectory toward bailout-dom.  I wonder what the probability that he was worth a hundred million a year really was.  I see I have digressed.

Listening to the author's Ted Talk, which is going over some of the stuff from Chapter 1.  One of her great "aha" points is that we never really understand the experience of "being wrong."  In other words, by the time we realize that we were wrong, we now are no longer wrong.  It's the coyote who doesn't realize he has gone off the cliff, before he looks down.  So that's a clever point, sort of -- that while we're wrong, we don't realize it.  She calls it "error blindness."  But I heard it in the book, and by the time I heard it on the TED Talk, it had gotten old.  She asks the question how it felt sometime when you were wrong.  And people naturally responded about how it felt to find out that they were wrong.  But then she said "gotcha" - that wasn't the question.  And then back to the above.

But that's where we probabilistic thinkers just don't fit in.  I know I might be wrong on any number points; it's just a matter of probability.

Now she's talking about how people are scared of getting bad grades -- being wrong -- and that leads them to get As.  Fine, but then we freak out at the possibility of getting something wrong, because that means something is wrong with us, so we insist we are right because it makes us feel responsible and virtuous and safe.  Ugh.  I can't handle the "we's".  I'm not sure what the point of this is -- don't use grades in school, because the smarties will all end up really uptight?  But then how do you get a system where the marketplace can relatively easily identify who will work hard and NOT make gratuitous mistakes?  And who are the people getting 50% on a spelling test?  Is it that they are the "dumb kid" (I think she said this)?  Where do they end up?  There might be an interesting discussion in there -- how the whole point of public school was to teach kids -- future workers -- how to show up on time and obey rules, and how grading even at an early age helps these future employers draw distinctions between the good and bad prospective employees.  The point is that "fear" of doing badly on a test is what motivates a certain fraction of the kids to study so hard that they won't make any mistakes.  But that is surely a "good" byproduct of the fear of making mistakes.  The problem with the kids who don't have that fear is that they don't study and they don't care so much when they get bad grades.  And I seriously doubt Kathryn Schulz would be where she is now if she hadn't gotten some very good grades in school.

Now (back to the Ted Talk) she's telling about someone who had the wrong leg amputated. The point of that story is don't just trust in the "feeling" of being on the correct side of anything -- esp. someone you are doing surgery on.  That "sense" is not a reliable guide of what's going on.  It results in oil spills and torpedoing the economy (what she said).  Here she is of course right; I am a person who very rarely says "my gut tells me", and whenever I hear someone say that, I brace myself.  I think there certainly is such a thing as "intuition" -- the sort of unconscious "getting it right at first glance without knowing why" that I think Malcolm Gladwell described in Blink. But sometimes people's "guts" tell them things, where a close consideration of ALL of the data -- all of the inputs -- would still leave any neutral arbiter far below 100%.

Still from the TED talk -- The first thing we do when someone disagrees with us, we assume they are ignorant.  When that doesn't work, that means they are idiots.  When that doesn't work, they know the truth but are deliberately distorting it for their own malevolent purposes.  We we we.  I can't handle it.  But I have to admit, sometimes I do get to the third stage she just described.  But in all of those cases, I've turned out to be right.

Ok, that's what I can say about the first chapter.  I'll report back periodically, probably simply by adding to this post.

Now it's a day later and I'm in the second chapter.  She really likes to create false conflicts.  To hear her speak, you'd think there has been an ongoing debate about whether error is good or bad over the centuries.  Aquinas says it's bad, William James says it's good.  The reason I know there is no real debate going on is that she makes no reference to a rebuttal.  There's nobody saying that William James is "wrong" or misguided in his discussion of wrongness.

So I'm still not sure what the author's contribution is.  She's now dropped at least four big names that have studied and written on the plus side of error before -- James, Erasmus (of course, In Praise of Folly), Descartes, and Montesquieu (the latter two seemed to be approximating the "probabilistic" Robert Rubin approach mentioned above).  To her credit, she's dropped the name Al-Gazali, one of my heroes, for an observation about dreams and reality -- when we're in them, we don't realize it; yet when we wake up we know it was a dream.  Who's to say we won't one day "wake up" from this reality and immediately know that it was never real either?

She's told me that people take drugs in part because they like the altered reality, and people are willing to take all kinds of risks to get there.  I guess the point is that sometimes "we" strive to be "wrong."

She's also told me that King Lear is a play full of error -- the King is wrong about his daughters, the fool is wise, Lear is mad without realizing it, Edgar pretends to be mad, etc.  But so what?

She has taught (or perhaps reminded) me that in Indo-European, the word for "go" was "ur" (that's what I heard, not sure of spelling).  And this led to "errare" in latin, which perhaps means go astray and eventually that led to "error".  And then she points out how knights errant was actually a compliment -- these mythical people were out there trying to learn more about their world.  And then there's Don Quixote -- who was in error about being a knight errant in the first place.

In the end, I can concede that she does seem to be a decent writer, although she sometimes uses longer words when shorter ones will do.  And at least once she said "it begs the question" meaning "it raises the question."  [yes, I know, the repeated misusage of the phrase has now rendered her usage acceptable.  I'm not a linguistic purist, but I really hate to see an old meaning die -- "begs the question" had a very specific meaning in the field of logic (like "red herring," "straw man," etc.), and now the meaning is disappearing or at least becoming diluted].

But there have been no trenchant observations, no aha moments yet.  We'll see.

I'm listening on.  She's now discussed mirages -- inferior, superior, and fata morgana.  That's all actually kind of interesting, and perhaps good to know.  If I was aware of John Ross's attempt to find the Northwest passage -- and his encounter with a superior mirage when he tried to find a way to connect Baffin Bay to the Pacific -- I had forgotten it.  And the point about even ships appearing as mirages (i.e. the images of real ships appearing, even though the ships are very far away, very far over the horizon) reminded me of something I read about while very young -- a person who was somehow able to predict the arrival of ships in a particular port with uncanny accuracy, by looking at the sky.  I had always thought that that was simply an old anecdote that would fall apart under scrutiny -- and I've never heard about it since -- but perhaps there was something to it -- he was just able to perceive mirages better than the rest of us.

Ok, I looked that up.  With Google, we can get to the bottom of all hazy childhood recollections.  The guy was named Bottineau and he actually was detecting changes in the atmosphere, which actually were caused by ships several days away.  There's no question that this was not merely luck -- he made good money betting others about the arrival of ships, and tested himself in a scientific way, accurately predicted the arrival of 575 ships over a 4 year period (and when he was wrong it was confirmed that the ship had been there but had changed course) and once predicted the arrival and diversion of a fleet, which was confirmed.  Not mirages, but impressions nevertheless. But apparently he never told anyone his secret -- even when offered large amounts of cash -- and no one else ever figured it out.  And maybe it actually was the same natural phenomenon that gives rise to those fata morgana mirages, just on a much less obvious scale, which he somehow learned to detect.  I might have read this in The People's Almanac, but I actually believe I read it long before I first encountered that book (and probably long before it came out).  The People's Almanac says that history did not record his first name, but several websites have it as Etiene, and one of them says he was born on May 4, 1738.  He called his science "nauscopy."  He led people to think that his theory was that everything that moves causes a disturbance, and that he could somehow detect those disturbances in the sky.  What I'd like to see (or hear) is an explanation of the physics of superior mirages and fatae morganae (sp?) and see exactly what becomes of the image over space.  And why it happens or when it happens.  Of course, since we now have radar, it's all kind of pointless.  I think.  But perhaps there is an application for it that isn't quite so obvious . . . .  I wonder what it could be?

So Bottineau may or may not be related to mirages.  Query -- I wonder if it would be possible to run some experiments to replicate Bottineau's observations, and figure out what he saw.  If he saw the ships themselves somehow (in the sky?), then perhaps a computer studying photographs would be able to pick that up.  Don't know where this would lead, but it could be interesting.

As I think about it, this is just the way popular psychology writing works.   You pick a topic -- hopefully one that can be stated in one word or phrase:  Wrong, Happiness, Tipping Point, Blink, Bonked, etc.  And then you open yourself up to every interesting fact that you can connect to that word.  And then you collect the most interesting such facts -- googling for them if necessary -- and try to organize them somehow around your chosen word.  Then you look for a bunch of famous quotes related to your interesting facts, and throw them into the mix.  If you're a good writer -- and most journalists are -- you'll have produced something readable and interesting, and if you're lucky, people will start describing you as brilliant and profound.  Of course, these books tend to overlap, since one of the pools they all draw from is that of experimental psychology, and if one reads enough of these books, one reads about the same experiments over and over again.  Can't remember if that's happened in this book yet.  But if I hear the one about the fact that a female "confederate" with a questionnaire was rated more attractive when she was met on a scary suspension bridge, that will be something.  (I've heard it several times in several such books, including some CDs on evolutionary psychology).

Back to the book.  After mirages, she moved on to the idea that our senses often deceive us -- if we look at the night sky, we perceive it to be revolving around us, and yet in fact, it is we (i.e the Earth) that are moving.  Then a discussion of the ancient Greeks.  Apparently the sophist Protagaras said something along the lines of reality being what is sensed, and the answer to different people sensing different realities is that they are both right.  Plato rightly called this nonsense (and could have given Protagaras a thermometer), but it leads to some vexing questions about our senses and perceptions.  The answer seems to be that there are two steps -- one is sensing (sensation) and the next is perception (which means processing the sensation to draw a conclusion).  Something in our machinery tells us that receding objects are not actually getting smaller.  And then there is the blind spot -- where the optic nerve enters the retina, where we are literally blind, but which the brain is able to paint over with something called "coherence" or something.

And now, somewhat predictably, we are on optical illusions.

Ok, I should probably grudgingly concede that the book has some interesting stuff in it.  But all books do.  I think what I resent are e.g. the quotes from Bill Clinton (sweeping grasp of philosophy and physics) and Drew Gilpin Faust (should be read by every student entering Harvard), and others.  It's just not that exceptional, as such books go.  It all sounds way too much like a publicity campaign.  Interesting fact:  although the author is a fairly famous person -- a successful journalist who has written a book that everyone who is anyone just loves -- it's not easy to figure out where she comes from.  Initially that caused me to think that perhaps she is the daughter of someone rich, famous, and powerful, and that's how she has gotten everyone to fall over themselves heaping praise on this book.  But I finally hit on the idea of searching her name and "alumni", and that's how I figured out she went to Brown and that she's from New York.  So that pretty much establishes "rich," but not necessarily powerful.  And she's not without talent, so that's a dead end.

Continuing.  The stuff about optical illusions just didn't grab me.  The difference between them and being unexpectedly wrong is that you know you are going to be fooled, and you know that whatever momentary embarrassment you'll feel will be superseded by the feeling of having experienced something clever.  What they teach US (ugh) is that sometimes (though not often) WE (ugh) can treat being wrong that way, and take some pleasure in the way we were wrong.  Or something like that.  I don't deny it.  But it's still kind of boring.

Then some mention of diseases where people think they can see but are really blind, and apparently that kind of thing can happen to all of US.  In other words, because we know it can happen to us, how can we be sure that it hasn't already happened to us?  It happened to Justice William O Douglas after a stroke -- he thought he was capable of going on a hike but he wasn't.  But that stuff should have been put under the insanity section.  Yes, eventually I might go insane, or "catch" one of these afflictions (or have a stroke), and in that case I'll be wrong much of the time.  *yawn*

But then on to "implanted" and "false" memories.  A great psychologist remembers Dec. 7, 1941 -- he was listening to a baseball game on the radio.  But many years later he realizes that they don't play baseball in December.  He does an experiment after the Challenger disaster -- asks his students the day after to describe some details of how they learned of the event etc.  Then three years later asked the the same thing.  He said that only 7% (I think) lined up, and that most of them contained major discrepancies.  One woman looked at what she wrote three years before and acknowledged that it was her handwriting but claimed she never would have written it. This is actually interesting, and I'd be very interested in seeing the original data.  I've been aware of this sort of thing and it's one reason that I never completely trust my memory.  So this could be an area where WE (well, not me, since i never completely trust my memory) go around knowing something is true, even though it isn't.  She also mentions that it's possible to implant memories - I think she said in 25% of people, more for kids.  But then she got anecdotal about one kid who had been fooled into thinking he had been lost in a shopping mall.  details lacking.  

But I had heard of this sort of thing before, and even tried it on my own kids.  I used to hit tennis balls up very high in the air.  And one time when I wasn't hitting them, I happened to mention the time we were all there and I hit one so high that it never came back down.  Later, they remembered that as if it were a fact.  I wonder if they still do.

More about me:  I think the author essentially challenged her readers to try to remember where they were on Sept. 11, and seems willing to bet that we will be sure of everything, but will be wrong on key details.

OK.  Here's how it went for me.  I was driving into work to DC in the morning.  I was listening to Howard Stern.  He was talking in a very disrespectful way about a female celebrity (I think it was Pamela Anderson). Robin Quivers (I think) said that she had just received a report from somewhere (I guess a news desk) that a plane had hit a building.  Stern said "it was bound to happen sooner or later" or something like that and went back to talking about Pamela Anderson.  I'm pretty sure he kept talking about her and other inane topics (with perhaps occasional interruptions from Robin referring to being able to see the smoke) until the second plane hit.  At that point he began to understand it wasn't a coincidence.  I must have parked in the garage at my building soon thereafter, and went up the parking elevator, and caught the main elevator.  There were several people on there, and one was someone with whom I regularly talked, and he asked "did you hear about the tragedy in New York"  Not sure if he said New York, but he said tragedy.  I said I had, but I don't recall having an extended conversation -- it was a short elevator ride.  I don't remember anyone else on the elevator saying anything.  I got to my office and I don't particularly remember any sequence of events.  This was 2001, so I assume I was able to get on the internet and get some information.  But I remember at the time nobody had clearly identified Al Quaeda in the press.  Just a few spotty memories after that.

There was a period -- maybe an hour -- before the Pentagon was hit.  I remember talking to a client (actually counsel for a client) in Chicago, and talking about the attacks, and speculating on whether Chicago would be hit or not.  But i don't recall if this was before or after the Pentagon.  At a certain point the firm management sent an email out telling us that the best thing to do was to stay in our offices. But there were continued reports of planes that were unaccounted for, and the idea that they might hit the White House or the Capitol or both (my firm was right in between).  I went down a floor (or maybe up a floor) and told the woman I was going to have lunch with that day that I couldn't make it.  I think I agreed to drive another woman home, and I'm pretty sure that's what I did.  I know I ended up taking the Chain Bridge out of town.  It was slow going, but I got out.  I think I picked up the kids where they were -- Trey might have been at Mount Daniel and Aiesha at TJ.  But no clear memory; just an inference.  Later that day remember having a conference call with two friends (not sure if my phone had that capability, but I'm sure it happened) speculating on how it was done.  I didn't think an arab terrorist group could have pulled it off.  But what did I know.  I think we agreed that it was political suicide for Bush and Cheney to immediately go into hiding -- which no one, even in the days just after seems to remember they did.  But at the time, the nation felt leaderless -- no word from our commander in chief or even the second in command -- both seemed to be busy saving their skins.  But someone wrote a speech for GW and he emerged as some kind of a hero, inexplicably I always thought.  I feel like I was at home with the TV on for much of the rest of the day, and a certain point one, then the other, building fell down.

Interestingly, I remember making a tape recording of myself on that long drive home.  If I find it, I should probably destroy it.  Although now this is getting interesting.  I "remember" that above I didn't believe it was Al Quaeda that had done it until sometime later, but on the other hand, I also "remember" saying some harsh words about how security had to be beefed up everywhere, if it meant not letting anyone into the country (or something like that).  But perhaps that tape recording will provide a kind of record of the event that I could compare this to.


So above I said she should have grouped the people who don't know that they can't walk or can't see with the insane.  But she says that's not right -- they are actually lucid rational people in every way except when it comes to their affliction, and then they confabulate -- i.e. make stuff up.  I'm not sure it's a distinction that makes a difference for our purposes.  Both are mental conditions that cause one to not realize that one is "wrong."  But anyway.

Then she moved on to dreams.  The most interesting feature of dreams is the lack of surprise.  I.e. all kinds of weird things happen -- hybrids of people you know, in impossible situations.  And you never feel surprised.  ok, that's an insight that I had not considered before.  Thanks for that.  Not sure what I'll do with it now that I have it, but it's changed my life.

As I think about it, all I'd really need to get all the insights that are in this book is the outline.  I can ruminate just about as well as she can on any topic, so I really could skip most of the ruminations.  I feel like her outline probably says:  ruminate about dreams:  5 pages.  And then the task was to come up with 5 pages about dreams.  nice work if you can get it.


I would probably have to get a hard copy at this point to do a blow-by-blow summary.  I am still very annoyed by the use of "we."  Interestingly, at one point (so far) -- and only one point (which I believe was a discussion of the fact that "we" like political leaders who are decisive even if wrong), -- she took pains to acknowledge that although she was saying "we", not everybody thinks that way.  But she only said that in that particular case, and went back to saying "we" for everything else.  Again, many people who have thought about these issues can simply avoid being grouped in her "we" most of the time.  This discussion got extremely annoying when she went on to talk about how much "we" dislike voters who have not made up their minds.  She repeated jokes about undecideds from David Sedaris and Jon Stewart as though those somehow validated her belief that "we" all just can't stand the "undecideds."  She has more respect for those who have "decided" the other way, than those who are still making up their minds.  But wake up and take a look at the candidates that we are offered, election after election.  Look at the two political parties and the long history of corruption in both of them.  The whole idea that in every single election I need to "decide" between two candidates that I consider mediocrities, both in the pocket of big business, rubs me very much the wrong way.  This discussion doesn't seem to have any scientific support or point, and seems to simply be a rant about how much SHE dislikes people who haven't taken sides.

She also wanders into a weird digression about the Swiss.  Apparently, women there did not have a federal right to vote until 1971, and individual cantons still resisted women's suffrage until the early 1990s, when the last holdout was forced into suffrage by the Swiss Supreme Court.  There's a vague connection to her basic theme about "wrongness" here -- apparently the Swiss men were under peer pressure from each other, and the screaming harpies on the outside telling them they had to change their system only caused the position to become more entrenched.  But still, they voted 2-1 back in 1971 for women's suffrage.  That's 40 years ago now.  And yes, they took longer to give women the vote than other Western countries (but not than other Eastern and Middle-Eastern countries -- Saudi women still don't have it -- but so what?).  We took longer to free our slaves than most countries.  The "moral" development of countries can proceed at varied paces, for any variety of reasons, and most don't have to do with individual psychology.  When will the Swiss get around to repealing their banking secrecy laws?

But although I still haven't heard anything that will change the way I think (which I believe is one of the things reviewers say the book will do), I'm warming to the idea of recommending this to others, and perhaps Drew Faust's idea of making every new Harvard student read it isn't so bad.  They (and other entering college students) will likely not have read all the pop psychology that I have, so many of the old or obvious points in this book might seem new and fresh to them.  And in some cases, that will benefit them and the way they think.  

Right now I am thinking of her discussion of the "French Resistance Effect."  She said that when discussing the French Resistance (to the Nazi occupation) "we" all like to assume that we would have been among the 2% of the population that actively supported it.  But of course, the odds against this are very high.  And she earned my eternal gratitude by then going on to say something like "for that matter, we can't say how we would have acted if we had been Germans during the Nazi period."  

This is a point that I have considered often and made often.  I think of it every time I hear someone  saying (and I've heard it even in 2012) that the Germans -- current day Germans -- still need to be held accountable for the Holocaust.  The assumption being that the failure of the German people at large to somehow step in and stop the Holocaust is an enduring reason that we should not be buying German goods (or whatever).  These people continually hold the "German people" responsible.  Apart from the basic fact that it's very unclear how much information the "German people" had about the Holocaust while it was going on (much less whether they would have had any means of stopping it), the idea of judging people this way is rather ridiculous.  How can anyone today know for sure how they would have reacted to the rhetoric of the Nazi party if they had been born and raised in Germany, by German parents, in the aftermath of the First World War?  Hitler never got a majority after all, but how can any of us even say that "we" would not have voted for him?  In short, it wouldn't have been the "we" of today -- it would have been someone else.  And it was someone else.  As we can see from our modern genocides and genocidal tendencies, large numbers of people -- who are products of their environments -- can become willing cogs in a murderous machine.  But it's pointless to say "they should have known better."  Obviously, they didn't, and if we had been "them", we wouldn't have either.

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