MBTI: A lukewarm analysis

MBTI, or the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, is probably the most popular personality test. It contains four axes: Introverted/Extraverted, iNtuitive/Sensing, Thinking/Feeling, Judging/Perceiving. If you take the test, you may be assigned one of 16 personality types, for instance I would be INTJ.

The MBTI is regarded as pseudoscience, perpetuated by the popular consciousness and HR departments rather than academic research. One time I asked a personality psychologist and she said it was just so far off from reality that nobody even bothered talking about it. Psychologists prefer to talk about another personality model, called the Five Factor Model, also known as The Big Five. This has five axes, labeled Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism (OCEAN).

I’ve often remarked that although the Five Factor Model is supposedly more scientific, it’s clearly a lot less compelling. And isn’t that something? I couldn’t honestly say that I find astrology compelling, or ear candles compelling, but the MBTI, now that’s some yummy pseudoscience. I have some remarks on what makes MBTI a pseudoscience, what makes it compelling, and what its problems are.

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Wheelchair miracles

One of the best-known pieces of media in the skeptical canon, is a video in which James Randi debunks faith healer Peter Popoff. In the 1980s, Popoff ran a scam where he called out people’s names in a crowd, described their diseases, and claimed to heal them by laying on hands. James Randi and his associates demonstrated that Popoff did not get these names from divine revelation, but instead got them from his wife, who had collected that information beforehand and was speaking to him through an earpiece.

Under media fire, Popoff’s ministry declared bankruptcy in 1987–but rebooted again in the late 90s. As far as I know Peter Popoff is still at large, now on the Black Entertainment Network.

I want to talk about a particular kind of miracle that Popoff is said to perform: allowing people in wheelchairs to walk again. Back when I was more invested in the skeptical movement, I had heard that they just had fully mobile people seated in wheelchairs, and thought “well that explains it”. This is the explanation currently offered by Wikipedia:

Critics later documented that the recipients of these dramatic “cures” were fully ambulatory people who had been seated in wheelchairs by Popoff’s assistants prior to broadcasts.[10]

But years later, I had a quiet realization: such fraudulent tactics aren’t necessary, because many people in wheelchairs can in fact walk!

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People sure are judgmental about food

Some years ago, I read an article about how millennials are killing breakfast cereal or something, and I made the mistake of reading the comments. Surprisingly, it was less millennial bashing, and more older readers looking down on cereal. Something something nutrition, something obesity epidemic, something something overpriced processed foods. This article isn’t the one I remember but has comments along the same lines.

Disclosure: I eat cereal every day. It’s cheaper and easier than most options, there’s enough diversity in brands that I don’t get tired of it. Personally I don’t buy the sugary cereals, except to mix with less sugary cereals. I wouldn’t care if it was linked to obesity, and judging by the first meta-analysis I found, cereal is actually negatively correlated with being overweight.

To be fair, it’s a fine line between explaining your preference in foods, and moralizing your preference in foods. But I get the impression that these commenters don’t care a bit about walking that line.

My impression is that commenters, without realizing it, are basically complaining that cereal is too low class for them. Which seems misplaced on an article talking about how millennials (who are on average poorer) are eating less cereal.

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The target of criticism

Looking at my past two months of blogging, I seem to be talking a lot about critical thinking–i.e. how to argue. Why break the pattern now? My bloggy friend Coyote also likes talking about how to argue, and today I would like to borrow one of their ideas.

So, here’s the problem. Suppose I have a friend who just did a thing that annoyed me–they linked to a news story where a celebrity they dislike was swindled out of their money. To me, this is victim blaming–con artists often rely on victims being too embarrassed to admit they were swindled. So I vent by writing something on Twitter or Facebook about how much I hate victim blaming. But I don’t want to specifically call out my friend so I keep it general. My friend sees and cheerfully agrees with my post, but fails to realize that I was talking about them; they thought it was about sexual assault or something.

As Coyote put it:

If you want to tell people “this belief is wrong” or “this practice won’t do what you think it will” then the first step is making sure you can precisely and accurately describe the belief/practice in the first place, where “accurately” here is assessed by your audience (not you), because if nobody can see themselves in the flawed behavior as you’ve described it, then your criticism might as well be addressed to nobody.

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Word count

As someone with a number of idiosyncratic opinions, and as someone who has extensively elaborated on my opinions, I think a great deal about length. If I take 2000 words to explain why X is wrong, then: A) how can I realistically expect anyone to read it? and B) how can I realistically expect anyone to go through the same thought process themselves, and end in the same place?

Realistically, I can’t expect any individual to read any of my writing. Most people don’t, you know. I have site statistics, I have the population of the world. I know a lot of people prefer different kinds of media… videos, memes, IRL conversations, collections of one-liners… I don’t judge. Or maybe they just don’t give a shit about whatever mother of all niches I have chosen to write about today.

And independent of whether people read what I say, it’s unrealistic to expect them to follow the same path. I’ve been blogging for long time, I know that not even I come to the same conclusions each time I address the same subject. I also like to think I put some sort of work and cleverness into forming my opinions. Well, if I’m so clever, how can I judge others for being less clever? Aren’t I kind of a high bar?

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One-sided dichotomies

“One-sided dichotomy” is a term I would like to coin to describe a common situation in public discourse.

My first example is the distinction between second-wave feminism and third-wave feminism. Ostensibly, second-wave feminism describes a movement circa the 1970s, and third-wave feminism describes a movement circa the 2010s. But it should be obvious that feminists in the 1970s did not at the time make any such distinction. This is a dichotomy between two groups, but the dichotomy is only made by one of the two groups. Thus, a one-sided dichotomy.

One-sided dichotomies have a tendency to be unfair, because it is only one side controlling the narrative. The narrative goes that second-wave feminists were primarily focused on equality for wealthy white women, while third-wave feminism is intersectional. But closer examination should show that at least some feminisms of the 70s were intersectional, and some feminisms of the present day fail to be so. Does that mean the dichotomy is unfair, or am I nitpicking?  You decide.

I must emphasize that one-sided dichotomies are not necessarily unfair. A model example is the gay/straight dichotomy, which certainly started out one-sided. Straight people would have rejected the label (“I’m not straight, I’m just normal”) or simply wouldn’t have given it any thought. Now the dichotomy is broadly accepted. Another dichotomy currently following the same trajectory, is the cis/trans dichotomy.

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In the weeds with analogies

Sometimes I make an argument from analogy, and I deeply regret it. I say, “X is Y for the same reason A is B,” and commenters counter, “But X and A are different!” and I say, “I never said they were the same!” And so it goes back and forth, and into the weeds.

Arguments by analogy are terrible. They never convince anyone who wasn’t convinced to begin with. Never use them. Or so I say. But before I know it I’m using analogies again, because they’re just so darn effective for making a point.

But maybe I’m still right? Perhaps analogies really don’t convince people who aren’t already convinced, it’s just that I have an audience who is already convinced. Come on, readers! Think for yourselves!

I’d like to share my thought process about arguments from analogy, and the best way to do this is to discuss a specific case study with all its messy details. So I came up with a novel analogy for a subject that most readers are familiar with: the tone argument.

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