ALS Topic 46 - Competently Incompetent - Being good at doing things badly

Adelaide Lunchtime Seminar, ALS 46
Saturday, October 26, 2019 11 am to 1:30 PM (end time flexible)

Venue: The Rose - 31 East Terrace, Adelaide SA 5000 (Upstairs. Please buy a drink or something))

About Focus Questions: a) Please read them before you come to the meetup. Think about them so you have more than "instant opinions" to offer. b) Feel free to add more focus questions. c) THE FOCUS QUESTIONS ARE JUST A MENU TO CHOOSE FROM. From this menu we can discuss whatever seems interesting. d) Focus questions are not intended to push one viewpoint! You can adopt any position you wish. We actually like friendly disagreement - it can lead to deeper understanding.

Focus Questions

1. What is your favourite example of competent incompetence?

2. A taxi driver discovers that the city is new to you. He takes you twice the necessary distance to your destination. Is he an incompetent driver, or competently incompetent?

3. Is the doctor or dentist who is technically competent at offering you a course of treatment which is actually damaging to your health being incompetent at another level or merely misguided? How common is this?

4. A government (or business) department appears to function well. The management is decent, the employees efficient at their tasks. After a review from a consultant, a report identifies that with automation, the department can double its output with half the staff. The entire department cooperates to sabotage and discredit the report. Are the staff being competent, or competently incompetent? How common is this sort of thing?

5. Educational institutions, especially high schools, are often run like military organizations. Students are shuffled around all day at the sound of bells, Teaching is done according to minutely prescribed curricular. Students are required to perform & respond in narrowly defined ways. This process can run like a well oiled machine (depending on the school). Yet around 47% of Australians emerge functionally illiterate. Innumeracy is even higher. Most students emerge with little curiosity and little desire to learn more. Are these outcomes evidence of competent incompetency in schools? What can be done about it?

6. Thor has a 1999 Mazda (it cost $2100 with only 90,000 km on the clock). After a battery change he found that the ECU (car computer) had lost its settings, and was unable to find out how to fix this. He took it to a dealer, City Mazda, who charged him $50 for 'cleaning' something, but couldn't reset the ECU. They gave him a written quote of $800+ to replace a 'necessary component' to fix the ECU. Being creative, Thor then tried idling the car with the air conditioner running at full blast. The ECU immediately reset correctly. Was City Mazda incompetent, or competently incompetent? This sort of thing is extremely common. What can be done about it?

7. Since 1945 the United States of America has politically/militarily lost a series of wars and interventions at a cost of millions of lives (... they are not the only ones who play this deadly game). Yet military research and production in USA keeps huge numbers of people employed, especially in vote swinging states. At one point 40% of the engineers in US were engaged in this stuff. Military-Industrial corporations have grown rich. What is competent about this situation? Where do we make a judgement of competent incompetence?

8. 95%+ of students who begin to learn another language in English speaking countries never learn to use the other language usefully. There are many reasons for this. However, the effect of testing can be a powerful negative. You are judged on what you get wrong, not what you get right. For example, "He give me his name" is marked 'wrong' in a test. Actually the student has most of this sentence correct, but gets no credit. The teacher marks competently according to the text book, but is competently incompetent in teaching the language. What can be done about this sort of thing?

9. In geological time the earth's climate is constantly changing. However in the last two centuries the stunning competence of human industrialization seems to have turbocharged the rate of change. Have we been competently incompetent? What can be done about it?

10. People are brilliant at reasoning within the premises they choose to notice and accept. Yet this reasoning causes constant conflict with others using different premises. What can we do when competent argument within conflicting frameworks leads to incompetent larger outcomes?


Comments & Links

Thor May (2014) "The Contest for Competence". The Passionate Skeptic website @

Thor May (2014) "Some Uses and Misuses of Reason - When can the use of reason lead to better lives and societies, and when can it undermine them?". The Passionate Skeptic website @

Thor May (2015) "The Unexpected Power of Stupidity". The Passionate Skeptic website @

Liam Mannix (October 13, 2019) "Putting ice on injuries could be doing more damage than good - Theoretically, it makes sense. The area is hot and swollen. But researchers have tested ice head to head with doing nothing at all, and it does not beat it.". Brisbane Times @

[Thor, comment: It's a rare doctor who doesn't push this icing 'remedy' for sprains. Strike one for competent incompetence. Medical practice has gotten me out of a couple of serious scrapes, but decades of encounters, research and personal experiment have persuaded me that medicos as a group are among the least trustworthy group of people I've had to deal with. Yet surveys consistently rate doctors as the most trustworthy professionals. Why? Stockholm syndrome? Why not trustworthy? A bunch of reasons, but but preeminently because a typical doctor presents to patients as being sure that he is right, and fiercely resists alternative suggestions. He has learned labels, procedures, and storylines. Any of these, separately or together, might be right, partly right, or nonsense. In fact, a very large part of medical practice is not supported by replicable research. And the doctor you are seeing has 10 minutes to get you out the door. So nowadays my own starting assumption is: 'an 80% chance this guy will be useless to dangerous'. But that's just me. Have you done better?

=> Alexi Livshitz - I listen to my gut and doctors are just one option. I have some chronic problems I have never seen a doctor for because I don't trust them to improve my situation. In other instances I put my trust in doctors and they did well. For me the question is: do I trust this doctor for this specific problem? And when he suggests a treatment it's up to me to argue and ask for an alternative if it doesn't feel right.

Thor May (1998) "Finding Truth: The Human Mind as an Error-Checking Mechanism". The Passionate Skeptic website @

[Quote: "It is time somebody invented the electron theory of truth. Perhaps it could go something like this. Human minds come with a variety of different valences, although no one has yet devised a periodic table of their range. The simplest fellow, like a hydrogen atom with its single shell electron, holds that one truth stands for all worldly and other-worldly experiences. More complex souls have a varying number of truth (electron) shells, and although their consciousness may habitually dwell at a fairly intimate level, say the behaviour of a spouse, with sufficient heat and agitation, their attention (hence their judgement) may jump to an outer shell of national affairs, or to the dizzy distance of humankind. A few relatively eccentric human types may scarcely ever access their inner shells of intimacy with the laser light of mind."

Mike Seccombe (19 October 2019) "Every year, some 600 primary-school-age children are locked up in Australia". The Saturday Paper @

[Quote: "It costs about $1400 per night per child to hold them in detention. A NSW parliament inquiry into diversion last year found that the average cost of diversion and prevention is $180 per day per child. ... There is a huge body of evidence showing the punitive regime is a multifaceted tragedy for the children involved, damaging their educational and employment prospects, further traumatising them and likely contributing to rates of suicide. It is also utterly counterproductive, in that it encourages more crime. And it achieves these negative outcomes at vast cost to the taxpayer."]

Anonymous (11 Feb 2017) "What I’m really thinking: the firing manager - I hired and trained you. I nurtured and developed you. But now I have to tell you your position is being eliminated" The Guardian @  [The comments are the most informative part of this article]

Martin Parker (27 April 2018) "Why we should bulldoze the business school - There are 13,000 business schools on Earth. That’s 13,000 too many. And I should know – I’ve taught in them for 20 years". The Guardian @

David Tuffley (February 27, 2017 ) "How to manage self-motivated, intelligent workers - Knowledge workers hate being micromanaged". The Conversation @

Darius Foroux (May 29, 2018) "Price’s Law: Why Only A Few People Generate Half Of The Results". Blog @

ABC News (24 September 2019) "Thinking of moving overseas for work? Research says you'll struggle to return Australian Broadcasting Commission" (ABC) @

[Thor, comment: It's crazy, it's stupid, but not only people from other countries have trouble finding work in Australia. Australians who work overseas find it harder to get work after they return to Australia. Most Australian employers are very parochial (ignorant about other people and places). They don't respect other languages as a skill, and they don't respect overseas experience - even though Australia lives or dies as a trading nation. This narrow thinking is very bad for Australia]

Major General Smedley Butler (1935) "War Is A Racket" @ 

[Thor, comment: This is a famous book, and the full text is available for download free at Butler spent his career fighting in America's wars, and his conclusion about their purpose and value is summed up in the title of the book. That is, for all the organizational competence of military organizations, the consequences of their actions are overwhelmingly incompetent, indeed disastrous, for civilization, but competently profitable for arms suppliers and the employment needs of certain individuals]

Thor May (2008) "The End of Capitalism is Announced - The Decider announces the end of triumphalist capitalism. - Whose zoo do these simians belong in now?" Thor's New China Diary @
[Quote: "Bestriding the world like an inflatable colossus in 2000, George Bush and his cabal set about forcing the world to be for him or agin’ him. It turned out we were mostly agin’ him, but that didn’t trouble his voter base too much since like George they thought the other 94% of the world’s population came from the Discovery TV Channel, and weren’t god fearing Christians anyway. While the world went to hell, back on the ranch George and friends presided over a remarkable transition in America’s fortunes. He turned the treasury’s record surplus into a record deficit that would indebt ordinary Americans for generations. Bucks by the billion were shovelled out to every military privateer, corporate crook and pork barrelling politician who could buy an invite to his Washington prayer breakfasts. The bucks came easily since they were a fiat currency floating on lofty rhetoric in an economy that hardly produced anything except Wall Street banking sharks".]

Damian Carrington (30 October 2018) "Humanity has wiped out 60% of animal populations since 1970, report finds - The huge loss is a tragedy in itself but also threatens the survival of civilisation, say the world’s leading scientists". The Guardian @

Ross Gittins (26 October 2018) "World growth a toxic danger for the environment - If the world’s population keeps growing, and the poor world’s living standards keep catching up with the rich world’s, how on earth will the environment cope with the huge increase in extraction, processing and disposal of material resources? - It’s a question many people wonder and worry about – without much sign it’s even crossed the mind of the world’s governments." Brisbane Times @  [Gittins is the senior economics editor of the Fairfax/Channel 9 news group]

Melissa Davey (9 May 2018) "Doctors 'muzzled' and bullied into leaving public hospitals, says AMA - Australian Medical Association’s president Michael Gannon blames ‘rise of managerialism and bureaucracy’ for pressure on clinicians. Dr Michael Gannon, head of the AMA, says all governments, state and federal, have failed to direct hospital funding where it is most needed". The Guardian @

Thor May (2013) "International Language Testing - Standing the monster on its head". The Passionate Skeptic website @

[Quote, Abstract: At the top of the assessment pyramid are multinational testing corporations, best known by the names of their standardized tests, such as IELTS, TOEIC, TOEFL, BULATS, TKT, Cambridge ESOL main suite, or G-TELP (there are many other aspirants). In some ways these testing companies can be thought of as the Big Pharma corporations (i.e. drug companies) of the educational world. Like Big Pharma they are subject to constant challenges to their ethics and reliability from within and without, and like Big Pharma they are rather prone to corrupt the issues which they were designed to assist with. The possible corruption of language learning by the requirements of testing is known as wash-back. Wash-back is not always malignant. The analysis in this paper is a tentative attempt to manipulate the wash-back from an international test in a manner which actually assists genuine language acquisition."]

Thor May (2013) "Testing for Teaching; Teaching to What?" The Passionate Skeptic website @

[Quote: "The outline which follows analyses the two halves of a language teacher's profession:

a) The first half is daily classroom practice : what is taught and how is it evaluated?

b) The second half of a teacher's profession is to know or at least estimate what is going on in the brains of her students : what is learned and how is it learned?"]

Nathan Heller (June 7, 2018) "The Bullshit-Job Boom
For more and more people, work appears to serve no purpose." The New Yorker @

[Quote: "In the course of Graeber’s diagnosis, he inaugurates five phyla of bullshit work. “Flunkies,” he says, are those paid to hang around and make their superiors feel important: doormen, useless assistants, receptionists with silent phones, and so on. “Goons” are gratuitous or arms-race muscle; Graeber points to Oxford University’s P.R. staff, whose task appears to be to convince the public that Oxford is a good school. “Duct tapers” are hired to patch or bridge major flaws that their bosses are too lazy or inept to fix systemically. (This is the woman at the airline desk whose duty is to assuage angry passengers when bags don’t arrive.) “Box tickers” go through various motions, often using paperwork or serious-looking reports, to suggest that things are happening when things aren’t... Last are “taskmasters,” divided into two subtypes: unnecessary superiors, who manage people who don’t need management, and bullshit generators, whose job is to create and assign more bullshit for others." [Thor, comment: Bullshit jobs are, of course, the future of most work where automation, AI etc render human intervention unnecessary. Since the humans won't go away, the easiest alternative is to give them nonsense jobs with elaborate titles and pay them with play money. This stands classical economics on its head, given its notions of 'economic productivity'. The charade has been going on for some time. It is a paradox and counterpoint to the ideology of managerialism which was first identified by James Burnham in the 1940s]

Thor's own websites:

1. articles at ;

2. legacy site: .


Competently Incompetent - Being good at doing things badl (c) Thor May 2019 return to Ddiscussion