Life on a knife’s edge

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As those of you who read my blog will know, I am definitely a glass half full kind of guy. I have argued and will continue to argue that we’ve made a lot of progress and will continue to do so if we exercise our agency to do so. I’m not one of those “new optimists” who think progress is inevitable and largely due to the ‘hidden hand of the market’ or ‘western-driven globalization.’ For one thing I’m pretty sure that the market and global capitalism work for the interests and because of the agency of a relatively small and coherent group of very rich people.

Still, some recent news reports have given me pause. Nukes and missiles in North Korea should alarm us all—though no more than in any other place. I’m more troubled by headlines that describe entire islands emptied of humans by record breaking storms. Or the news this week that for the first time in decades, world hunger is again on the rise. Or that diseases we should have eliminated are again a threat because bone-headed celebrities speak out about vaccination. Or new diseases are coming out of the tropics that might take us all down.

So I’ve been thinking like Fermi these days.

The Fermi paradox poses the question: if there are millions of technologically competent (i.e. as good or better than us) civilizations in the universe, why have we never detected even one?

There are several ways to answer this question. Some will say that we are God’s special creation and therefore unique in all the infinite reaches of space. To which I can only say—well, you’re certainly “special.”

More rationally, one might say we don’t yet have the technical sophistication to winnow out their messages from the background noise of radiation – but that argument, if it was valid ten years ago, is probably not valid now.

The most optimistic answer might be that they are hiding – deliberately keeping us from finding them until we are civilized enough to join the intergalactic club. Yeah, it’s one big conspiracy and everyone is in on it except Earth.

The most common response is this: as soon as a society is capable of transmitting signals—even accidental ones—across interstellar space, they are also capable of destroying themselves and inevitably do. The reason we don’t hear from advanced aliens is that they’re all dead. Dead by their own hands.

All it takes is a couple madmen whose dicks are… I mean, whose nukes are bigger than their brains to pretty much take us back to the Stone Age. Of course, they could always be replaced if there was the will to do so.

Much more concerning is the matter of climate change, which requires nothing to proceed to its inevitable conclusion other than we keep doing what we’re doing. There is some hope there, even now. Emissions have stopped rising—though they are still high enough to tip us over the edge and earth’s natural defenses may have reached their limit. Still, every year they don’t go up, there is a chance we will act to make them go down and actually reduce civilization-killing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Which is our only real hope.

Well, your hope—I’ll probably be dead before it all goes to hell. So if the glass is now half empty, maybe I’ll just order another round and party like it’s 1999.

And that’s ten minutes.

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IMHO

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We all have a range of opinions; some of us have opinions on everything. Like taste, opinions are not disputable; you feel one way or you feel another. That doesn’t mean some opinions aren’t wrong—just that the people who hold them are not open to persuasion by facts. Facts are something else entirely. As they say, you are entitled to your own opinions but not to your own facts.

Some people find that annoying and insist on their own facts. We might refer to them by a lot of names but I prefer to call them “willing slaves of tyranny.” As soon as you deny reality and accept “alternative facts” (that is, lies) as equally valid as something that can be objectively proven, you become the ready and easy bait for would-be dictators.

Still, most opinions are harmless, right? For example, I’m of the opinion that Brussels sprouts aren’t fit for anything but garden fertilizer; they certainly shouldn’t be eaten. Many disagree and have even argued vehemently that I’ve just never had them served in the proper way. I listen more or less politely and then explain that those recipes would be delicious if only they didn’t contain the offending sprouts. I’ll even accept they might be nutritious (those are simple facts, provable by scientific analysis) without agreeing that they are worth eating. After all, those vitamins can be obtained elsewhere. I’ve had people tell me I’m wrong but I respond with: to each their own taste and have I extolled the virtues of stinky sticky blue cheese?

You see – there are opinions (taste) and there are facts (nutritional value) and never the twain shall meet.

But most things in the world are not like that. You can have the opinion that the world is flat but the facts say you are wrong. Some people can’t let the facts or any kind of evidence prove their firmly held opinion wrong. Those people are stupid or they are deluded and, if they happen to be famous, they are stupid, deluded and dangerous. Celebrity is not a certificate of excellence.

Of course, some people know they are treading on dangerous ground and qualify their remarks with such phrases as “in my humble opinion” (IMHO) and then proceed to prove they never have looked up the word “humility” in the dictionary.

Some of you might say that in a democracy, everyone is entitled to their own opinion and that’s true, but they are not entitled to think that their opinion is some reflection of reality or is in some way superior to the opinions of other people. They are certainly not entitled to the idea that their opinion cannot be criticized or disputed, or heaven forbid, proven wrong-headed or actually wrong by an examination of the evidence.

Of course, this is much like a salmon trying to swim up a dry stream – the salmon is programmed to do it and determined it will somehow work but it learns the hard way that you can’t fight reality (or the laws of physics). It would be nice to think that this fact denying affliction only troubles one small group of people or one side of the political equation.

But the reality is—we all, including me, like to hold onto our beliefs even in the face of overwhelming contrary evidence. It’s wired right into our brains. But here’s the great thing, we have language to communicate and explore alternative views and we have reason and the scientific method. And if we all just used those tools on a regular basis, there would probably be a lot less arguing over opinions. IMHO, at least.

And that’s ten minutes.

Tales of Elderly Spouses

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Spring might be just around the corner but winter is still lurking nearby waiting to pounce. Before you let your guard down, I thought I’d offer some advice to keep you safe and warm – advice gathered from the stories of elderly spouses.

Don’t go out in the cold without enough warm clothing; especially don’t go out with wet hair as you lose 25% of your body heat through the top of your head. And the cold can make you sick. True? Only a little bit. As it turns out, getting cold can lower your immune response (as well as help you lose weight) but, as long as you don’t come in contact with a virus, you can’t catch a cold from the cold. Hypothermia is another story. But that won’t come about from a bare head – there simply isn’t enough blood flow up there to make a difference (for some less than others, I might add). Besides the colder you get, the more your body concentrates your warmth in the torso. Still, you could freeze your ears off if you’re not careful.

If you do catch that cold, chicken soup is a sure fire cure. Oddly enough, there is some truth to that – though chicken soup probably helps the flu more than a regular cold. The flu leads to dehydration (sweating, vomiting, the runs) and depletes your electrolytes. Chicken soup is liquid filled with salt and easily digested fats. At the very least it will make you feel less sick. And since chicken soup is almost always served to you by someone who cares, the emotional support actually will boost your own immune system.

Which brings us to hugs. We’ve all known those people who want to hug you all the time. Some of them are a bit creepy but no more so than some other members of the medical profession. It turns out that hugs also boost your immune system and, as well, when given with affection rather than from sexual predation, boost serotonin levels and alleviate mild depression. Human contact is important – without it infants wither and die, even when provided with other physical necessities. But these have to be genuine hugs, not the A-frame arms and shoulder pats that pass for them among the English.

Of course, a lot of the other nostrums spouted by elderly spouses are simply nonsense. Ginseng – unless laced with Viagra as is often the case – will not improve sexual functioning. Nor will rhino horn or anything else from nature that happens to resemble a penis. Otherwise bananas would be sold on the black market.

You can’t tell the sex of a baby from whether it is carried high or low – unless you have a portable ultrasound in your pocket. Nor can the weather be predicted by the behavior of squirrels (they long ago stopped being sensitive to nature as they adapted to an urban human environment). While red sky at night might be a decent suggestion of a fair day on the morning – even that is not a hundred percent in the face of an eastern wind.

My real point is that there is wisdom in folklore but a lot of it is trapped within nonsense and superstition. All the effective measures listed above – they were proven by science. Better to listen to a young white coat than a white haired spouse.

And that’s ten minutes.

The Nature of Evidence

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I tell this joke (which has recently been borrowed by Robert J. Sawyer for his excellent new novel, Quantum Night).

What is the difference between a psychopath and a homeopath? Some psychopaths do no harm.

That pretty much sums up my view of much of what is called alternative medicine – or what I call ‘not-medicine-at-all.’ I’ve said all this before so I won’t go on but I raise it because of a story done on CBC’s The Current yesterday.

The trigger for the segment was the decision of Health Canada not to approve homeopathic medicines for children unless they had been proven effective through double-blind scientific testing. In effect, they banned these substances.

Of course, the homeopaths and their organizations are outraged. In a gentle friendly kind of way. They were represented by a nice doctor who is a real M.D. but who also uses homeopathy. I was not surprised to learn that he practices on Denman Island in BC. Anyone who has ever been there will understand what I’m saying. He talked about his ‘experience’ giving homeopathic ‘medicines’ to children with colds. It was as effective (or more so, he claimed) than other remedies and helped avoid their side-effects or the excessive use of antibiotics. And, I’ll grant, that’s not a bad thing.

But only because other remedies are not any more effective than letting the cold run its course. And antibiotics don’t have any impact on viruses (the source of a cold) and lead to drug-resistant bacteria.

All well and good. The doctor uses placebos to calm the nerves of kids and especially their parents.

The host then interviewed a researcher who used to be a homeopath but gave up when tasked with reviewing the research into the practices he himself followed. The host asked why he stopped believing in homeopathy. He responded: the research showed it didn’t work. Yes, the host said, but why did you stop believing in homeopathy? It was at that point I blew my top. Which is the whole point of this blog.

The vast majority of journalists have no clue what science is. They think it a belief system and that a theory is just a darn good guess. Trained to think that every side has an equally valid point of view, they fail to understand that science is not a point of view, it is an evidence based form of inquiry designed to test the validity (or falsity) of a thesis. That is, I think this vial of agitated and highly diluted liquid (diluted to the point that there is nothing there) will immunize you against diseases. Let’s test that proposition. Oh my, there is no evidence to support it. Oh my, it doesn’t work.

The researcher turned away from homeopathy because the evidence proved it didn’t work. Really quite a simple concept. Yet, media outlets continue to give climate change deniers (though some have dropped those guys), anti-vaxers and homeopaths a platform to promote not only incorrect ideas but dangerous ones. People will actually suffer and die because of these ideas.

Just maybe, if you don’t understand science, you shouldn’t report on it. Oh, and that joke I started with? The researcher in question had to give up his work and retire early because he kept getting death threats. From gentle friendly homeopaths.

And that’s ten minutes.

Science Fiction

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Unless you are a Republican congressman for whom the declaration that “I am not a scientist,” seems like a sad badge of honour, most people think they have a grasp on basic science. After all you can’t get through high school without at least one science credit. Back in the day, you even needed one to get your Bachelor of Arts – just as science guys like me needed at least one arts course. Still, I suspect most of my peers got no more grasp of science from their Biology 101 than I understood world history from my Plato to NATO survey course.

As they say a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. The average North American gets by on very little information. Most, I suspect would flunk a grade ten general science quiz.

The people I tend to spend most of my time with – policy analysts and science fiction writers – tend to do a little better. Some of them even have degrees in one science discipline or another. But even we can make colossal blunders when we forget the basics tenets of the reasoning system that underpins most of modern civilization.

Perhaps no one can be blamed for losing track – there is after all more science out there every day, a lot of it reported in simplified memes or grotesque news headlines. And then we have the image of the scientist portrayed in fiction and the movies. Few get it right. Even The Martian, which was better than most films at portraying science, got it wrong in a way. When the hero says he is going to ‘science the shit’ out things, he’s really talking mostly about using technology.

There is a huge gap between those who use tools and those who actually make them and an even bigger gap to those who figure out the processes that make those tools work.

But we live in a sea of technology. I’m typing on a laptop while my smart phone counts down the ten minutes. I live in a building with thermostats and air circulation systems that would have seemed like magic two hundred years ago. Outside my windows, people are driving cars with more sophisticated computers than those that landed on the moon.

But science is not technology and, moreover, science is not done in isolation by single people working in labs or in front of whiteboards filled with math. Science is not about Eureka moments or brilliant men or women overturning the laws of nature in one fell swoop.

Science is a slow tedious process, mostly consisting of running the same experiment over and over again until you get consistent results, of reading and analyzing other people’s work rather than doing your own. It consists of endless calculations and often frustrating consideration of what results mean.

But that’s not very exciting and not very conducive to funny memes.

To many people, a theory is nothing more than a guess; to a scientist it is a rigorous set of proposals based on extensive evidence and used to make predictions about the world. Theories get strong if those predictions work out in reality and are weakened or even disproven if they don’t. It is a slow iterative process but the longer a theory has been around and more often it has been tested the stronger and more useful it becomes. The process is collaborative and tentative.

All too often we lose sight of that and leap on some reported result that hasn’t been repeated – that has in fact been refuted. I made that mistake earlier this week when I jumped the gun on the science of the Zika virus. And that’s how we misunderstand the world – whether it is climate change or vaccines: by selecting only those results that confirm our own prior beliefs. But that’s not science, that’s religion.

And this is a little more than ten minutes.

Fantasy

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So apparently Antonin Scalia didn’t die of natural causes; he was sacrificed in a pagan ritual by Barrack Obama. Wait, there’s more. Leonard Nimoy faked his own death and participated in the process.

I’m not sure what is more perplexing. That someone feels that people dying in their late seventies or early eighties is unnatural and needs some bizarre explanation or that somehow, someway, President Obama is not only to blame but an active participant. Nimoy (as Spock) is involved, I suppose, because the President is a well-known Star Trek fan.

Based on that thinking, we should expect Andre the Giant to come back from the dead to crush the head of Donald Trump in aid of Ted Cruz – who is, quite creepily, a big Princess Bride fan – to the point that he does imitations of the actors during political speeches.

I shudder to think what will happen if it becomes known that Bernie Sanders is a fan of Freddie Kruger. You didn’t know that? That, my friend, is because it is part of the cover-up. I mean, it could be true, right?

This is the world we increasingly live in. As you know, the Internet has changed a lot of things, many for the better, but its impact on such valuable things as evidence or sanity has been less than ideal.

We all know by now that thanks to Amazon (among others) that anybody can publish a book. Sadly, many take advantage of the opportunity. As one wag put it, in the 21sy Century everyone is publishing novels but no one is reading them.

But fiction that nobody reads is not a danger to society or social order. It is the ability of anybody to set up a ‘news’ site and then claim to be legitimate journalists that has really played havoc with modern discourse. When a large number of people are getting their ‘news’ from their Facebook accounts or Twitter feeds, we run a real risk of descending into a fantasy land where everything anyone opines becomes the truth.

Never mind the facts, free speech means that my opinions are as valid as anyone else; my propaganda is better than the news because it is, to quote one Conservative activist, more true. Well, it feels truer and that’s all that really matters, right?

And before you think this is another attack on the right, the left is increasingly engaged in the ‘truthiness’ debate. When the majority of health professionals tentatively linked microcephaly in Brazil to the Zika virus, a few doctors disagreed and said it was caused by a larvacide designed to shrink the larvae of mosquitoes. Makes sense right? Shrunken larvae equals shrunken heads. Never mind causal factors or anything resembling proof. We have the link and the enemy was Monsanto!

I don’t know what is causing this terrible rash of birth defects. It could be a virus, a chemical pollutant, a concentration of flawed genes – the evidence one way or another doesn’t exist. But who cares? If the fantastical narrative fits our fantasy life, just go with it. After all, reason and evidence – there’s so last century.

And that’s ten minutes.

Mystery

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Everyone loves a mystery, right? The search for the unknown is often more satisfying than the final discovery of the truth. And that’s a good thing. The quest to discover the unknown isn’t simply a feature of crime novels – or for that matter the criminal justice system. The hunt for the mysterious guides most of science (and is therefore a prominent feature in science fiction).

Like all things in life, the love of mystery almost always gets carried too far. I’m not talking about the obsessive reading of James Patterson (who with 16 books last year must be feeding somebody’s habit) but rather the fascination with the mysterious in human life.

One of the great pleasures of romance is the slow unveiling of the object of desire. The gradual removal of layers – whether of clothing or of secrets – is enticing and arousing. We seek that which is unknown in the other. Mere physical revelation is lovely but ultimately not what we are looking for. We seek the intimacy that only can come from the revelation of the ‘true person’ beneath the persona. Some people resist – preferring to maintain the mystery. They may have good reasons; they may have been betrayed before. Having revealed their deepest depths they may have then had their secrets spread far and wide.

Women are particularly familiar with this though I suspect men are equally or more vulnerable and thus even more reluctant to be open about their true feelings. Shrouded in mystery for so long they might well be particularly sensitive to the light of day.

Of course, entire religions (and every imaginable conspiracy theory) have been built around the idea of mystery. The great mystery is what happens after we die. For an atheist, the answer is simple: we quickly succumb to bacterial decay and insect predation. Leave a body in the sun for three days and you would be lucky to be able to recognize your closest friend (making them a perfect case for the TV mystery show, Bones),

But it is the immortal soul that concerns most people. Again not an issue for me. But still, look at the vast edifices that have been built all around the world in honour of the quest.

And of course, ask any priest – no matter what the religion – why some inexplicable thing could have happened under God’s watch, whether a child with cancer or a massive earthquake killing tens of thousands and they will invariably say: It’s a mystery.

For myself, I’ll stick to the mysteries found between the covers of a book. I find nothing more relaxing than contemplating the evil of man and the vagaries of justice while watching Archie and Nero, or Travis Mcgee, Temperance Brennan, Sam Spade, Sherlock Holmes and Miss Marple ply their trade.

It’s almost as pleasant as reading about the discovery of gravity waves or the potential cure for cancer in a simple virus – the mysteries of science revealed in the only world that matters, the real one.

And that’s ten minutes.