Surprise

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If you’ve ever tried to throw a surprise party, you know just how tricky it can be. I’ve done it three times – succeeding twice. The first was a bit of cheat since it was only a party of two – me and the person surprised. It involved secretly buying a plane ticket and booking a hotel and on the day of the flight, handing my wife her suitcase and getting in a cab with her to the airport. Surprise!

The other two were tougher. The first was for a co-worker in Halifax. I made every mistake possible. I did the planning at work. I started too far in advance. I invited too many people. I wasn’t sufficiently deceitful. Of course, the person found out – they acted surprised but they weren’t exactly giving an Oscar winning performance.

The other time was for my wife’s fiftieth birthday. I did everything right. I planned it ten days in advance. I planned it at work (not at home). I invited a limited number of people and held the party in a city far away. I had co-conspirators who lied magnificently. She still almost figured it out. Only when her mother suggested that no-one would go to so much trouble for a birthday – her birthday –  was she taken in. And she still figured it out seconds before we yelled surprise. Close though.

Which is one of the many reasons that I roll my eyes whenever anybody talks about conspiracy theories. There are many reasons to roll your eyes at such people – their selective memory, their willingness to continuously expand the circle of conspirators, the cherry-picking of information, their reliance on experts whose expertise does not fall within the field of interest and so on. But the main cause of eye rolling is that I’m fairly convinced that none of them has ever planned a surprise anything. Honestly, most of them are so trapped in their own heads, they wouldn’t dream of doing something for someone else. They are TOO SERIOUS for that.

Human nature hates a secret the way nature abhors a vacuum. The only way to keep a secret is to keep it to yourself – as soon as another person knows the chances of being revealed goes up. Every person you add increases the risk exponentially.

Robert Snowden is a bit of hero to some but he was also inevitable. If he hadn’t blown the whistle (and probably he wasn’t the first) someone else would have. Too many people knew and the activities of the NSA were clearly moving into the unethical and probably illegal. That story has yet to be fully told.

As for the other stuff – 911 being an inside job (the most recent story relies on evidence from the Russian secret service. Now there’s a reliable source), the moon landing never happening, ISIS being backed by the CIA – they not only fail on a rational basis, that is, the reasons offered for doing it only make sense if you suffer from paranoid delusions (at least a little bit) but also on a basic truth of human behavior.

People blab. And people with ethical concerns will blab frequently no matter how many secrecy oaths you make them swear. Do conspiracies exist? Absolutely – just not successful ones.

And that’s ten minutes.

Skeptics

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I saw someone today claim they were not a climate change denier but rather a climate skeptic. I understand why they might say such a thing. Being a skeptic seems like a healthy rational thing to do. Being in denial is generally associated with having some mental disorder or perhaps an addiction. In this case, I suppose, to oil.

I admire skeptics – people who refuse to accept something as true simply because someone in authority says it is true. Many – though not all – skeptics are particularly skeptical of religion. Others demands that ‘extraordinary claims demand extraordinary proof.’ However, there is a point where skepticism is not skepticism at all; it is full out refusal to accept that any proof does or even can exist to shift their point of view. This is an admirable position I suppose when it comes to belief in God; after all, religion is supposed to be a matter of faith and anyone who would demand proof of God’s existence might be dismissed as ‘one of little faith.’

However, science is another matter. When the preponderance of evidence – all the evidence – points in a certain direction, the only value of skepticism is to continue to run the data – all the data – to see if there is a flaw or if there is an alternative theory. However, picking and choosing data or claiming that all the data that doesn’t agree with your particular idea is false, or better, yet, part of a great conspiracy… well, I did refer to mental illness.

Of course, I’m not suggesting that climate change deniers are only a bunch of quacks. Some have legitimate questions and are determined to make sure of the facts before buying into the consensus. Interestingly, when they do their work, a lot of these people come to accept that maybe there really is something to this stuff. Others hold on no matter what. Some people are a lot like the Fonz. They have a hard time saying they were wrong.

There is nothing new to any of this. Back in the sixties, you could find medical researchers who claimed that the link between smoking and cancer was a false one – bad science or some kind of conspiracy to take away people’s pleasure. A few of these people were legitimate scientists who had questions; the rest were mostly in the pay of cigarette companies. Law suits since those days have proven that they knew full well they were in denial – well, they were outright lying – in order to protect their bosses’ income. Recently, a court in Quebec ordered the largest payment ever from tobacco companies to their victims, I mean, customers, proving that you can run but you can’t hide. Sort of like the people in Florida who are running from ever rising sea levels.

I could go on – the psychology of people who embrace conspiracy theories is fascinating – but I’ll refer you instead to an interesting book called Voodoo Histories that explores that in depth. As for those who engage in denying evidence for monetary purposes – they’re not very interesting; they’re just evil.

But that’s ten minutes.

Paradigms

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Some decades ago I recall reading ‘The Structure of Scientific Revolutions’ by Thomas Kuhn. He described how evidence accumulates over time that refutes the old theory but the theory doesn’t change until there is a sudden paradigm shift that reconciles old data with conflicting evidence. Though others have since refuted Kuhn’s work to some extent – one wag suggesting paradigms only shift when the old scientists and professors die and are replaced by a younger generation – I still find the general concept useful.

I have witnessed and experienced many paradigm shifts in my time. Recently, I was trying, with my wife, to figure out where we would live when we retired. We have a nice place in downtown Ottawa but we knew it was too expensive for us in retirement. We had been paying down the mortgage but it suddenly seemed futile with the depressed state of the condo market in Ottawa. One morning I had a brainwave. Why keep trying to pay off the mortgage? What would happen if we extended the term back out to 25 years and reduced our bi-weekly expanded payment to the minimum monthly one? Boom! It reduced our monthly expenses enough that we can actually stay here and still do all the things we want to do in retirement. It was obvious once we thought of it but we had been stuck with an old theory and needed a complete shift in our thinking to understand that the circumstances – the evidence – demanded a different approach.

Similarly, I ran into a guy at work who was struggling with changing circumstances. He told me that he was coming around to a whole new way of thinking about the policy problems he was trying to solve. He even admitted that he was being tempted to adopt a policy position that he had always argued vehemently against. I told him – in the most complimentary (and sincere) way possible – that he should take it as evidence that his mind was still flexible and operating on all cylinders.

Keynes was once asked – in a sneering way – why he had abandoned a certain economic idea. He purportedly replied that he had discovered fresh evidence that showed his thinking was wrong and had therefore changed his mind. “In similar circumstances,” he asked, “what do you do?”

This is always a challenge in life – to admit that you didn’t have all the facts or, more often, that you were deliberately ignoring the evidence because it didn’t fit your dearly held beliefs. It is called confirmation bias and we all suffer from it – unfortunately some suffer from it more than others. It hardly helps that whenever a politician does change his or her mind they are accused of waffling or flip-flopping. We – and the media is particularly pernicious in this respect – seem to admire people who cling ferociously to stupid and discredited ideas while criticising those who – while sticking to their more basic moral ideas – adjust their political stances in light of changing evidence.

Maybe as a general practice we should try to believe several impossible things every day before breakfast. One of them might well be right and our whole day would improve because of it.

But that’s ten minutes.

Faking It

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Some years ago there was an Italian doctor stationed in the small town of Inuvik in the Northwest Territories. Doctors were hard to come by and even harder to keep so folks were pretty happy to have him. He practiced there for over a year before it was discovered — when he was called on to do an emergency appendectomy — that he wasn’t really a doctor. He had gone to medical school for a year or two but never finished. He faked his diploma and took up residence, so to speak, in Inuvik.

People were shocked, of course, but at the same time generally agreed he was the best doctor they ever had — attentive, knowledgeable enough for everyday purposes and quick to send them south to Yellowknife if something serious cropped up. What more could you ask for than a genuine fake?

Clearly, this guy was smart, could do research on the fly and knew his limitations. Equally clearly he was able to fake the rest with great confidence. Fake it well enough that for over a year he was, for intents and purposes, a doctor.

There is a life lesson buried in here somewhere, one that a lot of alpha type males figured out at least sub-consciously some time ago. If you don’t know, pretend. In fact pretend so hard you actually believe in your own competence. Apparently this works. A lot of men succeed not because they are prepared but because they are prepared to act as if they were — at least until they can catch up. This ‘faking it’ has been postulated as one reason men have an advantage in competitive situations.

One study showed that women will look at job qualifications and if they don’t feel they meet the vast majority — say 80 or 90% — they won’t even apply. Men on the other hand have a lower pass mark — 50-60% — before they throw their name in the pool. That means they apply for a lot more jobs than they get interviewed for but, they figure, nothing ventured, nothing gained. All they need to do is fake their way through one process and they are all set. Better qualified women who would get the job if they were competing with ‘that’ guy aren’t even in the running because they screened themselves out.

Recently a friend of mine was lamenting that he wasn’t sure if he knew how to write or how to even be a writer. My wife — smart person that she is — suggested that he ‘fake it.’ Pretend you know how to write and start putting words on paper. I think she was a little tongue in cheek but he seemed to think it was a good idea (guy, remember) and felt inspired to get back to his work-in-progress.

Last week he announced that he had just sold his first novel.

Good advice, apparently. Fake it until you make it.

And that’s ten minutes.

Horny

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There is a huge market around the world for things that will increase — what’s the word? – potency. Male potency. Okay, let’s call it what it is — things that help otherwise limp fellows get hard.

We’ve all seen the ads — people dancing for joy while sprinklers flood lawns. TVs abandoned to empty living rooms while the action movies play out off stage.

Who am I to question such desires? After all I’m sure it has restored happiness to many sexual relations. It has apparently also lead to an increase in both divorce rates among the elderly and new health issues — STDs — in senior’s residences. But they are consenting adults — even if not really smart ones — and if they want to experiment with some enhancing prescriptions, let them, as they say, go at it.

Unfortunately, not everyone likes the idea of helping big pharma ‘inflate’ their profits. Some object to the idea of artificial stimulants of any kind. Others argue that there are more natural ways to boost that all important organ.

Ginseng is often promoted as natural alternative to Viagra. There have even been some studies that show that much of the Ginseng sold in health food stores do the job just fine. The same studies reveal that the samples taken off the shelves are laced with — you guessed it — Viagra.

A more insidious remedy is rhino horn. In certain traditional or alternative “medical” practices, it is considered the most effective way of increasing male sexual desire (and cure cancer and hangovers, too). It’s a form of sympathetic magic. The rhino is big and aggressive. Its horn is firm and upstanding. You get the picture.

It doesn’t work, of course, but that doesn’t slow down the demand. As a result, rhinos are slaughtered by poachers at an alarming rate. Rhinos may soon be extinct as a result. Then what will those limp-dicked bastards do?

The saddest thing about all this is that the rhino horn is nothing but keratin — the same substance found in hair and finger nails. That’s right; maybe you could grind up your neighbour’s dreadlocks and put it instead of a little rhino horn in your oatmeal. And as such, it grows back. It should be possible to simply tranq the rhino and harvest the horn.

A renewable erectile resource. But that would be logical. And people who think that eating the hairy extrusion of an herbivore’s face will make them horny are probably not high on the logic chart.

But that’s ten minutes.

Opinion

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One of the funniest things I saw in the wake of John Baird’s resignation was a tweet wherein the tweeter boldly stated: Baird was the greatest foreign affairs minister Canada ever had. He then made sure we understood. “You may think that’s my opinion but it’s a fact.” This is funny on several levels.

First of all, we all know this guy. He is given to making bold pronouncements, with great confidence about a wide number of subjects. He probably truly believes what he is saying. And he has frequently been told: well, that’s your opinion. Or perhaps more cuttingly — Prove it. He sputters a bit, throws out a few random statements and then says — see, he is the greatest.

It is the shear boldness of it all that sometimes carries the day. Because the sad fact, we reward pigheadedness (called determination) and aggression (called self-confidence) more than we ever reward nuanced, conditional but fact-based arguments. As Steven Colbert brilliantly coined it, we value (or at least some of us do) truthiness over truth. It is not simply a disease of the right; it is a disease of lazy thinking.

Opinions are simply statements that arise from our values. Values aren’t a bad thing. Everyone has to believe in something. As the t-shirt says: I believe I’ll have another beer.

But seriously, value systems may have internal consistency (though often they don’t: pro-life people are frequently keen on both the death penalty and war as an instrument of foreign policy) but they are rarely logical or evidence based. I believe this and don’t confuse me with the facts — a joke, yes, but one that those of us who are somewhat self aware tell mostly on ourselves.

Facts are clear cut. For example it is a fact that income inequality is increasing in the United States. It is easy to find reliable data to show that is true. Some people are of the opinion that this is a bad thing and represents the breakdown of the social contract. Others are of the opinion it is a good thing and represents the final and justified liberation of the entrepreneurial spirit.

Both are legitimate opinions about that fact. So where do we go from there? The sensible thing to do is to begin to ask good questions about the impact that fact has on other measurable facts. What does inequality do to crime rates, for example, or to health outcomes? Those who value facts over opinions — which we should all do — will ask those questions. Those who don’t say the questions are illegitimate and those who want to ask them misguided.

But maybe that’s just my opinion.

And that’s ten minutes.

Question Authority

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Question authority may be the single most valuable piece of advice to come out of the sixties. In those days everyone was worried about the Man. Everyone wanted to be part of the revolution. Which of course, established a whole other set of authorities. People — once in power — wanted to stay there. And the majority of us sort of shrugged and let them do that.

Questioning authority on a regular basis is the foundation of any rational inquiry. A key element of science is based on the continual questioning of authority, that is, the generally held views of the scientific community. A lot of times the answer to the question is, sorry, you’re wrong and here is the evidence that proves your wrongness. Other times, the entire world is turned on its head as the questioner discovers new evidence that overthrows the established theories.

Nothing wrong with that. It’s how we make progress. The same is true of non-scientific progress.

The wrench in the gears is status. As primates, deferring to status is practically hard-wired into us. We’re not as bad as baboons (well, most of us aren’t) but nonetheless we do have a tendency to give more weight to the words of those who are perceived to have high status. For example, scientific theories sometimes only change when a new generation replaces the old one.

That’s also why a lot of people would rather believe the bullshit of celebrities like, say, Gwyneth Paltrow than the evidence of some nerd in a white coat whom we never heard of before. Gwennyth has status and the nerd only has a Ph.D. (and evidence).

We do the same thing all the time. Even revolutionaries defer to the rebels farther up the chain. I have sometimes called this the fascist instinct. It, in my view, persists and is pernicious and it is something that everyone who wants to be free needs to resist in their own nature.

Don’t get me wrong — I’m not advocating for some sort of libertarian iconoclasm. We are, as part of our primate heritage, also social creatures and it is inevitable that we will be in situations when we should listen to others. In some case, as in escaping a burning building, we should unquestioningly obey the commands of those in the know (usually designated by wearing a firefighter’s uniform). We should defer to people who know more than us — but only about their area of expertise.

Linus Pauling — the father of the Vitamin C as cure-all movement — knew a lot about chemistry (he won a Nobel Prize for Chemistry and another for Peace) but that knowledge didn’t extend very far into biology. Yet his authority in one field got transferred into another — based solely on his status and not his knowledge.

It happens all the time. Military leaders become political ones. Businessmen presume to know how poverty works. And we listen to them with hardly a shrug.

So in future, question authority. Ask me anything.

And that’s ten minutes.

Arguments

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I grew up arguing. With my father, my teachers, with ministers and friends. I had strong opinions. I would express them forcefully. You might find it hard to believe but I could be quite vociferous. Occasionally, these arguments would degenerate into fights. My mother would worry.

Gradually, I realized that the fights started not when my opinions disagreed with others (though it sometimes seemed so on the surface) but when one or the other of us lacked the facts or the rhetorical skills to effectively present our case. When the rules of debate degenerated into ad hominem name calling, references to a (false) authority and all those other flourishes of verbal jousting you rely on when your argument don’t hold up to scrutiny.

These days we are encouraged to avoid arguments. At work, we try to find a peaceful consensus that is respectful of other people’s views, even when they are unsubstantiated. Even when they are wrong. Sometimes, one cannot resist proving one’s opponent wrong. But instead of fighting back — marshaling their facts and skewering your presentations — a lot of people seem to sulk.

You might win the argument but you almost certainly will lose the popularity contest.

Meanwhile, on social media, people hesitate to put forward strong and controversial opinions. It almost always leads to dueling posts — the on-line version of reference to authority — or more likely to flame wars where your integrity or intelligence is called into question (or, more hideously, your safety is threatened). It happens to everyone though I’ve noticed that white straight males are less likely to be slapped down than everyone else. The on-line world has become the haven on anonymous hatred and disrespect.

More disastrously it has become the land of unreason.

Because argumentation — or rather debate — is at the very foundation of reason. Through language we gradually carve away at untruth and weak thinking. We slowly put aside our evolutionarily honed instincts and replace them with meaning constructed out of goals and purposes that extend beyond our simple needs for food, shelter, sex and status. Through argument, we build civilization.

How do we restore the forum as a place for public debate, where different viewpoints can be represented forcibly, backed by evidence and where we might actually come to an agreement on the big social, political, environmental and economic issues facing the world? Can it be done? And, if so, how? Certainly not by relying on faceless algorithms that encourage us only to hear what we ‘like’ and talk to those who belong to the same choir.

And it certainly won’t come about when we allow money and narrow interests to dominate our political institutions.

It’s a task worth pursuing. But I certainly can’t do it alone. Anyone want to argue with that?

And that’s ten minutes.

Everybody Hates Science

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Everybody hates science. Okay not everybody and not all the time. Everyone loves science when it confirms our long held beliefs and prejudices and hates it when our common sense understanding of the world is challenged. We really hate it when it interferes with our ability to hate. Or to carry on living our selfish lives the way we want to.

Your politics are largely irrelevant in terms of your attitude towards scientific discoveries. If you are on the right you may hate science for what it shows about climate change. That can’t be true, you bellow, it will cost me money. Or some such. If you are on the left, you object to science finding that GMO foods are apparently harmless and that cancer is mostly caused by chance. But, but, that evil corporation must somehow be causing these terrible things! (Not that corporations aren’t evil — but it’s all about money, not science)

Even worse than those who hate particular aspects of science are those who embrace a single study to prove some point or other. It doesn’t matter if the study can never be replicated or if it is shown to be bad science or, in the case of vaccines, an outright fraud done for the most pernicious of motives. If it supports what we want to believe than some of us will embrace it whole heartedly.

I think that people generally find science difficult to grasp because scientists keep changing their minds. Take the recent study that shows that being cold can, in fact, increase your risk of getting a cold. This was very upsetting to me — I’ve spent years pooh-poohing the idea that such a link could exist. But the study seems to be valid and contains both evidence and a rational explanation for why it is true.

So what’s a poor boy to do but change his thinking? Cause that’s what we do in science. Scientists formulate theories that can be tested — not to be proved right (impossible to do with any finality) but to see if it is wrong. Falsifiability is the hallmark of a good scientific theory. With every study that goes by that doesn’t show the theory wrong, we gain more confidence in it and eventually we accept it as being conditionally true.

But people keep running experiments and every once in a while a false result comes up and other scientists rush about trying to replicate those results. If they can, then the understanding of a phenomenon must change and, if they can’t, they try to figure out what may have gone wrong in the first place.

And that is the problem most people have with science. It demands that you dwell in a country of constant uncertainty. Wouldn’t it be so much easier just to have a set of laws given to us from on high — whether from a religious belief or a political ideology? Then we could go along blissfully certain about all sorts of things that weren’t true.

We could ignore the results of science. But that’s okay, because science pretty much ignores the silly lies we tell ourselves. It’s okay not to care about the laws of the universe because they certainly don’t care about us.

And that’s ten minutes.

Innocence

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There is nothing I can say about Jian Gomeshi that will shed any light or create any darkness beyond the patterns of light and dark that others who are closer to the scene or more directly involved have already created. I am nothing but an observer here, a witness to a growing stain of ugly truth or innuendo or allegation or fabrication. I’m not making judgements one way or another — though already some people reading this will think I am.

These days — not to pass judgement, not to presume guilt, not to side with the accused or the accuser is itself an act of judgement.

It’s not as if I don’t have opinions. I have plenty of opinions. About all sorts of things, about all sorts of people. My opinions do not constitute facts. We should keep that in mind when we want to make final decisions about anyone’s behavior. Opinions are not facts. We know that when we listen to Fox News but sometimes we forget it when we listen to ourselves.

This was brought home yesterday when I heard Dean Del Maestro refer to his innocence with respect to the allegations against him. Dean — you were convicted, they are no longer allegations. Except of course he can appeal and drag the whole thing. After all, it was the opinion of the judge that he was a liar. An opinion backed up by facts but you see where it is going. As long as we can’t tell the difference — as Dean clearly can’t — between facts and opinions or opinions about facts, we are all in a bit of a morass.

But back to Jian. Do I think he committed non-consensual assault against some of his accusers? Likely but who cares what I think? That’s why we have the cumbersome, often painful, process of law — to move us, hopefully, from an accusation to some semblance of the truth.

Of course, it is true that, in cases of sexual assault, the courts seem biased, through their process of demanding that the accuser face the accused , granting the presumption of innocence when, as is often the case , the proof of guilt is difficult or painful to make. The sense of victimization is repeated or enhanced through a process that is supposed to relieve it.

But what is the alternative? Innocent until proven guilty for some crimes but not for others? That is an ugly road to travel — one, by the way, which our government is trying to take us down with respect to crimes like ‘supporting terrorism.’ They want to reverse the presumption of innocence and put the burden on the accused, have already created reverse onus for some crimes.

Not the same? Maybe. No doubt we need to find better ways to deal with accusations of a dire nature — like rape or treason — to ensure accusations can be made without penalty to the accuser while still preserving our fundamental freedoms.

I wish I could say more but I’m still feeling for a way forward and besides,

That’s ten minutes.