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I used to be called a “know it all” but, by now I hope my readers know me better than that. I seek reality. I share my views because it’s the only way to test them. I invite constructive criticism, but not insult. I have equal tolerance of insulated ideologies as I do for insult, because such are insults to the human mind.

If an opinion is shared in public space, it is done so with the expectation that others will test the ideas proposed for their factual merit. If the author does not live up to this expectation, becoming unreasonably offended and/or resorting to insult, then the author is demanding nothing less than dark-age authority. That is to say, “my views ought to be held beyond reproach because I favour them”.

Excuse my language, but that is bullshit.

We get nowhere as an intelligent species by lusting over fantasy any more than we would wishfully thinking that some spell may cure our ailment. We need data, we need quality evidence, on which to base our statements and planning if we are to do better than simply gamble our way through life. I, for one, will not gamble the lives of my children on favourable ideas – my own or others. I seek reality because of this.

We are told never to debate religion and politics over the dinner table, but that is gutless. Surely the results of both mean as much to everyone present at the table and hopefully each wants the best for themselves, their family’s and for their friends. Why then cower away from such topics, when the results of such ideologies can negatively taint how an individual sees another, based purely on gender, race and sexual preference or when it could mean the difference between general prosperity and growing inequality?

I’m not weak nor am I under the impression that I am right. I’m entirely about testing ideas so that I can find an acceptable path forward so as I can watch my children grow into happy, confident and empowered adults. Without any fantasy of an awaiting “bonus level” beyond my mortality, my sole desire is to help to propagate a society that fulfils these objectives beyond my lifespan, to illustrate my love for my family. When I can no longer provide guidance, knowing that I helped build an easier environment for my family is, at least for me, the most rewarding and comforting outlook I can fathom.

And so I hold insulated ideologies the most insidious and inhumane affronts to our species. I will be damned if I stand by as such invasive mindlessness corrodes our societies. I thank anyone who critiques my thoughts, as you provide me the greatest gift in removing uncertainty from my life. Others that share this view are the few brave ones whom carry our species into a brighter future.

My father always told me that violence is the default position of the moron, too feeble to reason. That’s part of the reason why I spent much of my adolescence with a split lip, cursing myself for not holding my tongue when some thug grunted in my direction.

I needed to learn too when silence was required – that is, when the noise made was aimed to stir emotion rather than reason. I have the online trolls to thank for that lesson.

All of this came to mind when hearing the latest news from Pakistan in relation to their upcoming election.

In truth, these terrorists only demonstrate that they are wrong.

From a strictly secular point of view, if the social package they had on offer truly provided the chance for improved human flourishing, then they could sufficiently reason as much and many people would adopt it. They wouldn’t need brutality to make their point.

From a spiritual perspective, how impotent does your deity need to be to require young men – this deities apparently loved creation – to strap explosives to themselves to make this super being’s point?

At least the Westbro Baptist church claims natural events are the wrath of their impression of a god, as naive and grotesque as it may be. This position is more “defensible” as far as spirituality is concerned.

If they require to undertake horribly inhumane acts on the behalf of their deity, these individuals demonstrate that they have no faith in the abilities of their deity. They ought to be able to simply enjoy a nice peaceful life and let god get on with teaching its creation about itself.

Of course, I strongly suspect nothing but silence in the way of “wrath” from some superbeing, and so must such people if they act in such a fashion. The actions undertaken do nothing but undermine the faith involved.

I would be lying if I didn’t say that the following may be somewhat pessimistic. It may even sound not unlike the rantings of a youth. However how can one be certain of an idea without first testing it?

From my dealings with the devoted (religious, alternative medicine and secular rejecters of science alike) I understand that the implied answer to my question above is not universal. That said…

We often hear of our power; that is our consumer power, our political power, our people power – all of which we sway with our wallets, our ballot forms and our numbers in turn. But what truth is there in it?

I suspect, not a lot.

Politically

Take firstly the political power. Democracy is clearly a failing process under the weight of interest dollars. In the US and to a lesser extent Australia and elsewhere, a successful candidate requires funding and such funding does not come from the general voter, but the wealthy. Funding a successful campaign thus leaves a candidate on some level owing to the funders.

This would seem to be the reason for the main parties of such countries tending to the right, without significant difference between them apart from extreme or central right objectives. The voter is frustrated that the political will simply does not speak for them.

Within Australia, it has been widely discussed, with contempt, how Gina Rinehart and fellows successfully undermined the mining tax, to ensure they did not return more to the commonwealth from their exploits of common resources.

How does the individual have political power where the candidates do not speak truly for them?

Consumer Sway

With consumer power, the situation is even more convoluted, due to the “middleman”. We are told that, if we do not like a product or agree with the company’s ethics, we would simply not buy the product.

Yet, in reality, we simply do not know where our money goes. With multi-national conglomerates, we may be deciding between two products ultimately owned by the same body, say Unilever.

Moreover, of the wealth generated from the product; production lines continually upgrade to automate the process as much as possible; where possible, the primary resources are sourced from third world producers whom accept lower returns. This all reduces overheads and in turn maximises company profits and shareholder returns. Yet the consumer is unaware of this erosion of local jobs and wealth creation, largely at their long-term expense.

How does the individual have consumer power where they are kept ignorant of movement of their money?

Numbers

What did the Occupy Movement achieve? Sleepless nights, I imagine, for the activists. Some air time to a serious problem (growing inequality), for a short time, for certain.

How many of these people involved have now returned to their lives in which, as consumers and voters, they continue to support, unwittingly, the very cause of their unrest? Effectively most, if not all of them.

Wherever middle class suburbia has not grabbed hold, people tend to spend less time at home. This is largely in the poorer communities around the world today and most places prior to the industrial revolution.

These people work harder than most of us can even imagine and when they are not working, they sleep. On the chance opportunity they do neither, they se friends and family. The reason being that their homes are basic and uninteresting, lucky to have many dividing walls. While we visualise it completely different, the reality is that the vast majority of humanity have always been born into and died within the slums.

The wealthy individual today has become something else.

The home in which we live is designed almost exclusively for mental masturbation. The “disposable” technology and furniture all provide us with an oasis of mindless entertainment in which we sit for countless hours, even at the expense of interacting with those whom we claim to love most dearly. Each individual plugged into a different device, paying for additional channels, internet access or the newest game at not only a financial expense, but a social one as well.

In short, we have been made into money trees, fertilised in a bed of mind-numbing stupidity, completely separated from our direct environment, peers and community.

How does the individual form part of a meaningful movement of minds where we are forever working, if we are unlucky or embedded within an environment perpetually distracted if not?

Individual Power

I opened this by highlighting the possibility that my recent thoughts have left me pessimistic and that may be the cause for such reflection. However, I’m unconvinced of this because I simply cannot see where, in a modern affluent democratic country, the genuine rights and capacity for change exist for the individual. We choose to live, just like everyone else or not and the latter option isn’t a real option in itself.

In this, I conclude I have found reason for the eventual submission of all individuals. It becomes easier to enjoy the stimuli of ones little plot and bloom and fruit into yet another money tree for harvest.

However, I personally find it increasingly distasteful, if not shameful to the individual and am forced to lament. I do so not from restlessness, but a lingering hope that there is something uniquely noble and valuable within our species that we have yet to acquire and all I find in its absence is mediocre sentiment and foolish, ego-centric amusement.

In a recent post, I made the point that the power of an idea is not with the transmitter, but entirely with the receiver. The only the difference (and I mean only) between Chris Monckton and, say, the walking sign, screaming hysterically that the end is near is the audience. The message is manic, obsessive and irrational in both cases, but the audience provide validity to the former over the latter.

In truth, my efforts have been focused upon such crackpots and in doing so, I’ve given them audience. Correcting an error airs the error and, from what I have seen, does little to improve the accuracy of information. The ardent climate “sceptic” remains committed, if not entrenched, regardless of the counterfactuals provided. The truther on fluoride, vaccination or creation remain as much so as well on their pet subject.

I’ve often convinced myself that my efforts are aimed, largely, to provide not a counterweight, but an example of the approach a true sceptic should take. This is critical thinking; do not simply believe a compelling argument, but investigate the evidence to see if it supports the conclusion. Yet, I’m no longer convinced that this is useful.

In fact, it costs me a lot of my personal time, it has brought me a lot of otherwise avoidable stress and recently it has gotten worse. I don’t receive huge traffic and yet what I have created has been provocative enough to merit genuine concern in my real life.

What frustrates me the most is that none of this even attempts to critique my work. I’m happy to be wrong, just prove it. Instead the target is the writer, leaving me convinced that I must in fact be correct and the opposing individuals simple do not wish to face reality.

 The Idea of Ideas

Dawkins “meme” seems revolutionary for the same reason the notion that free will is an illusion, as debated by Harris, sits so uneasy to most. In essence, it comes back to my point about the power of ideas.

We hold no ownership of ideas. Sure, an individual may provide new insight or invent something that changes how a society functions, but in truth, they only did so because of the background conditions that lead to that resolution. This is why our ancestors scratched out rudimentary agriculture around ten thousand years ago and not the tablet computer.

Ideas develop, sometimes fuse and eventually evolve, using us as hosts all along. Ideas belong to no-one. For this reason, the transmitter is of little importance.

Personally, I am certain that I am not ideological by nature.

Even as a child, my Lutheran upbringing never sat well with me. In my adolescence, I wanted to “believe” and researched what I could of numerous faiths to no avail.

Even an ideological basis to “environmentalism” cannot be labelled on me. I became passionate largely because I detested invasive weeds. I was passionate and naïve. My environmental message has changed due to my training and increasing education on the subject rather than  becoming solidified to a single position due to mounting counterfactuals.

Faithfully Online

This is what puts me at odds online. So much of my effort has been in addressing ideological positions or critiquing claims. This effort has largely been ineffective.

For the most part, I suspect the internet is not, as YouTube’s Thunderf00t puts it; “where religion goes to die,” but in fact the very opposite. The internet is one’s personal faith booster when reality stubbornly refuses to bend to a favoured position.

This is across the board; from the free-market ideologs, to the religious or pet-theorists, to even the environmental advocate or greeny-pretender, advocating a single solution to enormous problems (eg. like those whom push feverishly for nuclear power).

The internet is where propaganda thrives. It is not unlike the early days of the printing press and the audience then too had to learn new skills to avoid being taken for a ride. Of course, it was too often after their messiah had been proven false by the relentless erosion of time.

Futher, one online tool used is ‘troll bombardment’. If you call upon enough of your audience to comment wherever, you can provide a false impression of the general position. Again, the ability to critically analyse the material provided and then to critique such comments exposes such a hoax.

Yet, all of this typically falls on deaf ears or finds hostile and irrational knee-jerking from the faithful to a given position.

Unfaithful and Weary Writing From Here On

At this point, I’m not certain of the future of my writing online. Within the last couple days this has ebbed from outright shut down to where I currently sit.

This position comes back to ideas. Until the committed climate sceptic, anti-fluorider, anti-vax or creationist provides compelling scientific arguments, I will not report on it. The ideas I have tended to report on have been lousy and a waste of effort. Does one still need to argue that the earth is round or would such be a waste of effort? Likewise must similarly be said for all bad ideas.

I will focus on critical thinking, but I’ll find more productive avenues than relying upon examples from the various ideologs.

I will also return to discussing new science as it comes my way. The best way forth is forward and writing so much on backwards thinkers is simply not worth it.

Political posts will most likely completely disappear. I have no confidence in the Australian government and am reaching the conclusion that it has given up on the people in favour of undemocratic business interests and we are all worse off for it. Yet, the negative reaction to my writing here seems to be the greatest and is simply not worth pursuit.

Admittedly, I did have some preconceptions when I read the blurb for Rana Dajani’s recent article in Nature, How women scientists fare in the Arab world. Many secular individuals tend to expect, arguably with good reason, that gender equality is a pipe dream wherever religious fever is high – especially where the Abrahamic faiths are the dominant ideologies.

However, Rana’s article was far from what I had initially taken it for and, more importantly, makes a number of valuable points that relate to Western countries just as much as well as a continual argument I refer to on New Anthro regarding neo-liberal market economies.

Firstly, I have a slight criticism in that Rana makes the point that, for mothers as scientists, they cannot spend the additional time networking and taking part in mentoring programs outside business hours as they place family first – even if the father is with the children, this is no compensation to being there herself.

This might be the case for many women, the world over, for all I know. I think it says more about the men they marry. I know with great certainty that my own wife would disagree. I am as doting and involved as herself – with the only deficit being that I cannot feed our baby girl at this phase of life. We are committed to caring for our baby for the first few years of life (rather than childcare) and, when my wife is ready to return to work, we will juggle our shared commitments.

That said, Rana makes some valuable points regarding sexism that has permeated gender equality,

“The feminist movement was a good thing, but it was too focused on equality with men and failed to enable us to respect ourselves as women and to be proud of who we are.

“Our productivity, for instance, is measured on a male scale.”

Gender equality does not mean that both genders compete against one another in the Olympics for very good reasons. This is not to say that there are some jobs either sex is better enabled for or that a woman cannot follow a career path equal to a man (or, as it stands, have the right to do so), but only that she also has the right to adjust her career to have a family also (which, by sheer luck of nature does create a few “obstacles” to ones career, more so for her, at the very least around the pregnancy and birth, than it does for a male).

It is not sexist to point this fact out, but it is sexist to treat gender dependent biological factors as an excuse to discriminate unfairly through uneven weighting. In the modern information age, there is no reason why an individual should be unable to pursue their career and family obligations however they choose as long as they are able to meet their stated tasks. We should empower individuals, male or female, to be the best professional and parent they can be.

One should not exclude the other and yet, motherhood is a prevalent form of sexism that exists today.

Another point Rana made was brilliant;

“The years we spend taking care of children are not calculated as part of the gross domestic product of a country. What is more important — to build physical things or to nurture a human being?”

It is a point I have returned to again and again. I even quoted Andrew Mason, from the University of Southern Queensland, in The Human Island (revised version of which will be released within the week);

“The normal measure of an economy, which looks at Gross Domestic Product [GPD]… doesn’t really measure our lives, it just measure economic things. So if you go and buy some veggies from the supermarket, that contributes to GPD, so it looks good on the economy. But if you grow veggies in your own backyard, it doesn’t contribute to GPD. So things like car crashes contribute to GPD because, you know, people are employed fixing cars and looking after things and you know the people that go to hospital to be treated; all that contributes to GPD. Whereas going for a walk in the park doesn’t. So they’re trying to work out how to model economics that will more accurately reflect a happy society.”

Gross domestic product is a poor indicator of human flourishing and yet remains the grand messiah of the free world markets. The post-Global Financial Crisis stimulus packages aimed to get the economy rolling again, by urging consumers to buy material goods rather than reduce personal debt or increase personal savings. They were to help out a sick (and entirely dysfunctional) economy with the only benefit to the community expected to be, perhaps watching the next season of Big Brother in higher definition.

As Rana asks, what is more important, material goods or human well-being, or to use Andrew’s examples, the fitness and family time in going to the park or a busy hospital or mortuary with the results of a car crash?

In my personal opinion, the problems of disparity addressed by Wilkinson and Pickett in The Spirit Level or on The Equality Trust, protested against within the Occupy Movement and the continual rejection of all environmental degradation by certain groups of the community all come back to confidence that spawns from a modern day “prosperity” which has effectively removed human indicators from its internal regulation processes.

More consumers are needed. The quality of those consumers are not important. Hence the urge to work, to keep up with the Jones’s, the anxiety, the disconnection… Why we all too often wonder why we spend so much time doing what we are doing when we would rather be enjoying time with friends and family or undertaking hobbies or self-improvement opportunities.

The humanity is removed from our species primary productivity, which seems so absurd the more one thinks about it. I doubt many of us really appreciate such principles.

I’ve been following the whole GM and rat tumour rumble with great interest. It’s a shame that most of the discussions are within science literature not easily obtained by the general public, a fact which, in itself, opens up doors of concern to be discussed below.

Many alarms bells seem to have been triggered within the relevant scientific community in relation to the study, Séralini et al. (2012).[1] The first of which centred around the unusual process the authors of this paper undertook in going public. Rather than discussing the limitations of the study itself in a reasoned and reflective manner, the approach encouraged wild gossip; through the creation of an embargo to avoid critical evaluation of the study by unrelated researchers within the initial media reports… oh, and it also coincided with the upcoming release of a book and movie on the study.[2]

It sounds more sensational than good science, don’t you think?

It is made even more delicious by the book and movie covers of Tous Cobayes; the former, an apple cut open, revealing a portion of a human skull and the latter, a mother and child walking towards a power-station along a dirt road within a vast monoculture (not forgetting the human skull – this time replacing the “o” in Cobayes – which is also chewing on a grain straw).[3]

Far from objective, the meaning is clear; from this one study, we’re all guinea pigs, with deadly consequences.

Before I go any further, I should clarify my standing on GM food. Like any chemical compounds to be exposed to our species, I believe they should be studied through critical clinical trialling. If it passes, all good. We have been in the business of genetic modification long before we knew what it was. I object entirely to genetic ownership and imposed sterility however. I just look at the tobacco and fossil fuel industries to mount my case of concern regarding profitable environmental ownership which compromises human flourishing.

That said, the backlash to Séralini et al. (2012) has continued, suggesting in itself why the embargo imposed on journalists was fundamental; the conclusions were not as strong as the researchers have allowed to permeate pop-media.

First of all, it was a two year study using a breed of rats, Sprague-Dawley rats, that “are prone to developing spontaneous tumours” and Harlan Laboratories (who supplied the rats) “show that only one-third of males, and less than one-half of females, live to 104 weeks.”[4]

You heard right; a two year study with a breed of rats known to be highly susceptible to tumour development and are more likely than not to be dead within two years was undertaken to demonstrate high tumour development… hmmm.

“But the study was comparing two groups of the same rat breed (ie. control vs. exposure to GM maize) – surely this would counter such criticism?”

Fair point… Alas, Séralini et al. (2012) only used ten males and ten females for each treatment group.[4] With a breed of rat known to spontaneously produce tumours and is more likely than not to be dead within your research period, comparing treatment size of a mere ten rats is likely to be compounded by statistical errors!

“[The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development] recommends at least 20 rats of each sex per group for chemical-toxicity studies, and at least 50 for carcinogenicity studies.”[4] Talk about a lightweight study!

If critical review was allowed with the media release of the study, it’s obvious that the study would have had far less impact and the accompanying book and movie, perhaps a waste of effort.

Here is where the real concern comes to play; the media has probably done its damage.

If we need evidence to suggest this, all we need to do is look at the thoroughly discredited Wakefield et al. (1988) study which suggested a link between autism and the MMR vaccine.[5] Even though the study has been retracted and is considered and “elaborate fraud”, the damage has been done with anti-vaccination groups committed to the “Truth” of a causal relationship between vaccination and autism, which remains unshakable regardless how strong the contrary evidence is.[5][6][7]

While Séralini et al. (2012) does not necessarily represent dishonestly as Wakefield et al. (1988) does, the conclusions of the paper are clearer weaker than have been trumpeted.

The resolve that all GM is bad is probably solidified even further from this study, regardless of its shortcomings and all the other contrary evidence. My only suggest is; link back here or follow up the links I’ve referenced to below. Hammer the point and don’t give credence to individuals whom bombastically pronounce Séralini et al. (2012) to be ‘the final nail in the GM coffin’. Do this because the argument is not a balanced by weighty evidence that deserves equal credibility. It is one lightweight study that stands today on its lonesome, alongside a rush to hush criticism and to advertise a book and movie.

References

[1] Séralini et al. (2012) Long term toxicity of a Roundup herbicide and a Roundup-tolerant genetically modified maize. Food and Chemical Toxicology. 50.11 Link
[2] Nature Editorial (25th Sept 2012) Poison postures. Link
[3] see Google Images search of “tous cobayes”
[4] Butler (2012) Hyped GM maize study faces growing scrutiny. Nature. Link
[5] Wakefield et al. (1988) Lleal-lymphoid-nodular hyperplasia, non-specific colitis, and pervasive developmental disorder in children. Lancet 351 (9103) Link
[6] CNN Medical journal: Study linking autism, vaccines is ‘elaborate fraud’. Link
[7] Moth:  Anti-Vaccination vs. AGW denial. Link

I commented recently on why I believe those often referred to as “climate deniers” should more appropriately be considered “committed sceptics”. They are, after all, not denying climate changes or that there isn’t a climate at all, but rather committed to the conclusion that climate is unaffected (at least dangerously) but our actions, leaving them unquestioningly sceptical of any information that challenges that conclusion. If it were otherwise, they would take the time to learn one of the various fields of science, rigorously test the fundamental hypotheses and show, convincingly, within the proper peer-viewed scientific literature, why such conclusions that have convinced almost the entire expert community in the field of anthropogenic climate change are wrong.

Such a finding would be immensely important and the accolades would be more wondrous to the researchers involved than many that came before it. They would be global heroes whom saved us the otherwise necessary upheaval of many of our primary activities to ensure the longevity of resources and infrastructure that we owe to future generations (as was given to us).

The silence in this arena (compared to the noisy blogosphere and town hall) is telling. This breed of scepticism isn’t scientific in any nature and people like Alan Jones do a massive injustice to the name of a brilliant mind, Galileo Galilei, by using it for a completely unquestioning (at least, in a scientific sense) movement.

How such people, standing for the status quo in the face of obvious error, can use the name of someone who challenged the status quo based on obvious error can do such a thing with a straight face is beyond me. However, as I’ve covered previously, the fox indeed smells its own scent first and such people tend to make claims 180o to reality to support idea that themselves are 180o to reality.

The Spectrum of Reasoning

What I’ve come to realise is that reasoning is actually a spectrum on which we all slide upon. There are those committed sceptics on topics such as climate, evolution, vaccination, the moon landing, alien / UFO visitations whom are unmoveable regardless of contradiction. However, on the other side of this spectrum, we have other groups many science communicators also challenge.

It’s all about the “other ways of knowing”. It’s the New Age thinking.

For them, it’s not committed scepticism, but rather about a mind unbuttoned, free to explore all possibilities. For them, it’s not about holding an idea – which to everyone else it may seem to be, and is the case with the previous group – but rather holding onto the possibility. Anything short of this, to such an individual, is simply closed minded. That we can never be entirely 100% certain about most, if not all matters, this, to such an individual, means that all possibilities thus require equal consideration.

Dead in the centre of this spectrum is scientific methodology. Science demands the will to entertain any idea, but also rigorous testing, aimed not to prove the idea, but instead disprove it, to merit its validity.

You need not only the possibility of ideas, but also the cool-handed rejection of ideas that just don’t stand up to scrutiny. Equally, you don’t get by on hardcore scepticism of new or challenging ideas, because it’s clear that our intuitions have limitations. The natural universe is weirder than anything we could imagine.

New From the Credulous

It might be easy for those of us trained in science whom approach those heavy on either side of the spectrum with what looks to be an air of arrogance (whether intentional or not). We must remember however that none of us have it completely right. Each one of us were by our very nature once little people; inquisitive dreamers of all possibilities. Where we find ourselves today on that spectrum is the result of our history.

Even the very best of us at obtaining that central pivoting point have our moments. When a loved one passes away, we muse about them around us. In times of hardship, we wish or pray for assistance, guidance and/or strength. We see meaning in random events that our better training signifies as a statistical streak and nothing more.

At this point, I’m certain the committed sceptic could take the previous paragraph to confirm gullibility in those whom suggest new ideas are far more likely than previous ideas, based on strong evidence, while the unbuttoned mind would use it to confirm that “deeper understanding” is innate within us all, but trained out of us by the short-sighted and those of us that hover around the pivot point will be frustrated – even seeing this article as apologetic. The point of the matter is; we are all new from the credulous side of the spectrum, both as a species and individually.

The enlightenment refined the tools of inquiry so that we could build confidence in our assertions and as unfortunate as it may seem, each birth is a new start along the road of understanding; we are forced to learn from scratch what took a life time for others to appreciate. That both slows down the process of developing an understanding of the natural universe and demonstrates just how fragile the acquired knowledge can be; it takes great educators to ensure nothing is lost down the line.

The latter point sits behind the concerns of aging experts of any generation whom chastise “the abysmal level of education nowadays”.

The Science Communicator

I’m certain that our approach as science communicators fails to cause ripples among those heavy to either side of the spectrum because we fail to address where they are coming from. We also grow frustrated due to the same reason and condemn one group as fanatical believers to an “absolute truth” and the other as “off with the fairies”. Such attitudes and perceived arrogance does education no favours.

Instead, it may pay to put the obligation back on them to validate their reasoning.

Indeed, as Hamlet said (and quoted endlessly by some), “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

No-one knows better than a scientist just how odd and counterintuitive the natural universe is. Perhaps acknowledging and demonstrating this could capture their imagination… before pulling the conversation in with justification as to why we know such things and hold so much confidence in their validity.

Maybe take it a step further and muse their ideas following an attempt to test its validity in the same fashion. The universe would remain a weird and wonderful place, but just maybe some of your audience may shift a little closer to the pivot point; they might get why you test ideas and enjoy the genuine confidence they hold in these new assertions while maintaining their sense of wonder and majesty in the universe.

Admire the mind strict and trained to demand compelling evidence. Ask them why they believe what they believe. Ask them what it may take them to question the validity of these beliefs. I hinted at it above; get them test their ideas and your own. Work with them from the ground up. Expose them to a new form of confidence not based on simply being strongly held, but instead tested until it stands regardless what you do to it. Maybe they too may shift a little closer to the pivot point and enjoy the exploration of thought.

We are all in this together. We have reached a point that our impact on the world is far greater than that we ever gave to any god. We remove mountains. We are changing the global climate. We are causing a mass extinction event and degrading our resource base. We have an arsenal able to destroy our species along with many others.

It may be fun for some and fundamental for others to knock others down because of conflicting ideas, but it isn’t helping anyone. Especially now that we have the tool set to chisel out information in great detail and with great confidence. We need to change our approach or else we’ll still be squabbling, knee deep in salt water with little left to defend.

I wish I had read Carl Sagan’s The Demon-haunted World when it first hit the bookshelves some 17 years ago. That said, I doubt I would have got as much from it back then and ultimately, that I didn’t read it back then is evidence enough that I wouldn’t have.

Retrospect is a funny thing.

Sagan laments in the book at the level of uncritical thinking and poorly trained people he had observed in much of his life. He focuses on the US, but does provide evidence from elsewhere and anyone whom has paid much attention would have already observed as much regardless where they are.

The situation hasn’t changed since writing the book and the problem isn’t one unique to the US.

Is it really a problem after all?

Certainly many of us feel it is, however societies are clearly evolving entities / populations. Like a gene pool, ideologies within a society make up an “ideas pool”, which ultimately make or break a society.

It has always been, but is even more so since electronic communication, that ideas share (often more easily than genes) between societies. The evolution of societies is refining, specialising and regardless of what it may appear like, they are becoming less physically aggressive.

The successful are no longer those with the most powerful gods or god-kings, but most clever in securing resources via more diplomatic means. Just look at the falling star of the US and the rising star of China, for instance.

I know there’s more to it and I’m simplifying the various situations immensely. The point is that societies are changing and that change is the result of expression, which amounts from a rearrangement and the removal / addition of ideas within the social pool. The civil unrest throughout the Middle East is a cry for democracy due to the expression of new ideas within the social pool (transferred from other societies).

Critical Scepticism as a Social Idea

Critical scepticism* comes and goes within the local ideas pool just like any gene that doesn’t hinder or enhance the fitness of a species. A bit like the biologist’s favourite example the Peppered Moth, it may be expressed in greater numbers at certain times because of short term conditions, but ultimately, it is an idea that remains in fairly low concentrations within societies.

I suspect we are not, but nature, inclined to be critical of evidence unless we need to. Indeed fiction, either written or presented, demands we forego critical review. Music insists we don’t acknowledge noises emanating from banging skins, vibrating strings etc, but rather focus on the harmony. Love leads us to see those close to us through rose-coloured glasses.

This isn’t to say that we couldn’t be, or shouldn’t be, more critically minded of evidence or that such societies would be any less enriching or creative. Personally, I feel the evolution of society will eventually achieve this higher plateau, as it is increasingly doing racial and sexual equality (admittedly, we are not there yet). However, we are a far way off yet and we have many other refinements to make before societies are well equipped with “nonsense meters”.

Sharing Sagan’s Lament

The reason I write about this now is because many of us share Sagan’s lament. I move among different arenas in my writing on this very bane. I know my readers make up individuals whom share this feeling and also those committed sceptics insisting evolution is false, that vaccination causes more harm than good, that anthropogenic climate change is rubbish, that there are no ceilings to growth that we could reach in our industrial endeavours.

The more I look into such topics, the further I see into the rabbit hole of the committed sceptics. Pick nearly any subject, hit it up on a good search engine and I bet you can find a group uncritically sceptical of it. For one reason or another, they have come to such a conclusion regardless of the weight of contradictory evidence. For a passive example to my Australian readers; just listen to Alan Jones for a while…

Perhaps critical scepticism remains in low concentrations within the ideas pool not only because it doesn’t yet enhance the fitness of a given society, but also because in low concentrations, societies can express various avenues for production that it otherwise could not; think homeopathy and traditional medicine (which has either not undergone strict clinical trials or failed them), the myriad of books on the so-called “Climategate”, Christmas/Easter (ironically as pagan as Christian) and even the types of political propaganda I’ve recently commented on here and here.

For the most part, political stability and profiteering currently favours a largely credulous society. Why should anyone expect education to teach critical thought better when we have this highly productive peak?

The Future Favours Accurate Information

As I said above, I do not think this will always be the case. It’s conceivable that such a critically sceptical and better educated society would be more productive, with the extra kicker of being so without an incessant call for growth. However, to move out of this current peak and to one more humane and better educated, we would first need to correct many disparities. That, I believe, is the key.

In such arenas of debate, it’s clear that evidence hard-won through critical evaluation will not be enough to challenge contrarians. They are immune to it for the most part and likely to be unmoveable in most cases. It’s a dead horse of a debate and I think, while we must continue to share this hard-won knowledge of the known universe, we need to tackle such debates in a different fashion – perhaps evaluating their evidence base, on its own right, without comparison to information discovered via science may be helpful. Teach them to be critically minded by taking their evidence into a serious review.

At the same time, greater focus on disparity is essential. It isn’t enough to work in ejecting outdated ideas from the pool. This needs to be complimented by additional ideas to replace the old ones. In many cases, new ideas alone can be enough to overtake old ones if their expression is dominant to the opposing ideas. Look at the heavy handed ideologies of the dark ages. They were horrible and did great harm to generations, but were ultimately weak when critically reviewed (hence all the executions). Eventually word got out about the challenging and more accurate idea and the dark ages were dead.

Living within the information age, the word is always out and while it may not always seem it, more accurate information is eventually dominant because it simply cannot be broken. Gravity can’t be undone no matter how much one may want it to be a miraculous inspiration. CO2 plays an important role as a greenhouse gas in our atmosphere regardless how much one may wish it to ignore passing longwave radiation. Homeopathy simply doesn’t have any active ingredients (which, in many cases, is a good thing because of the poisons suggested to be within them). The story of smallpox and the clinically proven very low risks involved with vaccination stand stubbornly in the face of the committed sceptics. One can throw a blanket over accurate information, but that will erode in time, not the information.

While there remains valid reason to lament and a constant need to transmit increasingly accurate information, the short term goals are not the same as the long term goals. Hoping committed sceptics will accept their standpoint is evidence-deprived in the face of overwhelming contrary evidence is a pipedream. It won’t happen. Equally, while we live at a point in time when “other ways of knowing” is a serious argument against scientific methodology (arguably Sam Harris built the final bridge between science and morality), we are many generations way from widespread critical scepticism. However, the path isn’t entirely invisible and we know enough about ourselves and our ideas to paved the way forward.

We shouldn’t stop at the lament.

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 *I had to make the point here, seeing as there are groups whom call themselves “sceptics”, that by critical scepticism I mean to actually take the time to learn and understand the topic, evaluate the evidence professionally and if it’s found to be strong, write as much and if not, write as much – preferably within a peer-review process (ie. peers = professionals within the field) to have this new thought critically reviewed. This is a process that refines and improves our knowledge base, as a species, of the known universe and is incredibly powerful and useful to us.

What these self-proclaimed “sceptics”, or as I prefer, committed sceptics, offer is instead a rejection of ideas they feel cannot be correct. They do this without being able to, or without taking the time to, critically review and provide valid and condemning evidence to refute the standing approximation of the truth. This breed of scepticism is validated instead on anecdotal evidence or conspiracy (eg. “the experts are stealing our money”, “the truth is being suppressed by the status quo” etc).

In a room of people from a similar demographic, all with interest in necromancy, it shouldn’t take a highly empathetic individual to astutely isolate many facts about one person through what is called “cold reading”. From what I’ve heard of a blind cold reading – where the reading is done by an individual blind to the audience behind them and tells them what they are receiving from the ether – it sounds more like (and indeed appears to work as such) to be more akin to a game of “Guess Who?” played out with real people than anything mystical.

And yet devotees of such practices see such as the strongest evidence proving the validity of their faith.

If, instead, the cluster of people involved one individual from a wide range of demographics globally or individuals from a demographic that the reader had no prior experience with, I strongly doubt they could claim such accuracy. It’s far easier, for instance to “read” the mind of a dear loved one than it is a stranger. It’s easier to “read” the mind people within your local demographic than it is someone whom has lived a radically different life elsewhere. And it is far easier to “read” the mind of someone whom has lived that radically different life than it would be an individual of a different species.

The same could be said whether you’re claiming to read the mind of the individual or receiving revelations from the “other side”.

The reason for this should be obvious. It’s not mystical, but rather the evolved processes of a highly intelligent social species. We need to build models of other peoples’ minds to make predictions of their future actions for our own planning. It is not demons or angles whispering in our ear, but instead a wonderfully sophisticated organic computer we call our brain.

This objection to New Age theologies remains a perpetual throne in my side because the believers of such faiths use pseudoscience techniques for their credibility whilst openly rejecting hard won scientific evidence.

It doesn’t matter on what subject, eventually New Agers expose themselves just as any believer of old world religions does to denounce evidence that is contrary to their belief. With New Agers, it tends to be around medical science (although, I have also encountered similar in relation to environmental science, such as climate change – “Mother Earth is far more powerful than you give her credit” etc). To them, medical science wishes to pump us full of nasty chemicals that make us more sick than they heal us, when perfectly good alternatives already exist, such as; traditional Chinese medicines, crystal energy, homeopathy, aromatherapy and naturopathy.

Tim Minchin puts it best where he describes the difference between “natural therapy” and medication derived from medical science in that the difference is that the former has either not been proven to work or proven not to work. Where is has been proven to work, via the rigorous scientific methodology it becomes the latter.

My favourite example of which is the use of fats from the South American electric eel (now, synthetically produced) to help relieve the symptoms of arthritis. In fact, in many cultures, “natural remedies” have worked well and have been explored by medical science. Here’s a list of traditional remedies used in Brazil which include the electric eel.

Within science, this practice is called bio-prospecting. Where science can prove that a traditional remedy works in a statistically higher number of patients than a placebo, it then attempts to answer how?

In many cases, the compounds can be isolated through this investigation and synthetically produced – identical to the naturally derived compounds without the need for continual harvest.

A wide range of medicinal products now have resulted from natural remedies. Science is not ignorant or close-minded to alternatives. It merely wishes to understand it.

On the other hand, many natural remedies plugged by those appealing to the New Agers haven’t undergone such rigorous testing. Worse than simply being untested, many could do the user more harm than good as they can “Mother Earth”.

For instance, the illegal hunting of rhinoceros for their horns which ultimately provide exactly the same level of arousal in the consumer as that if they ate their own hair or finger nails. Many wild and fearsome creatures meet a similar fate in the pursuit of ridiculous aspirations of power and health.

On the other hand, homeopathy aims to treat patients with compounds that are in fact highly deadly. Luckily for the consumer however, it is exceedingly unlikely that even one molecule of the deadly stuff will even be in the expense bottle of snake oil. The problem here, as with the various roots and potions supplied by New Age practitioners, the evidence to back them up (as with the cold readings) is at best, anecdotal. In some cases, as with electric eel fat, there may be something of medicinal value within the compound provided. However, there are also many other harmful compounds also within the “medicine”. There’s no guarantee that the administration advice is even useful.

Alternatively, there could be nothing of medicinal value within the junk bought at high price. When the medical condition is life threatening the alarm bells for dabbling in such a murky arena should be their loudest.

But I know firsthand that they’re not. I have been told that a heart condition, resulting in a pacemaker being installed was only, should have killed the individual by now and that it was only natural therapy that kept them alive so long (excusing, quite happily, the machinery faithfully keeping the heart pumping). “Science adjusts its views based on what’s observed.
Faith is the denial of observation, so that belief can be preserved,” is yet another great quote from Tim Minchin.

The danger is that in entertaining such delusions, we simply reinforce potentially harmful belief systems. We breed scientific ignorance and confidence in circumstantial evidence in lieu of genuine data. We entertain a new dark age. This scares the hell out of me, more so for my children.

I detest the notion that there are other ways of “knowing” – knowing what exactly? Morality may have been the only real arena where science may have taken time to develop the tools for, but Sam Harris has bridged that gap.

The idea of revelation is absurd and mocks brilliant minds among the ages. The most important information that could have ever been revelled to us – as important as fire in my perspective – would have been how to make effective soap. It’s a simple recipe and has made a radical difference to human health. The documented revelations mainly based around morals which seemed to have benefited a group of people at the time and are today mostly outdated. I feel confident in stating that no revelation exists of compelling mystical conviction.

Ultimately, New Agers disappoint me. It’s clear they haven’t received a good scientific training – especially in critically reviewing information – but more than that, the necromancy depreciates the wonder of life itself. There is no reason why it should have occurred at all and that it did and eventually lead to one’s existence is at once highly unlikely and of immense value. Why on Earth waste this rare and brief chance on the eternity which is so prolific it bears no value?

It’s like sitting on the beach with a dearly loved one whom has baked a delicious cupcake and instead you would prefer to eat the sand that stretches off into the distance. They overlook the sheer wonder and beauty of life around them in some vain obsession in an elusive and most likely nonexistent “other-ness” parallel to old world religions.