Numbers game

Numbers game

Apparently psychopaths are more common that you might realise.

Many exist among us going about their business without empathy and devoid of goodwill towards others. Typically they hide in plain sight, usually in the corporate world where their talents are appreciated.

Psychopath : A person with a personality disorder indicated by a pattern of lying, cunning, manipulating, glibness, exploiting, heedlessness, arrogance, delusions of grandeur, sexual promiscuity, low self-control, disregard for morality, lack of acceptance of responsibility, callousness, and lack of empathy and remorse. Such an individual may be especially prone to violent and criminal offenses

Academics Scott Lillenfeld and Ashley Watts writing on how psychopathic traits are linked to success sum it up. “Despite the popular perception, most psychopaths aren’t coldblooded or psychotic killers. Many of them live successfully among the rest of us, using their personality traits to get what they want in life, often at the expense of others”.

They also suggest that “people with pronounced psychopathic traits may be found disproportionately in certain professional niches, such as politics, business, law enforcement, firefighting, special operations military services and high-risk sports. Most of those with psychopathic traits probably aren’t classic “psychopaths,” but nonetheless exhibit many features of the condition”.

The numbers of psychopaths are sobering.

Around 0.6% of the general population demonstrate more than half of the core traits that define psychopathy meaning there are around 145,000 in Australia alone. That’s at least one in every carriage of every morning commuter train.

Not all of these individuals will kill or eat people of course but it should make you think given you have probably bumped into one in the last 48 hours of normal life.

If the ratio holds across cultures, globally there are 45 million psychopaths alive right now.

So even if one in 10,000 of them are capable of murder then police forces will have over 4,500 homicides from psychotic behaviour to solve in the coming years.

It is an inevitable consequence of the numbers.

This numbers game applies to all extreme behaviours that are, by definition, outside the norm. As the global population grows two things happen at the extremes.

First, for a given extreme behaviour that has a very low prevalence in the population, more instances of that behaviour will happen by chance, not because the likelihood changes but because there are more absolute numbers of individuals with that behaviour.

Second, greater numbers increases the occurrence of extremely rare behaviours. Those that have a very low likelihood, say 0.006% or one in 16,667, having a million people as opposed to a thousand increases the frequency with such very extreme events are manifest.

All this needs is a reasonable assumption that behaviours show some sort of tailed distribution around a norm.

It is not necessary for the likelihood to change for occurrences of rare events to increase.

All you need is a larger population.

And we know that is exactly what we are getting.

Incredulous

Incredulous

Here is a recent headline from an ABC online article, a reputable publicly funded media source

Bush stone-curlews popping up in suburbs as bird once extinct in ACT makes a comeback

Nice you might think given that headlines containing good news are like threatened species themselves, rare and at risk of being lost forever.

Here is the problem.

The IUCN lists the conservation status of the Bush stone-curlew as “least concern”. In other words, its not under any immediate threat of extinction in the wild.

In fact, the species has a broad habitat preference throughout Australia pitching up in open forest, eucalyptus woodland, rainforest edges, grassy plains, arid scrubland and along inland watercourses across much of the vast continent. It is a common species in the cities of Brisbane, Cairns and Townsville and is abundant in the tropical and subtropical north. In other words, it’s not a rare species at all.

I’m told there are pubs up north where you can sup on a stubbie alongside a foraging stone-curlew.

To use the word extinction, the termination of a lineage, where the moment of extinction is generally considered to be the death of the last individual of the species, is a lie.

This bird is not extinct.

Placing a geographic limit so as to use the term is disingenuous. Strippers are extinct in the Vatican is about as crazy a statement.

So is this fake news?

I think it is. The bird species is not actually extinct. It’s not even at risk unless you specify a discrete subset of its natural range. And when we learn that the Canberra specimens were almost certainly taking a wander from a nearby reserve artificially stocked with a few pairs to “reintroduce” them to the local scene, then the implicit hope in the story takes a huge dive.

I know that there are feeds to feed in this modern age of lightning fast news cycles. And I also know that there are good reasons for at least trying to be upbeat when, for the conservation minded, the world appears to be crashing down. But, like cricketers crossing the line, there are consequences for cheating on the truth. In the end people do not respect you, they dismiss everything you say even when you are actually being honest.

So my call to myself, and everyone who is in the business of information, let’s be as honest and as truthful as we possibly can and leave the spin alone when it comes to the facts.

This is easy to say and not at all easy to do but we all have to try.

Little gem: Why not?

Here is a little gem so obvious that Blind Freddie would not only see it but would immediately invest in it…

And it is so simple.

  • Extract out of the ground fossil energy
  • Heat it so that it changes its structure into material that can be molded into infinite number of useful objects and then manufacture them on mass.
  • Sell these useful items to consumers, ideally so that they use them once and have to go and buy another one the next time they need it
  • Let the used item fall away into whatever waste system is in place
  • Rummage around in the waste to find the used useful items
  • Reheat them again so as to make another even more useful material
  • Sell this useful material and make roads out of it
  • Ignore the obvious flaws in the gem

Quantitative

Quantitative

For me ‘ah ha’ moments fall into one of two types. There are the ‘oh why didn’t I think of that before’ kind of ah ha’s that tickle the brain when they happen but often fade into the nether regions of forgetfulness soon after.

Then there are the real ‘ah ha’s’, the kind that are arresting, stick around, and may even shift my perception of the world.

Recently I experienced one of the latter, a real doozy.

In a meeting with colleagues who, between them, had over a 100 years of environmental experience I realised that none of them understood numbers. They did not think quantitatively.

It worth taking a moment to absorb this observation. Eight experienced professionals who most would describe as technical experts, all with a tertiary education and many years of practice with problem solving in land management, native vegetation and agriculture, were not thinking numerically.

Few of them would admit to this of course. They’ll pour over spreadsheets, examine graphs and even contemplate statistics alongside the best of their ilk, but deep down they are not thinking numbers.

Instead they shift words and documents around. They think in the language of processes and procedures not likelihood, rates, and difference.

As many a post on this blog attests, my brain handles proportions and probabilities.

However, I am not especially mathematical, and often lament a lack of fluency in that language. But limited math literacy does not stop me thinking numbers. I’ll see a proportion and instantly ask “proportion of what, a thousand or a million?” In my head 20% of 10 is not the same as 20% of 1,000,000 when it’s, let’s say, greenhouse gas emissions. There is materially in the latter number even though the proportions are the same. It seems impossible not to do this numerical reality checking when faced with the variability in space and time of the matters environmental people are interested in.

But there it was, plain as a binomial distribution. My colleagues were not quants. When they relaxed into an innate thinking state, they did not see the world quantitatively.

Now before the trolls get too upset, this ‘ah ha’ is not about belittling or downgrading all the feeling thoughts, the creative thinker or even the normative types. All problems are best tackled with a variety of thought processes and the best answers do not always come from understanding a likelihood. What got me was that the quantitative type was not in the very building you would expect to find it.

For a scientist, researcher and one time lecturer in biostatistics this is a hard one to fathom. The question still bouncing around like a subatomic particle is why? There is no obvious reason, other than the peculiar quirks of chance, that none of these people were quantitative.

Only they were not and soon the consequences started to come up. Any talk of likelihood, rates, and difference would not be fully understood without explanations and time to digest what the numbers mean.

It would not be possible to just present a graphic and assume that everyone would understand any obvious pattern, let alone the nuance.

In short, my colleagues were not going to have an easy handle on inference.

This is a huge deal. If the people who are closest to the facts as they play out in the real world do not get the numbers, the same people who support decisions around sustainability and the trade-offs with natural resource use… Well, there is a good chance we are in muppetville all over again.

Ah ha.

Leadership failure

Leadership failure

Cheating at sport is, well, unacceptable. Yet it happens every day with no sport immune. There will always be one individual in the tournament or player in the team or coach on the sideline who will succumb to the pressure to win, the stress to perform, or simply base instincts.

This is why each sport has rules that sets the frame for what is acceptable, what’s on or close to the nose, and what is simply cheating. Equally, most sports have a fair bit of trouble either defining or enforcing the rules even with umpires and referees present to observe and, where required, intervene.

So if the soccer forward dives in the box at the slightest hint of a nudge from a defender then the referee has to decide. Is this a penalty or not? Some forwards dive. Some don’t. Sometimes it is actually a foul. Altogether a gray area of the rules.

Messing with a cricket ball is similar.

It is against the rules at all levels of the sport but it happens every now and then. Most of the time unnoticed and most of the time to no material effect on the outcome of the game. But it is against the rules. Players who do it are cheating.

So what is different in Australia right now?

A player in the national cricket team roughs up the ball with sandpaper. National outrage. Incredulity and anger. A failure of leadership because the captain of the the Australian cricket team sanctioned premeditated messing with the ball.

In short, cheating surely.

But, on the face of it, nothing.

All it took was a player, the vice-captain, with a history of volatility who was under a lot of pressure from the opposition and the crowd, his captain also under strain, and a compliant junior team member making a really bad choice when the team was losing.

Nothing more than a dive in the box.

Well the face is not the story at all. The response of a nation is always more. It reflects real needs. In this case leadership in the way that the society wants and needs.

The public frenzy over a misdemeanor that the international sporting body punished with a one match ban and a match fee fine, is the release of feelings that are simmering under the surface, a deep anxiety that has been there for a very long time. And it has something to do with a lack of direction. An uncertainty in the collective moral compass of not knowing what to stand for or against. And until a cricketer did something really stupid we did not realise how bad this feeling was or where it comes from.

Here is one possible source.

People mostly have no idea what the rules are in politics and business so they can’t really tell if societal leaders fail or not. Most of us have an inkling that they do but we cannot be sure. When they transgress with their secretaries it is one of the few times we see the line we want them to keep behind. The rest of the time we just have a hunch. So when they fail asylum seekers or spend way too much on submarines or let the energy grid fall over whilst carbon emission go up we don’t really know if they are cheating. They are not strictly breaking the rules, just dancing on the line through omission.

On the sporting field, however, we do know.

We can see the cheat. And when that is a premeditated act not only sanctioned but organised by the leadership, we are appalled. It triggers our real need for leaders to be better than us. They are not supposed to cheat, not even to dive in the box. But we know that they do. Seeing it starkly in our leisure time is shocking. It tweaks our subconscious to the truth that this is also happening in other leaders, the ones that really matter to our lives. It freaks us out.

The difficulty is that the leaders that matter stand up and lament the errors of the sportsmen, neatly deflecting from their own vast inadequacies. Until we call them out on their equivalent of ball tampering that they indulge in almost every day, and we do it with the same fervor we have for a national sport, then we will have to live with leadership failure everywhere.

Little gems: Secret taboo

Little gems: Secret taboo

These days it is very hard to pick gems from the torrents of items in the news and social feeds. There is so much craziness that we become somewhat numb to it all. We glance at everything just enough to see each piece scroll by into oblivion. So when a real gem appears we can easily miss it or let it pass without due attention.

So to help promote healthy thinking, Alloporus will try and pick out a few of the little gems that deserve more than a scroll, the sparkles that deserve at least a moment along the more discerning pathways of our gray matter.

Picking out these more positive offerings might also help balance the mostly depressing themes that tend to populate each Alloporus post.

Here is a true gem that is so blindingly obvious that it is astonishing that we don’t do it universally already. It says much about our psyche, our ignorance, and our closed minds that it should even be the first gem on the list.

It’s 12 minutes of the best logic you’ll hear

Optimism and evidence

Optimism and evidence

Part one is about optimism

Many would have us believe that it is easy to be an optimist.

All you have to do is believe (in) yourself. If you say positive things most of the time, catch yourself when something negative sneaks in and smile a lot, then you are good to go.

Believe and your shoulders set themselves back and your chest rises.

“Yes we can” you will scream. And there are hundreds of Youtube win videos that attest to this power. People are awesome indeed.

Pulses of positivity do not require any substance to back them up. There is no need because optimism is often killed by the truth. There are few facts in favour of running a successful business, seeing your team win the league, or the world surviving intact the activities of 7 billion humans. Such matters of fact are not what optimism is about. If you accepted the likelihood of winning the lottery you would never buy a ticket.

Optimists have no need for facts. This is not how it works for them. They just believe it to be so. And that is enough. No matter what the circumstance, for innate optimists, the glass is always half full and Schrodinger’s cat is alive.

It is actually a remarkable thing.

In spite of evidence to the contrary and especially where evidence is lacking, the optimist has hope and drinks deeply from the glass.

Part two is about evidence

As a scientist I know the logic that makes the likelihood of a lottery win minuscule. I also know that facts are not always in your favour.

No matter how good a snowboarder you are, sooner or later the half pipe will claim you – speed, ice and many moving parts fixed to some plywood and fiberglass is enough evidence.

Yet for years I have laboured to generate environmental evidence, reliable facts about the way the natural world works, with the naïve belief it would be useful.

Today I am not so sure.

My conviction in the value of evidence is shaken if evidence erodes optimism. It flawed completely if optimists mostly ignore the facts. If the glass half empty people don’t want to hear any evidence because it depresses them even more and the glass half full people are too busy getting on with fulfilling their hope, it means that nobody is listening.

Deaf ears indeed.