Rational meaning

Rational meaning

Richard Flanagan is just one of many thinkers whose work explores rational meaning. Flanagan worries for our collective future. Alloporus has pointed out this out before in a little gem from Flanagan on Australia and now there is another piece on the erosion of rational meaning as it is swamped by a rising tide of vitriol.

This is the world we live in.

Whatever you say in public, in a post, an email, quietly to your dog as you let him off the leash in the park, it’s all fair game for comment and critique.

It is as though opinion (check the definition below) is no longer allowed even though it is just mine, can be completely off the wall with no truth to it whatsoever or is grounded in experience and knowledge. It matters not. Opinion is open to ridicule as soon as you express it.

The thing is its an opinion people. Get over it.

Opinion “a view or judgement formed about something, not necessarily based on fact or knowledge”

Now I am not proposing that opinions go unchallenged. Not at all. Failure in challenges to the opinions of the likes of Genghis Khan, Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini resulted in some of the most trying periods in human history. The problem is how we go about it.

We know that modern media gives everyone visibility but also anonymity that allows folk to unleash their inner Ghengis on a whim. What Richard Flanagan is worried about is how much this is leaking into places it shouldn’t. It’s attacking the floorboards of our intellectual thought and weakening our capacity for rational meaning.

Just the other day in an email update to colleagues I made a comment about the deepening drought in NSW. The exact phrase was…

And it will rain again. It always does.

Perhaps this is insensitive. Perhaps it is the truth. It was not intended to be anything more than a statement of fact that was hopeful. The rain will return and the challenging conditions for the farmers and rural people of eastern Australia will ease.

This was not how people saw it. I was a stupid city slicker with no idea of how tough it is to feed the sheep from the back of a truck on your weekends and still fear for the survival of the sheep and your business.

Does this mean I must think not twice, but many times before I write anything? Should the words be censored for every ounce of judgement even when the facts are irrefutable? ‘It will rain again, it always does’ is not even an opinion. It is rational and it has meaning.

Instead, I could have gone full bore toward the stark truth that some farms will fail in the harshness that is the Australian weather as Ross Gittins did in a Sydney Morning Herald editorial saying that our concern about the drought isn’t fair dinkum.

I hope that I will be this brave but I know from each small experience that what is being said about what writers write will affect what they write next. It has too. For it is human nature to be affected by the opinion of others. And online there are no referees so chances are that the writer will be personally attacked.

So here is the thought on rational meaning…

What about for every post or comment you leave that is negative towards another’s opinion, how about you leave another comment somewhere else that supports a writer.

Just say “thanks for bringing that thought to my attention” even if it’s an opinion you don’t share.

Maybe if we even out the vitriol a bit we might create some space and time for intellectual thought and in turn, create some ideas that are good for everyone.

Cognitive bias

Cognitive bias

“The cognitive bias psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman have shown that people intuitively estimate relative frequency using a shortcut called the availability heuristic: the easier it is to recall examples of an event, the more probable people think it is. People, for example, overestimate the likelihoods of the kinds of accidents that make headlines, such as plane crashes, shark attacks, and terrorist bombings, and they underestimate those that pile up unremarked, like electrocutions, falls, and drownings.”

Steven Pinker “The Better Angels of Our Nature: The Decline of Violence In History And Its Causes

There are any number if good news snippets in Steven Pinker’s book. He eloquently describes the continuous and ongoing improvement in the quality of human life through history.

Modern life is much, much better than you think.

No one would choose life at any time in history over modernity if it were judged by likely exposure to violent death or injury.

In short, we don’t know how lucky we are.

The availability heuristic is one of the reasons why we are not convinced that it is way safer to be alive and stay alive today than it was at any other time in our past. It seems that the human mind is very good at recalling what happens to us most recently or what we hear about most often. Not so much when it comes to distant memory or rare occurrences. And this makes good evolutionary sense.

The ability to remember recent dangers would be a handy advantage should those dangers still be around and hiding behind a bush, lions for example.

It also helps to remember where to find water or just how much novelty you can go for in the food you eat without risk of Delhi belly. Recalling the colour, size and taste of the berry that made you vomit is handy indeed.

When the availability heuristic evolved people lived in the immediate. They needed to identify and remember novelty to survive and prosper. Ease of recall for important things that their senses experienced really helped without the means to write anything down or to ‘hey Google’.

Back in the day when our senses sampled the world that was at our fingertips and ended at the horizon, we were the filter of novelty. Each human sampled events that were in front of them and individuals who were good at recognising and remembering novelty had an advantage in avoiding risk and recalling the good stuff.

This makes ‘headlines’ the keyword in the quote from Pinker. We are no longer the filter of novelty. Our handheld devices are. They present us with the majority of novelty and, surprise, surprise, they bombard us with things we remember… because the people sending the messages want to be noticed.

Falls and drowning do not make headlines because they are familiar enough to be outside the heuristic. It’s not called clickbait for nothing.

Interestingly though, the heuristic and cognitive bias might be changing.

Instead of remembering the novelty all that a click baiter needs is to draw our attention briefly. Just long enough to click. So we are bombarded with cute, funny or weird that taps the heuristic but with no advantage. Arguably the novelty avalanche is meaningless drivel with all real advantage going to the providers, not the consumers. And so it is.

Presumably though as the number of cute cat events increase in proportion toward one, the snippet of real news might become easier to recall for its novelty value alone.

That would be an irony, wouldn’t it?

Grandstanding

Grandstanding

Donald Trump is a grandstanding genius. He just loves it.

And being President just makes it so much easier. I mean you only need to pitch up and hundreds of people will flock to your side and hang off your every word. What you say as president means nothing to them. They just want to be there and bask in glory by association.

Then there are the millions of followers on social media, a pertinent description for the people who can’t actually be physically present, mostly because they couldn’t be bothered, but can bask by virtual association. Again there is no need to say anything special to followers other than to meet their approval for a second.

So what happens when you, the consummate grandstander, go into a boardroom to meet with leaders of countries whose economies make up 60% of global commerce?

You grandstand of course.

Only these people, the G7 leaders and their advisors, have come to discuss issues of state, to agree on the politics that affects everyone, and to make sure their country is a winner. They are the players, there a no spectators here.

But still your grandstanding prevails.

It is as though there is nothing else in your playbook.

So you look grumpy or at times aggressive. You claim that the world is against you and must be punished for it. You sit with closed crossed arms, open to nothing. You big up all the lies and deceits to get the attention required. And then you leave early.

Grandstander – A player who appears to seek the approval of the spectators rather than concentrating on the playing of the game; (in extended use) a person whose words or actions are motivated primarily by the desire to attract attention or gain approval

As a G7 report by the ABC put it…

[Trump’s] early departure means he will miss a working session among the leaders on climate change and clean energy, as well as talks among the G7 and poorer countries focused on the health of oceans.

Oh yes, and an announcement on significant funding for women’s education.

These things do not matter.

They are topics rarely, if ever, on the minds of the virtual spectators so have limited capability to attract attention. They are easily ignored for far grander actions… like meeting with a crazed dictator whose family have all but decimated a whole country and brainwashed too many of its people. Not to mention assassinate unruly relatives.

But what a gesture?

Play to the crowd by exiting the building, leaving behind the important issues to those who don’t matter, tainting those issues in the process. Let the spotlight follow you.

The politics of grandstanding is that approval means far more than truth. So honesty and pragmatism will decline to nothing in favour of pleasing the followers.

And followers will follow for that is what they do. There are any number of livestock truisms involving noses, herds and sheep that tell us that once a crowd is assembled it can be easily whipped.

Trump followers are not going to stop following if he keeps grandstanding. It is his cattle prod and it works.

The truly scary part is that it’s clever. He’s making a huge legacy for himself and his kids. He will leave office far wealthier than when he swore the oath and he won’t need books and lecture tours to fund his retirement. Think hotels on Korean beaches and Russian oil pipelines.

Whatever the guy says and however dumb and clumsy he looks he is making the deal of human lifetime, thanks, in no small part, to his grandstanding genius.


Positive future

Scenarios with pragmatic outcomes

One morning the sun rises a little brighter than usual on its winter path. It gains a little extra height in the sky and creates unseasonal warmth. A woman sits in an Andronicus chair painted crazy daisy yellow and admires her newly landscaped garden.

“Do you watch the news my darling?” She says to a teenager perched on the arm of the chair.

“No nonna” the girl says leaning into the safety of her family.

“That’s good my love” the woman says and smiles.

 


Postscript

This post was written before Trump attended the NATO meeting  in July 2018 and then the UK followed by his parley with Putin. As you will have noticed you can insert any of these more recent events into the post without any change to its intent.

Death and taxes

Death and taxes

Death and taxes are certainties. After more than 30 years of professional life, I have learned that there are a few more items on the definites list.

I know now that, in fact, the world is full of certainties beyond death and taxes. Our lives are fundamentally predictable. Business is business, people are people, trains are often crowded, and coffee is a requirement. Accident and novelty notwithstanding, I can be pretty sure what tomorrow will bring.

This is not to say that I readily accept this reality. I am much more inclined to fear the future as something entirely unpredictable and out of control. It seems that my biology requires risk, perhaps to keep me on my toes and on the lookout for lions and the snake in the grass.

My good fortune is that my chosen profession is founded on evidence, the raw material to understand, mitigate and avoid risk. I am trained to find as much certainty as is humanly possible and then to apply that certainty to first reduce risk and ultimately help alleviate fear.

A noble profession you would think.

At some level, I like to think so. Gathering evidence to inform decision making seems like a calming exercise that should benefit the many. Thinking, researching and evaluating my way through environmental problems should be a good thing to do in a world where resources are finite and demand voracious.

Science, the gathering and evaluation of evidence, surely is our best source of certainty. It bounds events through understanding and generates evidence that makes life predictable.

Imagine my shock when in an article from the Alliance for Useful Evidence I came across this quote from a senior UK policymaker…

One insider’s view of policymakers’ hierarchy of evidence
1. Expert evidence (including consultants and think tanks).
2. Opinion–based evidence (including lobbyists/pressure groups).
3. Ideological evidence (party think tanks, manifestos).
4. Media evidence.
5. Internet evidence.
6. Lay evidence (constituents’ or citizens’ experiences).
7. Street evidence (urban myths, conventional wisdom).
8. Cabbies’ evidence.
9. Research evidence.
Source: Phil Davies, former Deputy Chief Social Researcher, 2007.

Classic British cynicism this list may be. A caricature of reality it may be. Satire it must be. And it is probably all of the above. Only it is also alarmingly close to the truth.

For a decade or more I have worked with policymakers a lot and I would say that the list and the ranking of sources are accurate. It may not be what policymakers say they want. Many are keen to involve themselves in evidence-based policy but very few of them know where to get the evidence or how to evaluate it. They are easily swayed by ‘evidence’ sourced from within their everydayness, and that often includes the Uber driver.

They are not familiar with the peer-reviewed literature. They are not avid readers of systematic reviews and none of them knows how to estimate a likelihood.

The reality is that most of them do not have the tools to separate opinion from evidence.

It is a huge problem for me and, I suspect, for you too.

The policies that become the laws that determine what we can and cannot do, what society allows and tolerates and the big decisions on how we use or abuse the natural resources that we rely on for our wellbeing should be firmly grounded in evidence, not opinion.

The problem with Mr Davies’ list is that eight of the nine sources are contaminated by opinion. The ‘evidence’ may or may not be based on fact and could cease to be evidence altogether when all it is based on is the worldview of Joe citizen.

Opinion, a view or judgement formed about something, not necessarily based on fact or knowledge

Arguably far too many of our laws are judgement calls that have little or no evidence to back them up. A law to protect the koala because it is going extinct when there is no evidence for this peril.

Here is another certainty to add to taxes, crowded trains and coffee. Policymakers will not use real evidence.

Why?

Because they are not trained in how to tell the difference between what they are exposed to and the truth. In their minds, the two are muddled and confused to the point of being indistinguishable.

Optimist

Optimist

My friend is an optimist with prostate cancer. He is in his eightieth year and given that he felt healthy, played golf every day, and had no obvious symptoms, had to think long and hard before deciding to undergo the debilitating treatment that is chemotherapy.

He is also an inspiration. Few would accept and respond to such a difficult emotional challenge of deliberately poisoning your own body because someone else told you it was necessary with the grace and magnanimity that he has shown not just at first when the whole thing is raw, but every time you see him. The good days and the bad are greeted with a spark of clarity and thanks to his god.

The other day another of my golfing buddies brought John over for a yarn and a cold one. The three of us sat for an hour, or maybe two, talking our usual nonsensical theories on how best to hit a small round object forward in a straight line, with the occasional digression into politics and a shot at the breeze. Meaningless drivel among old blokes is truly one of life’s pleasures.

At one point we got onto the environment and from there to my own latest incarnation supporting evidence-based policy. John was enthralled and then effusive. Trying to put accessible finance into the hands of landholders was the best idea he had heard in years. He was genuinely excited.

As you can already tell, John is a ‘half full glass’ type of person, a genuine optimist. Indeed, for him, the optimism and evidence conundrum does not exist to the point his glass brims over not from an excess of positivity but from putting things in their rightful place.

That he found my ideas exciting was the most encouraging thing I’d experienced for a very long time. Most days I face naysayers, antagonists and straight up enemies. I have even begun to wonder if there was any liquid at all in people’s glasses for most are not just negative they are downright aggressive towards our ideas to better understanding the management of natural resources.

Before I get too carried away though, it is true that old men drivel and mates are prone to both rib and big each other up to excess. Most of the greatest ever golf shots known to man have happened on a Sunday afternoon at Springwood Country Club. Only this seemed very different. Maybe it was the chemo or the beer or some hokey pokey between the two but what I felt was level-headed enthusiasm. A point of truth had been made.

I have known for a while that with our afterbefore thinking we are onto something.

The combination of ecological research evidence and counterfactual scenarios, all hanging about in the cloud, can make a difference. Whether we do it or not, critical decisions on sustainable production and future food security will increasingly use more evidence and less gut feel.

So thank you, John. Thank you for being one of the very few to genuinely see what needs to be done and if not by me or by afterbefore, then by someone, soon.

And may that clarity stay with you through your challenges for you have helped more than you know.

Brumby

Brumby

Recently I sent an email to Professor David Watson, an ecologist at Charles Sturt University, who had just resigned from the NSW Threatened Species Scientific Committee.

I don’t know David although he is a fellow scientist, ecologist and peer of sorts. He resigned because the NSW Government passed the Kosciuszko Wild Horse Heritage Bill 2018 that gives protected status to feral horses, the brumby, a bill that not just goes against the Scientific Committee’s advice, it’s diametrically opposite to it.

Professor Watson’s resignation letter said he had better things to do with his time than provide advice that is ignored. Fair enough.

So my email was of support for an important personal decision by someone I don’t know and, for me, that is not something that happens every day.

So why reach out?

Well, the Committee had a draft determination to list wild horses as a Key Threatening Process. This means that there is sufficient scientific evidence that feral horses have a detrimental effect on native plants, animals and ecological communities, especially in alpine regions. In other words, horses are a degradation driver contributing to biodiversity loss.

Horses are like many other exotic species, they are not compatible with the objectives of protected areas. Instead, they make it much harder to protect native species because they are an unusual disturbance, one that the native plants and animals have not evolved alongside. In this instance grazing and hard-hooved trampling that alpine plants in Australia had not previously been subjected to in their recent evolution.

Think about this reality for a moment.

Everywhere that humans go they introduce species. Many of these introductions bring an evolutionary pressure not previously or at least recently present in the native communities of plants and animals. It changes the balance of evolutionary and ecological pressures. Some species benefit, for others, existence and reproduction can become more difficult. In time they are predated, eaten or competed out of the mix.

If the NSW Scientific Committee were looking at listing feral horses as a threatening process, this means there is enough research evidence that wild horses are doing this in NSW national parks, enough to see some native plants and animals at greater risk of extinction than before.

The bill, however, legislates for protection of wild horses. Passing the bill means NSW will have an Act to protect a key driver of biodiversity loss alongside a Biodiversity Act that is supposed to protect native plants and animals from the very same drivers.

It seems very odd to be so contrary, even for politicians. So why do it? It is politics of course.

Many of the wild horse in NSW occur in national parks in bellwether electorates. Seats that often swing hard at state and Federal elections and politics is sensitive just now, perhaps more so than for a while. NSW is about to enter an election, the Federal government has by-elections to worry about and is not long off its own visit to the polls. Then there is the more general turmoil around the world making a mockery of the neo-liberal political norms we have just gotten used to. The politics of horses becomes about those folk who like them for the frontier icon of rural solidity that, to many, they have always been. No matter that they trample a few native plants under-hoof. At this time the sensibility falls towards those folk with an Akubra and a whip and not the dreadlocked ones.

Unfortunately for Professor Watson, his understandable stand for sense over sensibility will only be a gesture, more important to him than anyone else. This is despite the fact that the government has just made a law to protect a driver of biodiversity loss.

It’s all desperate… and rather sad.


Positive future

Scenarios with pragmatic outcomes

Human beings continue to make illogical decisions that hasten the collapse of the natural world that supports us. Most of us die.

After several hundred years, with only a few million humans reduced to ancient style hunting, gathering and skirmishing, nature shows signs of recovery with greenery more verdant than before and wildness returning to the earth.

After a thousand years, the humans have settled into a less prolific growth cycle than before, perhaps learning from their own ancient history.

A new normal has emerged that allows evolution a bit more space to breath. New species evolve to fill the gaps left empty by the millions of species that humans eradicated.

Nature recovers from the sixth mass extinction just as it recovered from the previous five. It takes time of course, but that is nature.

Fairness

Fairness

It would seem that humans beings are innately fair-minded.

They are drawn more to transactions that are fair, if not necessarily equal, over those that might appear economically rational. Social economics research says that if you have $100 and are prepared to share it with me if I’m offered anything less than about $40, I’d rather go without.

This subconscious ‘fairness test’ translates across any number of social transactions.

At the 19th hole after a friendly fourball, it is better to risk the ire of the breathalyzer than for any one member of the group to shirk the fairness of getting in his shout. So when, in order to keep to my self-imposed ‘maximum of 2 beers a day’ rule, I get my round in first or second, then say no thanks on the third and fourth round.

My golfing buddies are incredulous.

“No worries”, I say, “I’m good”.

They insist and with ever-increasing voracity, for I have unwittingly deprived them of fairness. The lime and soda duly arrives as a less than complete compromise.

We have this fairness requirement even if our social systems are steadily imposing the opposite. Wealth, income and opportunity disparities have created ‘have’s’ and ‘have nots’ a plenty. And we all know it to be true, so much so that it can even get some odd folk elected to public office.

No doubt this innate ‘fairness test’ is a driver for any number of historical resets where the ‘have’s’ took too much, beyond what was considered fair, and the masses rose up to change things. There is also no doubt that fairness is hard-wired into every generation. It might even leak across into entitlement.

So the questions to think about are these.

When will the next reset happen?

My guess is that the current return to a political polarisation of sorts is the pre-dinner drinks. It is not the main meal at all. That will come when the old school approach typified by the stupid white men who actually think that if you offer $1 from your $100 it is better than nothing and so you will be grateful for the gesture, finally withers away.

So my guess is not in this but perhaps the next generation. Sometime towards the middle of the century when the reality has bitten a little harder and there has been time for some alternative politics to be invented by the young.

And how will it reset?

A social revolution of course. It is the way… usually.