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?