Daniel Levitin is James McGill Professor Emeritus of psychology and behavioural neuroscience at McGill University in Montreal, Canada.
All five books of his books are international bestsellers: This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession (2006), The World in Six Songs: How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature (2008), The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload (2014), A Field Guide to Lies: Critical Thinking in the Information Age (2016) and Successful Aging (2020).
He is also a music producer and sound designer with contributions to recordings that have sold over 30 million copies.
There is a real worldliness to his writing with many a quotable quote.
Here is one.
The internet delivers one who will help you and the other who will hurt you.
Sharp and insightful this one. The internet will either help or hinder and the responsibility to choose falls on the consumer of the information.
That’s you and me.
A ubiquitous and accessible internet is life-changing. We get all the information we need with a few clicks.
Knowledge is power but with power comes responsibility for ourselves. In everyday web use, it’s in the decision to value or trash the information that the internet coughs up in a millisecond.
In other words, it is not the fault of information access and free speech that we get trolls, alternate facts, deception, and lies. Bad stuff is a consequence of an open platform.
Ask a thousand people and some version of family, health, education, safety, work, and maybe happiness, are up there on top of the list for everyone.
The evolutionary biologist knows this already because these values map directly onto fundamentals that apply to all organisms — the blueprint for organic life.
survival, growth, and reproduction
Happiness and the many other higher self values that are supposed to be unique to humans are also predictable for an organism that can integrate the basic values into something bigger.
We can smile when we have the fundamental values met.
What value means
Value when used as a noun to meanone’s judgement of what is important in life is consistent with this evolutionary idea. What is important in life is what gets us to the successful reproduction of our lineage in spite of the drama.
Then we also use value as a verb meaning to estimate the monetary worth or consider (someone or something) to be important or beneficial.
This too is consistent with the evolutionary imperative.
Items and actions that are important, beneficial, and financial all matter to how successful we think we are, be that in the evolutionary currency of reproductive success or the more immediate race against the Joneses.
Value as a verb — the expression of an action or a state of being — is to estimate or assign the monetary worth to an object or service or anything with utility.
It can also mean to rate or scale in usefulness, importance, or general worth.
Either way, value is linked to the modern expression of evolutionary success, namely money.
All this makes the claim by economists that economic theory is value-free quite absurd.
And yet we let such theory run our society.
Why would we run the show on a supposed value-free premise, when in reality we value everything?
Narnia is the fictional land invented by CS Lewis where he took Alice for epic brawls between good and evil.
A Goodreads reviewer described Narnia as a land where magic meets reality, and the result is a fictional world whose scope has fascinated generations.
Magic crashing into reality.
Fiction is absorbing because it could be true. All we have to do is suspend our disbelief long enough to identify with the characters in the story and we are invested, even with a white rabbit that talks.
Where the rabbit hangs out, we believe too.
Life would be strange, but not half as fanciful without fictional lands imagined for our entertainment.
As my wife reminds me, we are in and of this world. That is the real one that we inhabit every day. The one that throws up challenges, curveballs and exposes everyone to COVID.
Sometimes it feels imagined when everyone in the neighbourhood locks down, and the bustle suddenly stops. There are no cars, few buses and dogs taken for more walks than they ever thought possible.
Then previously unacceptable rates of infection that made lockdowns essential are ok after all. Case numbers can grow exponentially. It feels like a 180 because it is — the race that was not a race is not a race again.
Maybe it is Narnia.
CSIRO seem to think so.
In this mythical land, payments for environmental services such as carbon sequestration, clean water and habitat for wildlife would be 80% of the roughly $65 billion in agricultural production worth 6% of GDP.
In a generation, the budget will somehow shift to pay 6% of current GDP on environmental services.
First, let’s make a few context numbers available.
As of 2020, agriculture accounts for
55% of Australian land use (427 million hectares, excluding timber production)
25% of water extractions (3,113 gigalitres used by agriculture in 2018–19);
11% of goods and services exports in 2019–20;
1.9% of value-added (GDP) and
2.6% of employment in 2019–20
In other words, Australian agriculture is conspicuous without being the backbone of the economy.
Services deliver a steady two-thirds of GDP and industry a quarter, whilst in dollars, mining provides around $200 billion.
The big employers in Australia are health care, retail, professional services, construction and retail, who all have more than 3x the number of workers as agriculture.
Australia is one of the most food-secure nations in the world. Not only is agricultural production diverse across the varied climate and soils of the continent, with an array of nutritious foods grown, but Australia also produces more food than it consumes, exporting around 70% of agricultural production.
As of 2020, around 3.5 million people, 14% of the population, live in rural areas. This population has declined as a proportion of the total population but has doubled in absolute numbers since 1960.
Not a big deal for the economy or employment, already growing enough food with a stable rural population.
Not too many of these fundamentals suggest the need for an environmental market.
A $48 billion environmental market
Climate change is the only driver to promote a market equivalent to 80% of the agricultural sector.
Somehow, society would decide to seed emissions offsets and other environmental credits to kick start a market where consumers and taxpayers pay for actions that deliver fungible environmental credits.
This would be a fantastic outcome.
Farmers and landholders would be paid to put carbon back into soil and vegetation, hold water on their land, restore habitat, fence off streams and restore habitat for wildlife.
But we fund all of these activities already. Only it is done with a few dollars at the margins.
So what would be different in the next 20 years that has not already been the case for the past 30?
The rhetoric about climate change perhaps?
Delivering on commitments to the Paris agreement?
A 180 on climate policy?
A young girl named Alice falls through a rabbit hole into a fantasy world?
Comparison is always critical when dealing with numbers. On its own, a number makes no sense, it’s naked, self-conscious and insecure. It needs some context for clothing and some friends to compare against.
Makes good sense.
50 bananas are way too many for one family but nowhere near enough for the local greengrocer.
What then to make of two numbers quoted in a study of feral cats
2.4 billion birds
12.3 billion mammals
2,400,000,000 must be a large number.
Any number with that many zeros must be important.
So I went to the source of the number, the research article
Loss, S. R., Will, T., & Marra, P. P. (2013). The impact of free-ranging domestic cats on wildlife of the United States. Nature communications, 4(1), 1-8.
In the abstract, we find that our large number is actually the median value in a range from 1.3 to 4 billion birds killed by cats.
In other words, the real number could be 1.1 billion smaller or 1.6 billion larger than the one in the quote. There is a distribution of likely true values for the number of birds killed by cats.
The 2.4 billion number was calculated after gathering all the reliable evidence on predation rates by cats from the research literature and multiplying this by estimates of cat abundance across the US.
More technically, “We estimated wildlife mortality in the contiguous United States by multiplying data-derived probability distributions of predation rates by distributions of estimated cat abundance” (Loss et al 2013). The probability distributions were generated by repeating this calculation 10,000 times using random selections (random draw) of the predation rates reported in the literature.
Alright, now we are getting somewhere.
The context is that the key parameters to generate 2.4 billion are predation rate and cat abundance and both these values come from a range reported in the research literature.
We also learn that predation is by predominantly feral cats, that is cats that exist in the wild and feed themselves by doing what cats do best — catch and eat small prey.
It is the unowned (feral) cats that do the heavy lifting to generate the number and not the moggy taking a saunter out of the cat flap once in a while.
So far so good.
Now we know where the number came from and can assume that the best available evidence was used to set the parameters in a simple multiplication — predation rate x number of cats.
The number is still naked
Knowing where 2.4 billion came from does not give us the full context.
What we need to know is how many birds are there? How many birds die each year from other causes than predation by cats?
Then we might ask the really important questions.
Are the numbers of birds changing over time?
Is any change in numbers over time (the trend) due to predation by cats?
Are there any other reasons why bird numbers might change?
You see 2.4 billion is likely a small proportion of the total number of birds alive in the continental US and perhaps even a small proportion of those that die each year.
Small temperate-zone songbirds have a life expectancy of around 10 months. This means that many birds in the backyard do not last a year but persist through their progeny. If the bird that gets caught by a cat had already reproduced then it makes n material difference to the bird population.
Equally, there are other predators out there that eat songbirds, notably other birds. Raptors (eagles, owls and hawks) that eat adult birds and a host of bird and mammal species that raid nests for eggs and chicks.
Predation by cats is just another risk.
Always seek context
2.4 billion sounds like a very big number and it might be.
We don’t know if it is or if something should be done to change it unless the context is understood.
Any number quoted in isolation and especially those used to provoke an emotional response is naked and lacks significance without all the extra information around it.
Look for the context before taking any number seriously.