Why integrity and scepticism are inseparable allies

Why integrity and scepticism are inseparable allies

Scepticism | a sceptical attitude; doubt as to the truth of something

doubt, doubtfulness, dubiousness, a pinch of salt, lack of conviction; disbelief, cynicism, distrust, mistrust, suspicion, misbelief, incredulity; pessimism, defeatism; raredubiety, Pyrrhonism, scepsis, minimifidianism

Integrity | the quality of being honest and having strong moral principles

honesty, uprightness, probity, rectitude, honour, honourableness, upstandingness, good character, principle(s), ethics, morals, righteousness, morality, nobility, high-mindedness, right-mindedness, noble-mindedness, virtue, decency, fairness, scrupulousness, sincerity, truthfulness, trustworthiness

Recently I have been asking myself a lot of questions, some of them pointy.

What is going on in the world? Why are we blind to the impending right-wing takeovers? Why is history repeating? Why do we believe lies? How did I get here?

This is partly a time of life thing and partly a WTF triggered by the state of the world, the country I live in, and my profession. Meantime some workplace nastiness has stalked in from the field and to hit me on the blindside.

In short, I am stressed out.

I have turned to my favourite supports. The butt skyward frame of the downward dog has provided solace, likewise, the gifted Mary Maddux from Meditation Oasis has been a huge help.

Meanwhile, my friends and loved ones have blessed me again and again.

I am starting to feel better.

This time around though my malaise was deep. The forces of the dark side gently yet steadily messing with my balance. I felt like I would fall over at the slightest push.

In this situation, there is only so much the supports can do. They can lift me up each time I fall but they cannot always be there for protection when the winds blow even as they show me how I can be more robust to the gusts and bend more easily. So this time I also sought out and benefited from some professional help.

Therapy is still a little shameful.

It suggests weakness because at the time you are. The point of talking through your inner emotions with a trustworthy stranger is because you need to build or rebuild mental strength. So, yes, I am weak right now. I need help and time to regain my fortitude.

The first couple of sessions went deep. This surprised me a bit. Maybe my subconscious was ready for it, more like ‘screaming to get out’ I think, and one word kept cropping up both during the sessions and as I processed and the therapist listened.

I became fixated with integrity.

My initial conclusion — initial because I suspect that this exploration has only just begun — is that honour and honesty mean a great deal to me, chased closely by character and morals. Integrity is a word to catch deep feelings in a jar and close the lid.

Then I realised that my profession of applied scientist embraces the qualities of integrity, of course, but it demands something else. My work also requires scepticism — the seeking of truth by applying doubt, then displacing it with evidence.

Scepticism is good, at least it should be. Scepticism is the foundation of science and is what separates science from opinion and lies.

As a seeker of truth, you have to question what you hear, see and smell. Even what you touch can deceive and so you apply logic to these things. This is the best way we know to convert information into evidence. My hand smells of lavender because I grasped the seed head of a lavender plant in the garden. The hand wash has the same smell but not necessarily because it had anything to do with a lavender plant.

Integrity and scepticism.

A huge ah-ha arrived when I put these two words together.

Scepticism is a huge threat to integrity.

Integrity functions as a given. You cannot test for it or prove it. Integrity appears through your words and your actions. It is hard to earn and maintain and is lost in a split second. Question a person’s integrity and you wound him. It matters not if there is no foundation, just to ask the question is wielding a weapon.

Yet sceptics cannot help but ask a question for this is what scepticism is, the asking of questions.

It appears I am trained to wound myself.

This is my interpretation and my current landing. My therapist did not suggest this and bears no responsibility other than what can be attributed to gentle prodding and a listening ear. I have decided that I have created a contradiction in myself.

I am latched onto integrity as a core value, if not the core value in my life. And yet all the time I go around questioning almost everything. In the simple act of scepticism, I am wielding a powerful emotional weapon, and just like anyone who would wield a real lightsaber, I am at constant risk of injury.

So far this realisation of self-harm is raw.

It is not really helping me given that I can’t relinquish integrity any more than I can give up scepticism. Both are integral to who I am.

A conundrum must exist. At least I know that now.

Needless to say, I immediately applied my black and white mind to this conundrum in search of a solution. I could give up integrity or scepticism or perhaps both. This would be difficult as a new persona is never easy to build and I would need a new career. Suggestions are most welcome.

Alternatively, I can figure out a better way for them to coexist.

I guess the real problem is that even Master Yoda must have singed a hair or the end of an ear in his fight with Dooku.

Obsessions with endangered species?

Obsessions with endangered species?

Regular readers will know that a long time ago now I wrote a book with Ashley Bland entitled Awkward News for Greenies. It sold a handful of copies but failed to go viral. This could be because we had zero marketing budget or it was a poor book or luck would have it thus. Either way, few read it in 2009 and fewer in the decade since.

Recall this was the time that Al Gore produced ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ and we played on that sentiment in our title. Perhaps it was a poor choice.

Not one of us is fond of being told truths that we don’t want to hear, especially things that we will feel bad about. Indeed humans are expert in avoiding the awkward. This sentiment has taken hold now to the extent that we even elect presidents and prime ministers who are olympian in the skills needed to avoid and deflect awkward truths.

The main argument in Awkward News was that this avoidance behaviour stems from a lack of awareness. We no longer feel or understand the very basis of our existence, now or into the future. Humans in modern societies do not realise that we are here because of nature and the resources it shares with us and we will only stay here in one piece if the natural forces that create clean air, filter water, generate food and moderate climate run at rates to support our burgeoning numbers.

Implicit in this explanation was that environmentalists focus on the wrong things. This is best summarised by what Ursula Heise in her book ‘Imagining extinction’ calls ‘elegies and tragedies for loss of species’. Worry for the fate of cute, furry or feathery species is what we obsess over when we should be most concerned about the ability of nature to keep supplying all those goods and services that keep us alive and well.

When in 2012 I followed up Awkward News with Missing Something, a book that was read by even fewer people, the message was similar.

Humanity has an awareness deficit that science has confirmed and our guts are agonising over. Again the distraction of elegy and tragedy can be overlooked for a pragmatic approach. If we think about our environment and the well-being it delivers, then the evidence we need to convince ourselves of the importance of nature is everywhere we care to look. The truth about nature will speak to us and all will be well.

Well, this nirvana of enlightenment with nature seems less likely by the day.

As we near the end of another decade it feels as though the drift is away from awareness rather than towards it, especially in the formal worlds of bureaucracy and academia. Indeed, drift is a generous adjective.

In the land of policymakers, huge blunders continue along with ostrich behaviours of the sand type. In the ivory towers, a stream of evidence flows on how troubling it all is. Unfortunately, it is easier to generate evidence of loss and degradation than it is to use that evidence to find ways to slow, stop or reverse any undesirable trends. Even a casual glance at the climate change literature confirms this conundrum.

Anyway, here I am, a few years on from my last non-fiction least seller, wondering about the merits of another book on this theme of scaring the horses.

On the downside, should I be spending time on more of the same?

Surely the first two epistles did the job. Anything more is just repetition. And if nobody read the first two, why would a third suddenly shatter the ebook sales records? I am not selling the sure-fire best way to become an overnight squillionaire online.

On the upside, nobody read the first two meaning that very few were scared.

Any messages would be fresh, at least from my peculiar voice, and maybe the passage of time has warmed a few to the general topic of impending doom and how to avoid it. There is also the personal benefit of writing that is cathartic enough for me to feel purged of my personal environmental guilt. That is worth it on its own.

On balance, I have to think that yes I should write it out all over again.

At some point, ideally quite soon, humans will need a realignment with nature that is less about obsessions with the koala and polar bears taking a rest on a tiny iceberg and more about what nature does. If everyone understands that it is the services that nature provides for human well-being that we need to obsess about because the processes matter more than the products.

This message of concern for process over products, especially the rare ones, still needs to be said and heard.

If humanity is to get through its demographic transition without obliterating nature, without creating a future world where even the air is manufactured, then nature and its services must be in our everyday thoughts. We will need to get over our obsession with endangered species with all its misplaced effort into just a handful of nature’s charismatic actors because all that really does is salve a collective conscience.

The neat irony being that the best chance for the koalas, elephants and macaws is if the processes that support them are retained and enhanced. Meaning that a focus on the processes will not always be about exploitation.

It will be a tough gig.

These critters — the endangered species that we truly care about are almost always animals with backbones — are held tight and deep. They represent our guilt even as we continue with wine, dine, waste and flights to Bali.

If you find that waiting for this new work that will only make you feel more guilty and helpless in the face of doom is too much, that you have to know now, then there is always Missing Something to tie you over.

Did the Daleks really mean it — Do we?

Did the Daleks really mean it — Do we?

“Exterminate! Exterminate!”

So shrieks the violent, merciless and pitiless cyborg aliens that Terry Nation invented to populate the Dr Who television universe. These complete metal-clad gits demand total conformity as they seek conquest of the universe and the extermination of what they see as inferior races… just like the Nazis.

Engineered by Davros to have nothing but hate in their souls, the Dalek is the archetype villain that can only be stopped through destruction. Be or be killed. Throw all that anger and disgust toward the source of hostility and exterminate them or they must destroy you. No half measures.

Jeff Sapprow thinks that our current global environmental crisis embodied by warming and biodiversity loss is an ‘extermination event’ and claims that the people killing nature know what they are doing.

Here are just two snippets from his piece in the Guardian.

In 1988 George HW Bush promised on the campaign trail to fight climate change. “I am an environmentalist,” he declared. “Those who think we are powerless to do anything about the greenhouse effect are forgetting about the White House effect.”

Jeff Sparrow

HW wasn’t an environmentalist and the White House? Well, it is just a residence with ineffectual tenants. No matter than some were well-meaning.

“In 1997 the world’s leaders signed the Kyoto protocol, with Bill Clinton declaring “a commitment from our generation to act in the interests of future generations”. More emissions have been released since that agreement than in all of previous history.”

Jeff Sparrow

Yes, in all previous history.

The last twenty years have seen us all burn, belch and clear to release more greenhouse gas than the combined efforts of all the people gone before. The Daleks would have nodded if they could.

That we have done this with intent, along with the habitat conversion, pollution and resource depletion that goes with it, is a bold call. Did we do it to exterminate and control the universe or just to make a buck and fuck?

The evidence is that we have not been blind. The warming and the loss we have known about since the 1950’s making ignorance a poor excuse. If we knew what was happening, then we knew what we were doing.

Obviously we knew (know) that we were (are) pillaging but our intent was (is) probably personal.

We each want a better life for ourselves and, maybe at a push, for our children. Better means more food, a bigger house, bolder cars and streaming services. Those in less blessed places just want some food and a bicycle. Either way, it is personal motivation, not exactly global domination at the expense of the weak and inferior that guides our behaviours.

However, it is bold to say that our intent is to exterminate.

The Dalek caricature strips back any mediating emotions to leave hate as the primary source of power for raw hate is blind and ruthless.

Surely we have some mitigating emotions within us. There is a kernel of goodness in there. We connect, love and live amongst each other most of the time. That you can dial 000 and get help remains quite remarkable evidence that we are not all bad.

Indeed, when my tooth broke this week and my wife booked a dental appointment for the next day from her phone at the beach it was awesome. Then when the treatment was super high-tech and the dentist first-class fixing the tooth within 24 hours I knew I was both fortunate but also grateful.

So I do not believe it is an extermination event, even though it looks like one.

Humans are not pitiless cyborgs but we are easily led by the stupid, ignorant and morally corrupt. The result might be the same.

I’ll leave with a reminder from Jeff Sparrow’s piece of how fine the line is between the two motivations.

“How petty, how small, how childish do those politicians with the temerity to attack Greta Thunberg look! She speaks for science, idealism and hope; they embody an ignorance or cynicism so deep as to constitute depravity.”

Jeff Sparrow

Perceptions are everything we need to question

Perceptions are everything we need to question

I just read a fascinating book entitled Radical Help by social entrepreneur Hilary Cottam. This woman, a maverick with a heart of gold, is taking on the establishment in ways it hates, by questioning everything.

What she has discovered is gold.

She begins her descriptions of what she calls ‘experiments’ with a social statement, here is one…

Wages for more than twenty million British families – 64 per cent of the population – are too low to live on. It is worth repeating that a far greater proportion of benefits are paid to those in work on low wages than to those out of work, as for millions the categories of work and welfare collapse into one another.

Hilary Cottam, Radical Help

In other words, the economic system is failing the majority, including those who find fulfilment and purpose in gainful employment.

Add to this 64% figure the fact that payments to those out of work account for just 1% of the UK welfare budget – equivalent to less than £3 billion a year – and the clear implication is that people are not bludgers, they want to work for a fair wage, enough to live and raise their families.

Thinking on these numbers some more, Cottam adds another key insight. People want purpose. Give them this and they will not only work hard but at almost any task aligned to their purpose.

How easy should it be to harness this immense power? When people can connect, cooperate, innovate they will solve what seems intractable. Everything is possible with aligned people power. Except that this is not some neo-socialism virus about to infect us all, it is actually about each person and how each one of us goes about our everyday lives. It is the power to grow our own wellbeing.

At the core of this power is the human connections we make.

When we are close to one another we literally move mountains. When I tell my wife this dramatic insight she simply smiles knowingly. A retired couples therapist, her entire career gave evidence to the power of connection. Deep connections are what hold us up and keep us together.

George Monbiot, in typical acerbic style, tells it more simply — no human on the savanna would have survived one night on their own.

Putting people together so that they can form connections that matter to them is what Hilary Cottam does in her experiments. It matters little if the people are old, young, disadvantaged or disabled. It seems that even the bored and the disillusioned will succumb to the salve of genuine human connection.

Back in the real world, the perception we are sold is that people are lazy, preferring the couch and a games controller to work and responsibility.

This may be true for some but it is not our natural state. Humans would not be so populous and prosperous today if our ancestors were innate bludgers with no connections. Our genes would have gone the way of the dodo and maybe neanderthals would be thumping their way around the globe.

So next time you hear that we are obese, lazy slobs with diabetes… do not, and I repeat in big letters, DO NOT believe this nonsense.

Instead, go get yourself a copy of Radical Help, read it and then go lobby your local politician.

Don’t tell them to change the system, just let them know that people are all-powerful, they just need a helping hand, not a handout.

Seriously, go read it. You will be amazed.

This is pivot day

This is pivot day

I don’t know why it’s this day, but today is pivotal.

It is the day when the past is very different to the future.

Today is when the passengers in the global busload of humanity wake and realise that the driver is heading for the cliff of chaos with his foot on the floor.

Today people realise.

They start to squirm in their seats.

This day they mutter amongst themselves, they tell the driver to apply the brake and steer away or else.

This is the day.

26 September 2019

Mark it.

Put a sticky on it, make a special diary entry, come back to note that this day happened, the day of the first twitch toward a better future.

Nobody knows because we are lazy

Nobody knows because we are lazy

It is hilarious when the ‘nobody knows’ card is played on the TV quiz show QI because it signifies trivia we do know is so obscure and seemingly irrelevant to anything that when the gotcha comes it is just weird.

What ‘Quite Interesting’ does illustrate beautifully, as it takes the piss out of our insatiable desire to know something nobody else does, is that humans are too curious for our own good. We rummage around finding out about the most obscure topics and then we remember large amounts of what we found. Staggeringly large amounts.

If you think about it, that a comic actor should know that ‘the Dyslexia Research Centre is in Reading’ is amazing and bizarre in equal measure. #RespectAllan.

We could dip into some evolutionary biology trivia. This will tell us the ability to seek, find and remember small points of difference in things is a core skill set for our success as a species. It meant we knew where to find food when it mattered, recognise danger from the smallest signs, to retain that information for a long time and to experiment with finding new resources. Add communication along with the division of labour to that mix and we’re off.

So our brains are set up to find and store detail. This is good.

But not everyone does trivia. No two faces are the same and neither are the brains that sit behind them.

Some people are really good at finding information and retain little; others can remember what their daughter was wearing to her friend’s birthday party three years ago. This is good too. It means that we have a range of abilities within the core skill set so that people can specialise in certain tasks. This makes tasks easier to complete if the adept person is the one to do it and provides the raw material for the essential division of labour.

Aggregate this across a modern society and we have any number of skills, trades, and functions performed mostly by the people best suited to them. This makes our systems efficient and also helps explain why humans have taken over the world.

So far this is a euphoric post, a vision of success through an explanation of why we hold on to information and anecdotes with no obvious benefit.

Only some people are not very good at trivia. They may have poor memory or just not inclined to widen their knowledge. They might be in the wrong place where their particular talent or inclination is not needed for any useful tasks or the system can’t match their skill to a need. No matching process can be perfect so we have to accept some errors.

So now, out of the blue, I’m going to suggest another reason. Perhaps some people are lazy.

Yes, it could be that the reason they don’t know is that they just don’t put in the effort. They don’t read, they don’t talk about issues with their friends, they don’t watch the news even though they rarely get off the couch. It is sad but true. Some of us are lazy buggers with no motivation to understand the magnificent world we live in.

Shame on us lazy bastards. Shame on our fat arses.

Get off the couch, go read something with evidence in it and then think about what you have read. Talk to your friends about it and argue with them. Debate the issues of the day and set that immensely powerful brain of yours to work on a challenge.

Please do this. Your life depends on it.

Will we die of the populist virus?

Will we die of the populist virus?

A populist virus is with western democracy and we have no vaccine.

The virus is virulent with insidious symptoms that begin with the loss of rhyme and reason flowing seamlessly into early-onset imbecility and then late-stage demagoguery. So far there is no cure for the frat party gone wild.

Unlike the cold and flu virus that mutates away into any number of strains and generates fever, coughs and sore throats enough to put all the men in bed for a week, the populist virus is a dandy thing. It incites bouts of clapping, cheering, and crowdsourced glee at almost anything said by a carrier. As its designation suggests, it goes viral online faster than anything carried by a flea and contaminates all feeds all the time.

Being devoid of content, antibodies have nothing to attach to, making it difficult in the extreme for any would-be medic, not even big pharma has enough resources to find an antidote.

Alistair Campbell, spin doctor and thought machine behind Tony Blair and New Labour from the mid-1990s in the UK, talks about the populist virus and had this to say when considering the choice between Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt for the next UK Prime Minister

“I mean, we have gone from figures like Thatcher leading the Tory party to this being the choice. But also, it was the extent to which the really simplistic, populist, fact-free rhetoric was the stuff which was getting the applause. Where even five, 10 years ago, there would have been the absolute howl of ‘How are you going to pay for it? What happens if that doesn’t happen?’

When Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979 I was just about to become a university student. It was a painful time but boy did she get things done. Neo-liberalism was embraced and before anyone really knew what was happening the unions were busted and ordinary folk up and down the UK were buying their terrace house and giving birth to yuppies. Much of this was new and scary and ego-centric but mountains moved.

Likely that the early mutations of the populist virus, the ones with little chance of real success appeared around that time when there were still enough howling to weed them out.

Today we do not have any leaders worthy of the name anywhere except in New Zealand. Consequently, the virus has the freedom to spawn, spread and mess with everyone’s heads so much that people cheer at the detention of women and children in cages at borders.

This is frightening. Not many would look back at the political climate of the UK in the early eighties and lament its strong leadership. At the time it felt like a rape of a socialist ethos, today you would take it in a heartbeat for at least you knew what the leaders were about.

Now we have a virus afflicting normal people with insanity.

Is the populist virus fatal?

Well, we know that populism is doing well and is spreading. Some folk have an innate resistance to it but can still carry it forward to others.

It is pushing evidence and facts to one side as it bends minds away from even the most obvious of conclusions. It means we are running blind into a world that is still adding 8,000 new people per hour and where 3.3 billion souls are getting by on $5.50 per day.

The estimate from the agricultural research community is that by 2030 we need to increase global grain production by over a billion tonnes and meat production by 180 million tonnes, just to get close to the rising demand. That’s 2% per annum food production growth across the board each and every year for a generation. Just because we achieved such a miracle once before in the 1940s and 50s, does not mean we can automatically do it again.

Blindness is not necessarily fatal unless you think you can see. Then you can easily walk out in front of a bus.

The real difficulty with this virus seems to be the antidote. What to take to reduce the effects of imbecility. On this problem, everyone is at a loss, even Jacinta.

Progressives are old and tired and the centre is scurrying to the populist left to express the symptoms of the virus there.

Fringe alternatives are unable to grasp the magnitude of the task for the mainstream – we can’t all live on a mountaintop on goats milk.

The ivory towers are mute and even George Monbiot is struggling to find a whinge.

You know what? I think maybe we will collapse under the weight of this virus or a subsequent mutation of it.

At the very least too many of us will succumb after two terms of Donald, another two of Ivanka, even five minutes of Boris, and become rabid, spreading infection out to the entire world.

But I have a solution…

Get everyone to read The Courage to be Disliked by Ichiro Kishimi and Fumitake Koga and inoculate ourselves with some Adlerian psychology.