Get real people

Get real people

I am currently reading The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany by William L. Shirer, a tome that chronicles the rise and fall of Nazi Germany from the birth of Adolf Hitler in 1889 to the end of World War II in 1945, some 1,200+ pages of sobering reality.

A chronicler that lived through the historical events he recounts has a unique perspective that is close but not necessarily intimate with them. He can be criticised on fact, sequence and detail. There will also be problems when opinion and, in this chronicle, horror at the events inevitably creep in. However, it is a history and one that we should all read for its own sake and because it is highly relevant to our present times.

Halfway through the book, the point at which Hitler has ordered the invasion of Poland, the fateful decision that forced the British and the French to declare war on Germany, there is a matter of fact note of the panzer divisions and the Luftwaffe securing a swift victory over the Polish defences.

There is much to be remembered about that fateful period in September 1939 but there is a footnote in Shirer’s account that resonated deeply when I read it.

He notes that the official records of German casualties were 10,572 killed, 30,322 wounded and 3,400 missing.

Pause for a moment to take in those numbers.

Then recall that this is the army that won in a highly successful and soon to be repeated blitzkrieg. Yet still, tens of thousands of German mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers were devastated with grief, over 50,000 families irrevocably scarred, and this was just the first skirmish.

Unimaginable horrors were inflicted on the Polish people in those first few days of the war and many ever more evil acts followed. It is unimaginable what life became when there were bombs whistling down from the sky and tanks rumbling past your front door.

Do not kid yourself that such fear will never be felt again.

Do not think that we are safe from tyranny and evil.

We are not safe.

We must be vigilant for those German families did not see it coming and neither do we.

Steadily the safeguards that humanity put in place are being eroded. We have politicians that are both gutless and a law unto themselves.

We have media that operate as powerful influencers with lies and deceit.

We face resource shortfalls that will test food and water security for billions of people and we have little idea of how to resolve them.

So we need to wake up.

Recall of vegan foods because they might contain dairy is, seriously, the least of our worries.

Do you bullshit?

Do you bullshit?

“People are social animals and we desire feelings of connection, belonging, and inclusion, so we try to participate when it is critical to build and maintain these relationships. Such situations sometimes require us to talk about things we really know nothing about, and what comes out is bullshit.”

John Petrocelli, a psychologist at Wake Forest University, North Carolina.

Oh my lordy. Isn’t that just the truth.

How many times have you been in a bar with a bunch of blokes and they are full of it? White lies, porkies and scandalous nonsense abound from the time they were in a brothel in Bali to the time they drove it past the fairway bunker on the 8th at the country club.

Bullshit, not even DJ hits it that far.

The problem though, is that we all do it. And we don’t need a skinful before we start harping on about Higgs bozons with quantum excitement or that we once met Agent Smith in the bar at the Sydney opera house.

We are also keen to pass it forward.

Apparently, around 60% of Facebook and Twitter posts are shared without clicking through, meaning that we read just the headline and not the article. Good work people, share the love.

Whilst it might hum a little, most bullshit is fairly harmless. It generates mild benefit to the spreader and an equivalent warm and wet feeling to the recipients, most of whom will have a sensitivity meter reading available. The meter goes off and deflects any further slurries.

This is true for most of the social animal situations John Petrocelli quotes.

Increasingly though the shit is indeed spreading.

There are a number of folk pointing out that more and more people, especially those in the media and in politics, are using bullshit to sell their positions.

The US Kindle store returns over 230 titles for a search on ‘post truth politics’

Post-truth politics, a political culture in which debate is framed largely by appeals to emotion disconnected from the details of policy, and by the repeated assertion of talking points to which factual rebuttals are ignored.

It’s a thing.

And it’s a big thing because if you are a politician and you lie, a miracle happens: people believe you. And if they believe you then it wasn’t a lie, it was the truth.

So do you bullshit?

You do of course. The thing is, do you do it to feel good, be part of the group and spread it harmlessly onto a small fan or do you engage in it to influence, change people’s minds and bend them to your will.

Have a think about it because it actually matters.

Why we are besotted with cute animals

Why we are besotted with cute animals

Gogglebox is a popular TV show in Australia. Turns out that ‘watching people on TV watching TV’ is actually a clever and cheap way to capture the intensity of emotions that the producers of television entertainment have wet dreams about.

It happened this week when we watched people watching a show about a zoo in the UK where a giraffe, pregnant for 14 months, gave birth on film. The 60-kilo youngster entered the world from a great height and lay still on the ground for an eternity.

Was it alive?

Did the fall break its neck?

Was it stillborn?

Oh my god, will it breathe? Breathe, please breathe.

Look! There, there, its nostrils are twitching.

It’s alive. Thank heaven it’s alive. Pass the tissues.

I kid you not. These were the reactions of the Goggleboxers and no doubt most of the viewers who saw the show when it went to air. It’s why the producers made it. They knew there would be a deep reaction and they knew they had gold as soon as the birthing footage was in.

Rather than scurry along with the psychology of the entertainment industry, the healthy thinking idea today is what makes us so attached to animals and to birth in particular.

Consider the giraffe

Back in the day, we ate giraffes. At least we would if we could catch them.

An adult giraffe is hard to pull down with primitive tools and the more manageable youngster has its mother with dinner plate sized hooves to help protect it. Even lions find it hard to kill a giraffe, so no doubt our ancestors did too, but they would have tried. Cuteness did not overcome the desire to eat.

Somewhere along the way cuteness grew or, as seems more likely, hunger withdrew. As soon as we had agriculture and food supply chains then it was much easier to build cuteness into our lives. We even started to keep pets, perhaps in response to our insatiable need for human relationships, especially those between parent and child.

How many lap dogs are obviously surrogate kids that behave themselves?

Cuteness in animals is because they can look like babies. The cutest pets tend to be small, have forward facing eyes, are unconditionally needy, and fluffy or, as in the case of the giraffe on Gogglebox, newborn. Many of these attributes can generate more satisfaction than the real thing and are excellent surrogates for people who either have grown up children or none at all.

This is the key. Animals are just like babies.

Their cuteness is attractive. And it sticks thanks to that unconditionality that all animals have, even the giraffe caged in a zoo. The animal is controlled and cannot hurt us.

As visitors, we can smile, sigh ahh, say a few squishy words, whiff the dung and move on.

In return, it looks at us with those doughy eyes and we think it loves us. Well, it does love its keepers because they bring a regular supply of food.

You can’t go past the unconditional affection from a dog, even the pretend aloofness of a cat. And then they are soft and cuddly, wow.

The reality is we love animals, the cute ones, not the yukky creepy crawly ones. And surely this reality is of little consequence. All it means is that we will have pets, keep animals in zoos and pay money to ensure that the koala can be saved.

We love animals

This love is hard-wired. It is not going away.

These days people would starve before they could knock the baby giraffe on the head and roast its leg. And if they were mad enough to do it, they would go to prison and suffer a slow death by social media.

So we love them. It is a given.

Now let’s think about what that means…

  1. There will be pets, lots of them, just shy of 90 million dogs in the US alone and growing in number by over 1 million per year
  2. We will prefer to protect koalas because you can hold them and their fur is soft but maybe not polar bears so much, and elephants less than bears
  3. It is unlikely that we will ever consider it important to protect insects
  4. We will have to ignore the fact that before we ate its rump, the cow was cute(ish) and that venison was… no, you can’t say it.

Even if you go past the obvious contradictions, we have ourselves a problem.

Why the sixth mass extinction was inevitable

Why the sixth mass extinction was inevitable

Palaeontologists have a fine time of it. They fossick around in obscure parts of the world where there are few people and take a hammer to rocks.

They have done this for generations, found lots of fossils, and come up with some interesting conclusions.

Here are five of them.

  • 444 million years ago 86% of species were lost.
  • 375 million years ago 75% of species were lost
  • 251 million years ago 96% of species were lost
  • 200 million years ago 80% of species were lost
  • 66 million years ago 76% of species were lost.

These are, of course, the five mass extinction events in the fossil record. The last one being the most famous when all the dinosaurs copped it.

Here is another pattern they found

Over time diversity has increased despite these mass extinctions and several smaller ones in between them.

There are more species alive today than at any other time in evolutionary history, despite the obvious fact that humans are kicking the sixth mass extinction into existence.

This is the history of life on earth. It is dynamic with huge shifts in diversity but with an underlying driver powerful enough to increase diversity over time.

If you believe this evidence then a few core concepts become clear:

  1. Extinction happens.
  2. Large extinction events happen often enough to make another one inevitable.
  3. After extinction events, diversity recovers
  4. And for at least 150 million years the trend is for diversity to increase rapidly, noting that the non-avian dinosaurs were lost during this time.

Diversity happens because there is time enough for mutation and natural selection to hone any number of specialisms. When organisms specialise they are successful in a relatively narrow set of conditions. A proportion of species become vulnerable to change in those conditions.

Enter human beings. Modestly specialised initially but with a distinct advantage. They had the brains and communication to adapt to a wide range of conditions, especially when they tamed fire and then much later discovered fossil fuels.

Once in control of energy humans have appropriated over half the global biomass production, removed vegetation, getting rid of wildlife and altered the composition of the atmosphere. More than enough change for mass extinction.

Humans affected the change but change would have happened at some point. Tectonic plates moving to cut off ocean gyres, volcanic eruptions, another meteorite strike, it would happen soon enough, maybe 50 million years hence.

Is the reality of extinction too painful?

Perhaps it is. Perhaps we are just too much in the present day to accept timeframes beyond ourselves. Certainly, there will be huge consequences of extinction for our production systems, the ecosystem services we rely on, and the very liveability of the planet for our species.

We’ll need a lot of adaptation to survive.

What we might also remember as we plan for change and seek to retain what we can of the diversity of life, that extinction is real and inevitable. It is as much a part of the process of evolution as the creation of new types.

Why it is wise keep judgement to yourself

Why it is wise keep judgement to yourself

My mum, who is chinwagging with the angels, always used to say that you should not judge people.

Sage advice.

We are not supposed to pass judgement even though it means we have considered matters and reached a sensible conclusion because if we get it wrong or judge harshly all that happens is that we sour relationships and upset people. And, as we all know, people are easily upset especially when they feel judged.

On legal issues, we leave judgement to the judge because she should be across everything presented for both sides of a case. On everyday issues… well, none of us is really in full possession of the facts and we let opinion rule.

My mum was against opinion despite having a few of her own.

So we should avoid judgement in our day to day so as to avoid the risk of getting it wrong. You never really know the truth of a person’s motivation unless you’re really good at reading behind their eyes.

Only there is more.

There is also discernment, the ability to judge well. As Wikipedia states…

“Within judgment, discernment involves going past the mere perception of something and making nuanced judgments about its properties or qualities. Considered as a virtue, a discerning individual is considered to possess wisdom, and be of good judgement; especially so with regard to subject matter often overlooked by others.”

Berated for judging, heralded for nuanced judging, because if you are good a discernment then you have wisdom.

Oh my, how fickle it all is.

Don’t judge but be discerning.

Reminds me of Joe Jackson’s ‘It’s different for girls’ lyric

Mama always told me save yourself
Take a little time and find the right girl
Then again don’t end up on the shelf
Logical advice gets you in a whirl

Here is some healthy thinking on this conundrum

  • Make it a habit not to judge
  • When a judgement is required keep it to yourself
  • Only tell anyone your judgement when forced by a sharp object
  • Don’t try to explain your judgement
  • Never try to justify any judgement even if it is forced out of you
  • Practice discernment on yourself
  • Remind yourself that discernment is so rare it is nearly extinct

Smile instead

Oh yes, and listen to your mum.

Objectivity

Objectivity

I’m sure you would say that you are impartial and that you are “not influenced by personal feelings or opinions in considering and representing facts”. Indeed you would say that objectivity is a feature of your everydayness.

At least this is what our parents and teachers taught us to say.

What these good folks often forgot to mention was that being objective takes effort and a lot of it. In order to be objective a person must know or have access to real kernels of truth, irrefutable information, that is things that are known or proved to be true.

In short, objectivity requires evidence.

This means that becoming and remaining an objective person takes constant effort to assemble and evaluate evidence. It means knowing a fact when you see one and also where to look for those that you do not have to hand. It takes rigour.

This should be easy enough in this world of internet searches and virtual assistants but just because an important or famous persons says something or it is reported on commercial media, does not make it a fact. There is learning, skill and experience in making sure that information is factual, reliable and accurate, not to mention relevant.

Just yesterday there was typical vision on the news of a windswept reporter wearing logo embossed gore tex standing in front of a collapsed shed. There had been a supercell storm. An event so powerful “the town was all but destroyed”. Only wait a minute. The ‘town’ was home to 20 people, it was a hamlet at best where most of the houses were still standing. Pan out from the close crop of the flimsy shed and the destruction was hard to see.

Access to information is only the first part of objectivity.

There is information in profusion and some of it is irrefutable. The shed was in a mess. The problem is there was no town and no information beyond the close up of the shed to indicate destruction. What we actually have is a visual fact and a host of loose interpretation and opinion. We must also trust the reputation of the news channel and believe that the reporter was indeed in central Queensland. She could have been in a studio with a wind machine and a green screen.

One irrefutable fact – an image of an upside down shed – is not enough.

Objectivity requires numerous validated facts that must override a host of deep, ingrained and often long standing feelings that are part nature, part nurture and part sheer bloody mindedness. Objectivity means not just accumulation but the ability to sift through facts and put them into context, a process of evaluation to generate relevance.

Now we are lurching rapidly toward some serious effort.

Not only must we have asked Alexa or said hey Google for the relevant facts, we must not just take what the virtual assistants on the smartphone says as gospel. There is another step to objectivity that requires we evaluate the facts for their individual efficacy – are they true – as well as what that piece of information brings to the challenge or conundrum we are trying to be objective about.

Knowledge is not just about committing facts to memory, it requires an additional step, relevance.

A koala example

Let’s consider an example and try to be objective about the following statement:

The koala is in serious danger of going extinct therefore we must do all we can to protect it.

Australians understand what this means but it doesn’t have to be the koala, it could be the lion, tiger, African elephant or the ghost orchid, Dendrophylax lindenii, known only from a handful of tiny sites in Oxfordshire.

Feel free to insert into the clause whatever species you are told is in danger of extinction. The challenge is how to be objective when presented with such an edict of irreversible loss.

Begin with getting yourself across the suitable, irrefutable and relevant facts.

And here is the initial challenge. What facts are these?

Well given the edict, it would have to be facts about how many koalas are currently alive, what has happened to their numbers in historical and recent times, and evidence for the presence and veracity of threats to their continued existence.

In other words you need to be cognisant of and able to evaluate the population dynamics of koalas as well as the key drivers of those dynamics before you can be objective about the clause regarding extinction.

Curiously, the Australian government factsheet on Koala populations in Queensland, New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory and national environment law does not say how many koalas there are in Australia. What is does say is there are koalas living wild across a range that stretches the entire eastern seaboard of the continent.

Similarly the NSW government’s $44.7 million NSW Koala Strategy does not mention how many koalas there are in the state of NSW.

The Australian Koala Foundation estimates that there are less than 100,000 Koalas left in the wild, possibly as few as 43,000. However, the link that sends you to a page on how this estimate came about was broken.

You need to go to the science literature to get a more robust estimate.

Phillips (2000) reports koala population trends in the reputable journal Conservation Biology as declining from a population size somewhere <100,000 to “an order of magnitude larger”. That’s a discrepancy estimate of around 900,000 that, even for an error estimate, is quite a few more than the 43,000 the conservationists would have us believe are currently extant.

More recently McAlpine et al (2015) looked at ‘Conserving koalas: A review of the contrasting regional trends, outlooks and policy challenges’ in the equally reputable journal Biological Conservation and presented some density data but no actual numbers for total population.

I could go on but I suspect you are getting the message.

The suitable, irrefutable and relevant facts are not easy to find or may not exist at all. In the case of koala numbers, it would seem that nobody knows how many there are in Australia right now, let alone historically. The key facts are actually a known unknown (although nobody close to the problem would admit to this).

In the absence of accessible facts we might choose to rely on the Commonwealth Scientific Committee that gathers information to match the status of species and habitats believed to be at risk of extinction and evaluates this information against agreed IUCN criteria, the global standard. This is the independent body of scientists tasked with deciding if a species or habitat type is at risk of extinction across Australia.

What they said about the koala in the koala population factsheet was nothing about the populations of koala, that is, how many there are now or were around in the past. There’s a nice map of where they are known to occur and if you are a species with a distribution that covers a third of a continent you are probably not too worried. But even in the absence of evidence and a truth that the koala is unlikely to go extinct soon, if at all, the federal environment minister listed Australia’s most at risk koala populations in April 2012 as vulnerable under national environment law

This means that the system set up to evaluate the evidence for decision making on whether a species is at risk of extinction in the wild did not find enough evidence, but it made a decision anyway. Perhaps the scientific committee invoked the precautionary principle or, dare I say, they temporarily put objectivity aside in favour of political expediency or public opinion.

How dare you!

What to do?

This example is typical. It means that it is very hard to obtain and evaluate enough relevant facts to be truly objective. There will usually be holes in your own or the collective knowledge, known unknowns and unknown unknowns. It is rare that we are across all the relevant facts.

The koala is in serious danger of going extinct therefore we must do all we can to protect it

Most of us don’t have the time, inclination or access to the facts to evaluate this statement with objectivity. Somewhat ironically you can find reference to the science on Google Scholar but not all of it has free access. You also need to know where to look for not all sources are credible.

Reality is that it takes too much time to hunt down and assemble the facts (oops, poor choice of words), that’s before you put in the intellectual effort to evaluate them and find the truth.

We would also have to work hard emotionally to suspend our feelings enough for healthy skepticism. There is a reason koalas, pandas, polar bears and other creatures with fur are used in these extinction statements: to humans they look cute.

So we resort to our default source of objectivity; what we feel. Our instinct, the gut response we have somewhere deep down that is part guide and part conscience.

Should we be brave enough to discuss our objectivity with others, this gut feel will be exposed to serious peer pressure, and must pass some collective logic that comes from group gut feel, known round these parts as the ‘pub test’.

How to be be objective without the effort

And this is just one of the many opinionated statements we have to filter every day.

Koalas are cute because humans beings have a genetic predisposition to find expressive forward pointing eyes either side of a nose clustered together rather low in a much larger “face” impossibly attractive… Think about it.

We are going to need an inordinate amount of seriously powerful facts to overturn such innate prejudice. Most people would not even see the need to try.

Koalas are cute after all, what’s your problem dude?

Any objectivity has a precipitous, ice-covered cuteness cliff to climb.

Good evidence

Good evidence

It’s fake news.

That is all I need to say to put doubt into your mind about anything in the media. Fake news is rhetoric that is nothing to do with the actual news item, who knows if the President did or did not spend private time with scantily clad Russian ladies, the point is for you to doubt the source. Just by calling anything fake the seeds of doubt are sown. Whatever evidence there is now has a much more difficult task.

The FIFA world cup in Russia was great entertainment for the soccer tragic. No doubt the aforementioned ladies also enjoyed it. The use of VAR technology to replay the action and review the minutiae of key decisions by the referee changed results but not the players behaviours towards the ref. They still jumped all over his decisions, and his person too. Players protestations to reverse a decision are even more vehement in the VAR age than they were before. They would claim it was fake even as the visual evidence played to a global audience.

Why do players protest so aggressively?

No referee has changed his mind because he was shirt fronted by an expensive haircut. In oblong ball codes such behaviour ends up in the sin bin.

The soccer boys do it to get into the referees head. Maybe he’ll be less inclined to decide against them next time. And it works more than we realise. Even in the world cup with VAR looking over the referees shoulder there have been post protestation biases.

Fake news and haranguing the referee are just two of the tactics in the seeding of doubt game. It began with the mad men of advertising and is now everywhere.

There is a larger game at play here too. Consider this quote about the use of evidence.

In any decision–making setting there will be people with greater power than others to assert what counts as good evidence, but this does not mean that the less powerful will agree.

Alliance for Useful Evidence

The President of the United States has more decision making power than most. He can start a war, release a nuke, pardon a criminal and gain any number of retweets. But it does not mean we will all agree with his decisions even if he presents credible evidence for his choice. In other words he could demonstrate the real and immediate threat of global annihilation from WOMDs and not everyone would agree with a pre-emptive strike.

I can still run in my head the footage of missiles landing on Baghdad to start the first Iraq war. It was wrong.

So if the less powerful will not agree despite the evidence, a smart play is to discredit all evidence. Then agreement defaults to feeling and all you need then is enough people to feel like you do about your decision. Tariffs for example.

Again evidence, that is facts that generate real inference, struggles even for a voice. This applies no matter how good the evidence is.

There is no simple answer to the question of what counts as good evidence. It depends on what we want to know, for what purposes, and in what contexts we envisage that evidence being used. Research data only really become information when they have the power to change views, and they only really become evidence when they attract advocates for the messages they contain. Thus endorsements of data as ‘evidence’ reflect judgements that are socially and politically situated.

Alliance for Useful Evidence

Shouting ‘fake news’ has the effect of weakening evidence however good the evidence is, just as the protestations and rolling around in fake agony of the $10,000 a week boys gets into the referees head to weaken the evidence he see with his own eyes.

What to do?

The instinct is to rail against the ‘fake news’ tirade and seek ways to show that evidence matters, do the fact checking, use only credible sources and spend enough money to keep honest reporting somewhere near the front page.

This should be done but it is not enough on its own. Demonstrating fact from fake is unlikely to change hearts.

Tackling the psychology is the go, only that is a much longer play.