Fighting for me

Fighting for me

If I get into a fight in a pub at best I’ll be thrown out, maybe banned or if the police arrive, arrested and given a legal clip around the ear.

If I fight a family member and someone finds out the law should prosecute me for that too, although not enough of such actions are punished.

Suppose I am a wimp and decide I need someone else to fight for me. I can hire a more robust type and for a fee they would achieve the biffings I need done.

It could be a bigger fight that requires the services where the taxpayer pays the fee for so-called legitimate fights knowns as wars, and that is fine. War is the worst kind of fight hurting everyone involved for a long time. People die and those that survive are scarred forever.

None of these typical uses of the term fight are pretty. Indeed most fights are not either worth it or the best way to resolve matters.

So why does my local politician have a campaign slogan ‘fighting for you’?

Well obviously she wants to be on my side. Perhaps be the hired biff to do my dirty work for me so I can be at arm’s length from the law.

Maybe she sees me as a wimp.

Obviously she wants me to think that there is something worth fighting for, that the services and legal systems that parliaments legislate are actually a fight for one against another. If you fail to fight you fail to get your share.

I don’t want that at all.

Biffing the other guy because he wants a different policy to me is not what I want.

I’d like robust and intelligent discussion that uses of all available evidence and then a set of solutions chosen to maximise the collective best interest for today, tomorrow and generations to come. I’d like this to be a constructive process, one that builds relationships and supports as much diversity of views and ideals as is possible with the common ground of health, wealth and happiness supported for everyone.

Surprising as this may sound, I don’t think that wanting this outcome makes me a wimp.

Pragmatic resolutions require considerable courage and fortitude, not to mention patience and tenacity.

Fighting is the last resort not the first and certainly not a slogan I can vote for.

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.

Submarines and taxes

Submarines and taxes

It’s election time in Australia. Soon the country must decide which colour muppets they would like to enter the Canberra bubble and argue amongst themselves over inanities that only they care about.

It is a depressing prospect.

Equally disturbing is our pain over the weeks leading up to the election. There will be TV ads, online adds, robo calls, more twittering than in Grandmas aviary and excruciating nodding by the professional head-nodders in the photo op entourage. It will strain the most stoic soul. The only interesting part will be my ad hoc study of the correlation between nodding styles and electoral swings.

In the ‘vote for me’ speeches from the prospective muppets there will be any number of announcements from the pork barrel. “See how much taxpayers money we are spending on you” they will say using different words. Wait, that is the money the law says we have to give you before anyone gets a paycheck. Yep, that money.

It is worth remembering that this allocation of taxes to support a healthy society is a key function of government, perhaps the key function. Lawmaking matters of course but the funding allocations affect everyone, every day. So knowing what the policies are and how much they will cost is important to know before making a voting choice.

Only there are numbers you are never told.

For example, the tax revenue. That is the annual amount they get to allocate. Perhaps it would be good to know the extent of the fiscal reserves or the amount of dosh actually in the pork barrel (as opposed to what might go into it).

Tax revenue is published of course. So we can go online and find that it was $489 billion in the 2016-17 financial year.

What proportion of this vast amount is already accounted for to support services, debt and any new commitments from the barrel is harder to glean. It’s available though should you have the patience to sift through budget papers.

The point is that these companion numbers do not make it to the hustings.

Yet we need them to make sense of any claims.

When a Minister announces that the government has committed A$50 billion to the purchase of French nuclear submarines, it is very hard to understand this number. It is vast of course, way more than the average lotto payout and several orders of magnitude larger than the numbers on our tax returns. So it is hard to find companions for sums this large without blowing the mind.

How about A$2,000 for every man woman and child in the country?

That’s A$5,200 for a typical household.

Imagine the politician on the hustings coming up with “Hi folks, this year we want each household to give five grand to the French. Don’t worry it comes out of your taxes and in return we get some submarines to protect us from the many hostile forces in our region”. The expression on the nodding heads would be priceless as they witness the political suicide before them.

But it shouldn’t be like this.

Defence is an important issue. People have a right to feel safe and be safe as far as the current military deterrents and diplomatic landscape allows. That $50 billion could a bargain.

It is possible to break the rhetoric and make sense of it all when the heads nod at the next monetary announcement.

Just remember that the governments spend roughly $20,000 per person per year if the tax revenue is shared equally and most of that goes on health, education, an array of social services, and infrastructure.

This will help put into context the offer of a grant to upgrade the local library and the bigger spending on military hardware.

You don’t know shit

You don’t know shit

You don’t know shit and I’ll prove it to you.

Have a little think about these questions.

  • What’s your net worth?
  • How much money does the taxman appropriate from your paycheck?
  • What’s the current balance of your retirement fund?
  • What businesses does your superfund invest in?

All over your finances, fair enough. Try these.

  • How about the name of your local member of parliament?
  • What’s the policy on the aforementioned income tax held by the party your local member represents, do you even know the party?
  • Can you list the top three things that your tax dollar helps pay for?
  • Who’s the Minister responsible for spending the biggest chunk of taxpayers dollar?

Struggling a bit now? I bet.

Here are some more knowledge questions on a different tack.

  • What music does your brother/son/nephew/kid next door listen to?
  • Does he even listen to music?
  • If you mentioned Paul McCartney to him would he even blink?

And toward more detail, how about these…

  • Can you say with certainty that the koala is going extinct?
  • Do you know if clearing 20,000 ha of forest is a good thing to do or even if 20,000 ha is a big area?
  • Can the planet support the needs and wants of 7.5 billion human beings?

Phew, that’s intense. My apologies.

You don’t know your shit do you? No, neither do I.

The thing is that nobody does.

It’s a given that we are all mostly ignorant about many of the most important things in our lives from the big to the small. And clearly this doesn’t matter a jot.

Ignorance has not stopped progress, the economy, wealth creation or Sir Paul’s 17th solo album (no, I didn’t know that either). At least not yet.

Human beings are remarkable in that we cannot know our shit, partly because there is just so much of it, and yet we can still be successful and even satisfied. We have enough innate savvy and bullshit detection ability to survive the many situations where knowledge would actually help us a lot and lack of knowledge is a hindrance. This skill in decision making by instinct rather than evaluation is so well honed that we not only survive but we prosper on it. As Steven Pinker will show you at length in any of his books, all the metrics of societal wellbeing show progress and lots of it.

Perhaps we are survivors extraordinaire because somehow we learn just enough.

Snakes are bad, koalas are good. Paycheck goes into my account, no need to know what the taxman took so long as I get a rebate at tax time. The kid next door adores Anne-Marie, so what, I did the same with Debbie.

Knowing that the minister for health in the NSW state government is responsible for a $17.3 billion budget hardly helps me choose the best school for my son. I can get more relevant ‘information’ through the opinions on a local Facebook group of concerned parents like me.

We learn and know enough of the things that we perceive as relevant. The rest we can trust to what Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman calls ‘thinking fast’ because it actually doesn’t matter. There is no perceptible gain to taking our time over it.

You don’t know your shit. And you got over it already.

Who needs answers to questions when instinct guides you in a heartbeat.

An ‘ah ha moment’ for me

This is a critical realisation for me. People don’t need information to answer questions. They have instinct for that.

So as a purveyor of evidence that I would like people to absorb, understand, and use to help them be more objective, I have a big problem. People don’t need what I have to offer and, therefore, they don’t want it.

At times evidence is a surreptitious influence that gently permeates the psyche to change a mind or two over time. This would be how Rome was built. Information is sometimes stored for use as ammunition in an argument, although simple slander is more potent and easier to use now we live in Trolland.

But in general, evidence is not needed for general awareness and going about one’s business. No matter that the 15 year old can sing along to ‘Let it be’ without knowing Paul McCartney wrote it half a century ago. All that matters is it’s still a good song.

The ‘ah ha’ bit is this truth…

Shit does not matter except when it does.

Karl Popper

Karl Popper

According to Karl Popper, a respected 20th century philosopher famous among the scientific fraternity, true scientific theory makes predictions that can be empirically tested.

The superhero status of testable predictions has made good sense to me ever since I was exposed to it as an undergraduate back in the Carboniferous. Unless a theory can be tested it falls to the lowly status of opinion where only dubious predictions live; admittedly an overcrowded residence these days.

An idea, supposition or prediction attains the lofty moral position of a scientific theory a supposition or a system of ideas intended to explain something, especially one based on general principles independent of the thing to be explained — if it can be empirically tested, ideally through manipulations in controlled conditions with heaps of replication.

This much is grasped by most students of science, even the naive ones around when the trees were laid down for coal. It is the basics of the scientific method taught in every good high school.

Unfortunately, this is often as far as it goes. But there is more.

What Popper also realised was that scientists can never prove a theory to be true because the next test might contradict all that preceded it. Observations can only disprove a theory they cannot prove it. Empirical tests can only falsify.

This is way more subtle. Evidence from a controlled experiment might reject the hypothesis the experiment was designed to test but the alternative outcome (where evidence is not sufficient to reject the hypothesis) does not make the alternative (accepting the hypothesis) true. Empirical tests can only disprove, never prove.

Suppose I have a large field that I subdivide into twenty equally sized fields.

Into 10 of these small paddocks, chosen at random, I place five sheep for five days, remove them for 10 days and then put them back in. This rotational grazing goes on for a year. The other 10 paddocks contain no sheep at all.

The hypothesis is that grazing by sheep will decrease the amount of carbon in the soil. So before the sheep are introduced several soil samples are taken from all the small paddocks and tested for their carbon content. More soil samples are taken at the end of the year and their carbon content statistically compared with carbon content in the soil samples taken at the start.

It turns out that after a year the average carbon content from the grazed paddocks averages about 3%, slightly more than it was at the start, a small but statistically significant increase. In the paddocks without sheep, soil carbon also increased too but by no more than would be expected by chance (as determined by the statistical properties of the numbers generated from the soil carbon samples).

The hypothesis – sheep grazing will decrease the amount of soil carbon in the soil – is rejected given the empirical evidence.

The evidence is enough to reject the hypothesis and the temptation is to accept the theory that sheep actually do good things to soil carbon. Only Karl Popper would wriggle a little in his coffin if you made this call because should you do this experiment again, who knows what the outcome would be.

This example is phrased to follow the conventional wisdom. Current theory is that livestock grazing will reduce soil carbon over time as the animals metabolize the primary production and the farmer removes animals or their fleeces to market making for a net loss in soil carbon over ungrazed paddocks.

But if we rephrased the hypothesis as ‘grazing by sheep will increase the amount of carbon in the soil’ and the results of the experiment stay the same, then we accept the hypothesis. Again we are tempted to accept the theory that grazing by sheep is good for soil carbon levels only this time by claiming the results are a proof not a falsification.

Popper gets to wriggle again.

Interesting isn’t it. Even when science is done through determined experiments the outcome is not a given. Conclusions are also dependent on how the empirical test is conceived. This is why theory only gets such a lofty badge when there is repetition of empirical tests sufficient to reduce doubt but even then there is no proof, only falsification.

The sheep grazing example is naive of course and was phrased around hypothesis testing rather than theory. In reality, theory only achieves acceptance after many tests of many specific hypotheses. The process of iteration provides the rigor that allows scientists to rest easily at night without Popperian spectres messing with their dreams.

Only the example is also real.

We are not actually sure of the theory in this case despite the importance of grazing to food production and the reality that soils need as much carbon as possible to maintain that production.

Falsification is very difficult to do in environmental and ecological science, especially where soil is concerned. There is very little in the way of Popperian truth where fields, paddocks and remnant native vegetation is concerned. There have been way too few tests leaving fertile ground for opinion.

However, the risk in leaving issues of food security to opinion should scare the socks off you.

Changing the quilt

Changing the quilt

If you are fortunate enough snag a window seat on a commercial flight, gaze out of the window for a while as the aircraft defies all logic and ascends to the clouds. Once away from the suburbs you will see a patchwork quilt below, a pattern made by humans — the farmers who produce our food and fibre.

Over generations, these stoic folk have cut down trees to grow crops or raise livestock and when we look down from the sky what we see are rectangular patches of browns, tans and dull greens. Occasionally there is a darker, almost black patch, that in places might stretch to the horizon or could just be an isolated blob of irregularity. Sometimes ribbons appear that amble across the landscape ignoring the straight lines of the field edges.

It is actually quite a sight, something to marvel at really.

It has only taken a few hundred years to sow this quilt together into a pattern that represents production and progress. It tells you there is wheat and sheep and cotton down there on the doona; wheat that ends up in the sandwich presented to you by the smiling cabin crew member.

If the quilt did not exist then folk would go without.

Only this marvel also feels tainted. As we think about the regular rectangles, it is clear that In making the quilt, wilderness was lost. The trees, wildlife, and many an ecological process strained or curtailed and the pristineness is gone forever.

Ouch, that feels worrisome somehow.

Loss is such a loaded word. It is sad and painful, far more painful than the joy of gain because it takes us closer to the primal fear: the loss of our existence.

What? Has Alloporus completely lost the plot and turned into Confused Confucius? It’s rhetorical people, get over it. The world is what it is, populated by 7.5 billion humans beings all trying their best to have their version of a good time. Nobody is thinking about the loss of existence.

Ah, there you have it. Nobody is thinking about the loss of their existence.

Otherwise, we would be paying way more attention to the details of the quilt.

Are the patches the right size and shape and in the right configuration to ensure our future? Big might be good for efficient use of machinery but small means less wind fetch or the uniformity that gives pests their opportunity.

Are the colours right? A sandy brown colour everywhere suggests bare soil that when it is dry and windy might end up in New Zealand. Green hues suggest a crop or a pasture with production happening. Ribbons connect patches of native vegetation that provide any number of useful services to the surrounding fields.

And, in the end, will the quilt keep us well fed?

So book a window seat once in a while and marvel at the landscape below for it is quite remarkable. Then whisper a few pointy questions to yourself as you munch through your in-flight chicken sandwich.

Species

Species

…the fact that ecological communities constantly experience temporal turnover, and that consequently some species will not only fluctuate markedly but also become either locally or globally extinct, is something that, while well appreciated by ecologists generally, is often omitted from popular news stories. 

Mugurran et al 2010

By research paper standards this is an accessible quote. You may only need to read it a couple of times to get the gist. It means what it says.

Everything in nature changes and species disappear from both the backyard and from the planet.

Ask any ecologist who has more than a few minutes of fieldwork on their resume if they agree with this premise and they will say yes. There is change over time. They would concede that if you stare at a patch of nature long enough, it will start to move. Organisms will come and go, sometimes never to return, their place taken by an equivalent.

In my own garden that backs onto eucalyptus forest in the Blue Mountains of NSW I have seen this happen with the seasons as the grass stops growing in winter, during drought when even the trees droop, and also through the decade we have lived in the house.

When we moved in the garden was blessed with tree creepers, fairy wrens and wagtails. There were regular visits by resplendent satin bower birds and even occasionally a lyre bird or two. I have stared at a frogmouth in its daytime roost and had glossy black cockatoos drop casuarina cones on my head. Delightful.

Then, three years ago the noisy miners arrived. An especially aggressive social breeder that with brazen behaviour worthy of a panzer corps will chase all the other species away. Only the big beaked cockatoos and the butcher bird are unmoved.

None of the aforementioned chorus are extinct but they are not longer in my garden.

More recently some new neighbors moved in next door. They have a nervous pointer and a black labrador with a limp. The swamp wallaby no longer hops up from the creek to pick at our herb garden.

There are several important things in this simple everywhere reality of ecological change.

The first is change itself.

Nothing in nature has ever been or ever will be stable. It is not how nature works. At times the dynamic is subtle and hard to see with human perception of time and space. Typically though we can see, smell or hear it. All it takes is a little patience and some observation.

If a human who might live three score years and ten can perceive this change with just a little patient observation, then…

the second important thing is that change is fast.

Incredibly fast on an evolutionary or geological time scale. Happenings that take decades are the blink of an eye equivalent for a planet that is billions of years old.

Such rapidity means that the idyllic lilly pond with the weeping willow tickling the water will not be there in a thousand years or so. Sedimentation and succession will make dryland of it unless there are humans with the spare time to occasionally dig it out.

This is the third important reality, stability requires inputs.

The main reason that nature is so dynamic is due to entropy, more strictly, the constant struggle organisms must undertake to counteract it. It takes an enormous effort to keep things the same. Energy must be pumped in to prevent chaos.

Humans have, of course, become true masters of this use of energy to counter entropy. We have figured out where to find and use external fuel sources to change the world to suit ourselves. It’s our superpower. But it has also duped us into believing that we can keep things the same, despite all the evidence to the contrary. We even think we can save species from local or real extinction.

This is the fourth of the important things, the often crazy notion that we can save species from ourselves, the most severe new driver of ecological change in aeons.

Change as the norm is “omitted from popular news stories” because the acknowledgement not only questions our god-like ability to rule the planet, it would mean admitting our role in the acceleration of change.

After all, the noisy miner spread with the suburb.

Positive future

Scenarios with pragmatic outcomes

It is a short time into the future, nowhere near an aeon. Against all likelihoods, Homo sapiens did not join the hundreds of thousands of species that have crossed the extinction finish line because miraculously there was a meme that spread through the social fabric of every nation on the planet faster than pictures of Harry and Meghan.

The meme said, “ecological communities constantly experience temporal turnover”.

The miracle of course was twofold. People not only understood this gibberish but they extended it to the practicalities of the real world.

Everyone recognised change everywhere and embraced it. They let species move around, leaving some places and moving into others. They saw vegetation as fluid not as a vase on a shelf, still but fragile.They realised that there were some species that would go extinct and that if a particularly cute one was popular enough to save, then this was going to need effort specific to that species. It was a choice.

And they saw the whole landscape, all at once, despite its altered state, and they focused on what that landscape could do, not what was in it.

It was truly remarkable.

It even made the news.